Wagner Brewing Company
Granite City, Illinois
Reprinted from the May-June 1999 edition of American Breweriana Journal.
Written by Kevin Kious and Donald Roussin.
Today a gritty, predominately blue-collar town that in the past few decades has shrunk to just over 35,000 inhabitants, Granite City, Illinois, was the final city to develop in Madison County. It rose from farmer’s fields and swampland in the last decade of the nineteenth century, largely through the efforts of the Neidringhaus family, industrialists from across the Mississippi River in St. Louis. Lured by cheap land and the lack of smoke regulations, they established a metal stamping works, the primary product of which was the kitchen graniteware from which the city derived its name.
The steel industry was and still is a significant part of Granite City. The breweries of St. Louis and nearby Illinois towns initially satisfied the local working man’s demand for cold beer, but it didn’t take long for aspiring beermakers to establish a plant for producing hometown brew. The last brewery to be opened in southern Illinois prior to Prohibition, it would also be among the first to close afterwards, but not before an interesting history and the production of desirable breweriana!
THE OLD WAGNER BREWERY
Money for starting the brewery in Granite City, like that of other local industries, came from the Missouri side of the Mississippi River. In July 1903, articles of incorporation were filed establishing the Wagner Brewing Company. Capital stock of $100,000 was divided into 1,000 shares, which were purchased by the partners in the corporation, Edward Wagner, Sr., Edward Wagner, Jr., Henry Koehler, Jr., and E. C. Janssen. According to a July 16 newspaper article, “the object of the corporation is to brew, manufacture and make porter, ale, lager beer and other kinds of malt liquor.”
The owners of the Wagner Brewing Company were experienced beermakers, involved in the American Brewing Company (ABC), one of the largest breweries in St. Louis. It had been started before the Civil War by the Koehler family. Their Excelsior Brewery had started growing by leaps and bounds in the 1870’s, reaching a 30,000 barrel annual capacity by 1880, when the company changed its name to the Henry Koehler Brewing Association. In 1890 the American Brewing Company name was adopted, and capacity grew to over 100,000 barrels upon completion of a totally new brewery. Part of the old brewery was then used for a malt house. The Wagners had been in the beer business in Chicago before moving to ABC, where Edward Sr. had become vice-president and plant superintendent. Ed Wagner, Jr., had been born in Chicago in 1881, where he graduated from high school prior to attending the Wahl and Henin’s Institute of Fermentology. After receiving his brewmaster’s diploma, he cut his teeth at a brewery in Denver before returning briefly to Chicago, then joining his father in St. Louis to become an assistant brewmaster at American.
The senior Wagner was corporate president of his namesake Granite City brewery, providing his son with the opportunity to be general manager. Construction of the facility started in August 1903. The foundation was completed a month later, and the firm hired contractor Charles L. Draper to begin work on the four buildings which would make up the Wagner Brewery.
Brickwork on the plant was completed just after New Year’s Day in 1904. The “granitoid” floors were then laid and the newest in brewery machinery put into place. By spring, the three large boilers were fired up and brewing commenced in a facility situated on three acres and consisting of a three-story, 40′ x 55′ brewhouse; an adjoining 30′ x 50′ office; a 117′ by 86′ stockhouse; a 51′ x 42′ packing room; a 45′ x 24′ wash house; a 35′ x 96′ cold storage area; a 50′ x 65′ engine room; and a 45′ x 51′ boiler room. There was also a two-story, 9,500 square foot ice plant, and a railroad spur built right up to the brewery for easy shipping. Into the brewhouse, a new 200 barrel brewkettle was installed. When John J. Schorr and Albert Zais of the Schorr-Kolkschneider Brewing Company of St. Louis visited the soon-to-be opened plant, they pronounced it “one of the most modern equipped plants in the west.”
A June 9, 1904 newspaper ad heralded the good news: “Patronize Home Industry. Drink Wagner Beer. Our Beer Will Be On Tap Saturday, June 11.”
In marketing its product the brewery would rely heavily on newspaper advertising. An ad for Wagner’s appeared in every single issue of the weekly (and later bi-weekly) Granite City newspapers until 1912. The company also immediately set out to sponsor a semi-professional baseball team fittingly named the Wagners. Games received front page newspaper coverage, and if that wasn’t publicity enough, were played at Wagner Field near the brewery, where spectators could undoubtedly enjoy cold Wagner beer. Among the team’s opponents were the Madison Heims, sponsored by the Heim Brewery in East St. Louis.
The Women’s Christian Temperance Union briefly objected to the playing of baseball on Sunday, but the games were too popular for the “drys” to stop.
Then as now, distribution was a key to beer sales. Shortly after the product became available, salesman Phillip Schuster began traveling to local saloons and nearby towns hawking it. Four taverns in the nearby town of Edwardsville were convinced to carry Wagner Beer, and Ed Wagner, Jr., visited the town shortly thereafter, seeking an agency to erect a refrigerator so deliveries wouldn’t have to be made so often. Tavern ownership also played a big role in selling beer in the Granite City area, so the Wagner Brewing Company owned several taverns, as did numerous other nearby breweries.
Ed Wagner, Jr. himself moved to Granite City, showing his commitment to the brewery at a time when many area workers commuted from St. Louis, owing both to the ease of the trip (by ferry, train and street car), and a housing shortage which was a continuing problem in the fast-growing town.
Early advertising slogans included “Try Our Beer and be Convinced How Good,” and “Best Bottle Beer Sold on this Side.” Although Prohibition was well over a decade away, temperance forces were already attacking the beer industry, prompting ads such as those reading, “Beer is Good For You! When a Patient is Weak, the Doctor Says Drink Beer!” The new brewery met with initial success. Sales doubled the second year of operation, with the 50,000 barrel capacity plant employing around fifty men. Working at the brewery was considered a highly desirable job, especially when compared with the heat and constant danger of working in a foundry at a time when workers’ safety was a secondary consideration. The company appears to have maintained a good relationship with its union employees, which was especially important in a town where worker’s rights were favored so strongly that a Socialist mayor was elected.
By 1905, Granite City had grown to a population of 8,000. Later that year, Ed Wagner celebrated his 24th birthday at a party at Lauff’s Hotel. The featured event of the evening was a toast to “Modern Brewing.” In addition to the Wagner brand, at this time the brewery was also producing bottled beers called Granite and Muenchner, plus a bock beer labeled “Buck” in the spring.
In 1906, the brewery began using its soon-to-be familiar shield advertising symbol, an enduring icon that would be resurrected after Prohibition. Period newspaper ads stressed that Wagner Beer was “properly aged, carefully placed on the market. Sterilized when bottled.Always distinguished by its purity, satisfying flavor, and rich, full body. No ‘morning after’ with Wagner Beer.”
THE IBC YEARS
The next year brought a major change to the brewery when in July, the Wagner Brewing Company became part of the newly formed Independent Breweries Company, a conglomeration of nine St. Louis area companies. Deeds were filed transferring all the assets of these breweries into the IBC — American, Home, Consumers, Gast, Empire, Columbia, and National, all of St. Louis; the Central Brewery of East St. Louis; and Wagner’s. Henry Griesedieck, Jr., of the National Brewery was named corporate president, with Zach Tinker and Louis Hasse vice-presidents, Hugo Koehler treasurer, and Fred Gast secretary. Directors included Ed Wagner Sr. and Jr., H. L. Griesedieck, Will Gast, A. C. Steuver, H. Ziegenhein, Herman Stifel, W. C. Harvey and James S. Bailey, Jr.
The new company was incorporated at $8 million, with $4.6 million preferred stock and the rest common stock. Corporate directors said that they were consolidating in order to reduce expenses, and that their “great aim will be to see that all laws affecting liquor and saloon interests are complied with.” Clearly they were hearing the prohibitionists knocking at the door.
Ed Wagner continued managing the Granite City brewery, which continued operating under the Wagner Brewing Company name. According to the newspaper article detailing the merger news, “for his age, Mr. Wagner is considered one of the best beer makers in the country, and has often been tendered handsome propositions to manage other breweries.”
New ads running in the summer of 1907 stressed the fine qualities of Wagner Beer: “Strengthens and Invigorates the system when used moderately as a Hot Weather Beverage.”
The brewery continued pretty much as it had prior to joining the Independent Breweries, although the fact that it was still advertising Wagner as a “hot weather beverage” in December shows that the marketing department may have been preoccupied!
Huge newspaper ads from Pabst of Milwaukee running during this period attest to the fierce competition among beermakers of the time.
The temperance movement was a continuing nuisance as well. Wagner’s ads echoed those of other breweries, emphasizing that their beer contained the “highest food value and the lowest percent of alcohol, therefore it is a genuine temperance drink; temperance workers realize that by encouraging the use of beer they discourage the use of intoxicating liquors.” It is doubtful that many WCTU members agreed with the latter statement! Like rival Pabst, the Granite City brewery began emphasizing the healthful qualities of malt liquor, citing a “famous German chemist” who declared beer to be “liquid bread.”
In January 1909, a front page story announced that brewery manager Ed Wagner, Jr., was engaged to be married. In April he tied the knot with Miss Ida Stroffregen of St. Louis. After a six-week honeymoon, the couple took up residence at 2340 Arkansas Avenue in St. Louis. Newspaper advertisements the next year offered readers “some facts” about Wagner Beer, among them that it contained “so small a percentage of alcohol as to render it absolutely harmless, when taken in moderation. Yet, it does contain enough alcohol to produce the mild stimulation and exhilaration which the human system needs.” (!!!)
In the fall of 1910, the Wagner Brewery came out with a new brand of beer, marketed only in bottles. Dubbed “Old Glory,” it joined the company’s namesake brand in being advertised as “The Brew of a Master.” Despite the temperance movement, stiff competition for selling beer continued. In December 1911, Anheuser-Busch began construction of a large depot at 19th and A Street, a couple of blocks down the street from Wagner’s. It was to be a short-lived affair, never reopening after Prohibition and eventually used by a furniture company and a toy manufacturer, but the brick building with A-B eagles on it is still a local landmark. During the decade it was open, up to 15 teams of Clydesdales were housed there for delivering Budweiser, Faust and Bevo. The next spring, Wagner launched ads for its bock beer, which was available in bottles or on draught. This was to be the last pre-Prohibition hurrah for Wagner beer, however.
At some point around this time Ed Wagner left the brewery, for an ad in the fall which appeared in the Edwardsville Intelligencer’s county centennial edition reveals that the Wagner Brewery was being managed by Frank Griesedieck. This would not be the only time that the Wagner and Griesedieck families’ paths would cross. Around 1910, the Forest Park Brewery in St. Louis was founded by the Wagner family. Ironically, this plant, too, would also eventually be managed by a Griesedieck, one Joseph “Papa” Joe, after the bankrupt Forest Park facility was taken over by the Griesediecks, and became Plant One of the Falstaff Brewing Corporation. Soon the old brands were discontinued and the brewery began producing the AlpenBrau brand. The Independent Breweries Company had decided to make use of the shipping advantages of the Granite City plant for moving one of its major labels to points north. Large ads were taken out featuring a picture of a full wooden case of AlpenBrau and a pair of catchy slogans — “You can see what you get when you get it” (a reference to the clear bottles being used) and “A favorable verdict in every case.” The Wagner Brewery continued making AlpenBrau through the years of the “Great War.” While in 1914 it was still able to advertise the beer as being “brewed by the old-fashion German method,” the industry was soon overwhelmed by national and world events.
Elections in the spring of 1914 saw Illinois brewery towns such as Bloomington and Decatur vote dry. In Granite City, though, the wet vote was more than double that of the prohibitionists, an even larger majority than when the issue had been voted upon six years earlier.
Local newspaper ads for AlpenBrau had ended in the fall of 1914. The Wagner Brewery, which had been such a prominent advertiser for so long, ran only one more ad in the local newspapers the rest of the decade, a 1915 holiday greeting. Anheuser-Busch continued to run local newspaper ads, though, including a campaign using the founding fathers for its Budweiser brand. They were hoping to preserve the freedom of Americans to drink beer, albeit with the caveat that “Budweiser Means Moderation.”
A BREWERY WITHOUT BEER
While the temperance movement could not accomplish it, wartime measures and anti-German sentiment finally put national prohibition over the top. Restrictions were placed on coal and then barley supplies in the summer of 1918, and within the next two years, despite initial confusion about enforcement and the legality of 2.75% beer, the 18th Amendment put the brewers out of the beer business.
As early as 1919, the Independent Breweries Company had started making IBC root beer. The Granite City plant produced its own line of soft drinks under the Wagner label, which featured a large representation of the Wagner Shield.
This soda business was short-lived, however, and soon the brewery would sit idle, while in 1923 the ice plant was taken over by the Granite City Ice and Fuel Company. Terms of the sale included all brewery buildings and equipment in exchange for $100. The ice company also agreed to pay the balance of an old mortgage, the only money still owed by the brewery, which came to $54,000. In 1924 it was reported that the company had plans for converting Plant #2, as it called the brewery icehouse, into a cold storage warehouse, but those plans were never acted upon. Eventually ice making operations were halted as well.
In the early 1930’s, the brewery buildings were used by a local relief organization for a commissary. When that operation ended, they again sat empty.
Prohibition, however, was being viewed with increasing disfavor. Once it began crumbling, even supporters of repeal were amazed at the speed with which it ended.
At the beginning of 1933, when it became obvious beer would soon be back, manufacturers in the neighboring town of Alton started producing beer bottles and boxes.
In March, Illinois Governor Horner signed bills repealing state Prohibition laws. Beneath a picture of a truck full of kegs being moved at a New York brewery, the Granite City Press-Record reported the following: “CHEER BECAUSE BEER’S NEAR – NOT NEAR BEER; with the promise contained in the action of Congress in passing the Cullen 3.2 per cent ‘Beer for Revenue’ bill…with President Roosevelt’s signature affixed, the bill becomes operative in 15 days.”
The legislation allowed the manufacture and sale of 3.2% beer, now deemed non-intoxicating, in anticipation of outright repeal. Wholesalers and tavern owners began a mad scramble to obtain a supply in time for 12:01 A. M. on April 7, when beer could once more be legally dispensed. In Granite City, two distributors were trying to provide beer. The Wagner Bottling Works of nearby Madison had signed a contract a couple of years earlier with the Miller Brewing Company of Milwaukee to handle Miller High Life, but was not expecting delivery until April 9. Fred Wagner, who had no connection to the old Wagner Brewery but was a longtime soda bottler, was instead trying to get some beer out of St. Louis for opening morning. The Ranff Bottling Works had a contract with Alton’s Bluff City Brewery, with more orders on hand than could possibly be filled.
The Wagner Brewery buildings had passed into the hands of the City Ice and Fuel Company of St. Louis, and were suddenly of interest to potential buyers. Representatives from a Chicago brewery attempted to buy the plant. As a consultant, they enlisted the services of George Schmitt, former Wagner brewmaster.
Schmitt had been the original brewmaster at Wagner’s, joining the company in 1904. He had been born in Alsace-Lorraine in 1863, arriving in the U. S. in 1891 and attending brewmaster’s school in Milwaukee, where he plied his trade prior to moving to Granite City.
According to Schmitt, who had been forced by Prohibition to go into the hardware business, it would cost about $100,000 to get the brewery back into shape, since most of the equipment was either worn out or obsolete. “New Beer’s Eve” arrived in Granite City right after midnight on April 7. Cline’s Barbecue was the city’s designated “first-nighter stand,” and began selling beer for ten cents a stein and twenty cents a bottle. By noon they were out of stock, while beer trucks raced around town trying to fill orders.
THE NEW WAGNER BREWERY
Though negotiations with the Chicagoans had stalled, on May 26 it was announced that local contractor Warren Stubbs was beginning work on the former Independent Brewery buildings. Ownership had been transferred from City Ice and Fuel to a $250,000 spinoff company called the Polar Wave Ice and Fuel Company. The Majority stockholder was Edwin T. Brendecke, head of the Missouri Auto Top and Paint Company. Walter Gruenewald was named secretary and treasurer.
George Schmitt was hired to direct plant reconstruction, and plans called for the brewery to start selling beer by September, with an annual production capacity of 100,000 barrels. The new brewery would conduct business under a familiar name — The Wagner Brewing Company. The post-Prohibition version of Wagner had purchased rights to the old name. In August, the company absorbed the rest of the Granite City Ice and Fuel Company at 1560 Madison Avenue for $133,000. George Schmitt resumed his brewing duties, and Wagner Beer was once more being made. While the first batch sat aging, war was breaking out between area taverns — not over who would get the first keg of Wagner, but over beer already being sold. A beer parlor in Granite City and one in Madison had bricks thrown through their windows, with identical notes attached saying “Get in line.” Rival establishments were angry that the two businesses were selling fourteen ounce glasses of beer instead of the standard twelve! By the end of September 1933, Wagner Beer was once more available, though only on draft to begin with. The brewery dusted off the old shield symbol for its advertisements, telling beer drinkers, “You’ve had plenty of time to acquaint yourself with other beers, now you can treat yourself to a brew of finest quality…Look for the Wagner red, white and blue banner…the sign marking establishments where you can order Wagner Genuine Lager Beer on draught.”
The product was soon available in bottles as well. Once the 21st Amendment was ratified, brewers began producing stronger beer. While pre-Prohibition ads had touted the weakness of beer, new ads would boast of its strength. Wagner responded by producing Hi-5 Beer as its full-strength offering.
The extensive renovations at the brewery did not go unnoticed. In June 1934, the St. Louis Star-Times reported that, “The Wagner plant, completely rehabilitated for the new operations, is regarded as one of the most modern of its size in this section of the country, while its bottling plant is strictly up to the minute in its equipment, as is the equipment of the stock house.” In the same article the newspaper also noted that at Wagner, “proper lagering is insisted upon, with the result that the Wagner output has re-established the reputation of the old organization which it succeeded.”
It was around this time that brewery control shifted to the City Ice and Fuel Company of Cleveland, Ohio. This large company wanted to diversify as a response to shrinking demand for its ice and coal products, and had decided to enter the brewing business.
In addition to the Granite City plant, City Ice and Fuel also acquired breweries in Cleveland, Miami and New Orleans. A noticeable change occurred to the beer labels at this time, as the old Wagner “bleeding heart” shield was shelved in favor of the more geometric shield which the new owners also used for their P.O.C. brands produced at the Pilsner Brewing Company in Cleveland.
The brewery’s local marketing efforts must have been successful, as ads for Independence Day in 1934 listed twenty-three Granite City taverns and thirteen restaurants selling Wagner Beer, plus many others in surrounding towns. It was also mentioned that baseball fans attending Cardinals’ or Browns’ games at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis could obtain Wagner, both in bottles from salesmen in the stands, or on draught beneath the grandstands. The fact that a sister company of City Ice and Fuel owned the Browns helped insure the availability of their brewery’s product at the “Brownies” stadium. By the middle of 1934, distribution had expanded throughout southern Illinois, and eastern Missouri.
“Always Accepted as the Finest” was used as a slogan. An ad from Labor Day in 1934 said of Wagner Beer, “It’s the Best in Forty-Nine States.” Since there were only 48 states at the time, this may have been an exaggeration, but it does reflect the fact that other breweries around the country were also producing Wagner Beer, among them the Wagner Brewing Company of Miami, Florida.
The Granite City brewery began a new advertising campaign in 1937, when it launched a new container, the “snug steinie” bottle, and a new motto, “with just the taste you’re looking for.” The company also pitched its beer to the fairer sex, proclaiming that “men prefer it, women demand it.” Ad writers must have stayed up nights thumbing through a thesaurus, as print ads of the time are full of descriptions like “creamy,” “full-bodied,” “zesty,” “racy tang,” “savory hops,” “nippy brilliance,” and “piquant flavor.”
Despite the glowing rhetoric, Wagner Beer was soon to pass into history. The beer market was growing increasingly competitive. Not only St. Louis and nearby Illinois brewers, but others from Chicago, Indiana and Wisconsin were all fighting over sales in the Granite City market. Apparently Wagner was not keeping pace, for late in 1938 the brewery became part of the American Brewing Company, ironically a concern with same name as the St. Louis brewery from which the Wagners had launched the original business decades earlier.
A huge ad in the January 9, 1939 Press-Record announced “a new citizen for Granite City,” with an illustration of a giant bottle of Regal Beer. “The American Brewing Company of New Orleans, Brewers of Regal ‘Prince of Golden Beers’ Has Acquired the Wagner Brewery.” American had also purchased the Wagner Brewery in Miami. The copy explained that Mike Schorr, brewmaster at American, and part of a well-known beermaking family that had operated breweries in St. Louis and the surrounding area, had come to Granite City and supervised the brewing of his “old-style beer.” This batch of Regal “has been patiently aged. It will be ready for distribution on January 10th. Granite City has gained a new citizen. And as the New Year grows older, your patronage of this successful beer will create many steady and well paying jobs for Granite City men and women.”
Like the previous owner, the new company was also a spinoff by gentlemen involved in the fuel and ice business. Company president was Frank B. Sullivan, and directors included William Sinck and Robert Suhr, both of City Ice and Fuel, the former from Chicago, the latter from Cleveland.
American undertook a massive newspaper campaign, utilizing the Regal prince as their advertising spokesman. He emphasized that Regal Lager was “Always Light and Dry…Never leaves that bloated Feeling.” In the spring, the Prince was joined by the Madam, pitching the “Golden Beer for Golden Youth.” In addition to print ads, metal signs and large cardboard cutouts of the Prince which have been seen at area auctions undoubtedly date from this time as well.
Longtime brewmaster George Schmitt retired not long after American took over. George Probst was then hired to manage the Granite City brewery. Probst was an experienced Illinois brewer, he and his family having been involved in the Mound City Brewery in New Athens, Illinois, some fifty miles to the southeast, both before, during and after Prohibition. Probst had even spent time in jail for brewing beer during Prohibition. Coincidentally, his family’s Mound City Brewery’s major brand also featured a Prince, the Prince of Pilsen.
After the summer of 1939, newspaper advertising ended. Before long it was rumored that the brewery was losing money. While the company saw fit to include itself among those congratulating the hometown state basketball champion Warriors in a March 1940 ad, it did not publicize itself afterwards, nor did any local taverns or liquor stores see fit to advertise Regal Beer.
On November 26, 1940, veteran brewmaster George Schmitt died of a cerebral hemorrhage. He had been in ill health a few months previously but had recovered, having attended the national brewmaster’s convention in St. Louis just a month earlier. Among his survivors were two sons who had become brewmasters, Peter of Albany, New York, and Felix of Miami, Florida. The newspaper eulogized him in this way: “Schmitt viewed the art of brewing as highly technical and he imparted to it a fineness that brought him wide recognition among brewmasters. Despite his retirement he remained interested in it and regularly attended brewmaster’s conventions.”
Thus it was somehow fitting when, slightly less than a month later, George Probst announced that the American Brewing Company plant in Granite City was closing down. No more deliveries were to be made after December 31, and remaining stock would be sold at the brewery loading dock.
Management had been unable to increase sales and expenses were too great to continue. The thirty-two employees at the brewery would be laid off and Probst himself expected to be around only a couple more months winding down the business. All local accounts were to be transferred to the New Orleans brewery.
The Granite City brewery sat vacant until 1943, when it was purchased by the Nestle Company. Officials of that business announced plans for manufacturing Nescafe, and said that the old brewery could be easily adapted for that purpose.
Nestle operated the plant for over fifty years, longer than it had served as a brewery, but it has recently shut down, so the future of the site is once more in limbo. While some of the buildings were torn down and Nestle made extensive renovations over the years, including new brick work, when driving by 2101 Adams Street today, one can still recognize the old brewhouse, built nearly a century ago, which retains the same basic shape it had when George Schmitt and Ed Wagner supervised the first brew of Wagner Beer.
SIDEBAR #1: BASEBALL AND BEER IN GRANITE CITY
The idea of using baseball as an advertising vehicle for selling beer, which is still very much in vogue, probably began shortly after Abner Doubleday’s mythical 1839 invention of the sport. Whether the game was being played by professionals in stadiums, or amateurs in small-town sandlots, thirsty fans could be counted on to drink the product, while team sponsorship could serve the dual function of keeping a brewery’s name in the headlines and promoting brand loyalty among fans. It was also an old baseball adage that a player who saw a wagon loaded with empty beer kegs on his way to the games was destined to have a good playing day, yet another good reason to down one for the home team!
When the American Association major league was organized in 1881 to compete with the fledgling National League, two of its selling points were Sunday games, and beer in the stands, things the rival league had banned in an effort to purify its image.
Baseball experienced another spurt in popularity just after the turn of the century, with the formation of the American League and the playing of the first World Series, which was taking place at the same time construction was going on for the brewery in Granite City.
The Wagner Brewing Company went into baseball advertising in a big way shortly after its founding, as the same year the brewery opened, the Granite City Wagners took to the field. The games received extensive newspaper coverage and helped to associate the new plant with the town. Undoubtedly some of the better players as well as the manager were also able to find employment at the brewery if needed.
In October of 1905, manager Dieck of the Wagners was able to schedule a game at Wagner Park against the St. Louis Cardinals of the National League. Before a huge crowd, former big-leaguer Ted Breitenstein (locally renown for having pitched a no-hitter in his first major league start some fourteen years previously for St. Louis of the American Association) took the mound for the home team, but Cardinal rookie Buster Brown pitched St. Louis to a 9-1 victory over the Wagners.
The next season was an exciting one for the Granite City team, when despite getting off to a rocky start, the Wagners rallied to win the Trolley League pennant after the mid-season signing of pitcher Jake Boultes. Since games were mostly played on Sundays, the same pitcher could start week after week, and Boultes, who pitched for three seasons with the Boston Braves immediately after leaving the Wagners, was good enough to lead his team to many victories.
Nor was Boultes the only talented pitcher in the Trolley League, as another hurler who played against the Wagners, Bob Groom, would also make the major leagues, winning 24 games for the 1912 Washington Senators. This was to be the Wagners last season, however, for in December it was announced that the defending champs were being dropped from the newly re-organized Trolley League. New league secretary Heydman denied that the Granite City and Staunton teams were being dropped because they were backed by breweries, and cited that another team with brewery sponsorship was still in the league. Heydman, who had been connected with the Staunton team, also denied that he and other club owners had been involved in betting on the games!
While the Wagners searched for another league to join, by February it was announced that the team was disbanding. According to Ed Wagner, the brewery was losing too much money on the team. A newly formed club tried to arrange to play at Wagner Field, which the brewery leased from the Neidringhauses, but when team management refused to allow Wagner to continue running the liquor concessions, no agreement could be reached. The brewery continued to sponsor bowling teams, which also received a great deal of newspaper coverage, and would go on to sponsor other area baseball teams, including one called the “Old Glories” after a brand of its beer. But the newer teams were never able to achieve a “resurrection of the good old baseball days, when the Wagners established a reputation in Granite City for baseball,” as a 1911 Press-Herald story put it. It was certainly a strange twist of fate when decades later the company brewing Wagner beer again found itself fielding a baseball team, this time the American League Browns of St. Louis.
This was not the first or last time St. Louis baseball teams would be associated with beermakers, either, as brewing baron Otto Stifel of that city’s Union Brewery had been a co-owner of the St. Louis Terriers of the upstart Federal League in 1914-15, and in 1915 was part of a group which bought the Browns of the American League, bringing many Terriers’ players with them. Among these players was the aforementioned Bob Groom, who managed to lead the Federal League in losses one season for Stifel’s Terriers, then moved on to the Browns where he did the same in the American League! Groom, who was a native of nearby Belleville, Illinois, also went down in Browns and baseball history in a positive way, though, pitching a no-hitter in St. Louis against Chicago on May 6, 1917. The feat was especially significant in that fellow Browns pitcher Ernie Koob had likewise pitched a no-hitter against the White Sox the previous day, the only time back-to-back no-hitters have been thrown in the history of the game!
St. Louis baseball is still under the influence of brewers, with Anheuser-Busch’s long association with the Cardinals. Despite recently selling the team which they had owned for so long, the company still sponsors broadcasts, and terms of the sale kept Busch Stadium as the name of the ballpark.
Today’s brewery historians can be grateful for brewery sponsorship of baseball, as a good number of team and outdoor sign photos have survived and can be found hanging in historical museums, libraries, and occasionally for sale. These photos can help determine where a brewery’s products were distributed. As for the uniforms being worn in these pictures, if anyone still has any of them hanging around from a team like the Wagner’s, they certainly possess a rare and unusual brewery collectible!
SIDEBAR #2: THE ENTERPRISING ED WAGNERS
Like many of their contemporaries, the two Ed Wagners were active in a number of brewing enterprises in the St. Louis area. The elder Wagner had been plant superintendent at the American Brewing Company, which specialized in bottling its product. He gained such notoriety by inventing the “St. Louis model” pasteurizing and bottle-soaking machine while at ABC that the fact was even mentioned in Rich’s One Hundred Years of Brewing, which was released in 1903.
Both father and son were major players in their namesake Granite City brewery, although their roles would gradually decrease with the formation of the Independent Breweries Company. In the 1908 St. Louis City directory, Ed Sr. is listed as president of the Model Bottling Machinery Company, which operated out of an old American Brewing Company building at 2825 S. Broadway (now a parking lot at the massive Anheuser-Busch Brewery). The same guide lists Ed Jr. as a technical manager for IBC, working out of the corporate office on 112 N. 4th Street.
Within a few years the Wagners again struck out on their own, forming the Forest Park Brewing Company in St. Louis, at 3662 Forest Park Boulevard. Out of the small “coffee-pot” brewhouse, as it was called due to its odd shape, came both Forest Park Beer and Wagner’s Old Time Lager.
The Wagners brewing days at Forest Park were brief, however, as the company was thrown into bankruptcy. In 1917 the Germania bank persuaded an at first reluctant St. Louis brewer, “Papa” Joe Griesedieck, to take it off their hands for $125,000 (of which only $5,000 was in cash). Thus did the plant launch what would become the Falstaff Brewing Corporation. Henry Kemper, an assistant treasurer of Falstaff during the 1930’s, would later call the Forest Park bottling plant “a headache and costly,” comments particularly ironic in light of Ed Wagner, Sr.’s illustrious background in the bottling aspect of brewing! Nonetheless this bottling shop would, in the 1940’s, launch Falstaff’s entrance into putting beer in conetop cans, and is also among the last remaining portions of this old brewery still standing today.
Authors’ note – Sources for this article included the Granite City Press-Herald; The Tri-City Labor Herald; the Granite-City Press-Record; 1906 Guidebook to Tri-Cities Industry; 1924 Newspaper Progress Edition; Granite City, A Pictorial History, 1896-1996; St. Louis Star-Times; Edwardsville, Intelligencer; Missouri Historical Society “Where We Live;” various Granite City city directories; American Breweries; The Breweries of Cleveland, by Carl Miller; and One Hundred years of Brewing, by H. S. Rich and Company, 1903.
Both Kevin Kious and Donald Roussin are members of the American Breweriana Association, and items from both of their collections were utilized in this article. The authors would like to thank the following for assistance in preparing this article: Maury Kastner; Bob Kay; Kent Knowles; Sam Marcum; Kent Patterson; and the Granite City Library, especially Judy and Jeanette!