The Breweries of Alton
Reprinted from the American Breweriana Journal.
Written by Kevin Kious and Donald Roussin.
Alton, Illinois is located on limestone bluffs rising above the Mississippi River just five miles from its junction with the Missouri River, and about twenty-five miles north of St. Louis, Missouri. A number of important events in American history occurred there, such as the slaying of abolitionist editor Elijah P. Lovejoy in 1837, and the hosting of the final Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858.
Like many older midwestern cities, Alton’s history also includes the loss of much of the industrial base it once had, including its breweries. The demise of the brewing industry in the town makes for a good case study in U. S. brewing, as several breweries didn’t survive the nineteenth century, and of the two that did, one was done in by Prohibition, the other by the inexorable rise of the national brewing giants.
THE EARLY YEARS
Undoubtedly beer was shipped into Alton from St. Louis and elsewhere early in the town’s history. By the late 1830’s, Alton had grown to some 4,000 inhabitants, and with abundant water, and grain from expanding area agriculture, it was a prime location for someone to open a hometown brewery.
As far as can be confirmed by surviving historical information, Alton’s first brewery was established in 1842 by Philip Yeakel (also spelled Yakel), at what was then the city’s outer edge. Ironically, the site of Alton’s first brewery would also prove to be its last.
Yeakel had learned the brewing trade in his native Germany, and worked at a brewery there until 1836, when he moved with his wife and two infant sons to the United States. After later moving to Alton, he continued the trade at his brewery until his death in 1854 at age fifty-one.
Jacob Haas was a long-time partner of Yeakel, and continued the partnership with Yeakel’s second son George, who was only twenty at the time of his father’s death. To enhance their beer sales, the Yeakel family also operated a saloon on the north side of 5th and East Ridge streets.
Another early brewery is evident from the 1845 census, which lists a brewery operated by William Charley. He was also present in Alton in 1840, though that year’s census, unfortunately, did not take the time to list the industry in which people were engaged. The location and dates of operation of William Charley’s brewery have unfortunately been lost in the mists of time, so it is possible that Charley actually started the first area brewery.
A few years later, local residents who wanted to drink fresh ale could buy the bottled product produced by theKeeley& Brothers’ Ale Brewery. This brewery is known to have operated in Alton in the early to mid-1850’s.
Additional competition was soon to be added in Alton, for the 1858-1859 Alton city directory lists three area brewing companies. The by then well-established brewery of George Yeakel and Jacob Haas advertised itself as the Union Brewery. It was a common practice of the time to name breweries after streets on which they were located, and the street fronting the brewery was then called Union Street. It would have several different names before Pearl Street was finally settled upon, but the description “in back of the city cemetery” was the easiest way to place the Union Brewery.
Across town, brewing partners John Fischbach and Jacob Hund advertised their concern as the Alton Brewery, with a brewery and malt house on the Plank Road, located north of the Alton city limits, and south of the Buck Inn, where there was a post office and a large tavern.
Both breweries emphasized in period Alton city directory ads they placed that there was “an extensive supply of lager beer constantly at hand,” testifying to the popularity of this style of brew.
The third brewery operating in the late 1850’s in Alton was that of George Baumann and Bartholomew Runzi, which had been built in 1857. Unlike the other two breweries, the new concern did not see fit to buy an ad in early Alton city directories, but they were still mentioned in the general listing as having a plant near the railroad tracks, close to Baumann’s home at 16th and Market. This was another Alton brewery location that would go through a variety of address changes. Runzi, who had been born in Baden, Germany in 1820 and arrived with his family in Alton in 1832, lived near the downtown area, and had been in the grocery business prior to engaging in the brewing trade.
An even dozen Alton residents were listed as brewers in the 1860 census, almost all of them German, Prussian, or Swiss immigrants. In addition to the above, Anton Mincher had joined the brewing ranks, with real property valued high enough that he could have been in a partnership or running his own brewery, but the historical trail does not lead to his role as an Alton beermaker.
By the start of the Civil War, a fourth brewery was in operation, one specializing in making ale. Established by the Cooper brothers, the business was destined to be short lived. In February 1862, a boiler explosion occurred at the Cooper Brothers Cream Ale Brewery, burning it to the ground. The noise was heard up to a mile away, with spokes of the engine fly wheel found some distance from the area, which was covered with blackened snow. Incredibly, none of the several men working at the time were seriously hurt. Richard Cooper had been near the boiler, and was saved when the force of the explosion knocked him between two empty kegs, which trapped broken timbers, and kept a large tub from crashing down on him! According to a newspaper account at the time, “The Messrs. Cooper estimate their loss at not far short of $16,000, and no insurance. It is extremely doubtful whether the establishment will be rebuilt, at least until the termination of our national troubles (the Civil War).” The newspaper’s prediction proved true, as the Cooper brothers never rebuilt their brewery.
THREE POSTBELLUM BREWERIES
The 1866 Madison County Gazetteer ad presents a clearer picture of Alton breweries. According to this guide, “this city has already several breweries. The principal of these are owned by Runzi and Company, Baumann and Peters, and Yeakel and Company.”
The three were all of similar size, for the Federal census the previous year reports the annual value of product from both Runzi and Yeakel at $25,000, and of Baumann & Peters at $20,000. The Yeakel Brewery was presumably no longer called the Union Brewery, as the street name had been changed to Vandalia. Brewery ownership had changed as well, as Jacob Haas was no longer an associate. Business must have been good, as around this time construction was begun on a new house near the brewery, for George Yeakel and his family. This impressive two-story Victorian home still stands, in excellent condition, at 1421 Pearl Street. Structural evidence suggests that brewery additions were also being made in the late 1860’s.
George Baumann had jumped ship, leaving Runzi and Company to take over the old Fischbach and Hund brewery north of town. Baumann had moved to a home near what was still being called the Alton Brewery, where he was joined by a young partner named Joseph Peters, the eldest son of a successful Alton teamster named Philip Peters.
Runzi and Company was now operating under the name Western Brewery. Sebastian Lehman had teamed up with Runzi, living and working at Easton and 16th Streets. These same three breweries, with the same partners, also appear in the 1868-1869 Alton city directory.
A PERIOD OF CHANGE
Information on the Alton brewing industry for the following decade is sketchy, but the mid-1870’s was a time of economic depression for much of the country, and the area breweries were not immune to the hard economic times.
The Yeakel Brewery was the first to go under. George Yeakel died in 1872, only 38 years old. He was survived by his wife Elizabeth and four children, with George, Jr., the eldest at age 16, and Carl the youngest, at age 1. Later, Carl would go on to be a successful Alton real estate and insurance broker. His mother Elizabeth lived much longer than her husband, seeing the enactment of Prohibition before her own death at age 87.
With George Yeakel gone, his brewery was soon out of business. As often happened with nineteenth-century breweries, it folded without its principal operator around, the family unable or unwilling to carry the business forward. The brewery would sit idle for a number of years.
The two remaining Alton breweries were in a period of flux as well. In 1874, Bartholomew Runzi was an Alton city councilman, and a city business directory featured an ad for the Western Brewery of B. Runzi & Co.– “manufacturers and dealers in lager beer and ale.” This directory also mentioned that the brewery had made recent improvements, employed ten men, and had a capacity of 5,000 barrels per year. Such prosperity was short-lived, however, for in October 1878, Runzi& Lehman’s brewery was sold for only $5,444 to J. Weil and Bros. Company of St. Louis, as trustee for one IssacGutman. Though no longer a brewer, BatholomewRunzi would retire to his stately home on Alby Street in Alton, until his death in 1899, becoming one of the few remaining residents of Alton who had been living there when abolitionist/journalist Elijah Lovejoy had been murdered many years before.
At the Alton Brewery, north of Runzi’s, Joseph Peters was still brewing, though no longer with George Baumann. Instead, he had been joined as a partner by his father Philip, and beginning in 1877, the pair was joined by John Jehle (pronounced YAY-LEE), a name which was to become significant in Alton beermaking.
John Jehle was a native of Baden, Germany, born in 1851. He had settled in St. Louis, where he worked for a few years at the brewery of Eberhard Anheuser. In 1877, about the same time that company changed its name to Anheuser-Busch, Jehle joined the Peterses at the Alton Brewery. He moved into a house near the brewery, where he lived with his wife and four children, plus five boarders. Two of the boarders worked with him at the brewery, including Michael Kremer, who within a few years would be the proprietor of Gambrinus Hall, a large Alton tavern and restaurant.
By 1881, Jehle had assumed sole control of the Alton Brewery, and though it was Alton’s only brewery for a time, production was just 4,000 barrels per year, with most of the product sold in Alton, and in a few nearby towns. As engineer and brewmaster, Jehle hired his brother-in-law Henry Weigand. Years later, Weigandwould take the knowledge he had gained from Jehle back to his hometown of Sedalia, Missouri, where he would operate a brewery under his name that lasted until Prohibition.
In 1881, a fire seriously damaged Jehle’s Alton Brewery. Knowing that the city was prime ground for a successful brewing business, Jehle faced a choice between rebuilding on the old site, or buying the vacant Runzi and Company Western Brewery, which had sold at auction a few years earlier. He opted to buy the oldRunzi property at 16th and Easton. His decision was influenced by the fact that the site of the destroyed brewery, since it had a deep well, could be sold to his wife’s brother-in-law to be used as a brickyard. Plus, the former Western Brewery had the advantage of being near the railroad tracks, so Jehle made necessary improvements, and soon began brewing at the once-rival facility, while taking the Alton Brewery name with him, down the Belle Street hill.
At the same time, changes were also occurring at the long dormant Yeakel Brewery. On January 23, 1882, that property brought $11,000 at a master’s sale. The successful bidder was Levi Davis, Jr., representing some of the brewery’s creditors.
This brewery would reopen to compete with the new Alton Brewery. Its name changed to the Bluff City Brewery, it was briefly taken over by the Carr family. While the 1882 county history lists the proprietor as James Carr, a newspaper listing the following year gives the owner’s name as William Carr. Both James and William Carr had been Alton furniture dealers, so it appears they had decided to try their hand at brewing, reopening a plant that would soon meet with considerable success.
THE GOLDEN YEARS
The two remaining breweries in the growing city of Alton, their troubles behind them, were about to enter an era of prosperity.
Late in 1883, the Bluff City Brewery was taken over by William (Wilhelm) Netzhammer. The son of a brewer, Netzhammer was born in 1845 in Ercingen, Baden, Germany. He had worked in his father’s brewery, and after a stint in the German army, had immigrated to the United States. He worked as a brewmaster at a brewery in Louisville, Kentucky, before heading to St. Louis, where he was a brewery foreman for ten years. After his stay in St. Louis, Netzhammer moved again, this time to Alton, with an opportunity to run his own brewery.
One source says that for a short time Charles Schibi, who would later own a brewery bearing his name in nearby St. Charles, Missouri, was Netzhammer’s partner in the Bluff City Brewery.
Under the leadership of William Netzhammer, the Bluff City Brewery began to thrive. Groundbreaking ceremonies for a new $14,000 building were held on March 28, 1890. Just a week later, it was announced that the brewery was installing new machinery to manufacture ice, both to cool its storage cellars, and for retail. Two years later, further improvements were made, doubling the brewery’s icemaking capacity, as manufactured ice was by this time completely displacing the use of stored natural ice, the latter being more expensive, and less pure.
The cross-town Alton Brewery had prospered through the late 1880’s under the guidance of John Jehle, as well. Its address now changed to 201-215 East 15th Street, this brewery also underwent a significant change in ownership, when in 1890, it was taken over by Anton Reck.
Like Netzhammer a native of Germany, Reck had been born in 1842 in the town of Hund. Moving to the United States in 1865, he had lived for two years in Newark, New Jersey, before coming to the St. Louis area. While there, he worked briefly at one of the breweries in Belleville, Illinois, then was employed at several St. Louis breweries, eventually becoming the general manager of the Schilling and Schneider Brewery. When that plant was absorbed by an English syndicate in 1889, Reck began looking for a brewery to purchase. After visiting several cities, he opted to buy the Alton Brewery from John Jehle, moving his family to the house on the hill above the brewery, while the Jehles moved to 603 Alby. John Jehle had been in ill health and died not long after selling his brewery. The $75,000 price tag was sufficient for his widow Caroline to raise their children, and to live out her life with no financial worries.
Anton Reck installed an ice plant of his own in the Alton Brewery in March 1894. In November of that year, a disaster was narrowly averted. Fire was a constant threat to breweries of the time, and flames thought to be caused by a smokestack spark broke out at the Alton Brewing Company. Attempts by employees to douse the fire failed, but the city fire department soon arrived, and extinguished the blaze, limiting damage to under $1,000.
Telephone service arrived at both Alton breweries in 1891. According to city directory ads, phone #13 would ring the Alton Brewery, which boasted that it was a “brewer and bottler of Superior Lager Beer,” while rival Bluff City had phone #97, and “mail orders promptly attended to.”
These two family-owned breweries continued their growth into the twentieth century, but it was not without competition, as St. Louis brewing giants Anheuser-Busch Brewing Association and the William J. Lemp Brewing Company both had opened branch depots in town.
Both Alton breweries, as well as others throughout the rest of the country, suffered from a shortage of bottles in the summer of 1906. This was ironic, for one of the largest bottle making plants in the Midwest was located in Alton. For a time, both breweries had to cut orders for bottled beer in half. According to the Alton Telegraph, “when the glass making season opens up again in September, the shortage will be relieved at once.”
The children of the proprietors of the two breweries joined their family’s operations. William Netzhammer, Jr., who had been born in St. Louis in 1878 and educated in the Alton school system, was an 1895 graduate of Jones Commercial College in St. Louis. He had worked in both the office and the plant of the brewery before heading to Chicago in 1899, where he studied the art of brewing at Wahl-Henius Institute of Fermentology in preparation for becoming brewmaster at the Bluff City Brewery. He would eventually be joined in the business by brothers Harry, who would serve as assistant manager and brewmaster; Emil, who would become foreman of the bottling department; and Ernest, who would succeed his sister Rosa as company bookkeeper. When their father died after a long illness the day after Christmas in 1908, the Bluff City Brewery was in good hands.
The Alton Telegraph paid a nice tribute to the senior Netzhammer, saying that “he took a piece of property at Alton that was not in the best of condition, and he built up the plant and business until he had made a comfortable fortune and a good piece of property out of it.”
Over at the Alton Brewery, business was booming. By 1906, yearly sales were exceeding 10,000 barrels per year. In April of 1908, an artesian well was dug at the brewery, hitting a good supply of water at 500 feet down. When better plumbing was installed a few weeks later, more than 200 gallons a minute could be drawn. Later that same year, a $30,000 addition was begun at the Reck’s brewery.
In 1909, a $5,000 addition was made to the bottling department, and the business was incorporated as the Anton Reck Brewing Company. Anton Reck was company president, with son Herman vice-president and general manager, and daughter Bertha corporate secretary and bookkeeper. Herman Reck had followed a path similar to the junior Netzhammer, attending Alton schools, Smith Academy in St. Louis, and the Wahl-Henius brewing chemistry school in Chicago, as well as clerking at the brewery in his younger days.
The Jehle name was once more associated with this brewery, too, as John J. Jehle, son of the man who had gotten the business back on its feet in the 1880’s, had likewise attended brewmaster’s school in Chicago, joining the company in 1905 as foreman/superintendent, and continuing his career at the renamed plant.
Demand for Reck’s beer kept rising. In June 1913, the brewery exceeded its previous record by filling 7,186 bottles in a single day. This output was loaded onto railroad cars and shipped north to Calhoun County. Later that year, another $30,000 expansion was begun, as orders were exceeding capacity. The cellars were enlarged, as well as the wash room and ice plant. A new malt cleaner and grinding machine were purchased, and new pumps and racking machines were installed in an addition to the bottling department. Other new machinery included a bottle filler, a crown corker, and a conveyor for loading and unloading cases.
THE RUMBLINGS OF PROHIBITION
Sadly, the clouds of the “Great War”, and national Prohibition were soon to rain down on the success of Alton’s two breweries. At the beginning of 1918, in compliance with a Presidential order, brewers were compelled to cut the alcohol content and the use of “foodstuffs” in their product (which of course means malted barley) by 30%. Several weeks later they were prohibited from buying any more barley or other grains for making beer. While being allowed to use what they had on hand, supplies were soon exhausted. Government orders to curtail coal consumption further crippled the beermaking business.
A wartime order ceasing the manufacturing of beer took effect the last day of November 1918. While beer already made could still be sold, soon the 18th Amendment rendered this point moot.
On March 3, 1919, the Anton Reck Brewing Company announced that it was ceasing operation. Company spokesman Herman Reck said that while the company would keep its ice plant open to see if it could turn a profit, the rest of the facility would stand idle. A newspaper article concluded, “it has been a brewery of reputation in this section and many years ago was considered a landmark in the section. It is the first brewery in this vicinity to cease business.”
Across the nation, brewing companies and their lawyers were not about to let Prohibition take effect without a fight. The Christian Fiegenspan Brewery in New Jersey and several New York breweries began producing beer with a 2.75% alcohol content, arguing that such a beverage was non-intoxicating. Later, in March of 1919, the two Alton breweries announced that they would follow Fiegenspan’s lead and begin making 2.75% alcohol beer. While Bluff City still had about a two month supply of regular brew on hand and would only resume normal operations, Reck’s, which was almost out of old stock, announced that not only would it restart brewing operations, but would begin operating day and night.
Reck’s announcement was not put into action, however, for less than a month later, on April 16, a newspaper article proclaimed that the first beer being made in Alton since the last day of November was being produced by the Bluff City Brewery. According to the story, “things about the plant on Pearl Street had the appearance of old times when the machines were running, washing kegs and getting everything in shape for the resumption of business.” Harry Netzhammer said the firm was taking a chance in making this 2.75% alcohol beer, since it might never be allowed to be sold, but they were going ahead since the brewing materials were on hand and they were hopeful the Prohibition test case being pursued by the eastern brewers would succeed. Needless to say, the test case would fail, and this beer, if indeed it was ever made, met an unknown fate.
In July 1919, the Reck brewery completely shut down, as it had quit even making ice. The 10-ton ice plant had been running at full capacity, but was simply too small to make money. The Alton Telegraph added that this would make an ice shortage in Alton, brought on by steadily hot weather, even worse.
Like his brewery, Anton Reck did not survive Prohibition, passing away at the age of 80 on June 26, 1922,after a brief illness.
A couple of years later, it was rumored that the Reck brewery was going to be sold, either to the recently organized Alton Ice and Beverage Company, or to a group being formed by some men from Joliet, Illinois, which reportedly planned on making near beer, fruit syrups, and soft drinks. Supposedly the latter group had also made an overture towards buying a Peoria brewery which had been shut down for making real beer. A bit of reading between the lines could lead to the conclusion that this story was really one about bootleggers showing interest in operating at the former Reck’s brewery.
The newspaper article citing this story is as interesting in its description of the former Reck’s facility, as it is in describing the buying rumor, stating that the machinery of the “well equipped small brewery” was still in good shape and mentioning the cellarage, which had been quarried out of solid rock and had a capacity of 150 “cakes,” each holding between 50 and 60 barrels.
While the brewery continued to sit, Herman Reck continued living in the house overlooking it, entering the insurance business, and later selling radios and refrigerators, while brewmaster John Jehle went into the quarry business. In 1932, Bertha Reck, apparently despondent over an illness, left the home she still shared with her brother, and drove to a railroad crossing north of Alton, committing suicide by throwing herself in the path of a train. After repeal, Herman tried to find a buyer to take over the brewery, but was unable to do so.
ONE ALTON BREWERY
While their local rival had thrown in the towel, the Bluff City Brewery attempted to (and did) survive Prohibition by selling ice, a bottled near beer labeled Special Brew, and a root beer which is said to have been both palatable and popular.
The Bluff City Brewery thus stood alone as an Alton beermaker once alcohol became legal again, with the further advantage that its plant had been kept running throughout Prohibition. Brewing operations commenced again in 1933, and before the year was out, the business was incorporated. William Netzhammer, Jr., remained at the helm as corporate president and manager, with Emil as vice-president and Ernest as secretary-treasurer.
Despite the lingering national Depression, there was a pent up demand for beer, and the rejuvenated
business had initial success. A new $10,000 office building was erected and in May 1935, $50,000 worth of improvements were started, with the goal of increasing capacity by 50%. In May 1937, a new Meyer bottle-soaking machine was installed. By 1938, the brewery was producing 20,000 barrels a year, out of a plant with a rated capacity of 25,000. The barrel washing room was enlarged, and cooling and storage rooms expanded. New refrigeration equipment was moved into the brick additions, enabling the company to tear down an old ice plant. The Bluff City Brewery had expanded into a complex of thirteen buildings. Bottled beer brands included Bluff City Pilsener, Bluff City Special, Bluff City Bock Beer, and Bohemian Type, and an occasional special run such as their Holiday Brew, sold only around Christmas time. On draught, the brewery featured Bluff City pilsener brand, a bock, and a munchener style beer simply marketed as Munchener. Throughout the 1930’s, Bluff City’s beer sales held steady at a 50/50 split between bottled, and draught beer sales.
Many of the Post-Prohibition Bluff City bottle labels featured representations of the nearby Alton lock and dam on the Mississippi River. Some of the labels also list the main ingredient as “Alton lake water,” a curious description, as there is no lake in town. Presumably the brewery thought that sounded more palatable than saying something like “filtered Mississippi River water,” the real source of their main ingredient.
Meanwhile, late in 1939, a local newspaper article reported that the approximately 60 tons of brewing equipment over at the long-silent Reck brewery, which had not been used for over twenty years, were dismantled and sold as scrap for $700. Herman Reck estimated that they had cost around $50,000 new. All that was left in the “fine substantial buildings on the brewery site” were the remains of about 80 wooden casks, which dated back to the days when John Jehle owned the brewery. Herman Reck said he would give them away to anyone willing to haul them off.
The newspaper account on the Reck’s brewery ends on a melancholy note, adding that “there is a huge cellar connected with the old brewery property in which beer was allowed to age for two or three months…the temperature of that big cellar was kept uniform the year round. In there lager beer was kept until it was ready to delight the palate of the lager beer consumer. Some day when a business is found which finds the place attractive, Mr. Reck would dispose of the property. Until then, the vacant buildings will have to stand there filled with memories of bygone days.” The buildings didn’t stand vacant for long, however, as most of them were soon torn down.
Around this time the portion of 15th Street upon which the Reck brewery property was located was renamed Blair Avenue. Herman Reck, who had been a two-term Alton alderman, and had served on the city planning commission, had married in 1940, and moved elsewhere in town. His twin sister Amelia continued living at the Reck brewery mansion at 227 Blair for a number of years. Herman Reck died in 1952, around the same time the homesite was taken over by the Owl’s Club, and the old mansion, though considerably altered, still houses that social organization to this day.
The building at 215 Blair was used for various purposes, until the 1960’s, when it was taken over by Jackson’s Sales, a wholesale vendor of novelties, drugs and sundries. Ironically, for a brief time in the 1960’s the space was shared with junk dealer Gordon Rubenstein, part of the family who had salvaged the oldReck brewery equipment in 1939. The final occupant of the building was Alton Furniture and Appliance, which used it as a warehouse. Today, it sits in a dilapidated state, with a for sale sign currently hanging on it. All the other buildings are gone from the old brewery property, with the exception of an ancient looking small stone house, which was built by one of the early brewmasters for his residence.
The Bluff City Brewery, like other downstate Illinois breweries, made it through the shortages of World War II, but not much longer. In 1947, they sold 12,000 barrels, down 40% from a decade before. By 1951, the last full year of production, sales had dropped to 8,000 barrels.
The Bluff City Brewery was closed in the next year, when the ammonia-based refrigerating systems failed, and the Netzhammers decided that the limited profit potential of the brewery did not justify the investment of additional money to fix the leak.
While his brewery may have closed, William Netzhammer, Jr. was still well regarded in the brewing industry. In April 1953, the members of the Master Brewers Association of America (MBAA) presented him with an honorary membership. He was given a special award which read: “This is to certify that William Netzhammer has been elected to honorary membership in the MBAA in appreciation of extended, distinguished and meritorious service in the brewing industry.”
Though the Bluff City Brewery, Inc. continued to exist on paper for some years, and Emil Netzhammer continued living in the home near the brewery, no more beer was brewed after the plant was closed in 1952. Some of the brewery’s wooden kegs were sold to a Canadian brewery for reuse, with the majority of the balance destroyed for scrap wood.
The old bottling house and some adjacent buildings continued to serve the beer industry, however, when they were taken over by a Falstaff distributor. Parts of the old brewery were also used by an insurance company, and as a dairy warehouse, while the former Netzhammer home was converted for a while into a rehabilitation center.
While the Bluff City Brewery has been closed for almost half a century, several of the buildings appear much as they did when it shut down in 1952. During the last decade, other Alton businesses, notably the Frontier Furnishing Company, have been housed in some of the buildings, helping to maintain them. On May 11, 1982, the brewery was listed, along with the Yeakel-Netzhammer House, in the National Register of Historic Places, as a fine example of an industrial complex encompassing over a century of changing industrial design. The listing also acknowledges the contribution that the Bluff City Brewery made to Alton’s economy for so many years. Of particular note is the old limestone structure that was the original main building with the caves built under its backside, which architects have dated from around the early 1840’s, and the large packing and washroom building erected in the 1860’s.
While the remains of the former Bluff City Brewery range in condition from good to poor, the old Yeakel-Netzhammer house is in fine shape, and its current residents can still overlook the historic buildings, located behind the cemetery, where Alton beer was brewed for so long.
SIDEBAR #1: WHERE HAVE ALL THE NEONS GONE? GONE, EVERY ONE!
In the 1940’s, fifty “ruby red” Bluff City Beer neons are known to have been made in a glass making business that happened to be located on Pearl Street, two blocks from the brewery. The neons were given to the brewery’s major accounts at the time. One is pictured in the period bar scene here, which was located in the Mineral Springs Hotel, in downtown Alton. Only one badly fractured neon sign is rumored to still exist; where did the rest go? (If someone finds the rest of the “lost” Bluff City neons in a warehouse somewhere, please save a couple for us!)
SIDEBAR #2: BEER CONTINUED TO FLOW AT BLUFF CITY.
After the Bluff City Brewery closed, the site continued to be involved in the beer trade. The Jackson Distributing Company purchased several of its former competitor’s buildings in 1953, from which they distributed Falstaff beer for many years.
An article in the September 1955, issue of The Falstaff Shield detailed the success of the Jackson Distributing Company, which had converted the old bottling shop into a 7,000 square foot warehouse, and another building into a truck garage. Jackson’s six-man delivery team covered a 22 county region, with just over 200 retail outlets, and The Falstaff Shield proudly reported that sales were running 36% ahead of 1954’s record sales.
The distributorship became the Morgan Distributing Company in the 1960’s, and much like the Falstaff brand, faded away by the end of the following decade.
SIDEBAR #3: MEMORIES ON THE BLUFFS: REMEMBERING BEER BREWED IN ALTON.
Although the brewing of Bluff City beer stopped nearly half a century ago, and Reck’s beer decades before that, memories of both breweries, and more recent short lived brewpub attempts, are shared by many Alton residents.
Robert Graul, who has spent his entire life living in the same house on Blair Street a couple of blocks up the hill from the old Anton Reck Brewing Company, was born in 1912. While he does not recall drinking Reck’s beer, he does remember going with his father to the brewery to get ice. “We would take a wheelbarrow and load it with about a hundred pounds. That was usually enough to last a couple weeks.” He also recalled watching the large flywheel on the ammonia-based refrigeration system. “It would get spinning faster and faster, until reaching a certain speed when a governor would shut it off completely.”
Bill Cress, longtime ABA member, recalled recently that, “In the late 1940’s, my grandfather had a friend that lived right across from the brewery on Pearl Street (Bluff City Brewery). When visiting in the hot summer, they both could drink their good share of Bluff City beer. They used to walk across the street with a broom stick, and get fresh buckets of beer (only 10 cents a bucket at the time); usually 4 to 6 buckets were brought back home at a time, on the broomstick. After the second or third trip, they didn’t always get back with full buckets because their buckets began to slide up and down the stick, and they’d spill more than they started with.”
In November 1995, the Alton Telegraph ran an article on area brewing, which mentioned memories that Alton residents had of the Bluff City Brewery. John Hoefert, an Alton attorney, spent about a month working there as a young man, and remembered his job as being something of a headache. “I would sit with a large magnifying glass and inspect the bottles as they came through the racks. You could only stare at bottles so long without getting dizzy,” he said. Local roofer Bob Jourdain Jr., who married into the Netzhammer family but never worked at the brewery, was still proud of the family’s heritage. “People who came into town wanted to try a Bluff City beer.” Bill Netzhammer, grandson of William Sr., was quoted as saying “On a good year, we would make 25,000 barrels, which made it tough to compete with the advertised beers – Falstaff and Anheuser-Busch.” In the last few years, many Alton residents no doubt remember failed efforts to produce a new beer for the “Bluff City.” While 1995 newspaper articles detailed two microbreweries starting up in local Alton nightspots, since then both locations have changed ownership and are no longer making their own beer.
SIDEBAR#4: BOTTLED BEER IN ALTON OVER THE YEARS.
Even small breweries like the ones operating in Alton tried to keep up with technical improvements in the brewing industry. For example, as improvements were introduced by the bottle making industry over the years, the breweries would incorporate the improvements into their businesses whenever they made new bottle purchases.
The earliest bottles used in Alton, such as those produced for the Keeley& Brothers’ Ale Brewery in the mid-1850’s, were essentially hand-blown, and stoppered with a cork. No two bottles were identical. Because these bottles were so expensive to make, the breweries of the period took extra pains to get them returned. Embossing, itself an expensive “extra,” was not really added for advertising, but to help get the bottles returned, and to keep rival breweries from “borrowing” them!
The first marked bottles existent from Bluff City used a mechanical stopper, and are embossed in a round slug-plate on the front, reading “Bluff City Brewery, Alton Ill.” These bottles were introduced about 1890, and used until the turn of the century.
When the “crown top” was introduced, both the Bluff City, and Anton Reck breweries switched to this type. The “crown top” was a great improvement over using corks, or any of the other 1,500 stopper types that had already been patented by 1900. The first Bluff City crown top bottles were embossed in an arch on the shoulder of the bottle. These bottles were BIMAL, (blown in mold, applied lip), so their use probably continued until around 1910. These bottles were still partially hand crafted, as a glass worker still formed the “crown” portion of the bottle.
The last embossed bottle from Bluff City also used shoulder embossing, with “Bluff City Brewery” on the front of the bottle, and “Alton, Ill” on the reverse. By this time, the entire bottle was machine made. The Anton Reck Brewing Company also used a similar type of bottle, in the decade before the start of Prohibition.
After Prohibition ended, Alton’s surviving brewery (Bluff City) switched to the by then industry standard, unembossed, 12 ounce “crown top” bottles.
Authors’ note – Research for this article included material from a number of sources: Alton Daily Telegraph; 1882 History of Madison County; 1866 Madison County Gazetteer; U. S. Census of 1840, 1845, 1850, 1860, 1880; Illinois Census of 1855 and 1865. Alton City Directories; American Breweries II; 1895 Sentinel-Democrat Souvenir Album; Alton, Illinois, A Pictorial History; 1912 Madison County Centennial History; 1912 Alton Illustrated; The Falstaff Shield, September 1955; Historic Buildings Survey of Alton, Illinois; 1912 Reid’s Brochure on Alton; 1873 Illustrated Madison County History; and Historic Illinois, October 1982. Both Kevin Kious and Donald Roussin are members of the American Breweriana Association. A number of items from both authors’ collections were utilized in this article. The authors would like to thank the following for assistance in preparing this article: MaryAnn Warmack, and the Alton Museum of History and Art; Bob Kay, Robert Thebeau, Kent Patterson, Darrell Bien, and Toni Jehle O’Brien, for information on her grandfather and great-grandfather; and to Robert Graul, for photographs and memories. Also, a special thanks to Bill Cress and his son Jeff Cress, for supplying Alton historical photos, information; and Alton breweriana.