The Consumers' Brewing Company
In 1893, a business was begun known as the Consumers' Brewing Company. Incorporated in West Virginia to take advantage of the limited regulations in that state, Consumers' set up shop in Lowell, Massachusetts. The men who organized the company were from around the region. Lowellian John H. Coffey, one of the primary organizers, owned a provisions shop in the city's Acre neighborhood with his two brothers. Another important organizer was John J. Joyce of Lawrence who ran an important bottling establishment in that city with Maurice J. Curran. The stockholders of the brewery hailed from all parts of New England and New York and elected Joyce as company president and Coffey as secretary and general manager.
The site chosen for brewing operations was well suited for the company's needs. A 12 acre parcel was purchased from the estate of Sylvanus Bartlett along Plain and Payton Streets in the Ayer's City section of Lowell. The land was not only adjacent to the main line of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, it was also, more importantly, the location of an excellent fresh water well field. The brewing plant included a lager production and storage house, a similar ale house, a bottling department, an office building, a boiler
house, horse stables, a cooper shop and other structures.
Over $250,000 was expended to build the plant including the purchase of the best brewing equipment available. The company also paid high salaries to recruit top brewery experts. Consumers' first brewmaster was Louis Wentzler who previously worked for the Pabst Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, at that time the second largest brewery in the nation. The first batch of Consumers' brew was made in April of 1894 and, after aging, was ready for the market in June. When Consumers' was finally prepared to start business, the company's employees and stockholders held a formal opening with entertainment provided by Hibbard's Orchestra, lots of
German and American food and, of course, complimentary lager beer. Although the brewery sent out 3,500 invitations, over 8,000 people showed up to Payton Street on the hot day of the event. One spectator to the opening related that, "Something like 100 kegs of lager were consumed during the afternoon. In the early part of the afternoon the respectable invitees could get up to the drinks but despite the efforts of the police under
Sergeant Webster the bum element crept in and secured prime positions up front where they drank till they couldn't stand up. In the brewery are iron stairs. These soon got slippery and all gents with unsteady legs went down various flights with their legs in the air. After a while the bums became so obnoxious and jaggy that the police made a final effort and cleared them out quite effectively about 5 o'clock. When the bums were kicked out they lined Ayer City highways in all directions, straggled across fields, sang, fought and blessed the brewery."
During the brewery's early years, a majority of the workers were German immigrants who created a small but thriving community in Ayer's City. The Germans, carrying over European traditions, organized in 1896 and formed the United Brewery Workmen of the U.S.A. The union was one of the first in the nation to win an eight hour workday and helped maintain excellent working conditions and benefits for its members. Some time later, the German workers built their own community meeting place, Der Deutsche Halle (the German Hall), in Plain Street across from the brewery, which was used for union gatherings, cultural activities and company functions.
The Harvard Brewery is Born
In January of 1898, a stockholders meeting was held where New York interests who recently gained control of a majority in shares were represented. One of the decisions made at the meeting was to change the brewery's name to the Harvard Brewing Company in order to distinguish the concern from other Consumers' Brewing Companies in Chicopee, Massachusetts and in New York state. Another change was in personnel, with the addition to the office leadership of Ward B. Holloway who previously worked for the Rochester Brewing Company. Later in the year, Holloway took over the position of secretary and general manager from John Coffey while within a few years, John Joyce was dropped down to vice president.
While Consumers' had focused on the local market, the new management's efforts were geared toward making
Harvard a regional "heavy-hitter." An expanded product line up was introduced with ten labels including $1000 Pure Beer Crimson Label, Dark Special, Brown Autumn Ale, Old Stock Porter, Sparkling Pale Ale and Present Use Porter. Manufacturing capacity was increased from 200,00 barrels per year to 300,000 and, to finance the expansion, the brewery's capital stock was increased from $300,000 to $500,000.
Harvard's pre-prohibition years were marked by a building boom as the company continually modernized the plant. Although the brewery was struck by a major fire at the lager house in 1900 which caused a $75,000 loss, production and improvements barely skipped a beat. An 1,100 foot tunnel was dug in 1901 connecting the lager and ale houses with a walkway and pipes for direct beer storage at the bottling department. A new wagon shed and a larger warehouse were constructed in 1907 with a new boiler house, condenser building and grain
storage tank built in 1910. An extensive addition was also made to the bottling house in 1914 creating one of the largest breweries in New England.
In order to further its business status during this era, the Harvard Brewery became profoundly involved in Lowell's governmental scene. While this involvement helped the company to smoothly navigate the increasing regulations imposed on large businesses it also established itself as a major target for political criticism. Alderman George H. Brown won the mayoralty election of 1908 on a platform mainly based on breaking up "the brewery's complete control of the politics of Lowell." Allegations that Harvard dominated the licensing of liquor dealers in Spindle City came to a head when Holloway, Joyce and other managers were arrested with members of the license commission on charges of conspiracy. Despite the submission of much incriminating evidence, the death of a key witness led to charges being dropped against the brewery officials.
Prohibition Comes to Mill City
Survival of local political critics did not help the company stave off a more serious threat to its existence - the temperance movement. The passage of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919, declaring the sale of alcoholic drinks to be illegal, sent the brewery scurrying to recast itself as a viable business. With the expertise of the new brewmaster, Doctor Richard H. P. Juerst, and a name change to the Harvard Company, the brewery began offering non-intoxicating beverages such as root beer, ginger ale, grape juice and "near-beer." Initially sales were reasonable but when the federal government imposed embargoes on freight shipped around the region, Harvard soon found it difficult to obtain adequate supplies as well as market their non-alcoholic labels. An attempt at diversification was the leasing of unused operations space for storage and warehousing but this amounted to little revenue.
In order to offset the dire financial situation, company executives, including Director Frederick Quinn and Treasurer Bartholomew Scannell, decided to have Harvard make their "near-beer" a little nearer than federal law permitted. Although profits naturally jumped, the illegal endeavor was short lived when a truck filled with 100 barrels of Harvard beer was hijacked in Lowell during August of 1925. As the hijackers were transferring the kegs of brew to their own private cars, their movements were noticed by most of the neighborhood.
An article in the Lowell Courier-Citizen reported that "As soon as it became known in the locality what was going on, hundreds appeared and surrounded the truck. They all clamored for a chance to secure a barrel of the beer. Men came to blows and bedlam reigned. Besides the men involved, it is known that several women even procured barrels and rolled them along the sidewalks or in the streets to homes thereabouts." Naturally, the police became aware of the disturbance and upon showing up to the scene, the mob dispersed in all directions. When the liquor squad inspected the back of the truck, they discovered only two dozen kegs still
remaining. Tracing the truck to the Harvard Company, the Lowell police called in federal agents from Boston.
When the agents tried to gain entrance to the brewery, Scannell refused them admittance for lack of a search warrant. Upon hearing workers smashing barrels inside, the officers forced a door at the side of the building and found their shoes immersed in four to five inches of spilled beer. It was reported that laborers were casting full kegs of the Harvard product into nearby River Meadow Brook so as to escape their seizure. The raid was the largest in New England's prohibition history with over 100,000 gallons of full strength brew confiscated by the
government. An extended trial led to the charges being dropped against most of the company officials. However, Director Quinn and two of the owners were given fines ranging from $150 to $500. By this time, the brewery was unable to pay its mortgage and was auctioned off by Lowell real estate specialist Walter Guyette and sold back to the bank.
The Reopening of the Brewery
The federal elections of 1932 produced a slate of winners, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, who were seriously dedicated to repealing prohibition. As the political climate looked very promising towards the resumption of legal brewing, a group of New York investors began searching for a brewery to purchase and reopen. The investors were led by Erwin Lange, who had previous experience managing breweries, and Walter Blumenthal,
a senior partner in a New York City banking firm. The syndicate's search brought them to Lowell, where Walter Guyette convinced Lange and Blumenthal to buy the dormant Harvard plant in December of 1932. The Harvard Brewing Company was reborn with Lange as president, Blumenthal as treasurer and Guyette named as a director.
When word spread that the brewery was to resume operations, over 500 men showed up to Payton Street looking for work. Although the job seekers could not be employed immediately, President Lange instructed the watchman to take everyone's name promising that former Harvard workers would be rehired when the refurbishing of the brewery started. From March through September of 1933 the Harvard plant underwent a complete modernization at a cost well over $200,000. Besides providing jobs to brewery workers, the return of Harvard created a small economic boom for local businesses who received the building contracts and for the city which collected substantial taxes and licensing fees.
The company's large investment provided Harvard with the most advanced brewing machinery available including a complete bottling production line which mechanically washed the bottles, filled them with brew, capped them off, pasteurized the product and labeled the containers automatically. When, in September of
1933, Harvard officially opened the bottling house, the brewery's capacity reached 1,000 barrels of beer a day. The return of Doctor Juerst as brewmaster ensured that the product was of the same consistency and flavor as before prohibition and contributed to the success of sales.
Harvard's only brand at first was the Green Label lager which was widely advertised and distributed throughout the region. The summer and fall of 1933 saw a backlog of orders for the Green Label beer being built up, keeping the brewery at maximum production. To meet the large demand for Harvard's product other labels such as Harvard Full Stock Ale, Export Beer and Porter were marketed. As a sign of loyalty and good business sense, Harvard maintained a policy of filling orders for Lowell clubs and distributors before others. Although sales were excellent for several years after prohibition, by 1937 the Harvard Brewing Company was headed for bankruptcy. Another change in ownership, with Fritz Von Opel as the primary investor, led to a change in the
company's leadership when, in 1938, Walter Guyette assumed the position of general manager. Through the efforts of Guyette, Doctor Juerst and Treasurer Henry Protzmann and with the continual hard work put forth by the brewery laborers, the company returned to its former position as a prosperous concern by the time the United States entered the Second World War in 1941.
The End of Harvard
In the midst of Harvard's prosperity, the federal government stepped in again to take control of the company. In February of 1942, Von Opel was arrested in Palm Beach, Florida and interned as a "potentially dangerous alien" despite being a citizen of the neutral European nation of Liechten-stein. The brewery, which Von Opel owned 97 percent of the shares and his father, Wilhelm, the other 3 percent, was seized under the Alien
Property Custodian Act. Heading up the Office of Alien Property were Custodian Leo Crowley, a former Navy
admiral, and Assistant Custodian James Markham, a Lowell lawyer whose brothers worked at the brewery.
When Von Opel was released, he fought an extended legal battle to regain his assets from the government. At the heart of the legal cases was $3,700,000 worth of stocks which Von Opel unsuccessfully sought at the Federal District Court and Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. In 1951, Von Opel won a review to the United States Supreme Court. In a unanimous decision, the justices again refused the return of Fritz's stock holdings stating that Wilhelm Von Opel's three percent interest was "paramount and controlling" while his son's was "wholly subordinate."
The government held the brewery for several more years through the 1950's, long after the threat of Nazi Germany had passed. By 1956, sales of Harvard beer had declined considerably and political pressure on President Dwight Eisenhower's administration led the government to finally release the brewery. After competitive bids were taken, Washington sold off Harvard for $800,000 to a Miami, Florida real estate concern called the Fort Knox Construction Company. The Harris brothers of Fort Knox appeared to be more interested in
obtaining a seat on the New York Stock Exchange and in profiteering on the real estate value of the Harvard site than in brewing beer.
In December of 1956, the Fort Knox Company sold the Harvard Brewery to Peter Doelger, Inc. of New York for the sum of $2 million. The Doelger concern, realizing the poor financial situation of Harvard, shut down the Lowell brewery and moved production of Harvard beer to their own Hampden Brewing Company in Willimanset, Massachusetts. Doelger, Inc. stripped the brewery of all its stores, machinery and equipment and sold it off to companies as far away as South America. Although the corporation had promised to set up a major distribution center in Lowell and keep all former Harvard workers employed, only a few people were kept on the payroll and offered permanent positions out in Willimanset. As for the buildings, the lager house was heavily damaged in a
fire during 1957 and razed in 1961 with most of the other structures to make room for the Sears shopping center built during the early 1960's.
One contemporary critic noted the major culprit in the closing of the Harvard Brewery; "The real difficulties came in the period after December, 1941, when the property was seized by the government. Thereafter, in considerable degree, it became a plaything in the hands of alert politicians. They used it considerably as a patronage outlet, either in the assignment of unnecessary positions, or in the purchase of goods that were
not needed. Thus the brewery was stripped of much of its stability as a going business." Although the government effectively ruined a great brewery, the memory of Harvard continues in the company's paperwork and photographs, in the collections of bottles, cans and advertising, and in the stories of the workers themselves.
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