Monday, September 28, 2015

There Was a Brewery in Winneconne

There has been much written about the history of Winneconne. There’s a piece of the story, though, that has gone missing. Histories of the Winnebago County village rarely make mention of the brewery that once thrived there. It’s an oversight that begs to be corrected. And it’s a story worth telling.

It begins with a man named Theodore Yager. He was born in 1825 in what is now the state of Baden-Württemberg in southern Germany. As a young man in Baden, Yager received his training as a brewer. But Yager left his homeland during the upheaval that arose in the aftermath of the Baden Revolution of 1848. Sailing from Le Havre, France aboard the Ship Rhine, Yager arrived in New York City on April 28, 1851.

He travelled to Wisconsin going to Dodge County where in 1857 he became a naturalized U.S. citizen. It was also in Dodge County that Yager married, Katharina Henrich, a woman 17 years younger than himself. By 1860, Yager and his 18-year-old bride had reached Winneconne. That spring the couple purchased a home near the northeast corner of what is now N. 3rd Ave. and E. Main St.

Early on in Winneconne, Yager worked as a cooper making wooden barrels. It was a skill common to German trained brewers of his time, but obviously not one that Yager wanted to earn his entire living by. For the time being, though, brewing would have to wait. On January 29, 1862, Yager joined Company F of the 19th Regiment of the Wisconsin Infantry. He was off to the Civil War. Yager returned to Winneconne after his discharge in May 1864 as a Second Lieutenant. The first stirrings of the Yager brewery begin two years later.

On July 21, 1866, Yager purchased a two-acre parcel of land on the east bank of the Wolf River near the south end of what was then named Water St. The property is within what is now the 500 block of S. 1st Ave. in Winneconne. There, Yager went to work constructing the frame building that would become his brewhouse.

An ariel view of present day Winneconne. The approximate location of the brewery is framed in white.

The Winneconne Brewery was typical of its period with Yager producing both ale and lager beer. His location on the bank of the Wolf would have been optimal for the production of his cooler fermenting lager beers. Years before mechanical refrigeration became commonplace in breweries, Yager undoubtedly benefited from the ready source of ice harvested from the river in winter. More than likely, Yager constructed lagering caves on the property to preserve the ice and extend the brewing season.

The most reliable glimpse inside the brewery comes from 1870 when Yager mortgaged the brewery property. The document defining terms of the loan included a partial inventory of the Winneconne Brewery.
     • 14 large hogsheads (these would be wooden beer barrels with a capacity of 63 gallons).
     • 130 beer kegs.
     • 4 large malt tubs.
     • Malt mill and horsepower (i.e. a steam-powered engine).

The date of the first beer to flow from Yager's brewery isn't known, but by 1868 the brewery was definitely operational. Yager could not have timed a better start. In 1868, the Milwaukee Road completed its track to Winneconne and transformed the sleepy village into something of a boom town. A recent history of the village describes the Winneconne of the period as a "Miniature Oshkosh with mills and factories turning out every wood product imaginable."

Winneconne's population spiked as people came seeking work. Many of them, like Yager, were German born and arrived with a well developed thirst for beer. As the only brewer in town, Yager found himself in the right place at the right time. An 1881 survey of Winneconne states that the brewery produced 400 barrels of beer annually. If correct, the number represents a significant output for a brewery located in a village with a population that still had fewer than 2,000 people.

From the Winneconne Item; December 2, 1871.

But Yager's early success would not be sustained. His brewery appears to have been caught in the drag when the Winneconne boom turned to bust. By the mid-1870s, forest lands along the Wolf River had been decimated by lumber interests. The lack of timber crippled Winneconne's mill works at a time when the nation as a whole was facing a severe economic recession. In Winneconne, mills closed while banks and businesses of all types failed. By 1880, the population of the village had plummeted by more than 40 percent to just 1,190. By that time, Yager was all but finished as a brewer.

Production of beer at the Winneconne Brewery had slumped to just 78 barrels in 1878 and 83 barrels in 1879. Of the nine breweries in Winnebago County reporting output during these two years, Yager's was the least productive by a rather wide margin.

When the Census of 1880 was taken in Winneconne, the 55-year-old Yager was again enumerated as a brewer. But the business was nearing collapse. There may have been sporadic production as late as 1884, but by 1885 Yager's brewery was no longer listed among active breweries in Winnebago County.

After the brewery closed, Yager remained in the village and for a time operated a grocery in Winneconne. Newspaper stories from the 1890s mentioning his name indicate that Yager remained well-known within the small community. It makes his absence from the histories of Winneconne all the more curious.

A year after the 1891 death of his wife, Katharina, the 67-year-old Yager married again. The marriage ended five years later when his wife divorced him for "Lack of support."

Theodore Yager died in Winneconne on September 6, 1899. He was 74 years old and still owned the land where he had once brewed beer. In 1901, his sole heir, an adopted daughter named Lucy, sold the property. Today there's nothing at the site giving an indication that a brewery once stood there.

Though he is listed among those buried in the Winneconne Village Cemetery, there is no headstone for Theodore Yager. The only marker of his passing is the small Grand Army of the Republic badge planted beside the looming gravestone of his wife Katharina. It’s a vague memorial to the the life of an elusive man.

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