Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Night Theodore Mack Bought Peoples Brewery

Forty years ago today, Peoples Brewery of Oshkosh became the first black-owned brewery in America. The deal was sealed just before midnight on April 14, 1970. After a three-hour meeting at the brewery on South Main Street, 135 of the company’s shareholders agreed to sell the business to a group of Milwaukee investors led by Theodore Mack, who would become the brewery’s president and board chairman. Mack and his associates had awaited the decision in room 903 of the Picasso Plaza in Oshkosh. They arrived at the brewery shortly after 11:30 pm and at the close of day signed-on to purchase Peoples for $365,000, with an additional cost of about $70,000 for the existing inventory.

The sale brought to a close several years of struggle by Mack to purchase a brewery. A year earlier his group had unsuccessfully tried to purchase the Blatz Brewery. When asked for his reaction shortly after the agreement to purchase Peoples was complete, Mack said, “I worked so hard. I don’t have any feelings yet.”

He wasn’t given much time for rumination. Earlier that day The Milwaukee Sentinel published a story reporting that if the deal went through Mack would fire all the top and middle managers at Peoples and that “the policy would be to hire blacks.” Mack spent a good part of the evening of the 14th trying to refute the report calling the Sentinel story “unfounded” and “very much irresponsible.”

But the Sentinel story took root and Mack spent the next several days talking to reporters and brewery workers attempting to quell rumors, among them that the name of the brewery would be changed and that Peoples would now brew its beer for the “Milwaukee ghetto”. Mack said “I can’t understand why all these lies are coming out. There seems to be someone in the Oshkosh area trying to completely destroy Peoples Beer.”

Within a couple of weeks, though, Mack appeared to grow tired of having to defend himself for buying a brewery that was on its last legs. On April 28th he spoke with reporters and he was no longer conciliatory. He cut to the heart of the matter and said “Myself and Oshkosh are very much on the spot. This is regarded as one of the most bigoted cities in the country, north and south. If sales are down it will be a black eye on Oshkosh, not on me. I can hold up my end. It’s a matter of whether Oshkosh can hold up its end. The brewery will not go out of business. If it does it will be a black eye on Oshkosh.”

Eventually, Mack would work past the storm that followed April 14th. But there were bigger struggles ahead. Peoples, then the 11th largest of Wisconsin’s 14 breweries, was rapidly being squeezed out of the market. Just over two years after Mack took over, his brewery went out of business for reasons that had little to do with race or bigotry and almost everything to do with corporate hegemony. Oshkosh's days as a brewing center were over.

For more on Theodore Mack and People’s Brewery HERE is terrific article by Jim Lundstrom.

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