Tuesday, November 13, 2018

An Illustrated History of the Brewing Industry in Fond du Lac

The other day, I mentioned on Facebook that Fond du Lac is the largest city in Wisconsin without a brewery. That’s strange when you consider the city’s long history of beer making. With that in mind, I thought it would be good time to share a bit on the history of brewing in Fond du Lac.

Courtesy of John Steiner.

The text below is excerpted from a piece written by John W. Iwanski that appeared in History by the Lake, a collection of historical essays published in 2005. Iwanski has written the most comprehensive overview of Fond du Lac’s beer history I know of. His original article is sprawling and often deviates from its main subject. What follows are those portions of Iwanski’s history that deal directly with brewing in Fond du Lac. I’ve also included several images to illustrate the story Iwanski tells. Here we go...

The Brewing Industry in Fond du Lac
By John W. Iwanski

In Fond du Lac, the history of brewing is primarily a German story. Natives from places such as Bavaria, Saxony, Baden, and Hessen all arrived in Fond du Lac and worked in the brewing industry. Many such firms sprang into being over the years. The brewers are all gone today, but to anyone who has taken an interest in Fond du Lac’s brewing history, their names easily come to mind: Frey, Bechaud, Engel, Hauser, Dix, Schussler, Sander, and Chapman are among the most notable.

The first to arrive and begin a commercial brewery in Fond du Lac were the Frey Brothers. Charles and Jacob Frey arrived in Fond du Lac in the spring of 1849. That summer, the brothers opened their brewing and grain-dealing firm, J. & C. Frey, three years before Fond du Lac was officially incorporated as a city. The combination of the brewing and grain business was a common pairing, then and now. The Frey brewery was successful enough to keep them in business for parts of five decades. In later years, their beer was even bottled and exported. In 1866, the Freys were able to purchase a grain elevator that gave them a capacity of 30,000 bushels.

Detail of an 1884 Sanborn Insurance Map showing the remains of the Frey Brewery near the southeast corner of W. Division and S. Macy. It’s now a parking lot behind Chase Bank.

At no time during the life of their business did the Freys dominate the beer market in Fond du Lac. Outside competition was intense from brewers in Oshkosh, Madison, Green Bay, Sheboygan, Racine, the already-growing breweries at La Crosse, and the giant among brewing cities, Milwaukee.

By 1855 another major brewing firm was started in Fond du Lac. Hauser and Dix was located at the corner of Portland and Division Streets, a mere stone’s throw from the Freys. Hauser and Dix hoped to move their brewery to Taycheedah, where they could use natural spring water to brew their beer. They began constructing a facility there. However, the firm experienced low profits, and this forced them out of business before they could finish construction of their new brewery in the early 1870s.

By 1865 even Ripon had the sizable Haas-Ripon City Brewery. John Haas, a native of Hessen, in Germany, a former employee of the Hauser and Dix and Frey Breweries, opened his business near the Jefferson Street Sheboygan and Fond du Lac railroad depot. His 1880 average production amounted to about 1200 barrels of beer.

John Haas of Ripon.
By the late 1860s, Moritz Krembz was brewing beer in his facility on Taycheedah Road. In 1865, August Richter also began brewing commercially in Fond du Lac from his business at Main and Eighth Streets. In 1868, Andrew Schenkle began his brewing business near the west branch of the Fond du Lac River at 46 Grove Street. The Lackman Brewery on First Street was opened in 1865, although it closed the following year. Some of Fond du Lac’s larger, more notable brewing companies followed these early openings.

Brewery listing in the 1868 Fond du Lac County Gazetteer.

In 1872, Joseph Schussler, a former employee at the Frey brewery, opened his “West Hill Brewery” at 172 Hickory Street.

An 1875 advertisement for Schussler's Fond du Lac Brewery.
Schussler was born in the German state of Baden in June, 1819. There, at the age of fifteen, he began to learn the cooper trade. He also studied the art of brewing in his native land. When Schussler came to Milwaukee, he married Fannie Newkirch and continued to brew beer there until 1850. That year, he moved to Oshkosh and worked once again as a cooper for eleven years (Note: Schussler also operated a brewery in Oshkosh). In 1861, he became a brewery worker for the Frey brothers. He held this job until 1865, when he once again became a cooper. Thus, Joseph Schussler was a man with two valuable skills, both of them related to the brewing industry. Finally, in 1872, he became involved with brewing beer for the third and final time, when he opened his own brewing company.

Joseph Schussler

Schussler’s unique brewing craftsmanship was respected locally. In 1880, a book of Fond du Lac historical profiles contained this critique of Schussler’s beer: “His brewing method is different from others, and known only to himself.” After six years in business, in 1878, Schussler was selling over one thousand barrels of beer annually. Schussler stayed in business until 1890, when his sons took over and the company became known as “Schussler Brothers.” The younger Schusslers, however, did not stay in the beer business for long, for their West Hill Brewery finally closed its doors in 1892.

Adam Sander began production of his beers from his plant on eleven acres of land one mile south of the city on the Fond du Lac and Milwaukee Road. Sander’s brewery, under different names, remained in business for almost fifty years. Sander was born in Germany in March 1832. As a young man, he married Gertrude Gaubenheimer and moved first to Baltimore, Maryland, and then to Wisconsin, living briefly in Milwaukee and Plymouth before finally settling in Fond du Lac in 1864. Late that year, he began a modest brewing enterprise.

During the following decades, Sander’s brewing company grew into a family business. When they were teenagers, his sons Edwin and Albert began working at the brewery. By 1880, the enterprise was producing 750 barrels per year. In 1898, at the age of sixty-six, Adam Sander decided to retire and handed over the brewing operations to his sons.

A Sander Brothers' pint bottle, courtesy of MrBottles.com.

As new brewery owners, Edwin and Albert decided to institute major improvements to their facility. These changes included physical plant additions, state of the art bottling equipment, and a modern ice plant. The improvements paid off, and by 1912, Sander Brothers Brewing was selling six thousand barrels annually. At the top of their game, the brothers were finally forced out of business when alcohol prohibition came to America.

In 1871, Fond du Lac’s most successful brewery was opened at 515 Main Street by the brothers Frank, John and Capt. A.G. Bechaud. Formed during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, their brewing company also set the standard for longevity among Fond du Lac beer makers, surviving until 1941, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt began his third term in office.

Adolph G. Bechaud, courtesy of Michael “MJ” Shady.

John Baptiste Bechaud, courtesy of Michael “MJ” Shady.

The Bechaud brothers, all born in Bavaria, started brewing at their Main Street location but they also bought lakeshore property on Lake Winnebago just northwest of the city limits, where they envisioned locating their permanent brewing empire. However, the beachfront brew-house was not to be. Instead, in 1873, the Bechauds opened their new large brewery on Eleventh Street, just west of Hickory Street.

Bechaud Brewing Company, courtesy of Michael “MJ” Shady.
Detail of a 1915 Sanborn Insurance Map.

An ad from 1887, courtesy of Michael “MJ” Shady.

The Bechauds also maintained a Main Street address. Their “sample room” gave people a chance to enjoy the freshest beer the company had to offer. The most popular brand produced by Bechaud, “Empire” was bottled and sold in various cities. Their other beers included “Műnchner” and “Pilsener.” In all, the company sold an average of 15,000 barrels of their beers annually.

Courtesy of John Steiner.

Courtesy of John Steiner
Jacob and Charles Frey managed to keep their business strong, despite all of the competition that had grown around them. Like the Bechauds, the Freys owned a Main Street saloon in addition to their brewing and grain dealing business.

Barrels of beer produced in Fond du Lac in 1879.

By 1880, the Freys were considered to be the city’s oldest living original German residents. The next year, the Freys’ brewing business fell apart. It was not competition or lack of sales that destroyed their brewing enterprise. Late in the fall of 1880, the brothers showed no signs that they would soon be out of business. However, within a few months they were both dead.

The end of the Frey Brewery is a tragic story. On New Year’s Eve, 1880, Jacob Frey succumbed to Bright’s Disease. Although both Jacob and Charles were married and had children, the brothers were very close and relied on each other for advice and support. Charles was left to run both his life and the business by himself, and his mental state deteriorated as a result of the strain. He was said to have told acquaintances that he was incapable of handling his responsibilities, although he showed little in the way of outward signs of his torment.

On the morning of Saturday, May 14, 1881, Charles arrived at his saloon as usual at seven a.m. but told his bartender John Pulse he was not feeling well. Taking the grain elevator key, he then exited and quietly entered Pritz’s grocery store and purchased a rope. Pritz asked Frey if he planned to use the rope at his home. “Yes, over there,” he replied, motioning out the door as he left.

At two p.m., Frey was seen walking along the Forest Avenue railroad crossing and then walking to his elevator building. Later that afternoon, John Wolff, a worried business acquaintance whom Charles was supposed to meet earlier in the day, contacted the police, and Officer Commo arrived at the elevator building. The two men struggled to enter the elevator building, and there they found Charles hanging by the neck from the rope he had purchased that morning. He had a chair next to him and a knife in his pocket, perhaps in case he changed his mind, or if the pain from the rope was too great.

A pair of notes were found on Frey’s body. In one, he stated that he wanted to be buried quickly. In the other he wrote to his daughters. “I cannot stay with you much longer. I have no rest day or night. I cannot express my feelings. Regards to all and tell them to forgive me . . . . Give John Pulse [his bartender] the saloon . . . . Tell everybody to stand by me. Dear children, I must close. Enclosed you will find some money. I cannot write anymore. Your unfortunate . . . Papa.”

An inquest was held and the death was officially ruled a suicide. Contrary to the wishes of the deceased, Frey’s corpse was taken home, and a wake was held before burial at Rienzi Cemetary. And that’s how John Pulse woke up one day as a tavern worker and went to sleep a tavern owner. The brewery went out of operation, and Frey’s children sold the property. Thus ended the story of the first brewing family in Fond du Lac.

Unfortunately for beer makers, temperance movements grew right alongside the brewing industry. The movement for legally enforced prohibition had its first victory when the United States Senate voted in favor of the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution on August 17, 1917. Four months later, the House of Representatives also passed the amendment. The next step, ratification by the states, was completed on January 29, 1919. The amendment officially took effect on January 16, 1920. However, prohibition actually arrived even before the amendment became official, and even before the October 1919 Volstead Act was passed. Even though the First World War had officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919, the U.S. Senate did not ratify the Treaty, and wartime legislation passed in November 1918, establishing prohibition on the sale of alcohol during the war went into effect on July 1, 1919.

Sander Brothers Brewing, like other breweries in Fond du Lac, had already stopped brewing on May 1, and the company was selling off its beer inventory in order to use up stocks prior to July 1. This firm indicated on June 23 that they were contemplating the option of brewing near-beer in their plant after prohibition took effect. On June 28, The Daily Commonwealth ran an editorial wishing good luck to all the soon-to-be unemployed bartenders in Fond du Lac. The paper’s editors expressed hope that the period of adjustment after July 1 would make all the saloonkeepers better off in the long run.

On June 30, Prohibition Eve, local brewers, saloons and dealers were selling off the last of their inventory. The Kummerow & Menge dealership had sold out its complete stock of liquor by ten a.m. A.F. Watke sold over thirty cases of hard spirits and filled several hundred jugs for customers. That night, revelers from all over the city went wild. The Daily Commonwealth observed, “The last days of the Babylonian Era had nothing on June 30, 1919.” Saloons were packed for one last night of mayhem. A party at the Fond du Lac Elks’ Club was awash with liquor. Most notably, a gang of drunken men and boys paraded screaming through town, swinging beer bottles and singing, “I’ve got the blues, I’ve got the blues, I’ve got the alcoholic blues” and “Hail, hail, the gang’s all here.” Right up to the last moment, Fond du Lac’s drinkers insisted on going out with a bang.

The Eighteenth Amendment took effect on midnight, January 16, 1920. After that time, any production of alcoholic beverages was prohibited constitutionally. The Daily Commonwealth reminded local citizens that “zero hour is 12:01 tonight.” To clear up any confusion, the paper also warned, “Alcohol, brandy, whiskey, rum, gin, beer, ale, porter, wine, or any spirituous, vinous, malt or fermented liquor, liquids and compounds, whether medicated, proprietary, patented or not, and by whatever name called, which contains one-half of one percent or more of alcohol by volume and which are fit for beverage purposes may not be manufactured.”

Ultimately, most Americans came to view the Eighteenth Amendment as a failed social experiment. People found their way around the law, and the level of criminalized activity was so extensive that it was an impossible task for the Federal government to control it. Finally, on December 5, 1933, the entire “Noble Experiment” was brought to a close. The Twenty-First Amendment was ratified, repealing prohibition nationally. Celebrations commenced all over the nation, not the least in Wisconsin.

A rare, post-Prohibition label for Fond du Lac brewed porter. Courtesy of John Steiner.

Franklin Farvour tells of the night that the news of the official repeal of prohibition reached the town of Ripon, in Fond du Lac County. A peculiar, yet familiar noise rose from the old Haas Brewhouse: “Steam was up in the brewery. The brewery whistle sounded and it didn’t quit. Irate citizens called the police department and the one night-duty man, my grandfather, went to the brewery to get things quiet. When he got there, much to his chagrin he found the mayor, J. Harold Bumby, pulling the whistle rope. The noise didn’t stop for some time.”

For the next four years, John Haas’ old brewery was back in operation under new ownership and known as the Ripon Brewing Company. Under two different presidents, brew-master Jack Wittstock was able to produce 6,000 barrels each year. The brewery obtained a copyright on its main brand “Old Derby,” but unfortunately the brewing industry became a different ball game after prohibition: the smaller brewery became, for the time being, a thing of the past. The Ripon Brewing Company ceased operations in 1937.

Amid the celebration in Fond du Lac, Bechaud brewery reopened. One new, if ephemeral, entrant into the Fond du Lac array of brewing concerns was announced, too. The “Pioneer Brewery” is said to have produced only one barrel of beer before it disappeared. Pioneer’s location and proprietors are not known. An idea, an announcement, a supposed barrel of beer, and a mystery are all that remain of the firm.

Sadly, most of the brewing companies in Fond du Lac never reopened. The Star Brewing Company, Adolph Engel & Son, Excelsior, and the Sander Bros. Brewery were among the many brewers across the nation who shut down forever as a result of a decade of Prohibition under the Eighteenth Amendment. Many of the brewing companies who did manage to re-open closed shortly thereafter.

By the end of 1933, Bechaud Brewing was the only commercial beer maker left in Fond du Lac, and they, too, were on the ropes. Companies like Pabst and Anheuser-Busch were moving to nationalize their products and push local competitors out, small brewers like Bechaud just tried to stay afloat and keep their local sales comparable to those of the nationally-advertised beers.

Bechaud Brewing, courtesy of Michael “MJ” Shady.
The Bechauds halted production in 1937, but they kept the business intact until 1941, when the brewery officially closed. Bechaud, like all the others, became a piece of Fond du Lac’s brewing history. The building still stands, although it has remained empty for years at a time (note: it has since been demolished). For a time it housed the city’s buses during the 1960s. The lakeshore property once platted by the company as a potential brewing site never saw any brewery built there, and it is now known as Bechaud Beach.

In the 1990s, the Eleventh Street brewery building was a grain co-op, but the words “BREW HOUSE,” AND “[B]ECHAUD BREWING CO.” could still be seen on the façade, a visible reminder of the building’s almost seventy year stint as the cornerstone of Fond du Lac’s largest brewing company. The brewing industry in Fond du Lac persisted for eighty-eight years after the Freys began brewing their beer at Macy and Division, but since 1941, Fond du Lac was without a commercial brewery.

The abandoned Bechaud Brewery, courtesy of Michael “MJ” Shady.

The old Bechaud brewery from 1974, courtesy of Michael “MJ” Shady.


  1. Thank you for this very informative posting. I've never understood why Fond du Lac never had the same brewing presence as Oshkosh, Appleton, Menasha, or Green Bay. Was the drinking culture that much different in Fond du Lac than Oshkosh? Were more rural farming areas less inclined to drink beer than more industrialized city areas? Did the quality of Bechaud's beer just not measure up to post prohibition standards? Perhaps it was all about money or the lack there of that ended brewing in Fond du Lac and nearby Ripon.

  2. As a Wisconsin-only collector of bottles and few other things from select breweries since I was a kid (now 66) I enjoy anything related to Wisconsin Brewing History. Nicely done! Rex Hamann, rex457@gmail.com