Sunday, March 24, 2019

Untangling the History of Ted Mack and Peoples Brewing

Theodore Mack, Sr. of Fairburn, Georgia passed away on February 4, 2019. He was 88 years old. Ted Mack lived in Oshkosh from 1970 until 1982. For two of those years, he was president of Peoples Brewing Company. During that time, it was widely publicized that Mack was the first black man to head an American brewery. But like so much of what's been said and written about Mack's association with Peoples, that statement wasn't quite right.

Theodore Mack, Sr.

In April 1970, Mack led a group of Milwaukee investors in the purchase of Peoples Brewing. In October 1969,  six months before Mack and his group announced their plan to purchase Peoples, a group of black entrepreneurs acquired the Sunshine Brewing Company of Reading, Pennsylvania. The news from Reading attracted little fanfare and Sunshine Brewing closed a year later. Its place in history as the first black-owned brewery in the U.S. was almost immediately forgotten.

That distinction was only recently restored by brewery historian Douglas Hoverson after he unearthed a profile of Sunshine Brewing in the November 1970 issue of Brewers Digest. It was part of a feature titled Blacks and Breweries. Ted Mack was also profiled in the piece.

But in April 1970, nobody cared about any of that. It was reported in dozens of newspapers across the U.S. that Peoples Brewing would be the first American brewery to be owned by blacks. That error had already been preceded by another; one that would leave an indelible mark and prove much more damaging.

On the evening of April 14, 1970, the stockholders of Peoples Brewing voted to sell the brewery. Earlier that day, the Milwaukee Sentinal ran a story suggesting that, if the sale went through, white employees of the brewery would be replaced by blacks. Later that day, Mack assured Peoples shareholders that nothing of the sort would happen. The sale was overwhelmingly approved. But by morning, the Sentinal story had already morphed into an ugly set of rumors that the white employees of Peoples would be promptly fired and replaced with blacks from Milwaukee, and that the brewery's name and beer would be changed.

The reaction was as predictable as it was harsh. A host of taverns in Oshkosh immediately stopped selling Peoples Beer. In some cases, the animosity directed towards Mack was full-throated. James Mather, who would later become Oshkosh's Mayor, recalled being in a Main Street restaurant the morning the Sentinal article came out and hearing a "well-dressed gentleman" say, "Well, we better beef up, the niggers are coming to town."

That was just the beginning of it. And unfortunately, for both Mack and Oshkosh, it's the part of the story that has, more recently, come to dominate the narrative of Mack's tenure at Peoples Brewing. It's not an accurate portrayal. To say that what happened in April 1970 was defining of Mack's experience in Oshkosh is as misleading as the rumors that triggered the initial mess.

Peoples Brewing closed in 1972. In the three decades that followed, there was little interest shown in the brewery's history. That began to change in February 2008 with a cover story written by Jim Lundstrom for SCENE, a now-defunct monthly newspaper. It was the first substantial piece published on Peoples and Mack in over 20 years. Lundstrom's article was part of a Black History Month feature and presented the April 1970 incident as an exemplar of race relations in Wisconsin. It’s an excellent, well-researched piece, but it left some readers with the impression that racism played a central role in the downfall of Peoples.

Lundstrom’s article was ripe for conjecture and has incited its share of it. UW Oshkosh Professor Tony Palmeri gave the article his "Required Reading" award adding that, “The piece pulls no punches and delves into the ugly racism existing in the Fox Valley circa 1970-72.” In the August 2012 edition of the SCENE, UW Oshkosh Associate Professor Paul Van Auken used the failure of the brewery to suggest that "certain groups of people have not met the local definition of acceptable."  And in the 2012 book Bottoms Up: A Toast to Wisconsin's Historic Bars and Breweries, author Jim Draeger, citing Lundstrum, writes that the demise of Peoples was due, in part, to the “continuing bigotry among white drinkers.”

I love Draeger’s book, but that line is rubbish. White bigotry had nothing to do with the failure of Peoples Brewing.

Let’s pick-up where we left Mack back in April of 1970.

The week after the sale had been agreed upon, Mack returned to Oshkosh to try to quell the rumors. On April 27, he held a press conference at the Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce. With City Council President Byron Murken seated next to him, Mack began setting the story straight.

"I've said from the beginning that we're going to continue to produce Peoples beer under that label and that the brewery will, without question, continue with the current 21 white employees," Mack said. "The name is going to stay the same, the beer is going to stay the same, and the personnel is going to stay. I can't understand why all these lies are coming out. Myself and Oshkosh are going to be very much on the spot. If sales are down it would be a blot on all of us... If some think if they don't drink the beer that Ted Mack and his group are going to turn tail, the answer is "No, sir." I grew up in Alabama where they threw rocks at me and called me nigger... I don't scare easily... I will not run, no sir. I want to be happy here making beer."

Mack would spend much of the next two weeks meeting with local groups including the Tavern League, which included some of the people who had stopped selling Peoples Beer. His efforts were undeniably effective. Sales rebounded and Mack began encouraging local investors to buy the stock he would soon issue to help raise additional monies needed to complete the purchase of the brewery. The response was greater than he had hoped for.

On October 10, 1970, a ribbon-cutting ceremony was held at the brewery to commemorate the change in ownership. Speaking before a crowd of approximately 2,000, Mack expressed his thanks for the outpouring of support. “In these days of confrontation, you make a pretty picture standing there, black, white and brown,” he said. "All the stockbrokers said it wasn't possible to sell this stock... Five weeks after the sale started, you made it possible to buy this brewery."

Mack preparing to speak at the October 10, 1970 ribbon-cutting ceremony.

On January 5, 1971, Mack purchased a home at 1225 Devonshire Drive in Oshkosh where he and his family would live for the next 12 years. He had already become something of a local celebrity. Mack said he received more offers for speaking engagements than he could possibly accept. He was embraced by workers at the brewery. A letter written by Florian Kotloski and published in the Daily Northwestern lays the praise on thick. "My boss, Mr. Ted Mack... Look how well he's used his name to his advantage. Since he's been at the People's Brewery he's accomplished more than the previous regime here had done in all their business years."

There's no question that Mack was doing well in Oshkosh. If he had done as well in places like Milwaukee, Peoples Brewing might still be open today. His plan was to dramatically increase sales of Peoples Beer by creating new markets for the brewery in urban areas. He would use his backstory to attract customers interested in supporting a black-owned business. The plan required building up an expensive infrastructure of advertising and distribution to make headway in places like Milwaukee, Chicago, Memphis. It was a risky venture.

Mack lacked the budget needed to get his message across in places where Peoples Beer was a complete unknown. The new markets he was relying upon knew nothing of the new beer on the shelf, much less the man behind it. A year after Mack had come to Oshkosh, Peoples Brewing was in free fall. Bills were going unpaid and Mack's partners in the business were accusing him of fiscal negligence. The one bright spot was the continued support Mack received locally. It seemed to even surprise him.

“It just doesn’t make sense the way the markets are polarizing and where our sales are getting a good reception,” Mack said. “I’ve been studying human behavior all my life, but since I have been in the brewery business I have found out I don’t know a damned thing about it.”

But the local trade was nowhere near lucrative enough to support the debt Mack had incurred in purchasing the brewery. Production of Peoples Beer was halted in the last week of September 1972. On November 3, 1972, the employees of Peoples Brewing were permanently laid off. The beer in the lagering tanks was dumped.

“It hurt me deeply," Mack would later say. "It looked so beautiful when we came here, although the system tried to mess us up. They told me I couldn’t move to Oshkosh. They told you I was going to replace whites with blacks. We worked like the devil trying to put this together and it made us feel good when we came here to sell stock and white people came through the door all day to buy stock."

Mack remained in Oshkosh until 1982. After the brewery closed, he worked as an insurance agent for New York Life. In 1978, he began working in Milwaukee as director of Crispus Attucks, Inc. His wife,  Pearlie, worked as a cashier for the City of Oshkosh Department of Administration. Their four children attended Oshkosh schools.

After it was over, Mack didn't often speak publicly about what had happened at Peoples. But in 1978, while being interviewed about Woody Hayes, his former football coach at Ohio State, Mack touched on how being part of that team had helped him deal with the hardships he faced in Oshkosh.

"The lessons I learned helped me when the brewery closed," Mack told Myles Strasser of the Northwestern. "When I was flying high as president of Peoples Brewery and speaking everywhere and being very successful, it was like playing for a winning program. When I lost everything, I was able to handle that; it didn't destroy me... My only regret is that I don't have time to work for Oshkosh because my job is in Milwaukee now... Oshkosh is a nice quiet town. I've had no problems here."


  1. Very good piece! Mr. Mack should be recognized for his vision and drive. A man ahead of his time.

  2. Great reading! I was hoping to do some more reading about Sunshine Brewing can you point me in the right direction (maybe a link to Douglas Hoverson's piece)? Also, I can't seem to find the 1978 Northwestern article you reference (the one by Myles Strasser), can you give me some more information about it? Thanks much, and thanks for all the great articles!

    1. Clint, sorry I just saw your comment today. If you still need this info, please email me at