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Shuttered Pabst Brewery Brims With History

The Nation

Photos and other memorabilia left behind when the Milwaukee complex closed in 1996 are found by developers.

December 19, 2004|Gretchen Ehlke | Associated Press Writer

MILWAUKEE — When Pabst Brewing Co. abruptly closed its headquarters here in 1996, the owner and its workers left behind a treasure-trove of relics dating back to its 1844 origin.

A yellowed visitors' registry and vintage photographs uncovered in a basement storage area of the former brewing complex provide a link to the rich heritage of Pabst, once the nation's largest brewer.

A calendar on the wall in one corporate office is still turned to December 1996, when the brewing era came to a halt at the 22-acre complex.

Dusty ornaments hang on an artificial balsam Christmas tree in another office area, a reminder of happier times when Pabst managers gathered in Blue Ribbon Hall at the end of the week to swap stories and share the product they had a hand in making.

That December, Pabst stopped making Blue Ribbon and its other beers at the downtown plant for the first time since Prohibition.

Pabst security guard John Mies had worked for the brewer 17 years when word came that the company's 200 or so employees should leave.

"The owner just decided everybody could go," Mies said. "It was kind of sad because it was a good place to work, friendships were formed."

Personal belongings were left behind. Company-issued jackets hung in the lockers of production workers, pictures were stuck on locker doors, dirty glasses and ashtrays filled with cigarette butts were left on desks.

Mies and several other employees were retained by Pabst to secure the complex.

"Over the years, I've watched the deterioration," he said. "It was kind of sad to see that."

The brewing company got its start in Milwaukee after Jacob Best Sr. relocated his German brewery.

Two of Best's four sons, Jacob Jr. and Charles, had traveled to Milwaukee in 1842 to establish a vinegar factory. Charles Best returned to Mettenheim, Germany, and brought the rest of the family to Milwaukee early in 1844.

Son Phillip Best became the sole proprietor in 1859 and established the Phillip Best Brewing Co.

Five years later, he became partners with Capt. Frederick Pabst, who had married Phillip's daughter.

By 1874, the brewery was the nation's largest. It became Pabst Brewing Co. in 1889 with Pabst at the helm.

A year after Prohibition was repealed in 1933, Pabst's sales broke the 1-million-barrel mark. It tripled sales by 1946 and nearly quadrupled them again by 1968 after buying Blatz Brewing Co.

In Milwaukee and elsewhere, Pabst was king.

"Every bar we went to, everything was Pabst," said Beverly Leonardelli, 70, of Milwaukee. Her former husband, who worked for Pabst for 32 years, would bring home a turkey and case of beer from his employer every Christmas.

Pabst's sales had reached 15.6 million barrels by 1978 before they began to decline.

The brewer laid off 70% of its Milwaukee workforce by early 1996 and later that year announced that it would shift the remaining production to Stroh Brewing Co.'s La Crosse plant. Pabst had already contracted with Stroh to handle two-thirds of its production in La Crosse.

Remnants of Pabst's brewing history remained behind at the Milwaukee headquarters, some evident in the elaborate carvings and stained glass at its offices and visitors' center, others boxed and buried in the basement.

The Pabst complex remained undisturbed until developers purchased the $10.3-million property in September 2002 and meticulously began picking through the past.

"It looked like a bomb went through it and wiped out all human life and left everything else intact," said Paul Bertling, a partner in Brew City Redevelopment Group.

Brew City president Jim Haertel and his sister, Linda Gleason, of Mesa, Ariz., poked around a basement storage area.

"We saw piles of boxes and papers. We were like, 'What is this?' When we started going through, we saw [photographs of] Groucho Marx and Danny Kaye. And we were like, 'Oh, my gosh, these are people that have visited here and left their mark on this place,' " Gleason said. "It was such a thrill because it was history coming to life right there."

Black-and-white photographs from the 1940s show Marx hoisting a beer stein at company headquarters, as well as visits from Kaye, Jimmy Durante and Donald O'Connor.

As a sponsor of Marx's national radio show, Pabst brought the comedian to Milwaukee to host Pabst Blue Ribbon Town live in celebration of the company's 100th anniversary.

A thick, dusty guest registry contains the signatures of people from around the world, including Belgium, India, Mexico, Switzerland, Pakistan, Holland, France, Thailand, Japan and Egypt.

The Boston Red Sox visited in 1953. Dom DiMaggio and broadcaster Curt Gowdy were among those who signed the registry.

Milwaukee historian John Gurda said the Pabst memorabilia was worth something on the collector's market, but its real value was tied to what Pabst meant to Milwaukee.

The Pabst name is still an icon in the city, Gurda said.

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