Historic Structures

Schoenhofen Brewery - Edelweiss Beer, Chicago Illinois

Date added: October 25, 2019 Categories: Illinois Industrial Brewery

The Schoenhofen Brewery, long known as the producers of Edelweis Beer, was one of the largest and most elaborate breweries ever constructed in Chicago. The Brewery was established in the early 1860's and continued to function until Prohibition.

The Schoenhofen Brewery is a fifteen building complex covering about seven acres, two miles south of Chicago's downtown. The first buildings were erected in 1862, when Peter Schoenhofen moved his business eight blocks south and west, from Jefferson and 12th Streets, to Canalport and 18th. None of these first buildings remain. The oldest building in the complex was probably built about 1867, five years after the founding of the brewery on the 18th and Canalport site. In the process of growth from 600 barrel capacity in 1860 to 1,200,000 barrel capacity in 1910, older buildings were remodeled or demolished and replaced by larger structures.

The success of the Schoenhofen Brewery was due, according to the brewery, to the outstanding quality of its premier product, Edelweiss beer. Be that as it may, the brewery was very successful, and its expansion created an infrastructure reflecting its success: large, impressive, enduring buildings of brick and stone. However, large and massive as the buildings were, changes in technology and expansion of the brewery might have resulted in their demolition, if two other major factors had not intervened: World War I, and Prohibition. As a consequence, the brewery's technology and architure were frozen in time.

Chicago's first brewery, Schulz and Haas', was opened in 1833. William Lill and William Haas later borrowed money from Chicago's mayor, William B. Ogden, to start another brewery. In 1839, they opened at Pine Street, now Michigan Avenue, and Chicago Avenue, producing nine barrels a week. A third brewery, Carney's, opened in 1840 on South Water Street, when the population of Chicago was 4,470. A census in 1843 tallied 816 Germans and Norwegians in the city, with the Germans far outnumbering the Norwegian: by 1850 seventeen per cent of the population was German. In 1860, when the population had grown to 110,000, fourteen breweries were operating in the city, making beer from barley and hops brought to Chicago from as far away as California and New York.

By 1890, thirty-four breweries were in operation and over ten million dollars worth of beer was produced annually, making Chicago the nation's sixth largest producer. Consumption, however, outstripped production and placed the city in second position: 2,800,000 barrels drunk in a year exceeded only by New York's 5,000,000 barrels'.

When described in 1882, the Schoenhofen brewery employed 50 men, plus three book-keepers, six drivers, and used six delivery wagons and 28 horses. Its "two very large ice-houses" held 14,000 tons of ice, and its cellars lagered 25,000 barrels. Annual sales were 60,000 barrels. In 1893, the year of Peter Schoenhofen's death, annual production was 180,000 barrels, 1903 production was 250,000 barrels, and about 1910, production reached 1,200,000 barrels a year.

The large influx of Germans to the city after 1848 provided brewery laborers, brewmasters, and the market for an expanding business. Peter Schoenhofen was among these German immigrants. Born in Derbach in Rhine-Prussia on February 2, 1827, by the age of 24 he had completed a common-school education, an apprenticeship in a distillery, and his military service. In 1852 he came to Chicago and began working in breweries, as a laborer in the Mueller brothers brewery in Lyons, Illinois, and in Best's brewery in Chicago, before becoming driver of a beer-wagon for Conrad Seipp. He formed a partnership in 1860 with Mathaus Gottfried, and founded what would become the Peter Schoenhofen Brewery Company.

"Eine Kleine Brauerei" in 1860, the production of the Gottfried and Schoenhofen Brewery in 1862 was 600 barrels of beer. By this time the brewery had already moved from 12th and Jefferson to 18th Street and Canalport Avenue in order to expand. In 1866 Gottried retired, and in 1867 his interest in the brewery was bought by Peter Schoenhofen, who eventually reorganized it as a joint-stock company (1880) with Peter Schoenhofen the president, Joseph Theurer vice-president, and Carl Buehl secretary and treasurer.

Brewing in Chicago was long established as a German business, and for the Schoenhofens it developed as a family business as well: family connections, and connection with the German family, played a role in the brewery for many years. Schoenhofen was married in 1860, to Elise Kneppe, another German native. Although both of Peter's sons died (one of an accident in 1886, one of natural causes in 1892), two of his five daughters married brewers: Emma, the eldest, married Joseph Theurer in 1880, and another married Carl Buehl. After Peter Schoenhofen's death in Chicago in 1893, the brewery was inherited by family members, Elise Schoenhofen, his widow, held substantial interest until 1903, along with other relatives. Mrs. Schoenhofen returned to Baden-Baden, living there until her death in 1907, but family members were officers of the company until the sale of the brewing company; in the 1920's brewery affairs were being handled by Peter S. Theurer, whose name and initial suggest he was Peter Schoenhofen Theurer, and Joseph Theurer's oldest son.

Although the Peter Schoenhofen Brewing Company was part of the family for more than seventy years, its peak was probably about 1910. While Illinois was still "wet" until national Prohibition, by 1912 there were nine "dry" states, fourteen in 1914, and twenty-three in 1916. The Anti-Saloon league was an active and forceful opponent of alcohol, and while the saloon was their principal target, breweries were directly and indirectly affected. Attempting to counter act Anti-Saloon League propaganda, advertising in "Western and Daheim," a German-language, Chicago newspaper, has a faintly hysterical tone to it in issues around the time of the Second International Brewers' Congress in 1911, declaring "The Truth about Beer is proved ..." and characterizing various beer and malt products as "The Family Beer," "The Source of Energy" and "Malt-Marrow": A Perfect Score in Health".

World War I also had negative impacts on brewing. The Food Control Bill of 1917 reduced the amount of food materials allowed for the manufacture of beer by 30%, and in September 1918 with labor shortages followed by a poor harvest, breweries were closed by Presidential order. Anti-German sentiment generated by the war certainly affected German businesses as well, although the precise impact is hard to determine. Local stories still recount that two of the Schoenhofen daughters married Prussian army officers, and that the brewery was seized by Federal agents in 1919 after the discovery of anti-American activities by the Schoenhofen family, which included broadcasting radio messages to German agents from the tower supporting the Edelweiss bottle which marked and advertised the brewery. (Other sources indicate that the brewery continued in operation until closed by national Prohibition; U.S. District Court files have no record of criminal or civil preceedings against the company, the Schoenhofens, or officers of the company in 1919 or 1920).

Land acquisition for the brewery had stopped by 1910, and the last building of the complex was erected soon after. While the brewery ceased operating on this site with Prohibition the company survived for a while. Part of the operation was reorganized in 1924 to use the buildings as the Schoenhofen Terminals (for grain warehousing and shipping), until sold to the Kellogg Terminal Warehouse Company in 1928. After the end of prohibition, the Peter Schcenhofen Brewing Company was acquired by the National Brewery Company, and its brewing operation moved to another site in Chicago; Edelweiss beer was eventually supplanted by Drewrys.

After the reorganization of the Schoenhofen Brewing Company, the brewery buildings went through a mixed series of uses, owners, and vacancies; in the process all brewing equipment was removed, so that the buildings eventually contained only decorative elements of the former brewery. The Powerhouse was used as a warehouse, and finally as the manufacturing plant of an adhesives company, with its offices in the Administration building. The Manhattan Pickle Company occupied the buildings on the east side of Normal Avenue among them the engine-house, brewhouse, and ice factory for many years. The refrigerator buildings became warehouses, and for a while were used by the Central Cold Storage Company. The gradual decline of the industries in the brewery buildings was associated with physical decay of the neighborhood, and by 1975 most of the buildings were vacant, emptied by vandalism, high security costs, ever-increasing insurance premiums, and costly repairs and maintenance. The City of Chicago designated the brewery and the surrounding area for industrial renewal in 1977, and began acquiring property then, intending to demolish the buildings if they could not be rehabilitated or re-used. Their nomination to the National Register in 1978 required Section 106 Review of the City's. undertaking, resulting in a Memorandum of Agreement allowing their demolition.