Historic Structures

Ahnapee Brewery - Von Stiehl Winery, Algoma Wisconsin

Date added: September 1, 2021 Categories: Wisconsin Brewery Industrial

The Ahnapee Brewery was built in 1869 for Wojta (aka Vojta) Stransky, a businessman from the nearby city of Kewaunee, and Herman Seideman, a brewer who had come to Algoma from Sturgeon Bay. Their brewery was constructed to fill the local need for a brewery in the city of Ahnapee, a community that was by then heavily settled with persons of Bohemian and German extraction. The new brewery was built at a cost of $12,000 and was the most impressive building in the community for several years thereafter. Apparently the brewery was a commercial success and it continued in operation under a number of different owners until 1894. In 1909, the building was converted into a fly net manufacturing plant by local businessman George Kelsey. In 1926, the by then vacant building was taken over by another company that manufactured washing machines in the building for a number of years. Afterwards, the building was used primarily for feed storage until 1967, when a local doctor, Dr. Charles W. Stiehl, restored it to house the well-known wine-making business.

The first settlers arrived at the mouth of the Ahnapee River (then known as the Wolf River) in 1851. These men were John Hughes and Orrin Warner, both of whom made their first journey to the site in March of 1851 from the city of Manitowoc.

They remained a week, their camp being made of boat sails, at the spot where the Water and Light Plant is now located. In May they again returned to the same place, erected a small shack, and remained for three weeks looking over the country and fishing. They decided to return to Manitowoc for their families.

Just when Edward Tweeddale and family decided to settle in Wolf River is not recorded, but old records have it that the John Hughes and Edward Tweeddale families arrived at Wolf River on June 27, 1851, and were occupying their cabins when the Orrin Warner family arrived one week later.

The following year, Abraham Hall established a saw-mill on the south branch of the river, which was located close to the river's mouth, and he also ran a grist-mill as well. Also in 1852, the schooner "Citizen" from Manitowoc began to make regular trips to Wolf River, bringing with it supplies and more settlers and carrying away cut lumber, the principal product of what was then a densely forested region.

In 1855, Simon Hall, brother of Abraham, arrived and built the first general store and stocked it.

In 1856, a large number settled in Ahnapee IWolf River], the first steamboat, the "Cleveland," of Manitowoc, landing August 8, of that year. In the same year David Young built north pier, a school-house, on the north side of the river, was being filled up ... the bridge which was built next summer [across the Ahnapee] was being discussed, and all in all, the year 1856 was one of much activity and excitement. The fact that Kewaunee County had been formed this year, and the town organized, under the name of Wolf River, sufficiently explains this rush of energy. G. W. Elliott, the County Surveyor, platted the west side of Ahnapee in the spring and the east side during the fall. And this- -the organization of the county and town, and the platting of the village—may be considered the close of Ahnapee's pioneer history.

Among the large number ot families settling in Wolf River in 1856 were many families from Racine, Wisconsin. "These included the Youngs, Eveiands, Harkins, Palmers, Mullens, Parkers, Henrys, Hiltons, Richmonds, Goodwins and Hallams. Soon after this came the Schiessers, a Swiss family, ... and Germany sent the Simons, Melchiors, Beitlings, Knipfers, Bensows, Brandts, Heners, Raethers, Gerickes, Krauses, Buschs and Klenskys. Then came the Bohemian families ... the Swatys, Blahniks, Chapeks and Jakubovskys. These families gave the new village a vigorous mix of ethnic backgrounds, but one with a decidedly German and Bohemian orientation that still persists today.

On May 10, 1859, the name Wolf River was changed to Ahnapee, an Indian name meaning Gray Wolf. Beginning in the same year, a Goodrich Line steam ship stopped at Ahnapee twice a week on her Green Bay-Chicago route and brought with it newspapers, mail and provisions. The first census was taken in 1860 and showed that the township of Ahnapee (which had also been renamed the previous year) contained 1152 inhabitants. Getting out lumber and cultivating the land were the chief industries.

In 1866, the south pier was built, and Ahnapee had the makings of a real harbor at last. The community grew steadily throughout the remainder of the century. In 1873, Ahnapee was incorporated as a village and on February 28, 1879, it was incorporated as a city. Between 1890 and 1900 most of the streets were laid out, the city's name was changed to Algoma in 1897, and by 1900 the city population had reached 1738. Throughout this period lumbering and the manufacturing of lumberrelated products played a major role in the economy of the town. In 1892, M. W. Perry founded the Algoma Plywood Company which eventually became the largest employer in Algoma and a major subsidiary of U.S. Plywood-Champion Papers, Inc. Other industries were also developed in the city as well, including the Kelsey Fly Net Company (later the Algoma Net Company), and the Algoma Foundry and Machine Company, a manufacturer ot farm machinery. All of these companies had plants located on or near the riverfront in Algoma and some of the buildings associated with these plants are still extant today.

The story of the brewing industry in Kewaunee County is incomplete at best. Although Bull and Gottschalk note that there was a brewer named William Blackwell in Kewaunee, the county seat and its most populous community, as early as the 1850s, the oldest brewery in the county about which much is known was established in Kewaunee in 1860 by Adolph Ebel. Under Ebel (1860-1864), this brewery was known as the Kewaunee Brewery. It was afterwards owned by Charles Brandis (1864-early 1880s) and by 1880 it was producing about 450 barrels of beer a year. Still later the brewery was owned by Anton Mach and his family (1903-1916) and known as the Pilsen Brewing Co. and then by Raymond Rauch (1916-1920). Jerry Apps, in his book, Breweries of Wisconsin, states that "The old (Pilsen Brewing Co.) brewery, located at the corner of Ellis and Dodge Streets (in Kewaunee), is currently (1992) a warehouse for the Kewaunee Bottling Company." A second documented brewery was begun in Kewaunee by Lutz and Trottman in 1864. An account in George Wing's column in the Alqoma Record that is dated June 2, 1916, and which recounts the events of July and August, 1866, states that "Lutz and Winger [Joseph Wenger (7-1867), a successor to Trottman] began the erection of a new brewery on the River Road, which has passed into many different ownerships and is now (1916) the property of Joseph Bohman." By 1868, this brewery was known as the Bavarian Brewery and still later it was known as the Kewaunee Brewing Co. Still a third Kewaunee brewery may have also existed. Mention of it was made in the local paper in 1860. "Bernt and Zimmerman also announced that they were ready to furnish Lager Beer at their new brewery, and respectfully solicited the county patronage." Nothing else is known about this last firm, however.

Other breweries were also being established in the county as well in the 1860s. In April of 1866, the Kewaunee paper noted that "Arndt & Schroeder completed the erection of a new brewery in Casco village." Casco was and is a small village in the southwestern part of Kewaunee county.

The identity of the first person to brew beer or ale in Ahnapee is not recorded, nor is the date when this event took place, but brewing beer on a commercial scale is believed to have preceded the development of the Ahnapee Brewery. The earliest known citizen of Ahnapee who called himself a brewer was Joseph Knipfer, whose advertisement was carried in the first issue of the Kewaunee Enterprise, printed in June of 1860. Another early brewer was Matthias Simon (1826-1914). Simon was one of the pioneer settlers of Ahnapee, having located there ca.1853. His obituary noted that he was 88 years old at the time of his death and that he was among the very first settlers of German origin in Ahnapee. Simon established the village's first hotel just north of the river and he became a political leader in the community, winning election to the state legislature in 1859. After the Civil War, Simon operated a general store in Ahnapee in partnership with Peter Schiesser. The extent of Simon's brewing activity is not known, but in July of 1867, a notice in the Kewaunee newspaper stated that in that month "Louis Bruemmer purchased an interest in the brewery at Ahnapee with George Laux, and engaged in the business theretofore conducted by Matthias Simon. Mr. Bruemmer came to Ahnapee from Mishicot (Wisconsin)."

The future founders of the Ahnapee Brewery came on the scene at the close of the 1860s. An item in the February 24, 1869 issue of the Kewaunee Enterprise noted: "We learn that Messrs. Wota [sic] Stransky of this village (Kewaunee) and Herman Seidelman, of Sturgeon Bay, have purchased the Ahnapee brewery from Mr. George Laux, and will continue the business at the latter place—Mr. Seidelman having sold his brewery at Sturgeon Bay."

In this partnership Seidelman was the brewing professional and Stransky acted as the business entrepreneur. Not much more is presently known about Herman Seideman. Stransky, on the other hand, was a well known Kewaunee County pioneer who appears to have been a typical businessman/entrepreneur ot the time, one who had a hand in a wide variety of activities in the space of just a few years. Both before and after the development of his brewery in Ahnapee, Stransky appears to have been principally associated with the village of Kewaunee, and it is believed that his principal residence was always in or near that community during the years he spent in Kewaunee County.

Not surprisingly, items related to Stransky's various enterprises appear with considerable regularity in the Kewaunee and Ahnapee papers of his day. Among other things they noted that "Mr. Stransky, who has been prominent in local matters since 1857, was elected sheriff of the County in 1862—the first Bohemian to hold office in the county. More to the point, another article related that when Stransky and V. Mashek bought the general merchandise business of Finley and Conkling in Kewaunee in 1866, "Mr. Stransky disposed of his interest in the brewery of Stransky and Wenger [in Kewaunee] to Frederick Detlaff, and the brewery was conducted by Joseph Wenger and Mr. Detlatf for several years." Thus, Stransky had already had an involvement in the brewery business before his association with Herman Seideman.

Apparently, StransKy and Seideman continued to operate the old brewery in Algoma for a few months after they purchased it in 1869 because an item in an August issue of the Kewaunee Enterprise contained a reprint of an article from the Manitowoc Nord Westen that Mr. C. G. Schmidt, the associate editor of the paper had written regarding his trip to Kewaunee and Ahnapee. In this article, Schmidt noted that after landing in Kewaunee and enjoying the local beer produced by Charles Brandis "We accepted a seat in the wagon of Mr. Seideman, of Ahnapee, (whose beer is also well liked in Kewaunee) and proceeded to Ahnapee." Soon, however, the partners decided to increase their output by constructing a new brewery. In doing so, they were apparently counting on the beer drinking habits of their Bohemian and German countrymen, who were now flocking to Kewaunee County and to adjoining Door and Manitowoc counties. In the article by C. G. Schmidt guoted above, Schmidt states that "Ahnapee is a fine, growing village that cannot fail to make a favorable impression upon every traveler. The inhabitants, who are mostly German, are very industrious and full of enterprise." For men of this heritage beer drinking was a tradition and the culture they created for themselves in their adopted country was a continuation of this part of their heritage.

To satisfy the needs of this market a new brewery was planned. Stransky sold off some of his other properties to help finance this move and by September 1869, construction had begun.

By the beginning of the following year the Enterprise could report that "The new Ahnapee Brewery is now manufacturing beer at the rate of 125 barrels per week." A month later, the editor of the paper, after a visit to Ahnapee, stated that "The building is one of which the people of Ahnapee may justly feel proud." In August, Henry Stransky, Wojta Stransky's brother, sold his Kewaunee meat market (the one begun by his brother), and moved to Ahnapee to take charge of the brewery. In 1873, Ahnapee got a newspaper of its own, the Ahnapee (later the Algoma) Record. Many of the items that this newspaper was to publish about the brewery in later years were consolidated into a chronological history of the brewery that the Alooma Record-Herald published when the brewery building was reopened as the Von Stiehl Winery in 1968. The first mention is as follows.

"One of the most noteworthy institutions of our town is the large three-story brick brewery on Water street, known as the "Ahnapee Brewery" and owned by W. Stransky & Co. This is the only brick building of any considerable size in the town and in fact in the county except for the courthouse which is not yet completed, it is 34 x 54 feet on the outside and is 50 feet high on the river front. Besides the main brick building there is a large wooden addition on the west side which extends a little more than the entire length of the main portion. The building is furnished throughout with everything necessary for the business for which it is intended. It contains several cool and commodious cellars for the storage of beer, besides ample room for the storage of barley, and etc. It is also furnished with a patent wind mill which dispurses with a great deal of expense and labor. The building was built in 1869. It is at present under the supervision of Mr. Henry Stransky, and is doing a thriving business."

At some time in the early 1870s, Ahnapee businessman Franz Swaty (1822-1915) took over the role of Stransky's partner in the brewery. In October of 1873, the Brewery Company constructed "a monstrous new barn on their lots near the river," By the end of the decade the Record was to note that "Henry Schmiling has purchased F. Swaty's interest in the Ahnapee brewery and will immediately take possession." Henry Schmiling (1845-1925) was born in Pomerania, Germany, on May 4, 1845, and he came to the United States with his parents in 1857. The family settled on a farm in the town of Ahnapee and Schmiling lived there until he was seventeen, at which time he enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War. After his return from the war he followed farming and fishing until 1879, when he bought his interest in the Ahnapee brewery.

In the following year, Schmiling oversaw the construction of a large new ice house that measured 24 by 60 feet and had a cellar for additional beer storage. The following year, Wojta Stransky sold his interest in the brewery to A. Kessner, which left Schmiling as the principal partner in charge of the operation. Schmiling also extended the distribution of the brewery's products north to Door County, no easy feat in the days before the railroad serviced Ahnapee.

Schmiling continued his active association with the brewery until 1885, when the company leased the brewery to John Skala and J.B. Orth for five years at an annual rental of $1,000 per year. Schmiling was afterwards superintendent of the county farm for fourteen years and he also served as the street commissioner of Algoma for a time. Skala continued the operation until 1886, when he removed to Menominee, Michigan, which left Ahnapee without an active brewery. Several other persons, including partners Klogner & Pitlik (1890-92) and important Ahnapee businessman Edward Decker (1893-94) later operated the Ahnapee Brewery for short periods, but production finally ceased for good by the end of 1894.

Various reasons for the ending of beer brewing in Ahnapee have been given, including a suggestion that a blight destroyed local hop production, thus ending brewing in the area. A more plausible reason is that by 1894, Ahnapee had finally been connected to a railroad, the Ahnapee & Western, which was to be a major contributor to the growth of Ahnapee in the early 1890s.

Completion of this railroad gave Ahnapee (renamed Algoma in 1897) and its existing industries a critical link to outside markets, and it also made new industries possible. The Ahnapee Brewery, however, found itself for the first time facing meaningful competition in the shape of much larger and very competitive regional breweries. Breweries such as the Van Dycke Brewing Co. and the Hagermeister Brewing Co., both of Green Bay, quickly developed distribution facilities of their own in Ahnapee, and it is possible that the latter firm used a part of the facilities of the Ahnapee Brewery as their local warehouse, this building being described in 1894 as "brick, 50x50 feet, two stories and basement high."

Local brewing of beer in Ahnapee never resumed, at least not on a commercial scale, but new uses were found for the solidly built Ahnapee Brewery building. From 1894 to 1899, the building was used as a warehouse and was owned by the Ahnapee Dock Co., and the Algoma Packing Company used it for the same purpose from 1900 to 1907. In 1909, the building was taken over by George W. Kelsey, Jr. to house his expanding fly net manufacturing plant.

Kelsey's company owned the brewery building until 1923. In 1926, another manufacturing company, the Metal Specialty Company, took over the building for a manufacturing facility. The president of the company was Joseph Schmitt and the alterations made by his company are the only significant ones the building ever experienced prior to the 1967 renovation, which was at least partially devoted to undoing the changes wrought by Schmitt.

"The plant of the Metal Specialty company, manufacturers of the Electro-Thermo washer, will be in operation within the next two weeks. The first carload of equipment snipped trom Ripon, the former location of the company, arrived Tuesday and two carloads are still enroute and are expected daily.

The old brewery building, vacant since the Kelsey Fly Net company discontinued business in this city about eight years ago, was bought by the Metal Specialty company from the Bank of Algoma about three weeks ago. Since the purchase, men have been employed junking the old net-making machinery and getting the building ready for the reception of the new manufacturing plant. A new roof was put on, floors relaid, stairways cut, and the building put in first class condition for the purpose intended. The building is 36x58 in size. It is a two story structure with two basements available for storage purposes. The first floor will be used for machine shop purposes. The second floor will be used for assembling and finishing the machines. An elevator will be erected to facilitate the handling of materials between the several floors."

The Metal Specialty Company continued to own the brewery building until 1942, after which time it was either used as a warehouse space or stood vacant. The last usage before its purchase by Dr. Stiehl in 1966 was as a storehouse for the Kodan Feed Mill owned by Ronald Blahnik, but by this time the building had deteriorated. With the purchase of the building by Dr. Stiehl, however, the fortunes of the building were reversed.

When Dr. Stiehl purchased the brewery building in 1966, it was because what had originally been a hobby that he had started in the basement of his home in 1962, had developed into a full-scale business. Stiehl's original wine was made from Door County cherries and his winery was then the only licensed winery in Wisconsin. The move to the old brewery, however, greatly increased his capacity, which had been limited to about 2500 gallons a year. Now, fermentation could take place in steel vats with capacities of up to 1800 gallons each and the new holding vats had a total capacity of 13,000 gallons. Capacity increased almost instantly to 12,000 gallons or about 60,000 bottles of wine a year.

The newly renovated brewery reopened as a winery in June of 1968, and it soon became a popular tourist attraction and a favorite subject of articles by state and regional travel writers. Eventually, the demands of Dr. Stiehl's medical practice made the winery too large a distraction and in 1981, he sold the building and the winery name name to William and Sandy Schmiling, both Algoma natives. Since taking over the operation the Schmiling's have won numerous awards for the several different wines they make in the old brewery and they have made the winery the best known tourist attraction in the Algoma area. Their success is especially fitting since William Schmiling is the great-nephew of Henry Schmiling, who, as partner in the business, helped guide the original Ahnapee Brewery to success in the 1880s.