Peacock Brewery - Rockford Brewing Company, Rockford Illinois

Date added: July 03, 2022 Categories: Illinois Industrial Brewery
Southside of the 1899 Brew House with the rail barn shed on the left hand side (2009)

Rockford is located about 20 miles south of the Wisconsin border and 90 miles northwest of Chicago, Illinois. Germanicus Kent and Thatcher Blake founded the town in 1834. The early explorers were searching for a location to set up a sawmill and discovered the area when looking for a place to ford the Rock River. They built a small dam and sawmill on the bank of what is now known as Kent Creek on the west side of the Rock River. In the spring of 1835, another group of settlers, led by Daniel Haight made their home on the east bank of the river.

Rockford was in a convenient location midway between the growing town of Chicago and Galena. An old Native American trail became The State Road and carried pioneers from Chicago to western destinations. Frontiersmen were drawn by the promise of land to farm as well as the opportunity to work in the Galena lead mines. Some choose to settle in the newly founded community on the Rock River.

In 1838, the first stagecoach arrived to the area on the State Road. The new village was well established as the new Winnebago County. Industrial growth came in the area in the mid-1840s when the Rockford Hydraulic Company formed and constructed Rockford's first dam. A handful of early manufacturing facilities located along the chases including two sawmills, a gristmill, a woolen factory, and a foundry. Unfortunately the dam could not stand up to the forces of nature and the owners were forced to repair or rebuild it every spring when rain and flooding would wash it out. Finally in 1850, the dam was destroyed beyond repair. The following year, Rockford business leaders created the Water Power Company. They built a new and improved dam downstream. In 1853, a 750-foot stone and wood dam was constructed on a rocky ledge. Immediately, Rockford industrial leaders began building in the Central Industrial Area, taking advantage of the new power source. The area became known as the Water Power District.

Jonathan Peacock, a British immigrant, relocated to Rockford in 1849 just as the city's industrial base was beginning to grow. With limited resources, the 28 year old bought a limestone home on Madison Street and began brewing beer in the back of the house. His operation was small and his equipment consisted of a coffee mill in which he ground malt, a wash boiler used for mash brewing, and a wheelbarrow to deliver his finished product. Peacock was successful. He learned the brewing trade in England and spent time working in one of Chicago's larger Breweries, Lill & Diversey, before moving to Rockford.

Industrial growth in Rockford was spurred by another mid-century development-rail transport. In 1852 the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad arrived in the city. The train brought a large number of immigrants to the community. Early industry in Rockford included the manufacture of farm implements, furniture, and hosiery. Factory work was plentiful during the last quarter of the nineteenth century and this translated to demand for Peacock's product.

By 1857, Peacock was ready to expand his operations and move them out of the house. He constructed a separate brewhouse on the land between Madison and the Rock River. The site proved perfect for beer production. There were two artesian wells on the property that provided plenty of fresh water, a necessary ingredient for beer production. In cold weather, the Rock River provided ice that was stored in the cellar and used to keep product cool. The site also had access to the Chicago and Northwest Railway line. Labor for the new facility was also plentiful. Peacock could choose from the many immigrants who had come to the Midwest seeking employment opportunities. During this time Peacock brewed a number of different types of beers including cream and stock ales.

Although it is commonly believed that Peacock was the first brewery in Rockford, it is known that there were a number of other small brewers working in the city by the mid 1850s. One such brewery was located at 820 South Main Street and operated in a meat market owned by August Kauffman. Another brewery was adjacent to Kauffman's. John W. Diamond owned the Diamond Brewery that was eventually purchased by Kauffman in 1879. Beer was only brewed there for a couple more years before production ceased. At one time, Rockford boasted six breweries.

The nation's taste in beer changed during the last half of the nineteenth century, and Peacock brewed his first lager in 1870. He also produced a pilsner and a porter at that time. The Peacock Brewery became best known for its beer, Nikolob. Peacock used a catchy phrase to counter another popular brand from Wisconsin. The Nikolob tagline was, "You'll find good cheer in Nikolob, the beer that made Milwaukee jealous".

In the summer of 1894, a large fire almost destroyed the brewery. Much of the brewhouse was damaged, as was the roof of the icehouse and a large amount of Peacock's barley supply. After the fire, Peacock immediately began a rebuilding campaign. Sections burned by the fire were rebuilt. Unfortunately, Peacock died two years later. Upon his death his two sons, Edward and Frank, inherited the business. They invested in new equipment for the brewery and added production space. As a result of the improvements, the brewery's production rose from 6,000 barrels a year to over 20,000 barrels. Both of Peacock's sons died in 1899 from Tuberculosis. The brewery was eventually sold to John V. Petritz.

Petritz was of German decent and immigrated to the US from Croatia in the 1880s. He spent some time in Freeport before he headed west to Montana and proceeded to make a fortune investing in breweries and saloons, and real estate. He and his Wisconsin bride had eight children and the couple eventually decided to move back east for the purpose of educating their children. Petritz was fond of northern Illinois and he and his family chose to settle in Rockford. Because of his business experience in the brewing industry, Petritz decide to purchase the Peacock Brewery. He took possession in 1899 and immediately made plans to expand the business. He hired St. Louis architects Widmann, Walsh & Boisscher to draw up plans for a new larger and more modern brewhouse. Local contractor, Cook & Winchester, was hired to build the brewery and architect D.S. Schureman was hired to oversee the project. Petritz invested over $100,000 in the brewery which he renamed the Rockford Brewing Company. He added all new equipment to the facility as well. Petritz replaced boilers, engines, ice machines, and brewing machines. His improvements increased production to nearly 75,000 barrels. By 1909, the business claimed a $10,000 profit.

In the months that followed his purchase of the brewery, Petritz began buying and leasing real estate all over the city. In most cases, his goal was to acquire saloons where he could place his products. At one point, Petritz was in direct competition with representatives of the Schlitz Company who did not want to see Petritz get a monopoly on the beer market in Rockford. Petritz continued to improve the brewery, as well as strengthen his market share. In January of 1900, he purchased a bottling company on Charles Street from Charles Mayer. The following year, Petritz was ready to expand again and made changes to the old brewery on the property to add a new stockroom. He hired Peter Maffioli to build a $3000 bottling house in 1902, and continued his quest to buy and lease Rockford storefronts. Rockford seemed to appreciate the business and money Petritz brought to the community and glowing articles in the newspapers touted his success.

However as time went by, the city became less kind to Jon V. Petritz. Complex liquor license and tax regulations coupled with the area's ever-changing stance on prohibition, spelled trouble for the Petritz family and the Rockford Brewery. Furthermore, Petritz made enemies of local unions for successfully squashing unionization in his brewery. Between the years of 1908 and 1916, Petritz faced 270 violation charges and was fined in excess of $2,000. The final legal battle for Petritz came when he was caught selling beer in Winnebago County after the county had passed legislation making it illegal to do so. When the law passed in 1917 making it against the law to sell liquor in Winnebago County, Petritz circumvented the law by setting up a dummy company just over the Wisconsin border. Eventually he gave up the pretense and blatantly ignored the law. Instead of running supplies up to Beloit, WI and then having it shipped back to Rockford, he once again began taking orders out of the Rockford office. Petritz; his son Frank, company bookkeeper; Earl Blewfield, manager of the Beloit company; and numerous delivery drivers were all brought to trial and charged by both the city and the county. Federal Judge Landis presided over the courtroom and the trial was a media event. Each day the courtroom was filled with spectators and the newspapers gave a daily summary of the courtroom activities. In the end, Petritz paid $15,000 that was split equally between the city and county. He did not have to serve time. The Rockford Brewery license expired in 1918 and Petritz did not renew it. National prohibition promptly followed.

The Petritz family had been prominent industrialists and investors in Rockford. After suffering the indignity of being arrested and prosecuted, John V. Petritz was able to reinvent his business and save his stature in the community. He converted the brewery complex to a warehouse and focused on warehousing and distribution. They reinvented themselves into a new business that focused on warehousing and distribution. Like the brewery, the distribution warehouse was able to utilize the loading docks and railroad.

One of John V. Petritz's sons, John G., tried his hand at re-establishing brewery activities after prohibition. When the brewery reopened, it was only used for aging and bottling. The beer, sold under the name Petritz, was actually brewed in Chicago. Two other proprietors owned the brewery, Edward Fox and Samuel Hirsch. Hirsch bought the brewery in 1937 and changed the name to the Rock River Brewing Company. They produced Coronet Old Vat and Grand Prize beer. The final closure as a brewery was in 1945. It is interesting to note, that in the building's 160-plus year history, only five families have owned it.