Richter Brewery - Delta Brewery, Escanaba Michigan

Date added: June 21, 2022 Categories: Michigan Industrial Brewery
East and north facades (2008)

The Richter Brewery was constructed in 1900-1901 by a then newly established firm comprised of local businessmen who saw an opportunity to provide a local product to serve a market in the growing city that was then being served largely by out-of-town brews. Enlarged in the 1910s, the building served as the company's brewery from its 1901 completion until 1918, when Michigan's own Prohibition took effect. After serving primarily as a manufacturing and bottling plant for non-alcoholic beverages during the Michigan and national Prohibition years, the building resumed its original brewery function under a new firm name, the Delta Brewing Company, in 1933 and operated until 1940. The new brewery celebrated its formal opening in September 1933 with the largest party in Escanaba's history. A parade featured area bands and "many novel commercial floats," and the brewery provided free beer, forty-five barrels worth, and sandwiches to an estimated 15,000 persons who jammed the downtown.

Escanaba was established in the early and mid 1860s. Nelson Ludington, Daniel Wells, Jr., Perry H. Smith, and George L. Dunlap purchased the site in 1862 and the following year had the first part of the town site platted. The platting of a town at this site on the Little Bay De Noc coincided with plans to construct a railroad to carry iron ore from the developing iron mines in the Negaunee area to port facilities to be constructed here, from which the ore could be shipped to Chicago and other Great Lakes cities. The Peninsula Railroad was built from the Escanaba site to Negaunee in 1863-64 and carried its first ore shipments in 1865. Escanaba was incorporated as a village in 1866 and had a population of 1200 by 1870. City government was established in 1883, and by 1890 the population had grown to about 8000. By then the city was served by both the Chicago & North-Western Railroad and Escanaba, Iron Mountain & Western Railway, which hauled iron ore from both the Marquette and Menominee iron ranges and shipped it downlake from four ore docks (a fifth was then under construction). Sawmills along with the railroad yards and docks were the mainstays of the local economy.

In 1900 a single local brewery, the Escanaba Brewery, established in 1887, served the rapidly growing city of Escanaba and its vicinity. In explaining the rationale for establishing another brewery in Escanaba, the Escanaba newspaper, The Iron Port, stated that the new brewery was established by

Local business men, most of whom are also retail liquor dealers who have long been impressed with the belief that much of the money which is paid to the breweries of Milwaukee might just as well be converted to the maintenance of a home industry, and thus prove beneficial both to themselves and the city at large. The fact that Escanaba already had a very successful brewery only strengthened the opinion that there was ample room for a similar institution as the local concern supplied but a small portion of the popular beverage which is annually consumed in and about Escanaba (1/16/1901).

The Richter Brewing Company was organized in Escanaba in August 1900. About $40,000 of the required $60,000 in capital had been subscribed by the time the brewery was announced in the August 11, 1900, The Iron Port. The initial stockholders were Fred Hodges, Richard Hoyler, John Richter, Emest W. Wickert, Fabian Defnet, Joseph Charlebois, and Joseph and Peter Hirn. The officers elected on August 23, 1900, were Fred Hodges, president; Ernest W. Wickert, secretary; and John Richter, treasurer and manager, with Peter Hirn and Menasip Perron also serving as board members. By this time the present site had already been purchased and plans and specifications obtained (the architect is not named in the newspaper story). John Lindsay, a leading contractor in Escanaba who became mayor in 1911, built the new brewery in four months, completing it in January 1901 at a cost of $20,900. The brewing machinery, made by the Vilter Manufacturing Company of Milwaukee, was installed during January and February 1901. The head brewer was John Richter. Of Richter, The Iron Port stated that, "He is a graduate of the Ernst Hautke Brewing school of Milwaukee, and was for many years employed at breweries in Manitowoc, Anahpee and Green Bay. In 1886 Mr. Richter came to Escanaba and until a year ago was employed as head brewer at the Escanaba brewery on the south shore" (The Iron Port, 2/16/1901).

The brewery made its first beer in mid-February and, after final regulating of the filtering equipment, put forth its first commercial product on April 23. The first beer was shipped to the saloons of the company's stockholders, but a sample keg was provided to every saloon in the city (The Iron Port, 4/27/1901). The planned 12-15,000 barrels of beer the plant was to produce annually were initially to serve the Escanaba market only, but the company planned to increase production to serve the broader area market in the future. By 1906 a pitching house for keg cleaning and repair, an icehouse, bottling plant, and stable/delivery wagon shed were built alongside the alley behind the brewery (these buildings were all removed by 1929). In 1914 Richter constructed a larger brick-faced concrete and steel office and bottling building along Ludington Street next door to the southeast.

The Richter Brewing Company continued to produce beer until Prohibition. In 1916 an aggressive Michigan campaign waged by "dry" advocacy groups such as the Women's Christian Temperance Union and the Michigan Anti-Saloon League organized into a United Dry Federation came to a head with a November 7 referendum on banning the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages in Michigan. Four days before that, the Richter general manager, Richard Hoyler, argued in a front page article in the Escanaba Morning Press that Prohibition would shut down the community's two breweries and favor breweries in Milwaukee:

In its local application where our plant is concerned, it proposes to make unproductive a considerable investment, the upgrowth of many years' effort. ... the plant of the Richter Brewing Company is a development from small beginnings. We started our business here in 1900 with the implied insurance that our savings, thus invested, would be protected. We have added to our plant from year to year and but a short time ago completed our office building, one of the finest structures of its kind in Escanaba today. With the growth of the business, I have seen the town grow to the present city of 15,000 and in the interval we have been not unmindful of our duty to help in its material improvement.

Large local newspaper advertisements at the same time from the "Michigan Home Rule League of Detroit" warned of job losses and bootlegged liquor and beer from nearby states sold at illegal "blind pig" Michigan establishments, while local ads against Prohibition decried the prospect of "140 vacant buildings and storerooms in Delta County" and increases in taxes and declines in revenues and property values for city, county, and township governments.

On November 7, 1916, Michigan's voters approved the "dry amendment" to the state's constitution. The amendment took effect May 1, 1918. The national Prohibition took effect January 16, 1920.

By 1920-22 the former Richter Brewing Company was advertising in the city directories as the "Richter Beverage Company — Manufacturers of wholesome refreshing nonalcoholic and cereal beverages and sodas" or "Manufacturer of and bottler of carbonated beverages, soda water, soft drinks" as well as "Bottlers of Richto" or "Bottlers of Richter Near Beer." The post-Prohibition 1920 Polk directory no longer lists John Richter among the company's officers, although several other original members remained. The 1929 Sanborn map identifies the former brewery as the Upper Peninsula Produce Company and notes that it is "Not in Operation."

In the summer of 1933, with the repeal of Prohibition, a new business, the Delta Brewing Company, purchased the building and established what would be the area's only brewery. They carried out a major improvement project that replaced much of the old equipment. I. Bahcall and Joseph Ballin, both of Appleton, Wisconsin, were the firm's president and vice-president, and J. F. Bentz, formerly of New London, Wisconsin, was secretary-treasurer and general manager. While none of these businessmen had backgrounds in the brewing business, the company's brewmaster, Frank Schiller, had begun his career at the age of fourteen as an apprentice in a German brewery and worked for breweries there and in Chicago and Waukegon, Illinois, before Prohibition ("Delta Brewing Company Rated As Leader").

The brewery "put in its first batch of brew" on August 18, 1933, and brought out its first product on September 25th. That evening the company celebrated the debut of their new products, Delta Beer (bottled) and Hiawatha Beer (draught) with "free beer and sandwiches ... given to over 15,000 persons at the brewery" (Escanaba Press, 8/18, 9/24, and 9/26/1933). The celebration began with a parade that included "the Legion drum and bugle corps, Escanaba municipal band, German bands and orchestras as well as many novel commercial floats" (Escanaba Daily Press, 9/26/1933).

Cars jammed Ludington street and First avenue south for several hours. Traffic was virtually at a standstill in some sections near the brewery and a half dozen women fainted in the crush as the people awaited their turn to taste the new Hiawatha draught beer.

They Liked It —- And How!

Ten bartenders waited on the patrons at the sample room of the brewery and a dozen girls were kept busy making sandwiches. About 45 barrels of beer were disposed of last night or approximately 29,700 glasses of the sparkling amber fluid. In addition 300 loaves of bread and a quarter ton of sandwich meat was consumed (Escanaba Daily Press, 9/26/1933).

Within a few years the brewery was producing a variety of products that included Hiawatha Draught and Arctic Club bottle beer, Peninsula Pride bottle beer, Delta Special draught beer, and Buckingham Ale and, with a capacity of 60,000 barrels of beer a year, serving the Upper Peninsula, northern Wisconsin, Chicago, Milwaukee, metropolitan Detroit, and "several other large cities".

A story in the May 2, 1939, Escanaba Daily Press about the brewery's relicensing for beer and ale production by the state suggests that the Delta Brewing Company had seen some hard times but that debts were being paid off and sales increasing. Despite this optimistic report the brewery went into bankruptcy and closed early in 1940 (Escanaba Daily Press, 2/7, 3/13, and 3/27/1940). This concluded the building's use as a brewery.

Since that time the building has been used for a variety of purposes, none of them apparently utilizing more than a portion of the space. These uses have included a technical school, artists lofts, a beauty school, and a karate school.