Thursday, December 5, 2013

Prohibition Ended 80 Years Ago Today

It was exactly at this moment, 5:32 p.m EST, on December 5, 1933 that Prohibition was repealed by ratifying the 21st Amendment. For that we toast!

While most of the country got by for years without alcohol, there is at least one story from Montana of a brewer who just wouldn’t quit. Here, we present an excerpt from the book, Montana Beer, about one Montana brewery near Lewistown.

Beer In The Middle of Everywhere
Lewistown, Montana, sits in the exact center of the state of Montana. The town is a hundred miles east of Great Falls and was founded in 1883. Eleven years later it had its own brewery. The Lewistown Brewing Company could exist because it was positioned right in the middle of Montana’s booming agricultural epicenter. The town had its own mill to grind wheat into flour, and then it had a brewery to turn barley into beer.

   The founders of Lewistown Brewing Company were Frank Haas and Philip Laux. They bought a piece of land one mile south of town on the banks of Spring Creek. The two-story structure was built entirely of locally-quarried sandstone. At capacity, the brewery could produce ten barrels per day.
After two years, the owners found it difficult to compete with national beers so they sold the business to Bernard McDonnell, who ran it for eight years. He was a careful and conservative businessman, but one who knew the power of branding a local product. In an ad he wrote for the March 13, 1900 edition of the Lewistown Eagle, McDonnell cited “Pure, Wholesome Beer! It is Chemically Pure and is recommended by Physicians for its Splendid Medicinal Properties.”
In 1904 he sold his shares to a new investor, and that investor sold off in 1912 to Gus Hodel, the former brewmaster and superintendent of the Centennial Brewing Company in Butte. Hodel steered the brewery toward great success until it was forced to close for Prohibition.
While most breweries followed the law and turned to producing soft drinks during ban on alcohol sales, Hodel gambled that his brewery’s remote nature and some bribery would allow him to produce a little more than “near-beer.” In 1922, a former prohibition enforcement director, O.H. Shelly, was indicted on twelve counts of accepting bribes. Among those he had received money from were the Montana Brewing Company of Great Falls and the Lewistown Brewing Company.
With all the attention from his actions, Hodel fled north into Canada. On the night before Canada repealed its prohibition law on January 1, 1924, Hodel crossed the border and headed to Medicine Hat, Alberta, with $2,000 in his pocket (earned by selling his Lewistown home). With a few investors, he re-opened the ten-year-old Medicine Hat Brewing Company.
Two years later, when Montana repealed its state-wide “dry” laws, leaving Prohibition enforcement up to federal agents, Hodel thought he could come home and make beer again without interference. He was wrong. On September 19, 1928, the brewery was raided and Hodel, along with one other employee, was arrested. Federal agents destroyed 800 quarts of beer and dumped 600 gallons from the brewery tanks. They also confiscated all Hodel’s brewing equipment.
Hodel’s employee received a sixty-day jail sentence, but Hodel fled to Canada before his trial, though he made good on his $300 bond first. He returned about a year later, and the government did not seem concerned about his past, likely because he had paid his bond. For another year he brewed root beer, but when the stock market crashed, he once again returned to Canada.
This time he brewed for the Wentzler’s Star Brewing Company in North Battleford, Saskatchewan. However, when the U.S. finally passed the Repeal, Hodel came back home and reopened the Lewistown Brewing Company.
To mark the brewery’s return, Hodel ran an ad in the local paper that read, “A Renewal of An Old Industry in the City. Lewistown Beer is meeting the approval of Montana’s most discriminating palates..its [sic] a high grade, smooth beer, brewed from the finest materials by ‘old masters’ who know the business.” Near the bottom of the ad, in the smallest typeset, was the brewery’s new slogan, “Better than it used to be—and it used to be the best.”
Soon the brewery was producing twenty-five barrels a day, and each barrel was made from wood lined with pitch and contained thirty-two gallons. The new flagship beer was called Silvertip, which on its label was described as “Healthful, Refreshing, Nutritious, Fully Matured and Aged.”
Although it tried hard to re-establish itself, the Lewistown Brewing Company could not compete with national breweries. And as if its coffin needed a final nail, the Brewers’ Union in Great Falls began demanding that the brewery increase its wages to employees, which it could not afford. Instead, Hodel sold off the brass, copper and other metals in his equipment, as it was needed for WWII, and business closed its door for good in 1938.

It is not known if Hodel then fled back to Canada.

Today the original brewery building remains partially intact (though not enough to make it eligible for recognition as a historical structure), and it serves as the Snowy Mountain Honey Ranch.

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