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Belmont Brewing Company, Martins Ferry, Ohio

From the new book, "Brewing Beer In The Buckeye State, Volume I" by Dr. Robert A. Musson.

The origin of Martins Ferry's only brewery was five years prior to its first actual brew. In 1885, The Ohio Wine Company was founded with $50,000 capital by three men from Cincinnati, all native Germans: William Lipphardt, Ferdinand H. Eick, and John C. Wagner. Lipphardt was formerly the owner of a saddlery and leather goods store and Wagner owned a pharmacy. Eick was a native of Recklinghausen, Westphalia, born in 1845, who had come to America in 1857. He worked for many years as a bookkeeper before moving to Martins Ferry to begin a career in the winemaking business.

The Ohio Wine Co. plant was located on the old County Road, later known as Washington Street, although as the plant expanded through the years, the address became 208-240 Jefferson Street, which was at the rear of the original buildings. The plant consisted of a primary four-story building which contained large grape presses and fermenting vats, with a long, two-story building behind that for wine storage and bottling. The plant was capable of producing 150,000 gallons annually, with several different types of wine being produced. Immediately adjacent to the rear of the plant was the Wheeling Terminal Railway (later the Wheeling & Lake Erie R.R.) trestle, which would soon prove to be a serious problem for the winemakers.

After several years of producing wine, it was discovered that the frequent and sometimes severe vibrations from the passing trains were disturbing the wine during the all-important fermentation process, which was having a detrimental effect on the finished product. A successful lawsuit for $1,000 was filed against the Wheeling Terminal Railway for damages in 1889, but the problem still remained, due to the location of the plant. Faced with the prospect of moving elsewhere, the proprietors opted to convert the plant into a brewing establishment, in which beer production would be relatively unaffected by the vibrations.

And so it was that the entire plant, already valued at $16,000, was converted into a brewery in 1890, with an initial annual capacity of 10,000 barrels, and the Belmont Brewing Company was born. Lipphardt was its initial president, with Wagner as vice-president, and Eick as secretary and treasurer. Also involved with the formation of the company were August Kraatz, a former blacksmith, William Happy, a former millwright, and Jacob Kern, Albert Lipphardt, and William H. Helfenbein. The capital stock was eventually raised to $200,000 by 1896.

Belmont Lager Beer was popular enough to necessitate a gradual expansion of the plant over the next fifteen years. This culminated in 1905 with the erection of an ornate and completely modern five-story brewhouse. Costing around $100,000 to build, it stood atop some of the original wine cellars. This addition doubled the plant's annual capacity to 40,000 barrels, while employing up to 120 men. Three brews were made each day, six days a week. Two on-site wells provided water for brewing, and it was said by some that the quality of the well water was nearly identical to that used by Bass & Co., a famous English brewer. In addition to Belmont Lager, Belmont Bock Beer was brewed each December, then released each year on March 15, and was a very popular late winter treat.

Sold in most of the saloons in the region, Belmont Beer would typically cost $5.00 for a draft barrel, $1.00 for a four-gallon keg, 25 cents for three quarts at a saloon, or five cents for a fourteen-ounce mug (or a bottle, if one preferred to drink at home). In some saloons, the beer was sold on charge accounts, with a collector from the brewery coming around every two weeks. On collection days, the collector might offer free beer to everyone in the saloon. Certain "bar flies" would follow the collector from saloon to saloon, getting free drinks at each stop.

Early in 1902, William Lipphardt resigned to take ownership of a factory in Chattanooga, TN. He was replaced by a newer member of the company, Henry Bieberson of nearby Wheeling, WV., who remained president until Prohibition. Bieberson had been born in Germany in 1848, and subsequently came to America at the age of sixteen. Living in Wheeling for the remainder of his life, he operated a popular restaurant there for nearly thirty years, while serving as director of two area banks, prior to joining the Belmont Brewing Co.

Brewmaster at this time was 29-year-old German native William Matz, although he was forced into temporary retirement due to an illness and was briefly replaced by Henry Bieberson, Jr. Matz returned to the position some time later, when Bieberson, Jr. moved to Delaware, Ohio, to enter the relatively new field of movie theater ownership. Also, in May 1915, Ferdinand Eick died, with his post as a director and secretary being filled by his 26-year-old son, Albert W. Eick.

The company's sales improved after 1914, when the state of West Virginia went dry, putting all of the competing breweries in Wheeling, just across the Ohio River, out of business. Although this was a dark omen of things to come, much of the demand from the thousands of thirsty steelworkers who lived in the region was now supplied by the Belmont Brewery and the nearby Bellaire Brewing Co.

Wheeling Island is in the middle of the Ohio River, but considered part of West Virginia. It is said by those who lived on the island at the time that some men would wear custom-made trousers, seven or eight sizes too large, put on a top coat, and walk across the bridge to Bridgeport, Ohio. After drinking for a time in the local bar, they would hang as many bottles as possible inside the oversized trousers, then carefully walk back across the bridge, and store the beer in their basements. If time permitted, they would make several of these trips in a day, giving them enough beer to last for several weeks. These activities lasted only until statewide Prohibition closed all of Ohio's saloons in 1919. After this, the Belmont Brewing Co. temporarily closed its doors. Meanwhile, a new company was formed with a capital stock of $400,000, to be known as the Belmont Products Company, which purchased the entire plant. The company operated uneventfully until May 1923, when Eick and Haid were indicted with several other local men for conspiracy to violate the national Prohibition laws. Specifically, a significant amount of real beer was appearing in the Wheeling area, and its origin was traced to the Belmont brewery, after which the plant was temporarily closed down during the investigation. The bigger issue, however, was that Eick was found to be involved in the transport of a train car carrying 5,000 gallons of grain alcohol (purchased for $50,000) from Tennessee, which was then distributed throughout the area. Raw alcohol was frequently used during the era to make cheap whiskey, which was colored with burnt sugar. Although this was a small local aspect of a much larger bootlegging scheme (nearly 200,000 gallons of grain alcohol was to be purchased from a government storage facility in Tennessee, at 30 cents per gallon, and resold throughout Ohio and other areas for $10 per gallon), Eick was found guilty and fined.

Aside from this episode, Eick ran the Belmont Products Company effectively, as it survived in a very difficult era, lasting until Repeal in 1933. Most of the original investors came and went, but by 1929, Matz had become the president of the company. A small associated ginger ale bottling works, known as the Spark-Lin-Ale Co., occupied a portion of the plant for several years during the 1920s, making both Cup Top and Bagdad Ginger Ales.

Upon the repeal of Prohibition, it took little time for the brewing of real beer to begin, as the equipment had remained intact throughout the prior fourteen years. At 8:00 A.M. on May 12, 1933, the first new batch of Belmont Beer was released to the public, among much fanfare. Cars and trucks were lined up for three blocks outside the brewery, starting the previous night, and continuing throughout the day. Matz and Eick remained in charge of the company until October 1935, when they sold the entire company to a new group, headed by Samuel Ungerleider. They then moved several miles south to Bellaire, where they took over the former Bellaire Brewing Co. plant and operated it as the Matz Brewing Company. After their departure, Belmont reorganized entirely and the plant was enlarged and modernized to allow for an annual capacity of 120,000 barrels, while employing between 100 and 150 men. A relatively large distribution network allowed its beer to be sold in seven states.

Samuel Ungerleider was born in Budapest, Austria-Hungary in 1885, came to Wheeling in 1900, and soon became involved in the local distilling business, culminating in his ownership of the Ungerleider Distilling Co. of Columbus, OH. Put out of business by Prohibition, he moved to Cleveland, where he became an investment banker and stockbroker, and later moved to New York City. After Repeal, he formed the Distillers & Brewers Corporation of America (with headquarters in Jersey City, N.J.), which oversaw the operation of the Belmont brewery. Ungerleider served as president, with R. T. Norment as vice-president, W. D. Singer as secretary, treasurer, and plant manager, and Glenn Eckert as assistant treasurer. Replacing Matz as brewmaster was Rudolph A. Bender, a veteran of breweries in Milwaukee and Rochester, N.Y.

Bender reformulated the company's beers, and many new brands subsequently entered the market, including Black Crown Lager and Bock Beer, Bender's Pilsener Beer and Porter, 1884 Golden Ale, 18 Kt. Golden Ale, John L. Ale (named after John L. Sullivan, the famous boxer from the turn of the century), Johnnie Ale (the non-alcoholic version to be sold in areas that had re-mained dry), Old German Style Beer, Old Stock Ale, and Old South Ale ("manufactured under the supervision of Old South Brewing Co., Inc., of Statesville, NC."—this was a company organized around 1934, but which never actually brewed any beer itself; it was, in a sense, similar to modern-day contract brewers. By 1935, however, it was gone.) Also returning was the Belmont name, now attached to a wide variety of brews: "Pink Elephant Ale," bock, pilsener, lager and premium draught lager beers. Even Bel-Brew non-alcoholic beverage returned for a time.

Like many other breweries in the 1930s, Belmont quickly saw the potential advantage of compact, disposable packages, and in December 1935, it unveiled the "Stubby" bottle. Holding twelve ounces like the traditional long-necked bottles, the Stubby had a very short neck, making it easier to stack. A news release at the time stated, "Women in particular like it because it is handy to store, makes a beautiful addition to any table setting, and can be discarded when empty. Like all glass bottles for beer, the new Stubby is socially acceptable." In addition, advertisements at the time stated, "Keeping abreast with the times, the Belmont Brewing Co. is thoroughly investigating the subject of canned beer, and as soon as the practicability of dispensing beer in this kind of a container has been proven, the Belmont Brewing Co. will be one of the first to adopt this method." Beer had first been sold in cans in 1935, so the concept was still very new and somewhat unproven, although it was not long before it became widely used in the industry. However, for unknown reasons, Belmont never moved forward into the canning of its beer.

Another short-lived facet of the new company was an attempt at expansion into Pennsylvania. In 1934, it purchased the plant of the defunct Rockwood Brewing Corporation in Rockwood, PA., a small town in the south central part of the state. Located at 204 West Main Street, it was originally built in 1908 and operated until Prohibition. After Repeal, brewing operations briefly started again before the plant was purchased by the Belmont Co., specifically for the production of ale, with this division of the company to be known as the Belmont Ale Brewery Corporation. In addition to Belmont Pink Elephant Ale, Pennsylvania Dutch and Pennsbury Beers were also made there. After the first year, however, its operation was not felt to be profitable, and the brewery was closed for good, with all production being transferred back to Ohio. The brewery building is no longer standing.

Despite the fact that only three breweries were operating in the upper Ohio River Valley after Prohibition (compared to more than twenty before Prohibition), competition from larger regional and national breweries was much more intense in the 1930s and 40s. The combination of competition and general business conditions of the era led to the company declaring bankruptcy in 1937. Ungerleider's group then sold its stock in the company to a local group, and a subsequent reorganization allowed the company to continue functioning under new president H. Mendel Taylor, vice-president Charles J. Michel, secretary Charles Lopeman, and treasurer Glenn Eckert. However, the end came in 1940 when the Belmont Brewing Co. closed its doors for good. It was felt by some that the quality of the company's beer had declined significantly after William Matz left in 1935, and this likely was another strong contributing factor in the brewery's demise.

Samuel Ungerleider continued his career as a stockbroker, living in New York City for the remainder of his life, until he died in 1973 at the age of 87. The brewery was purchased in 1942 by a group that intended to raze the structure for any salvageable materials for the war effort, but this deal fell through, and beginning the following year, the plant was used as the Arctic Foods Company storage warehouse, until that company closed in 1954. The structure, Martins Ferry's tallest, was razed in March 1958, although the bottling house, built in 1916 (at a cost of $100,000), is still standing today. It is located on the other side of the railroad trestle from the main brewery site, at the corner of Jefferson and South 4th Street. The Ohio Valley Chemical Co. occupies most of the old brewery's site today. The railway trestle which caused all of the problems for the original winemakers still stands next to the site, although all of its rails have long since been removed.

Copyright 2005 by Zepp Publications

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