(Edited from an article by Art Distelrath, originally published in the American Breweriana Journal, September/October 1994, Issue #70)
At the turn of the century, Ashtabula, Ohio was a busy port town on the great shore of Lake Erie, located about 60 miles east of Cleveland. Its inhabitants were rug-ged sailors, railroad men, and mill workers who enjoyed Ashta-bula's reputation as one of the toughest ports in the country.
Many regional brewers saw Ashtabula as a prime spot to market their brews, and opened branch offices there. Among them were Jackson Koehler's Erie Brewing Co., Leisy, Schlather, and Cleveland & Sandusky Breweries of Cleveland, the Finlay Brewing Co. of Toledo, and the huge Windisch-Muhlhauser Lion Brewery of Cincinnati.
In December 1904, a group from Ashtabula met with investors from Cleveland and decided to build a brewery in the city. By the next month, the Consumers Brewing Co. was formed with Dr. O. Mueller as president and Thomas A. Dillon as secretary. The brewery had a capital stock of $200,000 and shares were offered at a price of $100 each.
The contract for the brewery was awarded to the Joseph Schneible Co. of New York. Schneible was in the process of constructing similar breweries in Indianapolis and Cincinnati, and was well known for its architecture. Work was scheduled to begin as soon as weather permitted and to be completed by September 1, 1905. Plans called for a "strictly up-to-date outfit" and a model brewing facility following the Schneible Pneumatic System, with an annual capacity of 45,000 barrels. The building itself was to be of massive construction with a glazed brick interior to make it as fireproof as possible.
After an initial attempt to secure a water supply failed, a tract of land was purchased next to the Crystal Spring, at the foot of Topper Avenue, and was said to have "living water in abundance". The water from the Crystal Spring had been sold on various railroads for its mineral characteristics. The New York Central, Nickel Plate, and other railroads that ran in the vicinity raved that Crystal Spring's water was "delicious and wholesome".
In September 1905, the Lion Brewery of Cincinnati and the Consumers Brewery locked horns in a beer price war. The Consumers Brewery was able to lure Windisch-Muhlhauser's local agent, John Finn, to distribute their beer for between $7.00 and $7.50 per barrel. The Consumers ally in the war was the newly built Ohio Union Brewing Co. in Cincinnati, which used the same Schneible system and was nearly identical to the Consumers plant. Ohio Union brewed Consumers' beer while the Ashtabula brewery was being built. The Lion Brewery responded by lowering its price to $5.00 per barrel and said that they would meet the price of the Consumers brewery even if it meant giving beer to the dealers for free. The local saloon owners took advantage of this and enjoyed large profits during the beer war because the standard price of five cents per glass was not affected. The price war was only between the Lion and Consumers breweries, and other breweries watched with great interest, as their products were not affected. It is unknown how low the price of beer went that September, but Lion eventually withdrew from the Ashtabula market.
On August 24, 1905, the brewery's cornerstone was laid amidst a gala celebration of local businessmen, citizens, and guests. The cornerstone was put into place with mortar mixed with Consumers Beer and handled with a special nickel trowel. In the top of the stone was a pocket in which was placed a copper box as a time capsule. The box was passed through the crowd and everyone had a chance to place something inside before it was placed in the stone and sealed. Work on the brewery continued at a steady rate with two shifts and as many as forty men working at a time. In October 1905, an investment group of capitalists from Cleveland attempted to buy out the stockholders of the Consumers Brewing Co. and seven other independent breweries in Northeast Ohio and Northwestern Pennsylvania in an effort to form a brewery syndicate and control the beer output and cost over that area. The other breweries involved were the Smith and Renner breweries in Youngstown, the Alliance Brewing Co. in Alliance, the Crockery City Brewing and Ice Co. in East Liverpool, the Standard Brewing Co. of New Castle, PA., the Meadville Brewing Co. of Meadville, PA., and the Union Brew-ing Co. of Sharon, PA. The Consu-mers stockholders met on October 24th and held a heated dis-cussion concerning the proposed buyout. The stockholders from the Cleveland area were in favor of the buyout and saw an opportunity to make a profit on their brief investment. On the other hand, the Ashtabula stockholders were united and fought against the buyout. They saw the buyout as a loss of permanent income for themselves and the city. The Ashtabula stockholders were outvoted by their Cleveland counterparts and a price of $150 per $100 share was set.
The Ashtabula stockholders were not pleased with the outcome, but they had one opportunity left to prevent the plant from being taken over by the syndicate. Their strategy was to find local investors to purchased enough of the remaining stock to block the Cleveland contingent. At the time of the buyout, only $80,000 of the $200,000 total had been sold and the locals saw ample opportunity to save their interest and brewery. Surprisingly in the end, the syndicate was not able to raise the money needed, and all the breweries remained independent.
The Ashtabula brewery continued to move forward and plans were made to start brewing operations in the summer of 1906. New officers elected for that year were George J. Lowe as president, Charles Zeile as vice-president, Albert Eisele as treasurer, and John C. Topper as secretary. On October 31, 1906, the Consumers Brewing Co. opened for business, and a demand for its beer filled the city. The first barrel of beer was delivered to John Goggin's saloon in the Ashtabula harbor. Mr. Goggin won the honor of receiving the first barrel by bidding the sum of $60 a year earlier. The following day, Consumers Beer was flowing in nearly every saloon and restaurant in the city. It was a great day for the city of Ashtabula and it was the realization of the hopes of many people.
The brewmaster was Henry P. Harr, graduate of brewing schools in both Berlin and Copenhagen, both of which had several fine recipes for brewing. Only lager beer was produced, and at the time of opening, only kegs were available, as the bottling works was not yet completed.
When the new bottling department was completed, it had the capacity of filling 200 cases per day. On February 6, 1907, "Bula Beer" went on sale, and it rapidly became very popular among the local beer drinkers in town. The brewery tried to expand its market by shipping its bottled beer to neighboring cities, but discovered that demand in Ashtabula was far greater.
Local rumors had it that the water used by the brewery had an off-flavor, and that this contributed to the company's demise. However, tests had shown this rumor to be false when the Crystal Spring water was tested by chemists from the Wahl & Henius Institute of Chicago. The water was declared to be among the best they had ever tested for brewing, and the brewery spared no expense in advertising and ensuring that the water they used was pure.
The Consumers brewery had great success in 1907 and 1908 by brewing over 3,600 barrels each month, and it quickly established itself as one of Ashtabula's most successful businesses. The company's hey days did not last long, however, as the Prohibition movement was gaining ground in the city and surrounding region by the Fall of 1908. Passage of the Rose Law had paved the way for local option on this issue. In that year, the brewery had begun producing a temperance beer, known as "Non-Alcoholic Bula Beer", although it met with little success.
By early 1909, the first "dry law" was passed, prohibiting the sale of alcohol on Sundays. This was known as "the lid" and was strictly enforced in town. Prohibitionists were not yet satisfied, so another law was passed preventing the brewery from making or selling beer within the city limits. For a while, the brewery got around that law by making beer and transporting it a few hundred feet away to the township line, where they then sold it to township saloonkeepers. Later that year, however, the entire county went dry, putting an end to that practice, and the brewery's business.
On October 7, 1909, the county common pleas court ordered the corporation dissolved and the brewery was placed into a receivership. John Topper, the company's former secretary, was named receiver and gave a bond of $25,000 for the plant. He attempted to continue the business until the property could be sold for profit. Bootleggers briefly brewed small batches of beer there, but soon they disappeared and the plant stood idle.
In 1912, the plant was sold at auction to the Tonawanda Brewing Co. of New York. The Tonawanda Co. had purchased the Consumers brewery only for its equipment, as it was intending to build a new brewery of its own. When the brewing equipment was removed from the building, huge sections of walls were knocked out, leaving the deserted building an eyesore. The property was purchased in 1914 by John Masino, but the buildings stood quietly for the next decade.
In the 1920s, the deserted brewery attracted the attention of the Ku Klux Klan, which had become quite powerful in the city and other parts of the county. The brewery, with its high tower and location in Osborn Heights, on high ground east of the city, was easily visible from some distance. The Klansmen used the roof of the plant to burn crosses, while setting off loud dynamite charges in a nearby gravel pit to draw attention to the crosses. These could easily be seen in the downtown area of Ashtabula, as well as for long distances in all directions. This continued for several years until Masino took his own dynamite charges and blew the top two stories off the tower, thus ending the Klan's use of the building.
Several years later, the city council decided to do away with the remaining structures altogether, and they were subsequently dynamited to their doom. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps crushed the remaining chunks of brick and concrete for use as a roadbed in the Gulf Park area of Ashtabula. Today, all that remains of the Consumers brewery is a rusted water pipe sticking out of the hillside near the former Crystal Spring. The spring itself has all but disappeared, leaving behind a small overgrown pool. The Riverview apartment complex now occupies the site of the former brewery on what is now East 51st Street, overlooking the steep bank of the Ashtabula River.
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