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Leisy Brewing Company, Cleveland, Ohio

Excerpt from the book, Breweries of Cleveland, by Carl H. Miller. Reprinted by permission of the author.

The story of Leisy beer in Cleveland began in June of 1873, when the city hosted the Thirteenth Annual Brewers Congress, held at the West Side Rink. Brewers from around the country converged on the city to discuss brewing-related issues and fraternize with industry compatriots. Among those in attendance at the Congress was brewer Isaac Leisy, part owner of the Leisy Brothers' Union Brewery of Keokuk, Iowa. Leisy, like the other attendees, could not have helped but be impressed by the fertile market that Cleveland offered its brewing enterprises. The city's industrial development had burgeoned nonstop since the Civil War, the level of European immigration into Cleveland was reaching new highs, and more than twenty-five breweries throughout the city enjoyed a booming trade. It must have been just these conditions that lead Isaac Leisy to pull up stakes in Iowa and seek the purchase of a brewery in Cleveland. Within four short weeks of his visit, Isaac Leisy and two of his brothers, August and Henry, had purchased the brewery of local entrepreneur Frederick Haltnorth, thus marking the beginning of a long-lived Cleveland brewing dynasty.

The brewery -- in what was then Brooklyn Township -- was originally established in 1858 by brewer Jacob Mueller, who sold the works to Frederick Haltnorth in 1864. Haltnorth was involved in a number of different enterprises in Cleveland for many years, most notably Haltnorth's Gardens at Willson (East 55th) Street and Woodland Avenue. The large beer garden was among the city's most popular. It is likely that Haltnorth's involvement in the brewing business was motivated primarilly by the need to supply his garden with ample quantities of beer. That notwithstanding, the brewery was turning out a large amount of beer -- as much as 12,000 barrels annually -- at the time of its sale to the Leisy brothers.

Isaac, August and Henry Leisy came to America in 1855 with their mother, father, brothers and sisters -- a party comprised of fourteen Leisys in all. Coming from their ancestral home in Friedelsheim, Bavaria, the Leisys settled on a large farm in rural Iowa, where many fellow members of the Mennonite faith had also started life in the new land. Several of the Leisys were brewers by trade, and young Isaac -- after finding work on the family farm to be distasteful -- sought to become a brewer as well. His first employment in the beer-making trade was at a brewery in Warsaw, Illinois. However, Isaac was soon working instead at the brewery of William J. Lemp in St. Louis, where he remained for several years. While on a trip to Friedelsheim to visit his old home, Isaac married a cousin, Christine Leisy, and chose to remain in Germany for a time. Carrying on his career as a brewer, Isaac worked briefly at a brewery in Dürkheim.

Upon his return to America in 1862, Isaac was persuaded by his father to come to Keokuk, Iowa and join two of his brothers -- John and Rudolph -- in a brewery venture there. Along with Jacob Baehr (who would later own a brewery in Cleveland), the Leisy brothers took over a Keokuk brewery and commenced business in 1862 as the Leisy & Brothers Union Brewery. Business at the Keokuk brewery was good, but Isaac soon yearned for something of grander proportions. As one biographer put it, Isaac was "ambitious to engage in business in some city of importance where he could have a wider field for the exercise of his talents." It was undoubtedly this desire for new opportunities that led Isaac to Cleveland.

While Isaac Leisy was busy with his brewery in Keokuk, his brothers Henry and August were engaged in pursuits in other parts of the country. August -- one of the few Leisys who did not become a brewer at an early age -- operated a furniture business in Missouri. Henry, however, followed in the family tradition and worked as a brewer in St. Louis and Milwaukee.

On July 2, 1873, Isaac, August and Henry Leisy bought Frederick Haltnorth's brewery in Cleveland for $120,000. Interestingly, a portion of the capital was supplied by John, Jacob and Henry Laysy, who operated a local distillery under the name of J. Laysy & Company. Distant relations of the Leisy family, the Laysys were a branch of the original Swiss lineage which did not emigrate to Bavaria as Isaac's ancestors had done. It is surmised that the Laysys may have played more than just a financial role in the Leisy brothers' decision to come to Cleveland. Whatever the case, the Laysys sold their interest in the brewery to Isaac not long after business commenced.

There are a variety of stories concerning exactly how it happened that the Leisys came to purchase Haltnorth's brewery. One source states that Isaac Leisy toured the brewery while in Cleveland for the brewers' convention. Having found it to be "so every way satisfactory to him," Leisy allegedly approached Haltnorth on-the-spot and beseeched him to sell the brewery. However, more reliable sources show that Haltnorth, in fact, actively sought the sale of his brewery, even engaging the services of an agent to help secure a buyer. The agent brought Leisy and Haltnorth together shortly after the conclusion of the brewers' convention. It was said that the final purchase price was negotiated over a late night card game between Leisy and Haltnorth. By the following morning, Haltnorth had come to regret the price, but honored the agreement nevertheless. "My word is my word," said Haltnorth.

Isaac Leisy & Company was the name given the new firm as Isaac held the largest share among the brothers. Included in the purchase of the brewery was a large and stylish residence which had been the home of Frederick Haltnorth and which sat just near the brewery buildings. As head of the concern, Isaac enjoyed the benefit of residing in this home, while August and Henry lived in smaller houses further down Vega Avenue.

The Leisys approached the business of making and selling beer in Cleveland with unusual vigor. After all, Cleveland offered Isaac and his brothers opportunities which simply were not present in rural Iowa. For example, the complex network of rail lines which sprouted from the city in all directions allowed for efficient distribution of beer to locations outside the Cleveland area. And, indeed, outside markets were aggressively pursued by the Leisys right from the start. The brothers established their own distribution depot in Pittsburgh early on. By 1878, the Pittsburgh facility was doing enough business to warrant the relocation of Henry Leisy to that city for the purpose of overseeing the extensive trade there. During the same year, it was noted that Leisy beer was being handled by wholesalers as far away as San Francisco, although surely this must have been an isolated and short-lived arrangement. The costs of transportation would certainly have been prohibitive. Nevertheless, it is clear that the Leisy brewery prospered from the very beginning. Astonishingly, the brothers were out-producing all other brewers in the city by 1874.

In keeping with their ambitious charge to develop business, the Leisys sought to cultivate a local market for bottled beer to supplement the traditional kegged sales. Bottling was something which was almost entirely ignored by the great majority of the day's lager beer brewers. In fact, what little lager beer bottling did take place in the early days was conducted almost exclusively by independent bottlers. Many such bottlers found great profits in buying kegged beer direct from brewers, bottling it with or without the brewer's permission, and selling it themselves, often under their own names. Predictably, an arrangement of this sort was unacceptable to the Leisys. The early bottling of lager beer was a tricky process which often proved detrimental to the quality of the beer. And far be it from the brothers to allow some outside bottler the occasion to recklessly tamper with the good Leisy name. Accordingly, the Leisys built their own bottling works in the spring of 1878 across Vega Avenue from the brewery. Although it represented a modest percentage of total output, bottled beer continued to be a priority at the Leisy brewery throughout the remainder of the pre-prohibition years.

Despite the early success of the Leisy brewery, both Henry and August Leisy gave up their interest in the business to Isaac in 1882 and left Cleveland to take up farming in Wisner, Nebraska. Their reasons for doing so are not entirely clear, although a family member later postulated that August and Henry -- having grown up in rural regions of Germany -- were simply not suited for urban life. In addition, it was suggested that the two brothers may have found it difficult to reconcile their strict Mennonite background with the reaping of large profits from the manufacture of alcoholic beverages. Whatever the case, the business continued to flourish under Isaac's sole direction. Creating A Landmark

In 1883, Isaac Leisy commissioned Cleveland brewery architect Andrew Mitermiler to design a grand new Leisy stockhouse (an ice house where beer was aged) adjacent to the original brewery buildings. This new structure not only marked the beginning of a wholesale metamorphosis of the Leisy plant, but also largely determined the architectural character that the entire complex would reflect for the next seventy-five years. Visually, the Leisy brewery was one of the most extravagant of the city's brewing plants. It included a number of unique architectural features. A life-size statue of King Gambrinus -- "the patron saint of beer" -- adorned the roofline until a 1909 windstorm earned it a new perch in the brewery yard. A series of unusual circular emblems spanned much of the brewery's main facade, symbolizing the many rows of aging casks within. And atop the 1883 stockhouse was a large mock beer keg impaled through its fattest part by the brewery's weather vane.

The brewery, however, was only one element of the charming eight-acre Leisy premises. It is interesting to imagine what the first-time visitor saw as he traveled down Vega Avenue from Pearl Street to the brewery. First was Isaac's majestic brownstone mansion with its white marble-pillared porticos and copper-plated towers. Built in 1892, the home was alleged (although falsely) to have a pipeline running directly from the brewery to the living room such that Isaac's guests might be treated to the very freshest beer possible. Just past the mansion was a spectacular park-like setting that included a pond, numerous flower gardens, walking paths, several gazebos, and two large greenhouses. During warm summer days, the many exotic plants which were grown inside the greenhouses were moved outdoors to enhance the other greenery. (The fact that Isaac served on the Cleveland Board of Park Commissioners was an indication of his affection for nature.) Just beyond the lawn and gardens sat the residence of Isaac's son, Otto Leisy. The large Victorian-style house was part of the original brewery purchase from Frederick Haltnorth in 1873. A number of architectural revisions were made over the years so that its appearance would complement that of the adjacent brewery buildings. Finally, having arrived at the brewery gate, visitors were confronted with the mammoth brewery itself and all of its architectural splendor. Certainly, the Leisys took great pains to make visiting the brewery grounds a pleasurable experience.

In its heyday, the Leisy brewery was a bustle of activity. With its many different departments and functions, the plant was highly self-sufficient. There was a blacksmith shop which manufactured brewery tools, horse shoes, barrel rings and countless other items. A fully-equipped woodworking shop was also on brewery grounds for the manufacture and repair of delivery wagons. The woodworking department also built saloon fixtures for the many Leisy-owned saloons throughout the city. When the brewery closed during prohibition, the Leisy family chose to keep the woodworking shop open, doing business as the Fulton Manufacturing Company. There was, of course, a cooperage to supply the necessary hundreds of beer kegs and brewery casks. A complete harness shop was maintained, as were stables which housed nearly 250 delivery horses. The bottling department was kept busy at all times as well, eliminating the complications of employing outside bottling firms. Additionally, the Leisy brewery was one of the few local breweries that malted its own grain rather than buying from independent malteries. This process alone required its own five story building and two 80-foot-high silos each with a storage capacity of 50,000 bushels of barley.

Clearly, the Leisy brewery dominated its primarilly residential neighborhood. There was perhaps no other Cleveland brewery more intimately linked to its neighbors and its community. In an early newspaper article, many of the area's oldest residents recalled how the brewery was virtually the lifeblood of the neighborhood during the days before Prohibition. A local storekeeper told how the chief topic of conversation in his store from morning until night was beer -- Leisy beer. A barber, whose shop was just a few doors down from the brewery, complained about the sharp decline in business after the plant closed during Prohibition. He used to give haircuts to everyone from the brewery, including the Leisys. A local saloonkeeper, who used to drive a Leisy beer wagon in his younger days, proudly announced that he had never drawn a glass of beer that was not Leisy's. Other residents undoubtedly recalled the days when the Leisys paid for brick pavement of area streets, or funded the development of Lincoln Park, or supplied neighbors with electricity from the brewery's power plant when storms caused blackouts. Indeed, the Leisys took pride in playing a role in the well-being and betterment of their adopted neighborhood and city.

Isaac Leisy was described as "a man of great energy and fully alive to the modern methods of doing business." One observer went so far as to say of Isaac, "No brewer has ever displayed greater energy." Many credited Isaac's economic success to his unusual charisma. In his later years, however, Isaac began to suffer failing health. Most of his winters were spent in the South, away from the harsh northern climate. He was a regular visitor of health resorts in both America and Europe. On July 11, 1892, after a two-week illness, Isaac passed away at age fifty-four at his home on Vega Avenue. The cause of death was cited as "apoplexy of the heart." Son Otto I. Leisy was vacationing in Europe at the time and was cabled immediately to return home. After all, it would be Otto who would assume control of the family business. The Second Generation

Otto I. Leisy was but nine years old when his father moved the family from Iowa to Cleveland. He grew and matured along with the brewery. Upon Isaac's death, it was time for Otto to assume his father's position as head of the firm. And although the Leisy brewery had grown into the city's largest and most prosperous brewing enterprise by the time of Isaac's death, Otto faced an industry very much different from that of his father's day. Industry-wide over-expansion during the 1880s, coupled with the economic panic of 1893, sparked intense competition among brewers throughout the last decade of the century. When nine Cleveland breweries joined two in Sandusky to form the Cleveland & Sandusky Brewing Company in 1898, Otto flatly refused to be involved in the consolidation. In a letter to the Plain Dealer, Otto defiantly wrote, "My firm has existed in Cleveland for over a quarter of a century; has prospered by honorable methods of trade, thereby obtaining, possessing and enjoying the confidence of the same. By its former methods my company proposes to preserve and maintain its trade, and in a fair way compete with its opponent, the huge beer trust." Indeed, throughout the remainder of Otto's reign, the Leisy brewery fought vigorously with the Cleveland & Sandusky Brewing Company for business. And despite the cut-throat competition, the Leisy brewery clearly flourished under Otto's management. In 1898, just over 100,000 barrels of Leisy beer were sold, while nearly 300,000 were sold in 1913.

Like most brewers of the day, the Leisys owned a large number of saloon properties throughout Cleveland and elsewhere. With the constant fight for business, brewers sought to protect their sales by achieving exclusive placement of their beer in saloons. This goal was often most easily accomplished through outright ownership of the saloons. By the time Prohibition was enacted, more than 200 "outlets," as they were called, had been owned and operated by the Leisy brewery. In 1914, the Pontiac Improvement Company was incorporated by the Leisys to act as a holding company for the saloons. The new company was likely the result of recent legislative attempts to ban brewers from owning their own drinking establishments.

The first decade of the twentieth century was perhaps the most prosperous period for the Leisy brewery. Great wealth was amassed by Otto Leisy and his family during this time. Otto's financial involvements, however, went far beyond brewing. He was a large stockholder in both the Ashtabula Worsted Mills and the National Woolen Mills of Cleveland. He had also been heavily interested in the old Forest City Railway Company before its absorption by the Cleveland Railway Company. Otto was active in the banking business as well, serving as director of the Lincoln Savings & Banking Company and as vice president of the Pearl Street Savings & Trust Company. But, of course, beer was Otto's primary business, and he was well acquainted with many of the country's prominent brewers. Otto traveled to Europe regularly. On one such voyage, Otto booked passage on the now historic Lusitania which, just a few years later, would be at the center of America's involvement in World War I.

Most of Otto's later years were spent at his eighty-acre summer estate at the top of Fairhill Road, east of what is today Martin Luther King Boulevard. The property was known as "Hochwald" -- high forest. Originally, the retreat was meant only for weekend summer get-aways, while the family's full-time residence continued to be on the brewery grounds. However, by 1905, the advent of automobiles and the growing industrial unpleasantries of the city lead Otto to begin construction of a permanent residence at Hochwald. A stately thirty-six-room mansion, described as "1905 contemporary," was erected on a spot which featured a panoramic view of the entire city of Cleveland. In its day, the lavish home was the scene of many parties and much-noted social events, testifying to the lofty social status attained by the Leisys.

After more than twenty years at the head of Cleveland's largest brewery, Otto I. Leisy died at age fifty-one on March 1, 1914. Local newspapers, one of which called Otto "Cleveland's benefactor," detailed the numerous civic affairs in which the millionaire brewer played a major role. During Mayor Tom L. Johnson's notorious fight to reduce city trolley fares to 3˘, Otto was said to have come forth with a $200,000 donation toward the cause. Mayor Newton D. Baker, who walked to the Leisys' Fairhill Road mansion during a blinding snowstorm to deliver his condolences, said of Otto, "His belief in Cleveland was intense. He thought it the finest city in the world in its possibilities and was willing to give his money and time for its advancement...Mr. Leisy's death is a distinct loss to the city of Cleveland." On the very day of his death, Otto was scheduled to deliver a $50,000 bank note to the city for development of the first public playground on the west side. The Leisy family saw to it that Otto's final act of philanthropy did not go unfulfilled.

The presidency of the Leisy brewery was left vacant for several years after Otto's death. Otto's sister, Amanda Corlett, joined the brewery as vice president in 1914. In the same year, cousin Hugo A. Leisy (son of August Leisy, one of the three original founders) left a career in banking in Nebraska to come to Cleveland and fill the position of secretary and treasurer of the brewery.

Just as Isaac Leisy had died on the cusp of a new era in brewing, so too did Otto pass away on the verge of a rapidly changing industry. After 1914, beer consumption in America started a long downward slide ending in National Prohibition. Much to the credit of the new Leisy management, the Leisy brewery bore the difficulties remarkably well. It was correctly predicted that the household consumption of beer would represent a profitable opportunity for brewers. Thus, the Leisys invested heavily in an enormous new bottling plant on the northwest corner of Vega Avenue and Fulton Road, finished in 1915. Only two years later, yet another new bottling facility was begun adjacent to the main brewhouse. By the end of 1917, more than thirty percent of Leisy's output was packaged in bottles, compared to only five percent in 1910.

It is likely that the Leisys' heavy emphasis on bottling was largely driven by their hopes for success of a new brand called Leisy's Bevera -- a non-alcoholic malt beverage launched in response to the growing prohibition agitation. The new brand seems to represent the Leisys' acceptance that prohibition was imminent. The vigorous promotion of Bevera indicated that the company fully intended to remain active in the beverage business regardless of prohibition. Advertisements for the new brand boasted, "It is as good for children as for grown ups. It is the universal drink of the day." Bevera was sold everywhere: soda fountains, drug stores, grocers, confectioners, hotels, restaurants and amusement parks -- everywhere, that is, except saloons.

Production at the Leisy brewery peaked in 1918, when 565,493 barrels of Leisy beer were consumed during the year. It does not appear, however, that sales of Bevera contributed significantly to the brewery's banner year. When production of real beer ceased for Prohibition, the company's sales quickly dwindled to near zero. Non-alcoholic malt beverages like Bevera simply did not have a widespread market. And although the Leisys also manufactured a full line of flavored soft drinks, the business was unable to remain profitable for long. In 1923, the closing of the Leisy brewery was marked by the pouring of six thousand barrels of Bevera into the sewer.1 A half-century of Leisy beer in Cleveland had come to an end. For the next ten years, the venerable old brewery would remain idle.

Read more about the Leisy brewery and family in the book, Breweries of Cleveland, by Carl H. Miller.

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