One of the most historically significant breweries in Ohio, the Zoar Society brewery operated under conditions different from any other in the state. No description of the brewery would be complete, however, without a discussion of the unique society itself. The Zoar Society originated after 1817, when approximately 350 German immigrants, mostly poor, came to eastern Ohio and settled on a tract of 5,000 acres of land, along the banks of the Tuscarawas River. They were comprised of both Lutherans and Roman Catholics, who were coming to America to escape persecution. Joseph Bimeler was a teacher who became their political and religious leader. The village was named after the biblical city to which Lot fled from Sodom and Gomorrah.
Under the community Articles of Association, the earnings of every individual were to be turned over to a common treasury. While some families remained intact, there were some families which were broken up due to poverty, so that some homes were comprised only of men, while others were comprised only of women. The primary occupation in the community was farming, producing food for the community and for sale.
It is likely that beer was brewed in the village at a very early point, possibly in either a home brewing setting, or possibly in a small village structure. However, it appears that it was not until the mid-1820s, after the completion of the Ohio and Erie Canal through the village, that a large wooden barn-like building was built at the west end of what is now known as 5th Street, to house the village's brewing operation. It is unclear what the output was in the early days, but by the 1870s the brewery was producing between 200 and 400 barrels of lager beer per year. The malt and hops used for brewing were grown in town, and were often picked by children. The brewery was operated for profit in later years, with much of the beer sold to guests at the bar of the Zoar Hotel in town, as well as the one other tavern in the village. The hotel, which was run in later years by Christian Ruof, the son of one of the Society's founders, was a very busy place after the mid-to-late 1800s. Wealthy people from all over Ohio came to Zoar as a peaceful retreat from the city. Native German industrialists in particular came to the village for vacations, as life in the village reminded many of them of their childhood in the Fatherland, and most conversations there were spoken in German. Leonhard Schlather, owner of a large brewery in Cleveland, owned a house in Zoar, where he and his family frequently stayed. In fact, two concrete plaques from the Cleveland brewery sit near his old home in Zoar to this day.
In the latter part of the nineteenth century, it appears that a small amount of beer was sold to nearby farmers, and some was shipped via canal boats to other towns. All of the beer was barreled, however, as the plant never had a bottling works. Over the years, the Zoar Brewery's beer developed a reputation as one of the best in the region.
According to The Zoar Story, by Hilda Morhart, "in the summertime a pint of beer was sent to each man working in the fields daily, at lunch time. On very hot Monday mornings, a medium sized glass of beer was given to the women while they were doing their laundry work." Even though the brewery's beer was supplied generously to the society's families, it was rare for anyone to become intoxicated in the village. Beer was used as a standard daily beverage, like milk and cider, due to the questionable purity of water supplies in the area. Between the boiling of the water in the brewing process and the alcohol contained within, beer could generally be counted upon to be free of dangerous bacteria.
It is uncertain how many people worked in the brewery, but it is known that the master brewer in 1860 was Johanus Grotzinger. By 1870, he had been succeeded by John Shaffer, and by 1880 Shaffer had been succeeded by Anton Burkhart.
The Society's time had passed by the end of the nineteenth century, and for a variety of reasons its members decided to disband in 1898, and sell all of the commonly owned property, including the brewery. At this time, ownership of the brewery fell into the hands of John Relker and O. J. Kappel, two Society members. They sold the structure and a five acre plot of land on which it stood to Alexander Gunn, a wealthy Cleveland industrialist. He had vacationed in Zoar for many years, and developed a taste for life in the village, as well as its favorite beverage. Although it is difficult to confirm, it is possible that he continued operation of the brewery, although at a minimal level of production, for an additional three years, before his death in 1901. During that time, he converted some of the upper floors of the old brewhouse building into a clubhouse for friends, complete with oak trim and a large fireplace, where a good portion of the beloved brew was enjoyed. This no doubt caused some consternation among the local residents, many of whom were former Society members who had stayed in the village after the dissolution. After Gunn's death, it appears that the brewery closed for good. The old building was later used as a tavern, operated by a man named Keller. It was converted into a dance hall in the 1930s, and was still hosting weekly dances when the complex burned to the ground in 1959. The foundations of the buildings still remain visible today. The site was recently purchased by a group which may make the area into a nature preserve, while maintaining its historical integrity.
A brief attempt was made to form a new Zoar Brewery after Prohibition in late 1933. At that time, the buildings of the former community were still being used as a vacation spot for many of the wealthy people of Northeast Ohio, particularly Clevelanders. A company was formed by William Schuster, formerly of the Massillon brewery, and A. V. Weitz of Cleveland, with the intention of building a new plant with a five-story brewhouse in the village.
Located on the east side of the village, along Goose Run, the new plant had some preliminary construction performed before the project was abandoned. Today, many of the buildings of the community have been preserved as remnants of another time and remain a popular tourist attraction.
Copyright 2005 by Zepp Publications
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