- The Washington Times - Monday, November 22, 2004

MILWAUKEE - When Pabst Brewing Co. abruptly closed its headquarters here in 1996, the owner and workers left behind a treasure trove of relics dating back to the brewer’s 1844 origin.

A yellowed visitors registry and vintage photographs uncovered in a basement storage area of the former brewing complex provide a link to the rich heritage of Pabst, once the nation’s largest brewer.

A calendar on the wall in one corporate office is turned to December 1996, when the brewing era came to a halt at the 22-acre complex. Dusty ornaments hang on an artificial balsam Christmas tree in another office area, a reminder of happier times when Pabst managers gathered in Blue Ribbon Hall at the end of the week to swap stories and share the product they had a hand in making.

That December, Pabst stopped making Blue Ribbon and its other beers at the downtown plant for the first time since Prohibition.

Pabst security guard John Mies had worked for the brewer 17 years when word came the company’s 200 or so employees should leave the complex.

“The owner just decided everybody could go,” Mr. Mies said. “It was kind of sad because it was a good place to work — friendships were formed.”

Personal belongings were left behind. Company-issued jackets hung in the lockers of production workers; pictures were stuck on locker doors; dirty glasses and ashtrays filled with cigarette butts were left on desks. Mr. Mies and several other employees were retained by Pabst to secure the complex.

“Over the years, I’ve watched the deterioration,” he said. “It was kind of sad to see that.”

The brewing company got its start in Milwaukee after Jacob Best Sr. relocated his German brewery. Two of Best’s four sons, Jacob Jr. and Charles, had traveled to Milwaukee in 1842 to establish a vinegar factory. Charles Best returned to Mettenheim, Germany, and brought the rest of the family to Milwaukee early in 1844.

Son Phillip Best became the sole proprietor in 1859 and established the Phillip Best Brewing Co. Five years later, he became partners with Capt. Frederick Pabst, who had married Phillip’s daughter. By 1874, the brewery was the nation’s largest. It became the Pabst Brewing Co. in 1889.

A year after Prohibition was repealed in 1933, Pabst’s sales broke the 1 million barrel mark. It tripled sales by 1946 and nearly quadrupled them again by 1968 after buying Blatz Brewing Co.

In Milwaukee and elsewhere, Pabst was king.

“Every bar we went to, everything was Pabst,” said Beverly Leonardelli, 70, of Milwaukee. Her former husband, who worked for Pabst for 32 years, would bring home a turkey and a case of beer from his employer every Christmas.

Pabst’s sales had reached 15.6 million barrels by 1978 before they began to decline. The brewer laid off 70 percent of its Milwaukee work force by early 1996 and later that year announced it would shift the remaining production to Stroh Brewing Co.’s La Crosse plant. Pabst already had contracted with Stroh to handle two-thirds of its production in La Crosse.

Remnants of Pabst’s brewing history remained behind at the Milwaukee headquarters, some evident in the elaborate carvings and stained glass at its offices and visitors’ center, others boxed and buried in the basement.

The Pabst complex remained undisturbed until developers purchased the $10.3 million property in September 2002 and meticulously began picking through the past.

“It looked like a bomb went through it and wiped out all human life and left everything else intact,” said Paul Bertling, a partner in Brew City Redevelopment Group.

Brew City President Jim Haertel and his sister, Linda Gleason of Mesa, Ariz., poked around a basement storage area.

“We saw piles of boxes and papers. We were like, ‘What is this?’ When we started going through we saw [photographs of] Groucho Marx and Danny Kaye. And we were like, ‘Oh, my gosh, these are people that have visited here and left their mark on this place,’” Mrs. Gleason said. “It was such a thrill because it was history coming to life right there.”

Black-and-white photographs from the 1940s show Mr. Marx hoisting a beer stein at company headquarters, as well as visits from celebrities including Jimmy Durante and Donald O’Connor.

As a sponsor of Mr. Marx’s national radio show, Pabst brought the comedian to Milwaukee to host Pabst Blue Ribbon Town live in celebration of the company’s 100th anniversary.

A thick, dusty guest registry contains the signatures of visitors from around the world.

Milwaukee historian John Gurda said the Pabst memorabilia is worth something on the collector’s market, but its real value is tied to what Pabst meant to Milwaukee. The Pabst name is still an icon in the city, he said.

“It wasn’t just the brewery. It was Pabst theater, the hotel, the Pabst mansion, Pabst farms. They probably, like a lot of brewers, had hundreds of brewery-owned taverns,” Mr. Gurda said.

The Pabst complex, with its 28 buildings, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2001.

The U.S. Department of the Interior, in making the designation, noted the German Renaissance Revival architectural style, with its notched towers and battlements, reflected the character of the city in the late 19th century.

Pabst closed its last company-owned brewery in September 2001, said Pabst Chief Operating Officer Jim Walter in San Antonio, where the company moved its headquarters after closing the Milwaukee brewery.

Today, Pabst contracts with Miller Brewing Co. to produce its 11 brands, including Pabst Blue Ribbon, which has experienced a revival in recent years among young drinkers rebelling against mass-marketed brands.

The developers of the old Pabst property plan to keep the historical artifacts at the renovated complex, which eventually will house a beer museum.

“It’s a reminder that there was once abundant life at a complex that for almost 10 years has been quiet as a tomb,” Mr. Gurda said.

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