- Associated Press - Saturday, March 4, 2017

MONTGOMERY, Minn. (AP) - A big symbol of Montgomery’s past reappeared on the northwest side of town about 10 years ago - thanks to a power-washing project on the facade of an empty factory.

As Steve Simon sprayed off layers of grime and paint from his recently acquired 130-year-old structure, he uncovered giant letters spelling out the name of a product once bottled in the building, the Mankato Free Press (https://bit.ly/2lqCTNL ) reported.

“The Chief Beer” was a popular label for the old Montgomery Brewing Company, one of the bottling houses once operated in the eastern Le Sueur County town.

Simon’s discovery of the advertisement on the building untapped lots of talk about the town’s history along with a discussion of starting a new business at the site of the former plant.

A redesign of the innards of the 25,000-square-foot vacant factory had been Simon’s original plan to create apartment rentals. Although some of the repurposed building’s space is leased out, its lower level is again in use as a beer business.

“My brewery was an afterthought,” said Chuck Dorsey, co-owner of the small-scale operation that opened at the site in December 2014.

Dorsey is married to Simon’s daughter, Stephani. He’s proprietor of the new Montgomery Brewing Company. A.J. Newton is the head brewer.

Their microbrewery takes up about 1,500 square feet of the building’s space.

“My father-in-law bought the building back in 2000 and he’s been working on it ever since.”

Several varieties of handcrafted beers are served to customers in a tap room, which is open for a limited number of hours five days a week. Suds lovers from out of town travel to Montgomery to sample brews and thirsty residents stop in after work for a glass or two.

About 3,000 people live in the community about 45 miles south of Minneapolis-St. Paul.

“Everyone knows someone who’s worked here,” Dorsey said.

The tap room’s decor makes it easy for customers to reminisce. Stories draw many of the town’s residents to the 1882 landmark building. For example, in 1935, an industrious brewmaster lost his life while polishing the insides of his beer vats.

“Apparently, he was overcome by the fumes,” said Dale Ruhland, 67, the town’s unofficial beer historian.

Ruhland, a local electrician, is the descendant of a Wisconsin brewmeister who worked for the founder of Pabst before starting his own bottling plant at Baraboo.

Early on a recent evening, Ruhland joined Orville and Marilyn Richter, 92, and 86, respectively, of Montgomery, at a taproom table.

Orville was in familiar surroundings as he enjoyed the conversation and a cold one. His grandfather, E.P. Richter, was a founder of the original Montgomery Brewing Company at the same address.

E.P. hailed from a family of brewery operators. He and his business partner, Joseph Handschuh, operated the bottling company - a consolidation with Lake Pepin Brewery - from 1905 to 1919.

The town had been home to various breweries before 1920 when a federal law banned the manufacture and sale of alcohol.

After the nation’s prohibition against liquor sales ended in 1933, Richter got back in the brewery business, Orville said. He has fond memories of family gatherings at his grandparents’ home, which was built close to the brewery.

“My family, all my aunts and uncles played lots of cards.”

E.P. loved to go hunting, but he refrained from using alcohol.

“My grandfather was not a drinker,” said Orville, who occasionally imbibes in a beer.

“He’s good at that,” teased Marilyn.

Orville chuckled then said he doesn’t have a favorite brand.

“It’s all good.”

Ruhland enjoyed the couple’s company along with a can of Red Bird Rye PA during his stop at the tap room during an informal tour he was giving to highlight Montgomery’s history.

When settlers arrived in the late 1850s, a vast hardwood forest they called The Big Woods covered Le Sueur County.

Logging was the big business for the area in the late 1800s. Beer making took over around 1903, when the Milwaukee Railroad Company built a branch line to meet other lines at Montgomery.

“Those were glorious times for the brewery,” Ruhland said.

Immigrants from Czechoslovakia made up the majority of brewery employees during the first decades of the 20th century.

Ruhland’s tour included a visit with Bob Dvorak, 90, the kid brother of a beer deliveryman. Dvorak took a break from answering phones at Stadstad Plumbing & Heating to recount vivid tales from the 1930s when he was 10 years old and a helper to his sibling, Lyle. The elder Dvorak drove his truck on routes taking them as far as St. Cloud.

The younger Dvorak’s job was to handle the cases of pop ordered by customers. On the Montgomery route, he helped roll kegs down to the cool basements of several of the town’s establishments.

“There were 10 saloons on Main Street. The Monte Hotel took barrels of beer.”

When Ruhland showed Dvorak an old wooden keg and other carrying containers for beer, the memories came rolling back.

“We used to bring ‘ponies’ out to threshing crews to drink when they took their breaks.”

He also recalled helping Lyle tote burlap bags of hops from the railroad station to the nearby brewery.

The Dvoraks would hang around awhile and talk to the employees and wait for the occasional excitement caused when men who were riding the rails stopped by.

“Back then, the brewery gave out free samples. Hobos would try to come back for more and the brewery guys would chase them away.”

A military draft in 1939 took a drain on the brewery’s workforce.

Ruhland said some of the town’s youths were enlisted to take over for adult employees in the service. Roy Washa, 92, was 15 when his father, who was on the board of the brewery, asked him to work on the picnic bottle line. Those Bohemian Club beer bottles had to be handled one at a time, Washa told Ruhland.

The labor shortage resulted in the brewery’s vats shutting down in 1941.

When Dorsey and Newton opened their operation at the site, it was one of the state’s first breweries to take advantage of a new law allowing towns to permit Sunday growler sales, according to a 2015 Star Tribune story.

Minnesota has about 130 breweries in operation today - a slightly higher number than those in the state before Prohibition.

Montgomery Brewing Company’s fermentations include an amber ale that gives a nod to the most popular beer made at the same Second Street address decades ago.

“We named one of our beers The Chief to pay homage,” Dorsey said.

The new bottles are sans the vintage label of a man with long black braids wearing a feathered headdress and a necklace of animal claws.

Ruhland said lots of breweries from E.P. Richter’s era used similar images. The bottling companies did not intend to be disrespectful of Native Americans, they wanted customers to identify their products with a romantic figure.

“It was a different time back then,” Dorsey said.


Information from: The Free Press, https://www.mankatofreepress.com

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