BREWERY GEMS PROFILES: 
Gustav Hodel - Brewer


Portrait of Gus Hodel

BIOGRAPHY of GUSTAV HODEL
(1875 -1966)


The following draws heavily on a biography written by Gus Hodel's grandson, William "Bill" Whetton.

Hodel Brewery, Emmendingen, Germany Gustav Hodel was born on April 30, 1875, in Emmendingen, Baden, Germany. He was the youngest of Christian Hodel and Christina Yoho's seven children. Christian Hodel was the owner of the Hodel Brewery there in Emmendingen. So Gustav was born to the brewing trade.

In 1882, Gustav's oldest sister, Karolina, married a local brewer named Martin Blum. Later that year, Martin's older brother, Andrew, who had emigrated nine years prior, encouraged Martin and his new wife, to join him in America.  Andrew was a maltster with the Metz Bros. Brewing Co. in Omaha, and found Martin a position at another Omaha plant, Storz & Iler's Columbia Brewery - later to become the Storz Brewing Co.

By 1887 Martin had become a successful brewmaster at the Omaha plant. However, he wanted his own brewery so he partnered with C. Hameister and together they purchased controlling interest in the Yankton City Brewery of Yankton, South Dakota, 130 miles NW of Omaha. Martin remained there less than two years, selling out in 1889, and moving to Galena, Ill. to establish a brewery¹ there.

While Martin was building his new brewery, Karolina wrote to her youngest brother, Gustav, and invited him to join them in Galena. She included $60 for his fare. Martin was incensed at this until it was agreed that Gustav would work in the brewery for three months to pay back the debt. On his arrival, he was not well received by his brother-in-law and was put to work immediately to work off the $60 debt. He was only 14 when he arrived, so rather than leave when his debt was repaid, he stayed on in spite of the harsh working conditions he had to endure. By 1892, he had managed to save $100. He was only 17, but he was now ready to leave Galena.

To quote his grandson:

"His childhood had been extreme and later in his life he would not accept less than he had done from those around him. His exterior had grown callus, but within him he was not a cruel man in spite of his experience with Martin Blum."

Gustav traveled to Omaha, and went to the Metz Bros. Brewing Co. where Andrew Blum had been a maltster, and took a position that paid $60 a month. This was more than average, and the hours were not too long. But he was young and restless, and wanted to travel, so he in early 1893 he left Omaha for St. Louis. There he found a position with Charles G. Stifel's Brewery, but was paid $8 less per month than he'd received at his previous position with the Metz Brewery. He stayed only three months, having been tempted to travel to Chicago for the World's Fair. He enjoyed the excitement of the fair, but was soon out of money and unable to find work.

Gustav wrote to his sister for money, and grudgingly returned to work for Martin Blum - but only long enough to repay the debt and save enough money to leave again. He then did a short stint with the Pabst Brewing Co. in Milwaukee, but he was lured away by tales of adventure. Setting out for Alaska and the prospects of a bear hunt, he joined another traveler - who was also short of funds - by riding the box cars west.

By the time they had reached Montana, Gustav had had enough. He continued as far as Silver Bow where he took a position at Christian Nissler's Silver Bow Brewery. After one year he had saved $300, and yearning to see the Pacific Ocean he set off again. In early '95, he boarded a train for Portland where he caught a steamer down the coast to San Francisco. Prospects were not good here, and after some misadventures, an older but wiser Gustav decided to return to Montana.

He was fortunate to find a position with the
Centennial Brewing Co. in Butte. The owner, Henry Mueller (also a native of Baden), took a personal interest in the young brewer. Mueller persuaded Gustav to settle down and save his money for brewer's school in order to further his career. He was earning good money for the times and by 1899 he had the funds to travel to Milwaukee and attend a six month course of instruction.

The school was a joint venture of the Pabst and Schlitz Brewing companies, with formal instruction in the morning and practical applications at one of the breweries in the afternoon. At the end of the six months, Gustav received his Master brewers certification.

Returning to Montana in early 1900, he was immediately given a new job by his mentor, Henry Mueller. Besides owning the giant Centennial brewery, Mueller had just established a new brewery in Billings, Mont., and the 25 year old brewer was to be the plant's first brewmaster.

Billings Brewery
Billings Brewing Co.


He remained in Billings until January of 1902, when he returned to Butte to help with another of Mueller's breweries. Lewis B. Pabst was Mueller's partner and had been in charge of their Olympia Brewing Co. On 29 January, Pabst unexpectedly died after a mere 10 day illness. Gus stepped in and oversaw the plant and assisted in an expansion project, which doubled the plant's output to 50 barrels per day.

It was during this period that Gustav met the young sister of two of his brewers, Joseph and John Weidenfeller. Mary had come to Butte from Dorr, Mich. to visit her brothers, and after meeting the successful young Gustav, she decided to prolong her stay.
To again quote his grandson:

"Gustav had gone far, from working for Martin Blum for $20 a month, to his new job of $250 per month - including the large and completely furnished brewmaster's house. He had seen much of the United States and had a position of a professional brewmaster. He was no longer a "green-horn" who had difficulty with the English language nor was he to be taken in by low wages or poor accommodations. In his new prosperity he decided to put an end to his visits to the "red light" district of Butte and marry and have children. So, he courted Mary Weidenfeller in the old world tradition of flowers and Sunday carriage rides, and they were married on February 17, 1903."

After more than three years of marriage, the Hodels still had no children. It was suggested that Mary see a doctor for treatment. However, the doctor may have been a "quack" since the treatment proved fatal for Mary. She contracted blood poisoning and died on September 12, 1906.

Gustav was inconsolable and lived a solitary life, believing no one could take Mary's place. But finally, on February 8, 1908, he married Anne Champagne, and they were soon to be blessed with the first of three girls.

Gustav had been Centennial's superintendent since 1904, and his high wages allowed him to invest in the mining boom going on in the area. He was shrewd with his investments and on 28 October, 1909, Gus (which he now
went by) was elected president of the Golden West Mining & Milling Co., which was capitalized at $500,000. Late the following year, Gus sold some of the shares in the gold mine, and traveled to Lewistown to purchase an interest in the Lewistown Brewing Co.

On 11 April, 1911, after raising additional funds, he purchased the controlling interest in the Lewistown Brewery for $65,000. Gus then assumed the position of president, and manager of the company.

The business flourished until January 1, 1919, when Montana chose to adopt state-wide prohibition - one year and 15 days prior to national prohibition. At this point, rather than close the plant, Gus decided to produce near-beer and soft drinks. This allowed the plant to stay open, but the demand for real beer was stronger than ever, and Gus was willing to meet the demand.
 
Luckily the prohibition enforcement agents were "few and far between" as well as being notoriously corrupt. In November of 1922, former prohibition enforcement director, O.H. Shelly, was indicted on 12 counts of accepting bribes. He had received money from the Montana Brewing Co. of Great Falls, and the Lewistown Brewing Co., with the understanding that he would allow them to make and sell beer.
 
Other than making near-beer or illegal beer, there were no options to brewers other than to leave the country, and some did. The obvious choice would be Canada, but unfortunately they too were experimenting with idiocy of prohibition. However, unlike the U. S. they wised-up much sooner. As of January 1, 1924, the Province of Alberta modified their eight year old prohibition law to the extent that beer could again be produced.

On 31 December, 1923, Gus crossed the border into Canada and headed to Medicine Hat, Alberta, with $2,000 in cash from the sale of his Lewistown home. There he found local investors and they re-opened the ten year old, Medicine Hat Brewing Co., which had been idle for eight years. Gus was president of the company; H. C. Yuill
², vice-president; and J. H. Yuill, secretary-treasurer.

Old Fashion Lager label, Medicine Hat, Alberta

Their Old Fashion Lager³ sold moderately well, but they had a serious competitor from another major brewery. Fritz Sick and his son, Emil, operated the huge Lethbridge Brewing & Malting Company, and while it was 100 miles from Medicine Hat, its products dominated the region. So, in June of 1927, after only three years of operation, and lack-luster sales, their Medicine Hat Brewery closed.

Perhaps Gus' decision to shut down was influenced by the voters referendum passed the previous November in Montana. State-wide "dry" laws were repealed, which left enforcement of national Prohibition to federal agents.

Gus was now back in Lewistown and again making near-beer, and with relaxed enforcement he was making stronger beer as well. Still, he had too much exposure and was an easy target for the feds.
 
On Sept. 19, 1928, Gus' brewery was raided and he and one employee, Ole Langland, were arrested. The feds destroyed 800 quarts of beer and dumped 600 gallons from the aging tanks. They also confiscated all of his brewing equipment.

Both Gus and Ole were released on $300 bond (about $3,700 today) and were to be tried in Great Falls Federal Court on October 13th. Ole faced the court and was sentenced to 60 days in jail, and fined $50. However, Gus failed to appear and forfeited the $300, and was believed to have departed for Canada to avoid what would surely have been a stiffer sentence than his employee received.

Gus kept a low profile in Lewistown, and apparently the forfeiture of the bond satisfied the Feds since they dropped the matter. He resumed his brewing activities but was more circumspect. However, fate was to deal him another set-back, when on October 29, 1929, the stock market crashed. What investments he had left, including the Lewistown Brewery, were lost.

Again, he found salvation in Canada. He traveled to North Battleford, Sask., where an old acquaintance, Fred Wentzler, offered Gus the position of brewmaster, with an outstanding wage of $350 a month. Wentzler had recently established the Star Brewing Company, Ltd., and knew Gus from his days in Medicine Hat. The brewery initially produced an "Old Fort Beer" but in October of 1930, Gus crafted what would become their best selling beer - "Wentzler's Lager."

Wentzler's Lager beer label, No. Battleford, Sask.

He and his family remained at the Star Brewery until Repeal in 1933, when he returned to Montana to work for his old competitors, Fritz and Emil Sick. Gus was to become the first brewmaster at their Great Falls Brewery.

However, Gus was not content with working for others, and soon made plans to re-open the abandoned Lewistown Brewing Company. He raised the requisite capital through local investors, and by June of '34, his beer was once again on sale. For his flagship brand, Gus crafted a lager beer he named “Silver Tip” – which the locals call their grizzly bear.

In January of 1936, the company was re-organized as Lewistown Brewery, Inc., but it was not to last. In 1938, a mere two years later, the company found that it could no longer compete with the larger breweries, and the Brewer's Union in Great Falls demanded that the brewery increase its wages paid to employees, which it simply could not afford. The situation left the company with no option but to let their employees go and close down the brewery.

Gus remained in Lewistown as a sales representative for the E. J. Johnson Co., the local beer distributor. When Edmund Johnson unexpectedly died in March of '42, he agreed to stay on at the urging of Johnson's widow. Gus left Lewistown in 1946, relocating to California to be closer to his daughters.

He enjoyed retirement and found the milder climate of Santa Cruz more to his liking. Gus had 20 years of leisurely, California living before passing, on July 3, 1966.

Gus Hodel was considered to be one of the Boarderlands leading brewers, and was a major contributor to the brewing industry in his adopted homeland.


FOOTNOTES: 

¹ Martin Blum established his brewery in 1890, with $20,000 in capital. It operated successfully for 30 years until January 16, 1920, when Prohibition shut it down. Martin died on October 17, 1919 - perhaps at the prospect of his life's work being destroyed.

² Harry Clinton Yuill was an successful industrialist whose name was synonymous with Medicine Hat. He helped establish the Medicine Hat Flour Mill, Alberta Lindseed Oil Co., and the Alberta Foundry. He and his son, J. Harlan Yuill, are best remembered for the establishment of the Alberta Clay Products Co.

³ Gus crafted this “Old Fashion Lager” at Medicine Hat in 1924, but had also made an "Old Fashion Lager" as brewmaster with the Billings Brewery in 1900.

 

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ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS:

  • Portrait photo courtesy of Gus Hodel's grandson, Ronald Matejcek.

  • Hodel Brewery photo courtesy of Gus' great-grand nephew, Johnathan Hodel.

  • Wentzler's Lager label courtesy of labelogist, Bert Barkwell. 

  • And a special thanks to another of Gus' grandsons, William "Bill" Whetton,
    who's work made this biography possible.

 

For any comments, additions, or corrections -  please contact me:
 

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