Lewistown Brewing Co. embossed tin sign
                                                                       embossed tin sign, ca.1910

History of the Lewistown Brewing Company
(1894-1938)

According to One Hundred Years of Brewing, supplement to the Western Brewer, published in 1903. The Lewistown Brewing Company was "...founded in 1894 by Frank Hass and Philip Laux. The product of the plant is lager beer." The brewery was constructed of locally quarried sandstone by John Laux, the founder's brother.

Lewistown brewery c.1899
                                                                                                                Lewistown brewery ca.1899

The previous citation didn't provide much information on the Brewery, but another historian's work certainly did. The following was written by Dan Jeziorski, and is reprinted here (in black text) with the author's permission.

"The year was 1894 and Lewistown, Montana's agricultural economy was booming. The recent addition of a mill to grind wheat into flour brought promise of furthered economic prosperity. It was an exciting time when many a folk considered new business opportunities. And it was two men by the names of Frank Haas and Philip Laux who realized Lewistown's great potential for a local brewery.

The men secured a piece of land about one mile south of Lewistown on the banks of Spring Creek. It was there that John and Philip Laux erected the Lewistown Brewing Company. This two-story stone structure was designed to include three 70 barrel standards and six 20 barrel casks, giving the brewery the capacity to produce ten barrels of beer a day. The power for the building was generated in a twenty-horse boiler, which drove a sixteen-horse power engine.

The brewery took great pride in the fact that they made their own malt from home grown barley. In reference to this, the brewery often stated 'the experienced brewer in charge says there is no better malt used in the great breweries of Milwaukee or St. Louis.' Initially their products were sent out almost entirely in kegs and were consumed in Lewistown, Gilt Edge and other nearby towns. At the time, the only local area competition they had was from the Maiden Brewery, which also had a ten barrel a day capacity and was owned by a gentleman named E.G. Schneider.

After two years of struggling to compete with the prices of the national brands, Haas & Laux decided to sell the brewery in 1896. The business was promptly purchased by a man by the name of Bernard McDonnell, a man known for his careful and conservative management style. Because of McDonnell's business reputation, the local newspaper predicted it would not take too many years before outside breweries would find it more difficult to compete with the home product."

1900 ad for the Lewistown brewery
13 March, 1900, edition of the Lewistown Eagle

"McDonnell successfully operated the brewery until 1904 when John C. Hogl took over as president. It was in that same year that an ad appeared in the Polk Directory listing "Double Brew Bottled Beer" as the brewery's brand of beer (we could find no reference to brand names or bottling of beer prior to this listing). Hogl presided over the brewing operations until 1912, when prominent brewmaster Gustav Hodel became president."  (see Gustav Hodel biography)

In 1910, Gus Hodel was brewmaster and superintendent of the Centennial Brewing Co.  in Butte. The following year, after disposing of some mining stock, he purchased controlling interest in the Lewistown brewery from John Hogl for $65,000. Then, in June of 1912, the company was re-organized with Gus Hodel as president; J. P. Schmidt, vice-president; and A. C. Hodel, secretary & treasurer.

"With his extensive knowledge of brewing, Hodel improved the brewery's product and continued to successfully operate the business until Prohibition became
law in 1918 and the brewery was forced to close."

"Lewistown Brew" beer label

With the 1919 imposition of state-wide prohibition, rather than closing his brewery, Gus decided to produce near-beer. 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. 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.

In November, 1926, Montanans voted to repeal state-wide "dry" laws, which left enforcement of national Prohibition to federal agents only. This event, coupled with mediocre beer sale in Medicine Hat, influenced Gus to close the Alberta brewery in June, '27.

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, the Lewistown 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 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 turned his brewing skills to making root-beer, since there was literally no demand for near-beer. 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 at Wentzler's Star Brewing Company, Ltd. Gus remained there from January 1930 until Repeal.

"With the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, many Montana breweries were back in business. Having enjoyed his experience in Lewistown, Hodel returned to reopen the brewery in 1934. Having spent the Prohibition years as a brewmaster in Medicine Hat, Canada, Hodel earned the reputation as being one of the finest brewmasters in the Northwest.

Before reopening in l934 many repairs had to be made to the brewery building. A carpenter from Lewistown, a carpenter from Winnett, and Philip Laux (a blacksmith) made the repairs on the building and updated the interior with modem brewing equipment. John F. Plovanic, a stone mason who built Lewistown's St. Joseph's Hospital, did the stone and brick work on the brewery. And Power's Electric did the wiring. one of the other major tasks was the painting, which was done by brewery employee Walter Scheid. Scheid agreed to paint everything except the smoke stack, as he didn't trust the cables that would support the stack's painter. About that time a steeplejack bum came through town and offered to paint the stack for $15 so the stack did get painted before opening. When all was said and done, the Lewistown Brewing Company once again opened its door in the fall of 1934.

Lewistown Brewery ad c.1934

Some of the brewery's employees in the 1930s included: Hodel's son-in-law Roy Brookman in delivery and sales; Frank Carey as main salesman; Jack Walters as chief engineer and machinist from the Milwaukee roundhouse; a big man named Chris Ostad who handled barrels; Jack Leiner as the kegger who repaired the wooden barrels (Leiner also worked for Hodel in 1918); and Walter Scheid as cellar man and corker. As a corker, Scheid stated that corking was easier said than done. He would watch as the barrels were filled and and at just the right moment he'd pound the large cork in with a hammer. He said timing was crucial because of the high pressure behind the brew -if you weren't fast enough you'd get a shower. In 1934 his wages were $3.00 a day but a year and half later Scheid was making $7.20 a day. All of the employees wore blue and white striped overalls and hats.

The brewery produced 25 barrels of beer a day. The barrels were made of wood, lined with pitch, and contained 32 gallons (4 kegs) of brew when full. Initially they made only kegged beer after Prohibition, and it was called Silvertip. The brew was steamed in a 25 barrel copper kettle.

Silver Tip Beer label c.1936
Silver Tip Beer label c.1936

As with most smaller post-pro breweries, the Lewistown Brewing Co. struggled to compete with the national brewers. They began bottling Silvertip and Lewistown Brew in 12 oz and 24 oz bottles in hopes of turning their business around."

Additional capital was needed and the company was successful in finding new investors. In January of 1936, the company was re-organized as Lewistown Brewery, Inc. The president of the company was now Arthur F. Wiedeman; with Raymond Dockery, vice-president; and Gustav Hodel, secretary-treasurer.

"Then, amidst their struggle to survive, 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 Hodel with no option but to let his employees go and close down the brewery in 1938.

Thus the era of brewing in Lewistown ended. Much of the equipment in the brewery was made of brass or copper so during WWII, the metal was sold for scrap. The building, which I believe still stands, had numerous occupants over the years. In 1984 it was occupied by Foster Apiaries, a bee and honey processing plant."Snowy Mountain Honey Ranch

The plant was sold to to John Foster at a sheriff's sale in 1945. It has had two owners since then and has remained a honey processing works. It is now the Snowy Mountain Honey Ranch, 56 SW Ash St.

Due to the additions and modifications over the years, the building bares little resemblance to the original 1894 brewery, and is not eligible for recognition as a historical structure.

Gesundheit label ca.1914
pre-WWI label, ca. 1914, fostering goodwill between the U.S. and Germany
 

FOOTNOTES:

In October of 1898, the American Brewers' Review reported that Bernard McDonnell has succeeded the Lewistown Brewing Co.

On April 19, 1904, articles of incorporation were filed by John Hogl, George H. Day, and George Staudt. However, McDonnell sold the brewery to Hogl & Staudt in April of '03, for $20,000.

A. C. Hodel was Gus' wife, Anne Champagne Hodel.

⁴ Montana's state-wide prohibition went into effect on 1 Jan. 1919, one year and 15 days earlier than national prohibition.

⁵  Actually, Gus remained at the Star Brewery until Repeal in April of 1933, when he returned to Montana to work for Emil Sick. Gus was to become the first brewmaster at the new Great Falls Brewery. The following year he returned to Lewistown to re-open his old brewery.

   

Artyicle by

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

  • Thanks to Hodel family member, Warren Brookman, for the Silver Tip Beer label, the 1934 newspaper ad, and the current plant photo.
     
  • To the Lewistown library for supplying newspaper and City directory ads, and the 1899 image of the brewery.
     
  • A special thanks to Dan Jeziorski, noted Montana brewery historian, for allowing the reprint of his Lewistown Brewing Co. article.
     
  • And last - but not least - to Bob Kay for the "Lewistown Brew" beer label - as seen in his publication, US Beer Labels, Vol. 1 - The Western States. For this, or other volumes, go to - BobKayBeerLabels.com
     

 

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