In traditional newspapering, reporters do not compose headlines for their own stories. Suspending that standard temporarily, the following account could have been titled thusly:
“Teetotaler Tells Tale of Tippling Tragedy: Suds Suspended in Star City.”
Times are trying enough as it is these days without having to tell another mournful story. Yet with a steady hand, here goes.
Q: I have a couple of antique bottle openers of uncertain value. One of them is from a Roanoke brewery. What more is known about Virginia Brewing Company?
A: Booze, beer, and bars of Magic City days of yore has been covered in this space before. One contributor to previous conversation on the topic is historian William M. Hackworth. To that former Roanoke city attorney and ongoing scholar goes credit for the information to come.
For the 2019 “The Virginia Brewing Company: Roanoke’s First Brewery” in Historical Society of Western Virginia Journal, Hackworth synthesized previous research including the work of Raymond P. Barnes, Rand Dotson, Mark Benbow, Rhett Fleitz, Virginius Dabney and Lee Graves. Contemporary newspaper accounts from Roanoke, Salem and Monterey were also sourced.
The story starts in 1889 when a Herman C. Crueger-led consortium formed Virginia Brewing and ends in 1916 when the citizens of Virginia voted statewide prohibition of alcoholic beverage and production was halted for good.
At the start of brewing, Roanoke was simultaneously launching into its railroad boom town era. Lots of work to do and many thirsty men doing it.
Touted by the newspaper as only the second commercial brewery in the state, it was reported the new concern would employ 30 men and would also open an affiliated cooper shop for the manufacture of in barrels and keg packaging.
The money men tapped the keg; general manager Louis Augustus Scholz kept the suds flowing.
Age 30 when he started at the new business fronted by Railroad (Campbell) and Wise avenues between 12th and 14th streets southeast, the German-born Scholz had earned Master Brewer status with apprenticeships in his hometown of Freiburg and continuing with stateside stops at Cincinnati, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Omaha, Seattle and San Francisco.
By 1891, the Roanoke company had annual production of 25,000 barrels shipped from distributorships in Salem, Lynchburg, Shenandoah, Staunton, Pocahontas and Winston, North Carolina. By 1912, production hit 5 million bottles per year.
It had to have been a fine product. The flagship brew (there were a number of beer varieties in the product line) was a German-style Pilsner lager. In its heyday, the brewery served Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland, Tennessee and Ohio.
By all accounts, nowhere was the beer more popular than its hometown. When initially marketed, its entire first stock of 250 kegs sold out the first day.
“The brewery’s products quickly supplanted the other beers that were being sold in Roanoke’s saloons,” Hackworth wrote.
Conveniently, these thriving establishments were close at hand. Some 43 bar licenses were granted by the Excise Board in 1891, eight denied. By 1914, 46 pour-houses were licensed, most centered on a district on Salem Avenue, right up the street (or railroad tracks; the brewery had its own connector link) from the source.
One of these saloon/eateries, the Wayside Inn, was right across the street from the brewery. Scholz’s brother Henry bought the joint cheap after the proprietor’s wife absconded with $2,000 from the till and made haste elsewhere.
Henry opened another joint at 10 Salem Ave. called the Concordia, which was described in promotions as “one of the most orderly and popular resorts in the city” whose patrons “are gentlemanly and well behaved.”
This was not the first or last time questionable claims were made for Scholz brothers business products, but more on that in a minute.
Louis went on to become one of the city’s leading businessmen with many of his investments brewery related. This included mining; glass and bottle-making; ice-making (for which he had a monopoly); the first city Market Building.
The brewery branched out into nonalcoholic product lines with enticing names such as Wild Cherry Phosphate, Orange Cider, Champagne Cider and a soft drink dubbed Kola Nerva.
For both alcoholic and nonalcoholic products, Virginia Brewing’s literature offered extravagant claims. Its Wuerzburger beer enjoyed “nourishing qualities” and “cannot be Excelled as a Tonic for Nursing Mothers or Convalescents” in addition to being “Highly recommended by Physicians for its nutritious qualities.”
Refuting claims to the contrary, company promotions asserted its products contained no “poisons” or “impurities.”
The soft stuff in the beverage line worked too, it was said. Wild Cherry Phosphate, a “Powerful Nervine and Tonic,” would “regulate all disorders of the system, purifying the blood, strengthening weak lungs and building up debilitated constitutions.” The cherry drink was “a certain cure for Fever, Ague, Liver Complaints, Sick Headache, Piles, Nervous Prostration, General Debility and Depression.”
Strong as business was the brewery’s owners perhaps had cause for occasional bouts with their own depression. Big boy brewer Anheuser-Busch tried to run the Roanoke concern out of business with a price war that undercut the locals by $5 a barrel, a claim the St. Louis brewery defined as “entirely without foundation.”
Three times Virginia Brewing suffered catastrophic fires and rebuilt.
In the end, the most devastating threat of all was the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and Anti-Saloon League and their allies in local clergy. Hackworth quoted Dotson in suggesting that the “Dry” coalition had a persuasive point.
“Roanoke’s barroom quarter, like most saloon districts, was an exclusively male territory where cursing, smoking and chewing tobacco, drunkenness, fighting, and general rowdiness were the norm, and into which no ‘respectable’ Victorian female would dare venture.”
The city voted dry in 1903 and again in 1908. Then, the voters were called to speak once more the following year after the previous tally was declared void on assorted technicalities.
On company letterhead a photocopy of which was provided as an email attachment by the reader who prompted the current report, Louis and Henry Scholz signed a last-ditch typewritten defense of their business to an unidentified recipient(s) three days prior to the third local option vote.
Calling a prohibition choice a de facto “annihilation” of the business and in fact such a vote would certainly “practically confiscate it.”
“Is this fair to us, to our employees, and to others dependent on us, either directly or indirectly?”
Listed were as many as 200 employees with dependents with “mouths to feed and bodies to clothe and house” many with mortgages on homes they “may lose if thrown out of work.”
The closing point was that given beer, wine and spirits were legal by mail order, drinkers were going to do so regardless of a lack of local brew. Thus nothing would be “gained from a moral view-point and much evil would be wrought from a civic and industrial view-point.”
Dry won by 69 votes out of over 3,200 cast.
Even a nondrinker can appreciate the tragedy this must have been to so many.
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