Distilled History

A Drinking Blog with a History Problem
October 24th, 2012

Schnaider’s Beer Garden

Schnaider's AdvertOne of my first action items when moving to St. Louis in 1995 was to take a tour of the Anhueser-Busch Brewery. Fresh out of college, I thought the place that made Budweiser must be the only significant brewery in the history of the city. I marveled at the bottling machines, admired the Clydesdales, and tried to scam more than the allotted two glasses of free beer in the tasting room. Back then, I had no idea that there was much more to learn about the story of beer in St. Louis.

As I've matured (well, maybe I should say “aged”), I'm pleased to report my appreciation for the history (and drinking) of beer in St. Louis now goes far beyond Bud and Bud Light.

The history of beer in St. Louis is an enormous topic. It's too big for a single blog post, but to make this one work, a bit of historical backfill is necessary. In second half of the 19th century, the population of St. Louis exploded. Between the years 1850 and 1870, the number of people living in the city more than tripled. A significant part of that population growth was German. In 1829, a famous German writer dubbed Missouri “The Rhineland of the west”. As a result, thousands of German immigrants flooded St. Louis and the lower Missouri River valley. With the Germans came beer and the need to make more of it. St. Louis was a perfect fit for this industry. Along with a growing number of thirsty people, a large system of natural caves existed beneath the city. These caves provided the cooler temperatures needed to ferment large quantities of lager. As a result, St. Louis would find itself brimming with dozens of breweries in the latter half of the 19th century.

I recently learned about the unique story of one of those breweries. Even better, I found my first opportunity to research the history and drink aspects of a subject at the same location.

That brewery is Joseph Schnaider's Chouteau Avenue Brewery. Once located at the intersection of Chouteau Avenue and Twenty-First Street, it was one of the most successful St. Louis breweries in the in the 1870's. In 1876, Chouteau Avenue Brewery ranked among the top three local breweries in capital stock, annual value of business, number of barrels produced, number of employees on hand, and number of horse wagons used. Today, no trace of the brewery exists except for one building.

It's founder, Joseph Maximillian Schnaider, was born in Zell am Hammersbach, Germany in 1832. A brewer by trade, he settled in St. Louis in 1854. At first, he co-owned a successful brewery named the “The Green Tree Brewery”. In 1865, he sold his interest to his partner and set off on his own. Shortly after, he opened Chouteau Avenue Brewery just west of the city.

The story of Schnaider's brewery isn't much different from the other St. Louis breweries of the day. What makes it unique is the beer garden he built next to it. Covering several acres, Schnaider's Beer Garden served food and drink to thousands of people at once. At its height, it became a nationally known resort where visitors could enjoy music, watch theater, and of course, drink beer.

Entrance to Schnaider's Beer Garden

The northern half of the brewery complex can be viewed in the upper left corner of plate 40 in Compton & Dry's Pictorial St. Louis.

1875 Pictorial St. Louis - Plate 40

By lining up plates 39 and 40, the full extent of the beer garden can be seen. The main brewery is located in the upper-right edge of the complex (labelled “1”). The rest of the property contained an auditorium, pavilions, plenty of shade trees, gazebos, and other structures used to entertain the large crowds that would pack Schnaider's each day.

1875 St. Louis Pictorial - Plate 39 & 40 - Combined

Across the street from the brewery is a structure that no longer stands. It was demolished and Schnaider's Malt House was built there in 1876 (one year after the publication of Compton & Dry's Pictorial St. Louis).

1875 St. Louis Pictorial - Plate 40 - Closeup

Schnaider's Beer Garden became a nationally known venue. Bands, theater groups, and travelling shows performed nightly during the summer months. According to the book St. Louis Brews: 200 Years of Brewing in St. Louis, 1809-2009, Schnaider even created his own light opera company to compete with a local baseball team, the St. Louis Brown Stockings. The success of the Brown Stockings (later to be known as the Cardinals) was drawing patrons away from his beer garden and eroding his profits. It's also believed that some of the musical groups that played Schnaider's would eventually combine to form the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. To promote Schnaider's, schedules, advertisements, and reviews for performances such as “The Pirates of Penzance” and “The Beggar Student”, were published daily in local newspapers.

Schnaider Bands

Behind all the entertainment, Schnaider's served beer… enormous quantities of beer. Thousands of people would fill Schnaider's Beer Garden each day to eat, drink beer, and celebrate. They'd make toasts, smoke cigars, and watch fireworks displays as music and theater swirled around them. With such revelry, it's not surprising things would sometimes get a little out of hand. One notable example was reported by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in August, 1881. A young man “under the influence of liquor” visited Schnaider's Garden and promptly began throwing tables and chairs around. When waiters intervened and called the police, the man simply claimed “Oh, that's nothing! We do that kind of thing in Philadelphia and never think anything about it”.

The next morning, he found out things work a bit differently in St. Louis. A judge fined him ten dollars.

Schnaider Pavilions

Joseph Schnaider died in 1881 while visiting his homeland. His wife and oldest son took control of the brewery and continued to expand operations. Over the next ten years, several buildings were added to the complex, including an ice house, a machine house, a storage house, a bottling house, and a summer theater. By 1885, Schnaider's would be one of the largest breweries in St. Louis.

Schnaider's Beer Garden

Despite growth and the splendid reputation of garden, Schnaider's wouldn't last long. In 1889, eighteen St. Louis breweries were consolidated under one company, the St. Louis Brewing Association. Although breweries such as Lemp and Anhueser-Busch opted not to join the syndicate, Schnaider's Brewery did.

Over the next few years, the SLBA began consolidating and closing down member breweries one by one. Schnaider's continued operations for a few years, but the beer garden slowly began to lose its allure. New musical venues and entertainment establishments opened around the city, drawing patrons away. In 1893, the brewery was closed and the beer garden abandoned. The main brewery buildings were converted to a cold storage and ice plant. The beer garden structures were razed to make way for a large shoe factory. The Schnaider Malt House, located across the street, is the only building that still stands today.

Schnaider's Beer Garden

Today, the “Centennial Malt House” (as it is now called) stands at 2017 Chouteau Avenue. In 2005, the building was purchased by Wendy and Paul Hamilton. They quickly went to work on an impressive $4 million restoration project. Across the street, the former site of the beer garden is now where several attractive row houses stand. These homes, located at the northern end of the Lafayette Square neighborhood, set a good example for effective urban development in St. Louis.

Schnaider's Malt House is significant because it is was one of the first malt houses to be constructed in St. Louis. Designed by Fred W. Wolf, a Chicago engineer, and Louis Kledus, a St. Louis architect. Wolf was a prominent brewery engineer of the time. The Schnaider Malt House is one of his earliest designs and one of just a handful that still stand today. Today, the building is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Schnaider's Today

The Drink

The Centennial Malt House offers a variety of dining and drink options. The first floor contains PW Pizza, a great place to drink local beer and eat pizza made with fresh ingredients. Moulin, on the second floor, can be rented for special events and meetings. The third floor contains the rooftop bar and bistro, Vin de Set. There's also a small market and culinary store on the first floor named Grand Petite Market. The Malt House Cellar, which once granted access to the underground caves, is also used for private events. Overall, it is an impressive renovation of a historic building.

Vin de Set

After thinking and writing about Joseph Schnaider and his brewery for over a week, I'm elated that I can get a drink in the actual building that I'm writing about. It's a first for this blog. Even better, Vin de Set is exactly the kind of place where I like to get a drink. Although it has a nice rooftop seating area, the bar inside is even better. The lighting is great, the staff is extremely friendly, and the brick and woodwork make for a great atmosphere. It's obvious the history of the building was important to the designers.

The first thing a visitor sees when entering the bar is a familiar statue. It's a smaller version of “Apotheosis of St. Louis”. The full-size version of this statue is a symbol of St. Louis city and stands in front of the St. Louis Art Museum. While at Vin de Set, I was told this smaller version was presented to Schnaider's as a gift to commemorate the 1904 World's Fair. Years later, it was found stored away in the Malt House missing its head and sword. It has since been restored and now sits impressively above the bar.

My drink of choice at Vin de Set was an Old-Fashioned cocktail. Made with a spirit, bitters, simple syrup, muddled fruit (and sometimes club soda or water), the Old-Fashioned is one of my favorites. I plan to write more about the history of this drink in its own post . I've been told it's considered an “old man drink”, so it's appropriate that I'm in an old building (but at 41, not yet an “old man”). Even better, the bartender made a good one. He made it with rye whiskey, which I was happy about since I did not offer any instruction. Some Old-Fashioned drinkers eschew the fruit, but like the history of the drink, I'll save that argument for a future post. For now, I'm happy to have rye whiskey in my Old-Fashioned.

Since Vin de Set also offers a full menu, I'm sure I'll be heading back to take in a bit more of the Schnaider ambiance.

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Notes: The original idea for this post came from Andy Hahn, the Director of the Campbell House Museum. One day he mentioned a “beer garden that could hold thousands”, and it caused my eyes to light up. Much of the information for this post was obtained courtesy of Landmarks Association of St. Louis. The renovation of the Joseph Schnaider Malt House was on their list of “Eleven Most Enhanced Places” in 2006. Photographs are courtesy of the Missouri History Museum. The book St. Louis Brews: 200 Years of Brewing in St. Louis, 1809-2009 by Henry Herbst, Don Roussin, and Kevin Kious also provided quite a bit of information. Anyone who is interested in the history of beer in St. Louis should own that book.

September 10th, 2012

The St. Louis Motordrome

St. Louis Motordrome Racer Wells Bennett - Photograph by J.R. Eike, courtesy of Thomas Kempland

One of the joys of starting this blog is how I sometimes just bump into the hidden past of St. Louis. These days, when I bike to work, drive around, or explore new parts of the city, I’m always on the lookout for something new. This city is filled with history. As a result, I have started filling up notebooks and blog drafts with ideas and topics that I plan to investigate at a later date.

Recently, I found records of a St. Louis structure that I had never heard of before. I was clicking through some St. Louis websites looking for ideas, and I stumbled upon a webpage filled with a fascinating collection of old photographs.

The collection contains about 100 photographs taken by a man named J.R. Eike between the years 1914 and 1917. They come from a collection of glass plate negatives recently rescued from the trash heap by a St. Louisan named Thomas Kempland. Knowing he had quite a find on his hands, Mr. Kempland took the time to digitally scan the plates and post the images on the Internet for others to enjoy.

Even better, I was able to track Mr. Kempland down and get his permission to use them for this post. The images in this post are copyrighted and are not public domain. I am grateful to Mr. Kempland for allowing me to share them on this blog.

The photographs provide a fantastic look at St. Louis nearly 100 years ago. Included are images of Forest Park, random street scenes, parades, and various church groups. It also contains noteworthy images such as the aftermath of a tornado, construction of an Anheuser-Busch Brewery, and the opening of Bevo Mill. Back in his day, Mr. Eike was obviously a prolific photographer.

The images that really drew my attention were a series of photographs of men posing on old-time motorcycles. As I looked them over, I also noticed the peculiar track they were posed on. One particular photograph, taken on September 6, 1914, shows the track from above. The word “Motordrome” is written across the image. I had never heard of a “motordrome” before, but the steep banking curve in the photograph looked completely insane. People raced motorcycles on tracks like this? And one existed in St. Louis? I had to find out more about this structure.

The St. Louis Motordrome

After a bit of research, I was able to find more information about motordromes. It turns out they were arena-like structures built for a popular sport during the the 1910’s and 1920’s called “Board Track Racing”.

Board track racing evolved from the European velodrome, on which bicycles would race on circular or oval tracks with banked curves. Eventually, unique structures for motorcycle racing were built with higher banks that enabled faster speeds. They were made entirely of wood, which made them cheap to construct. Even the track surface was made of 2×4 wooden planks, hence the name “board track racing”. In time, the wooden structures came to be known as “motordromes”.

And St. Louis had one of the most remarkable motordromes of them all. It was located in Priester’s Park, an amusement resort that was located at the intersection of Grand and Meramec in south city. Priester’s Park is also noteworthy in that it was the first park in St. Louis to host hot air balloon racing competitions. That tradition continues to this day in St. Louis, notably with the Forest Park balloon races that are held each year. In this early plat drawing, the St. Louis Motordrome can be seen as a circular 1/4 mile track. It was twenty-four feet high and could hold fifty thousand spectators.

St. Louis Motordrome Map

(plat image courtesy of carlylehold)
 

Today, no trace of Priester’s Park or the St. Louis Motordrome remains. Over the years, several houses and businesses have been built on the triangle-shaped corner of Grand and Meramec. The image below looks toward the general area where the motordrome once stood.

(Update: A friendly reader took a close look at the map above and pointed out that I had identified the wrong corner where Priester’s Park was once located. Turns out he was exactly right! As of September 6, 2013, I have updated this post with a new photograph below displaying the correct corner.)

Corner of Grand & Meramec Today

The first motordrome in the United States was built in 1909 in Los Angeles. The banking curve of that track had an angle of about twenty degrees. As the sport grew in popularity, tracks started being designed with steeper banks in order to increase speeds and give racers an easier time handling a motorcycle. The person (or should I say “maniac”) who designed the St. Louis track gave it a banked curve with a whopping sixty-two degree angle. It was the steepest motordrome banking curve in the world. On such an angle, racers could “ride the boards” at speeds over one-hundred miles an hour. To make it even more interesting, the motorcycles didn’t have a suspension, clutch, throttle, or brakes. It was simply full-go. To slow down or stop, racers had two choices: 1. Use a kill switch to stop the engine and coast, or 2. Crash.

It was an extremely dangerous sport for competitors and spectators. Faster speeds brought higher casualties. Deadly crashes became common since racers wore minimal safety equipment. Even if a crash was avoided, racers had to worry about being impaled by splinters or hitting loose nails. Fans watched board track racing from above and looked down on the action. If a rider lost control, it usually resulted in a motorcycle and rider flying off the track and into the crowd. Unfortunately, St. Louis was not immune to such tragedy. Here are two clippings from St. Louis newspapers at the time depicting horrible crashes.

St. Louis Motordrome Crashes

(images courtesy of carlylehold)

The most notable board track racing tragedy occurred in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1912. Eddie Hasha, dubbed the “Texas Tornado”, was racing at about ninety-two miles an hour when he lost control of his machine. As a result, he rode directly into the upper rail surrounding the track. His machine struck a post, throwing Hasha into the grandstands and killing him instantly. At least five spectators were also killed, most being teenagers who had leaned their heads over the rail to watch the crash. While Hasha flew out of the track, his motorcycle kept going. It dropped back down onto the racing surface and collided with another racer. That racer was knocked unconscious and died four hours later in a hospital. Several people suffered broken bones and wounds from the panic of the crowd as it attempted to get out of the way. It was such a tragic event that it made the front page of the New York Times. Many point to that crash as the beginning of the end of board track racing in the United States. The shorter 1/4 and 1/2-mile circular tracks (such as the one in St. Louis), were quickly nicknamed “murderdromes” by the media. Soon after, the national organization that oversaw motorcycle racing banned tracks shorter than one mile.

Another reason board track racing fell out of favor was the high cost of maintenance. Since motordromes were made of wood, the tracks needed constant upkeep. Adequate weather proofing was not available at the time, so continuously putting in new wooden tracks became expensive. By the early 1930’s, board track racing in the United States all but disappeared. Although board track racing is no longer a competitive sport in the United States, it still maintains a fanbase in Europe, particuarly Germany.

The St. Louis Motordome is long gone, but thanks to the efforts of people like Mr. Kempland, we have some great photographic records of the track and the racers that competed on it:

Board Track Racer Wells Bennett

Unknown Bicyclist at St. Louis Motordrome

Unknown racer at St. Louis Motordrome

Group photo at St. Louis Motordrome

St. Louis Motordrome Racer Paul Schmidt

Board track racer John B. Hoefeler

Board track racers at St. Louis Motordrome

Unknown Racer outside St. Louis Motordrome

Unknown Racer at St. Louis Motordrome

The Drink

 

The Feasting Fox

Finding a drink for this post was a piece of cake. On the opposite corner of what was once Priester’s Park now sits one of the most noteworthy eating and drinking establishments in St. Louis. Built in 1913, Al Smith’s Feasting Fox in St. Louis was originally built and operated by the Anheuser-Busch brewery.

The Feasting Fox was originally known as “Busch’s Gretchen Inn”. It’s a distinct building with a timber and stucco construction. It has a steeply pitched roof and a unique corner turret. It looks like it was plucked out of Bavaria and dropped in south St. Louis. The style reflects the early German population of St. Louis and the Dutchtown neighborhood it sits in.

Bush’s Gretchen Inn and Bevo Mill were built in an effort by Anhueser-Busch to show that beer could be served in respectable family establishments. At the time, alcohol was generally served in seedy saloons filled with ruffians and drunkards. It was places like these that gave the prohibition movement momentum.

In 1920, the 18th ammendment was enacted, prohibiting the sale, manufacturing, and transportation of alcohol. Anhueser-Busch was able to stay in business by selling a range of non-alcoholic products. As a result, its two restaurants in St. Louis city also remained open. However, when prohibition was repealed in 1933, new anti-trust laws forbade breweries from operating drinking establishments. The restaurant was leased to a man named Al Smith, who changed the name of the restaurant to “Al Smith’s Feasting Fox”.

Tasty Dopplebock

The Feasting Fox evolved over the years. It had some ownership turnover and even sat empty for several years in the 1980’s. It was purchased and rehabbed to its current condition in 1993. It’s a striking when one drives towards in on Grand Avenue. And despite my years of poking through the corners of St. Louis, I had never been inside. Since it once sat in the shadow of the St. Louis Motordrome, it was time to get a drink at the Feasting Fox.

I visited the Feasting Fox in the late afternoon on a Saturday. It had just opened, so the few customers inside made it seem like a relatively quiet tavern. The inside decor is eclectic, historic, and inviting. The bartender (a very friendly fellow) identified me right away as a Feasting Fox rookie. After learning that I was doing a little research, he recommended a Weihenstephaner dopplebock. Due to the Anhueser-Busch origins, getting a beer at the Feasting Fox seemed far more appropriate than a cocktail. Along with a variety plate of tasty German sausages, I kicked back and enjoyed a few beers.

I look forward to heading back to the Feasting Fox with some pals. It’s historical and it’s cool to think that you are drinking in the same building where motordrome racers and spectators would throw a few back after a day of racing (and if there was a crash, they probably needed more than a few). It doesn’t seem to be a place to go for cocktails, but it’s a definitely a unique place to bring out of town guests for a few beers and some German food.

The Feasting Fox

 

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