Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Day Beer Became Legal In St. Louis.

Sunday’s Budweiser commercial about the end of Prohibition reminded me of my dad’s stories about the day legal beer arrived in his neighborhood. This is especially pertinent since he grew up in Budweiser’s hometown of St. Louis, on Roosevelt Place, in a neighborhood called Wells-Goodfellow today. Dad was 13 when Prohibition ended in December, 1933.

The commercial cheats history slightly, because legally-made and sold Budweiser actually arrived in St. Louis taverns shortly after Franklin Roosevelt took office in March, 1933, as dad explains below. The term ‘legal beer’ is used here because beer itself never left the neighborhood. Here’s how dad remembered it:

"Gelhausen was the local bootlegger who also had a saloon down on Clara Avenue. There was a wire leading from their house out to the garage. In the center of the yard there was a light bulb hanging from the wire. Sometimes at night, we would see the light flashing on and off -- like Morse Code. Sometimes this was followed by a car in the alley, pulling up to the garage. We never went to investigate.

"The Meyers family lived up near Goodfellow Blvd. Mr. Meyers was the acknowledged best home brew maker in the neighborhood, if not the civilized world. He undoubtedly applied the same skill and attention to detail as he did in his job as a tool and die maker. His stuff was far superior to the stuff that we occasionally made in our basement.

"It was no more illegal for kids to drink heingemake (homebrew) than for adults, so we were allowed to join in the responsible and moderate use of the quaff. At the Meyers' house, as was common, the beer was bottled in one-fifth gallon bottles and served in an aluminum bucket, from which all partook.

"Frank Meyers' system was a seven day process that he would tend to right after work. He would come in the back door, put his lunch bucket on the sink, kiss his wife, then go to the basement for that day's part in the process. After FDR took office, an executive order was issued proclaiming that 3.2% beer was not intoxicating, therefore it did not fall under the restrictions in the 18th amendment. A date was set when this would take effect.

"The building at the corner of Clara and Roosevelt (named for Teddy, I might add) was owned by Anheuser-Busch and had been a tavern. It was now Wesling's grocery. Gelhausen's Saloon across the street had never closed. Perhaps they served iced tea and soda pop during the great drought. The lease for Busch's building had a clause that if beer ever became legal again the lease could be terminated.

"An agreement was reached and an addition was built onto the rear of the grocery and made into a tavern. You may note that I refer to one establishment as a tavern and the other as a saloon. This is not accidental. Gelhausen's was a dark, bad place with men sitting around. I do not know why, when beer was again legal, that Grandma always had me go to Gelhausen's when she wanted a pitcher of beer. There was a side door at the rear and a separate tap for take-out. It cost a whole dime for a big pitcher of beer.

"When 'B' day was drawing near, Mr. Meyers finished up the current batch and started to dismantle and pack away his equipment. When the fateful day arrived (as I remember it, it was April 12, 1933), most of the men in the neighborhood congregated at Wesling's Tavern. The house was packed and everyone was having a riotous good time. When Frank Meyers walked in a hush fell over the place and the crowd around the bar parted like the Red Sea to make room for the greatest. He walked up to the bar, Mr. Wesling drew a glass and set it in front of him. He took a sip, then another sip, then pushed the glass away and turned and walked out. It was not the same after that, it was quiet and half the customers left. Obviously, I was not there but my Uncle Russ was and told me about it.

"Mr. Meyers went straight home, straight to the basement, unpacked his equipment and started a new batch. Mrs. Meyers kidded later that it was the first time in their forty years of marriage that he had come into the house and started working without kissing her first.

"In fairness to Anheuser-Busch, I should add that they were limited to 3.2% alcohol while the Meyers brew ran close to the theoretical maximum for the fermentation process, around 12%."


Justin Victor said...

I love history of the drink and nothing brings the past alive like personal stories. Thanks for sharing this Chuck.

Joe said...

Funny how when Prohibition ended, hardly in St Louis reached for a Bud.