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Chicago's History With Beer Featured In Harold Washington Library Exhibit

By  Ted Cox and David Matthews | June 13, 2016 6:36am | Updated on June 16, 2016 10:54am

 A new exhibit at Harold Washington Library focuses on the history of Chicago beer from the Great Chicago Fire to now. 
New Chicago Beer Exhibit at Harold Washington Library
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SOUTH LOOP — Beer, it's often said, was necessary to sustain civilization, and so it is with Chicago.

According to a new exhibit at the Harold Washington Library, Chicago was incorporated as a town in 1833, shortly after the first meetings on the matter held at the Sauganash Tavern. That year also saw the creation of the city's first brewery, Haas & Sulzer. And, as Chicago is a city of conflict, it's no surprise to find that the same year saw the Chicago Temperance League founded.

"Beer Chicago: The Refreshing History" has been installed on the ninth floor of the main library, 400 S. State St., for the rest of the year. The one-room exhibit includes a history of the city's most famous beer companies, from Haas & Sulzer to the Peter Hand Brewing Co. (maker of Meister Brau) and on to today's craft brews, including Goose Island, Half Acre, Metropolitan, Two Brothers and Three Floyds.

It features videos on subjects including Prohibition (although without a mention of Al Capone, Bugsy Malone or any reference to the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, driven as it was by the city's gangster beer wars).

It explains how, after Prohibition lapsed in 1933, city employees were banned from having a liquor license, including aldermen (preventing a comeback by former 1st Ward Ald. Michael "Hinky Dink" Kenna, owner of the Workingman's Exchange, 426 S. Clark St., where he frequently traded beers for votes before Prohibition took effect in 1920). And it explains the 1855 Lager Beer Riot, which is said by some to be the origin of the city's bare-knuckle politics.

In 1855, Mayor Levi Boone was swept into power after a generally ignored election as the local leader of the Know-Nothing Party, a pre-Civil War reform movement based on being anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic. Boone decided that, to quell the rowdiness of German and Irish workers, he'd raise liquor taxes to intolerable levels and ban alcohol sales on Sundays, then the only day off for most working men.

Germans devoted to their lager organized to support tavern owners arrested for non-compliance, and planned to attend their court date on April 21. Some were arrested, while others massed and armed themselves on the North Side. Boone organized his police forces while keeping the Clark Street drawbridge raised, and when it was lowered the North Siders swarmed across and a riot broke out, resulting in one death and a total of 60 arrests.

Boone won the battle, but not the lager war. German and Irish voters swarmed to the polls the next year and voted him out, and liquor licenses were restored to their previous levels.

Such are the origins of clout.

[Video shot by DNAinfo/David Matthews]

The exhibit features information on the city's "tied houses," taverns set up by large-scale brewers as local outlets, including the many Schlitz buildings that remain standing, such as Schubas at Belmont and Southport avenues.

It also tells the tale of the Peter Schoenhofen Brewing Company, which survived almost a century from 1860 to 1951. Its most popular beer was Edelweiss, marketed by a figure known as the "Alpine Girl" (think a St. Paulie Girl prototype). Prohibition led the brewery to move into soft drinks with Green River Soda, which of course is still around. Schoenhofen, meanwhile, has a pyramid-shaped mausoleum at Graceland Cemetery.

The traveling exhibit was created by the Elmhurst History Museum, and in all honesty it doesn't take much longer to drink it all in than it would to finish a beer at a bar. Yet visitors can always extend the tour by going down the street to the old site of "Hinky Dink" Kenna's Workingman's Exchange, 426 S. Clark St., across the street from the federal jail at Clark and Van Buren Street.

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