Today is the birthday of William B. Ogden (June 15, 1805-August 3, 1877). Ogden’s biggest claim to fame is being the first mayor of the city of Chicago, elected in 1837. But he was also a businessman, and one of the businesses he was involved in was one of Chicago’s first breweries, Lill & Diversey.
Some sources say it was the very first brewery in Chicago, but either way, it was certainly one of the earliest. It was founded by William Lill, who was later joined by partner Michael Diversey
Here’s the brewery’s story from One Hundred Years of Brewing, published in 1901:
The immense brewing interests of Chicago had their origin in the persons of William Lill and William Haas. In September, 1839, William B. Ogden, who, two years previously, had been elected mayor of the city, established Mr. Lill in business at the corner of Pine street and Chicago avenue, Mr. Haas being the latter’s assistant. The “plant” was installed in a small tenement building and the first year’s brew was about 450 barrels.
After a few years Michael Diversey formed a partnership with Mr. Lill, when Mr. Ogden withdrew his silent interest in the business. Under the management of Lill & Diversey the so-called Chicago Brewery developed into one of the most extensive establishments of the kind in the west, occupying a portion of the original site, but then covering an entire block. For many years “Lill‘s Cream Ale” was one of the most famous brands in the country. Besides being known as good business men, Lill and Diversey were noted for their benevolence and generosity, the latter being a large benefactor to the German Catholic churches of Chicago.
In 1841, Michael Diversey and William Lill bought the first commercial brewery in Chicago (Haas & Sulzer Brewery) and changed the name to the Lill & Diversey Brewery, also known as the Chicago Brewery. The two men saw huge success and by 1861 were producing 45,000 barrels of beer a year and employing over 75 men. Famous for “Lill’s Cream Ale,” by 1866 the brewery had sprawled to over two acres and four stories high. The Water Tower Pumping Station, which still stands today, was put in directly across the street.
Serving two terms as a Chicago Alderman (1844-45; 1856-1868), Michael Diversey also donated a small plot of land where a Catholic church for fellow German immigrants was built. St. Michael’s was the tallest building in Chicago until 1885 when The Old Chicago Board of Trade building was completed. Known as a great city leader and keeping company with the likes of Joseph Sheffield and William Ogden, Michael Diversey was integral in bringing great growth to Chicago.
However, Diversey died in 1869, and Lill continued to run the brewery. Till the Great Fire of 1871 wiped it out and Lill lost everything. The brewery never re-opened and Lill passed away in 1875.
Most of Ogden’s biographies don’t even mention his affiliation with the brewery at all. See, for example his Wikipedia page, the WBEZ Chicago blog and the Encyclopedia of Chicago. His business with the brewery was apparently a pretty minor investment for him, and he was much more heavily involved in many other projects and businesses. Most accounts state that Ogden was a silent partner in the brewer. But in Gregg Smith’s “Beer In America: The Early Years—1587-1840,” he claims “that the mayor was very much involved in the business, and not just a silent partner: he wanted to ensure that the brewery’s hops came from New York’s Finger Lakes region.” Which makes some sense; Ogden was born in upstate New York.
A photo of Ogden later in life.