Today is the birthday of William J. Lemp (February 21, 1836-February 13, 1904). He was the son of Johann Adam Lemp, who founded the Lemp Brewery in 1840. When his father died in 1862, he and a grandson inherited the brewery, and it was renamed the William J. Lemp Brewing Co. Two years later, William bought out the grandson (who was not Lemp’s son) and carried on until 1904, when he committed suicide, most likely from depression after his favorite son Frederick died at age 28. His other son, William J. Lemp Jr., ran the brewery thereafter, until it was closed by prohibition in 1920.
Son of Lemp Brewery founder Johann Adam Lemp, William built the brewery into an industrial giant. In 1870 it was the largest brewery in St. Louis and remained so until the start of Prohibition in 1919. At the time of William’s death, the Lemp brewery was the third largest in the United States. William shot himself through the right temple in his bedroom at the family mansion, apparently still grieving over the loss of his beloved son Frederick, the heir apparent to the family brewery, who died at the age of 28.
In the March-April 1999 edition of the American Breweriana Journal, there’s a lengthy article about the Lemps, entitled “William J. Lemp Brewing Company: A Tale of Triumph and Tragedy in St. Louis, Missouri,” by Donald Roussin and Kevin Kious. While it starts with Adam, and through the then-present, the middle section is about William J. Lemp Sr.:
In his will, Adam bequeathed the Western Brewery in common to both his son William Jacob Lemp and grandson Charles Brauneck, along with “all of the equipment and stock.” There may have been friction between the two inheritors of the brewery, as the will contained the condition that if either contested the will, the other would receive the property. Charles Brauneck and William J. Lemp formed a partnership in October 1862, and agreed to run the business under the banner of the William J. Lemp & Co. This partnership, however, was destined to be short lived, as it was dissolved in February 1864 when William J. bought out Charles’ share for $3,000.
However, unlike many businesses that wilt when a strong leader dies, the Lemp Brewery actually grew and blossomed after William J. Lemp took control. The Western Brewery was then producing 12,000 barrels of beer annually, virtually all of the lager type.
William had been born in Germany in 1836, and spent his childhood there until brought to St. Louis by his father at age 12. William had struck out on his own as a brewer after working with his father, partnering with William Stumpf for a time in a St. Louis brewery established by the latter in 1852. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he enlisted into the Union Army, but was mustered out within a year. A short man at not quite five feet, one inch, he and his brewery would nonetheless both become giants in the brewing industry.
MOVING TO CHEROKEE STREET
In 1864 William J. Lemp purchased a five block area around the storage house on 13th and Cherokee, and began construction of a complete new brewery. By putting the new facility over the storage caves, moving all the kegs by wagon from the Second Street brewery would no longer be necessary.
By the early 1870’s, Lemp’s Western Brewery was the largest brewery in St. Louis in a field of 30, with E. Anheuser & Company’s Bavarian Brewery coming in second. The brewery was the 19th largest in the country, producing 61,000 barrels in 1876. A bottling plant was added the following year. By the end of the decade, William Lemp, Sr. had risen to vice-president of the United States Brewer’s Association in addition to having overseen the tremendous expansion of the brewery.
Before the introduction of artificial refrigeration, the Lemp brewery had four ice-houses on the Mississippi River levee in south St. Louis, each having a storage capacity of five thousand tons each. These ice houses were cleverly built so as to be able to directly receive the cargoes of river barges, also owned by the Lemp brewery. 1878 marked the first artificial refrigeration machinery being added to the facility. It was also the year production reached 100,000 barrels.
FIRST BEER COAST TO COAST
On November 1, 1892, William J. Lemp’s Western Brewery was incorporated under the title the William J. Lemp Brewing Company. The stockholders elected the following officers: William J. Lemp, Sr., president; William J. Lemp, Jr., vice-president; Charles Lemp, treasurer; Louis F. Lemp, superintendent; and Henry Vahlkamp, secretary. In addition to learning the business at their family’s brewery, all the Lemp sons had attended the brewing academy in New York.
By the mid-1890’s the Lemp brewery was well on its way to becoming a nationally known shipping brewery. In fact, Lemp was the first brewery to establish coast-to-coast distribution of its beers. Lemp beer was being transported in some 500 refrigerated railroad cars, averaging 10,000 shipments per year. The brewery proper employed 700 men. Over 100 horses were required to pull the 40 delivery wagons to make St. Louis City deliveries. The twenty-five beer cellars went down to a depth of fifty feet, and could store fifty thousand barrels at one time. The rated production capacity of the brewery was 500,000 barrels a year. It was the eighth largest beermaker in the nation.
Lemp was the first shipping brewery to establish a national shipping strategy, operating its own railroad, the Western Cable Railway Company, which connected all of the plant’s main buildings with its shipping yards near the Mississippi River, and then to the other major area railroads. The large shipping breweries of this time frequently formed their own trunk railroads to make shipments from their plants, due to battles with railroads over the way the brewers shipped their beer, in the years before artificial refrigeration in beer cars. That is, the breweries would cram the rail cars with as much ice as possible (overload them, according to many rail lines), to protect the unpasteurized beer from spoiling during transport. By running their own trunk lines, the major shipping breweries could gain more control of the conditions under which their golden product was transported to other markets.
Construction of new buildings, and the updating of old ones, was virtually continuous at the Lemp brewery. The entire complex was built (or remodeled) in the Italian Renaissance style, featuring arched windows, pilaster strips, and corbelled brick cornices (projecting architectural details, such as the rolling Lemp shields). Ultimately the giant facility covered five city blocks.
Having expanded their distribution network throughout the United States, Lemp continued to expand overseas. By the late 1890’s, Lemp beers were being shipped in large quantities to Canada, British Columbia, Mexico, Central and South America, the West Indies, the Hawaiian Islands, Australia, Japan, and Hong Kong. Lemp beer was even available in the cities of London and Berlin, both well known for their own local brews.
AFTER THE FIRST SUICIDE
William J. Lemp Sr.’s death by suicide occurred in February 1904. By then the Lemp brewery had become the third largest in the country. The responsibility for leadership of the business fell on his son William J. Lemp, Jr., who was subsequently elected corporate president on November 7, 1904.
William J. Lemp, Jr. was aided in the management of the business by his brother Louis F. Lemp. Louis, who had been born in 1869, took advantage of the family fortune in his youth to explore his passion of sports. At 18, he admired the boxer John L. Sullivan to such a degree, that we went to New Orleans to bet $5,000 on one of his fights. Louis also said that if Sullivan didn’t win, he would ride all the way home in a hearse. Sullivan lost, but Louis reneged and took the train home! In later years, Louis would continue to enjoy his love of sports by being a pioneer supporter or automobile and airplane events.
The Lemp brewery was soon facing a much altered St. Louis landscape, when in 1906 nine large area breweries combined to form the Independent Breweries Company. This was the second huge merger in the local beer business, following the 1889 formation of the St. Louis Brewing Association. Initially controlled by an English syndicate, the SLBA absorbed eighteen breweries and like the IBC continued operating up to Prohibition. The formation of these two combines left only Lemp, Anheuser-Busch, the Louis Obert Brewing Company, and a handful of small neighborhood breweries as independent St. Louis beermakers. Of even more concern to a shipping brewery like Lemp was the growing clamor of the temperance movement. The first heyday of United States brewing was about to draw to an abrupt halt.
CERVA, THE LAST HOPE
Like most of its competitors, the Lemp brewery limped on through the years of the World War. According to numerous accounts, the company’s equipment was allowed to deteriorate during this time as the Lemp family, their vast fortune already made, began to loose interest in the business. The last major capital improvement to the plant was the erection of the giant grain elevators on the south side of the complex in 1911. With the shadow of Prohibition falling across the land, Lemp, like many other breweries, introduced a non-intoxicating malt beverage, named Cerva. While Cerva did sell moderately well, revenues were no where near enough to cover the overhead of the plant.
The giant plant closed without notice. Employees learned of the closing of the brewery when they arrived for work one day, only to find the brewery doors and gates locked shut.
International Shoe Company purchased almost the entire brewery at auction on June 28, 1922 for $588,000, a small fraction of its estimated value of $7 million in the years immediately before Prohibition. Unfortunately for brewery historians, virtually all of the Lemp company records were pitched shortly after International Shoe moved its operations into the complex. International Shoe used the larger buildings, and even portions of the caves, as a warehouse.
Apparently, William’s suicide in 1904 wasn’t the only one to occur in the Lemp Mansion, nor was it the only tragedy to befall the Lemp family. Here’s a good overview, Lemp Mansion: Tales of a Cursed Family and Their Haunted House, with the history involving William J. Lemp below:
William married Julia Feickert in 1861. In 1868, Julia’s father Jacob built what is known today as the Lemp Mansion, likely with financial help from William. In 1876, William bought Feickert’s mansion, at which time he began to renovate it in a grand style. William and Julia moved into the lavish home, outfitted with the most extravagant textiles and modern conveniences of the day.
In 1878, William Lemp was the first St. Louis brewer to install a refrigerated area in his facility. This new technology freed him from reliance on his lagering caves. In time, the caves were converted into private underground amusements such as a theater; a bowling alley and a concrete-lined swimming pool, complete with hot water piped in from the brewery.
The Western Brewery was incorporated in 1892 under the name of William J. Lemp Brewing company. As his brewery had grown, so had William and Julia’s family. Between the years of 1862 and 1883, the couple had nine children, one of whom died in infancy. From oldest to youngest, the Lemp children were Anna, William Jr., Louis, Charles, Frederick, Hilda, Edwin and Elsa.
When the brewery was incorporated in 1892, William Lemp Sr. appointed his sons William Jr. and Louis as Vice President and Superintendent, respectively. Both were trained and college educated in managing business and the process of brewing Lemp’s lager. William Jr., called Billy, and Louis embraced their positions in the family business and as wealthy, powerful members of St. Louis society. Billy was active socially and had a reputation as a flamboyant playboy. Louis was an avid sportsman, horse breeder and racer.
Billy eventually married a young woman named Lillian Handlan, a wealthy socialite known for her beauty and exquisite wardrobe. Because of her fondness for wearing lavender clothing and outfitting her accessories and horse-drawn carriage in the color lavender, people called her the Lavender Lady.
Despite Billy being appointed Vice President of the brewery by his father, William Sr.’s son Frederick was said to be his favorite son and first choice to run the company after his death. Frederick immersed himself in his job at the brewery, evidently aware of his future as heir apparent. When Frederick began to have health problems in 1901, he took time off for an extended stay in California, hoping the warm climate would benefit his health. After a few months, just when it seemed as if he was improving, Frederick died at age 28. One primary source attributes Frederick’s death to “mysterious circumstances.” Another lists the cause of death as heart failure.
William Lemp took the death of his son exceptionally hard. His friends at the time said he never recovered from the tragic news, and seemed to lose interest in his business and his life. William went through the motions for three years, at which time he lost his best friend, Captain Frederick Pabst, a member of another beer brewing dynasty. William withdrew further and sank deeper into depression after the death of Pabst. He was observed going to work and sitting at his desk, staring off into space and making nervous motions with his hands. On the morning of February 13, 1904, William was alone at Lemp Mansion except for his servants. Lying in bed in his second floor bedroom, William shot himself in the head. He died later that day. At the time, his brewery was valued at $6 million and his personal assets at $10 million.
This is a slideshow of Lemp breweriana and photos.