Arguably, Wheeling, West Virginia’s brewing history is less known than that of Cincinnati, Ohio or Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but that can be blamed on the passage of Yost’s Law in 1914 that effectively killed the beer industry in the state. Wheeling, once home to more breweries than any other city in the Mountain State, was known as a major brewing center during the latter half of the 1800s, and also as an enclave for German immigrants.
There were at least 20 breweries operating in the city at one point, and over 130 taverns that were located along many street corners, serving up ales and lagers from the Nail City, Eagle, Balzer, Schmulbach, Reymann breweries, along with many others to the immigrants that called the area home. Wheeling’s nickname, Nail City, was rivaled with that of The Beer Belly, due to the copious amount of alcohol consumption. By 1900, through consolidation and closure, only six major breweries remained, producing over 300,000 barrels per year.
The largest of these breweries in the state was Reymann.
The foundations of the Reymann Brewery date to 1849, when George Reymann and Peter Beck founded the Franklin Brewing Company. Anton, George’s son, later took over operations after his father retired and Beck quit due to health complications, and constructed a larger, more modern facility along the north bank of Wheeling Creek. Caverns were dug out of the hillside, with storage capabilities of 7,000 to 8,000 barrels of beer. Adjacent natural springs provided fresh water, and coal from a nearby mine provided electricity. In 1881, the Reymann brewery offered stock for the first time, and by 1904, the brewery produced over 150,000 barrels per year.
With such an expansion, Reymann became well known around the Wheeling community, but not for excess. Reymann was known more for his philanthropy, founding Altenheim, a home for “Aged and Friendless Women,” mostly populated with immigrant women who came to work in the United States as domestic servants, working in the homes of the wealthy and had nowhere to live in their later years. He later purchased the 40-room Mt. Belleview Hotel, which was a summer residence for wealthy Wheeling citizens, and converted into a residence for aged women – bearing all of the expenses himself for a year. Reymann was also responsible for modernizing the Wheeling and Elm Grove Railroad, and for purchasing Wheeling Park and converting it into a popular amusement and recreation area for the region.
Another local brewery was the Schmulbach Brewery in South Wheeling, with its history dating to 1861 when Frank Zeigler founded Nail City Brewery at 33rd and Wetzel Street. Several cellars were dug into the hillside, one going as far as 400 feet in, and several structures were constructed. Later, a stock company was formed and the company grew to sell between 7,000 and 8,000 barrels per year. The master brewer for many years was well regarded Ernest Irion, formerly of the Gambrinus Brewing Company of Cincinnati, Ohio.
Schmulbach, born in Germany but raised in Wheeling, was employed in the wholesale liquor trade by 1867. He acquired the majority of shares in Nail City in 1881, and took ownership a year later, where he became president. The brewery name was changed to the Schmulbach Brewing Company, and the facilities were modernized with capacity increasing to 50,000 barrels. It was not long, however, before Schmulbach was selling 200,000 barrels per year. An ice plant, West Virginia’s largest, was built next to the brewery, along with a bottling plant.
Schmulbach developed Wheeling’s Mozart Park originally as a beer garden. An incline that he financed extended from 44th Street to his park, along with a streetcar line. He was also instrumental in building the first skyscraper in the city in 1907.
The fortunes of these breweries and others soon changed, when West Virginia became a dry state in July 1914 under Yost’s Law. Schmulbach, Reymann and others were forced to close down or retool to produce other types of beverages. It was not until the 1990s that brewing returned to Wheeling, when the Nail City Brewing Company opened a micro-brewery in downtown, although it was later removed.
Although I covered only two breweries, I will soon make a return visit to Wheeling to document the remains of the Balzer and Eagle breweries, along with others! There is more information and photography after the jump to Reymann Brewery and Schmulbach Brewery.