Fitger Brewing Company

The Figter Company sales team with a trade show display for Silver Spray, 1929. [Image: Pete Clure]

Fitger’s During Prohibition

Prohibition prompted major shuffling at Fitgers. By then August Fitger was spending most of his time in California, overseeing operations at Kieselguhr with his son Arnold. In 1919 Anneke traded his shares of Kieselguhr to Fitger in exchange for enough of the brewery’s stock to become its major shareholder. Anneke’s first action was to drop “Brewing” from the company name. The company would continue to make its no- and low-alcohol drinks within the government restrictions on alcohol content. Anneke’s son Victor also began working at the brewery.

Four days before Prohibition took effect on January 16, 1920, the oldest portion of the Fitger’s Brewery—the 1881 Lake Superior Brewery—stood engulfed in ames along Superior Street. The 1881 brewery was replaced with a simple one-story building along Superior Street. Instead of basalt to match the other buildings, budget-minded masons faced it with brick salvaged from the fire.

In October 1920 Fitger and Anneke amended the company’s articles of incorporation to do business in “malt, sugar, molasses, corn, cane and sugar vegetable products, chemicals, denatured alcohol, soft drinks, ice cream, soda fountain supplies, candies, cigars, [and] tobacco” and intended to “use a de-alcoholizing plant.” The plan was simple: survive through diversification. Fitger’s purchased the Duluth’s Purity Candy Company and began manufacturing all sorts of sweets. By 1923 they were also producing forty “distinctively individual” candies and chocolates under the Greysolon and Fireside brands. Meanwhile while Beerhalter developed two new near beers: Dog’s Head, described as a lager, and Pickwick. Fitger’s even formed a separate company, the Pickwick Company, to manage sales the cereal beverages. Fitger’s also began manufacturing its own soft drinks in a variety of flavors.

Fitger’s sold its products across seven states. The company pushed out 302 train-car loads of product in 1923, the same year it began distributing El Verso cigars. As the popularity of soda fountains increased, Fitger’s added milk-based drinks to its beverage line, including an imitation chocolate milk shake and a Black Cow. Fitger’s also distributed candy national brands including Curtiss Candies (makers of Baby Ruth and Butter Finger), Mars Candies (Snickers, Milky Way), Wrigley’s gum, and Smith Brothers cough drops.

Following his father Percy’s stroke in 1923, Victor Anneke was named president of the Fitger Company. August Fitger busied himself in California, looking after his various investments including Kieselguhr.

In the summer of 1924 Beerhalter began purchasing a syrup extract from a small company in central Minnesota to make a beverage called “Extra Dry,” advertised as having the “snap and sparkle of champagne.” The arrangement was supposed to be exclusive, but Fitger’s discovered the manufacturer was selling it throughout Minnesota. Beerhalter replicated the formula and Fitger’s began producing the product as “Silver Spray.”

The beverage enjoyed immediate success and eventually expanded Fitger Company sales across the country because it mixed very well with alcohol—in fact, advertisements for the beverage ensured drinkers it was “The Best Mixer In The Crowd.” Silver Spray sales eventually reached t31 states with 14 distribution centers in major cities from Detroit to Los Angeles.

By the end of 1928, Victor Anneke had lost both of his parents and August Fitger announced his retirement from business. In 1930, just months after the stock market crashed, Duluth Brewing & Malting owner Carl Meeske reached out to Fitgers and offered to sell his competitor everything the brewing owned outside of its buildings—all kegs, cases, bottles, trucks, fixtures, labels, crowns, trade marks, etc. Fitgers also agreed to take on 15 to 20 former DB&M employees. That year Fitger’s produced 60,000 bottles of soda every day.

In September 1931 Fitgers they sold its underperforming candy and cigar-distribution divisions. Beerhalter later told researchers that despite all its efforts, Fitger’s lost money during every year Prohibition was law.

On February 20, 1933, Congress repealed Prohibition, but it would take until December to be ratified. Meanwhile the Cullen-Harrison Act, also known as the “Beer Act,” legalized the sale of beverages with an alcohol content of 3.2 percent beginning at 12:01 a.m. on April 6, 1933.

Fitger’s was ready to deliver on April 6. Because Fitger’s had never stopped making near beer, all the brewing machinery remained in good operating condition, making retooling easy. Empty trucks lined up two abreast along Superior Street between Fifth and Seventh Avenues East, and more sat inside the brewery yard, all waiting to be loaded.

As the trucks began rollinf began exactly at midnight, A German ‘Oompah’ band immediately struck up ‘Happy Days are Here Again.’” Brewery workers loaded 147 trucks with 19,000 cases and 1,260 kegs of beer. That year John Beerhalter Jr. joined the brewhouse staff, but Fitger president Victor Anneke, his wife, Elsa, and one of their sons were injured in a car accident. It took Victor Anneke, who already suffered from injuries received in a 1917 motorcycle accident, until the following summer to recover.

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