The West Superior Brewing Co.

The West Superior Brewing CO. ca. 1890. [Image: Zenith CIty Press]

In 1889 the Village of Superior, Wisconsin, merged with the Village of West Superior, established in 1883 by General John Hammond This marriage of the two communities created the City of Superior, with a local population of over thirteen thousand. It also brought brewing back to Duluth’s rival across the bay.

Superior, Wisconsin’s first modern commercial brewery was constructed in 1889 by forty-one-year-old Bernard Schwanekamp and his forty-seven-year-old brother-in-law, Joseph Hennes, who spent $16,000 to build a three-story brewery at 215 Hammond Avenue on Conner’s Point. They named their operation the West Superior Brewing Company.
Little is known about Schwanekamp, a native of Hamburg, New York. He spent much of his younger days in Centerville, Wisconsin, where his Prussian parents established a farm. No records indicated where Schwanekamp lived and worked during the 1870s and 1880s, but he was in Houghton, Michigan, in 1876 when he married a local woman, Rosala Scheuerman. Two years earlier, Rosala’s sister Elisabeth had married Johan Joseph Hennes.

Hennes, who went by his middle name, had immigrated to the U.S. from Saalhausen, Germany, in 1854. Ten years later he attended business college in Detroit before resettling in Houghton in 1867. There he went to work for his brother Louis, who operated a large mercantile. Joseph eventually became partners in the business and by 1889 was fairly well off. He appears to have never lived in Superior and was likely just a financial partner and business advisor to Schwanekamp. With his mercantile and eight children at home, Hennes had plenty of other matters to keep him busy in Houghton. Schwanekamp and Hennes set up a rather modest operation housed in one three-story, wood-frame building. It had the capacity to brew nine thousand barrels of beer per year but, as brew historian Doug Hoverson notes, “there is no evidence production ever reached that number.”

When the Klinkert Brewery opened in Duluth in West Superior Brewing Company had responded to the competition by expanding, adding a pair of two-story buildings and increasing the staff to seven. Schwanekamp made enough money to not only expand his operation, but also pay off his brother-in-law, who does not appear on company records after 1892.

After Superior’s Klinkert Brewing Company, established in 1890, split in two and formed the Northern Brewing Company in 1898, the West Superior Brewing company struggled to keep up with increased competition, and Schwanekamp could no longer turn to his original financial benefactor, brother-in-law Joseph Hennes. The Houghton businessman, described as “one of the greatest merchants of the copper district,” died in October 1897; he had broken his back when he was knocked out of his carriage by a branch as he drove beneath an overhanging tree. He left his widow and eight children $250,000—about $7.3 million today—but little or none, apparently, went to his brother-in-law.

On the first of November 1900, the Evening Telegram reported a merger between the West Superior Brewery and Northern Brewing. The article quoted both Schwanekamp and Northern President Erhart, who cited several reasons, including a rise in labor cost and the federal tax on beer, which had doubled from one to two dollars a barrel. But the main reason was outside competition and the local saloon men who operated their tied houses. Schwanekamp said that together West Superior and Northern, including its days as the first Klinkert Brewery, had together lost about $65,000 in the previous ten years, including West Superior’s entire original investment.

After Northern built a brand new brewing facility in 1901, the old West Superior Brewing Company’s Hammond Avenue complex was no longer needed for storage. In 1902 Northern sold it to National Boiler Works, which refit the facility to make and repair boilers. National later became Whitney Boiler works. It is unclear when the 1889 building was demolished. Today the site is home to Allstate Peterbilt of Superior.