According to local historian Sean Duffy, history and beer go together naturally. Luckily for lovers of Wheeling and ale, it’s time for the second annual Francis Pier-Pint Historic Brew-Off. Last year’s event was created by the West Virginia Independence Hall Foundation and the WALS Foundation, to support their educational programming.
This year, on Friday, Aug. 16, in partnership with Wheeling Heritage, the beer is back with a twist for the Francis Pier-Pint Historic Brew-Off: Prohibition Edition.
Naturally, the slogan is Montani semper li-BEER-i.
WHEELING’S BREWING HISTORY
Wheeling has a robust brewing history. At one point, there were at least 16 breweries in Wheeling, and the best-known of these were the Schmulbach and Reymann breweries.
Travis Henline of Wheeling Heritage shared a bit of beer-brewing background.
“This was a German town, and the Germans brought their technology,” he said. “We brewed a lot of beer here. But prohibition began earlier in West Virginia than it did at the national level with the Yost Law, which went into effect in 1914. That’s six years earlier than the 18th amendment, which ushered in national prohibition. This was devastating to the brewers and effectively put them out of business.”
With the start of prohibition came the rise of Wheeling’s organized crime era, and perhaps no Wheeling resident is more famous than mob boss Bill Lias, whose involvement in Wheeling’s crime history is well-documented. Under his control, Wheeling became a place where a fellow could get into some trouble.
Henline said, “This was the place people came for all sorts of vices. In the early days, it was beer, gambling, tobacco, prostitutes. There were hundreds of saloons on Main and Market streets. This was a place where people came to have a good time and indulge in all those vices. Wheeling was known as ‘Wide Open Wheeling.’”
THE SPIRIT OF THE SPEAKEASY
On Friday, Aug. 16, River City Restaurant will transform into a prohibition-era speakeasy for the Brew-Off. When guests arrive, they’ll receive a “We Want Beer” picket sign and a signature pint glass and coaster.
According to Duffy, “Guests will have the opportunity to … sample seven historically-themed beers brewed just for the occasion by members of the ‘Wheeling Alers’ home-brewing club: Jim Chaney’s Back Porch Hooch Lemon Shandy; Scott Fletcher’s Reymann Rye IPA; Kurt Reed’s Bugsy’s Belgian Wit; Scott Pockl’s Big Bill’s Dunkel; Larry Pernell’s 18th Amendment Ale (A Common Beer); P.J. McDermott’s Carry’s Hatchet Pale Ale; and Ted Dodd and Donnie Kidd’s Bootleggers’ Brut IPA. Attendees will vote for their favorite historic brew, and the winner will receive a custom trophy.”
The event — from 5:30-8:30 p.m. — will be an immersive experience. On the bar side of the restaurant, historians Hal Gorby and Ryan Stanton will share facts and stories about Wheeling’s brewing history. In addition, guests can expect rowdy visits from historical figures like Henry Schmulbach, Anton Reymann and Carrie Nation, the temperance activist known as The Apostle of the Hatchet for her tendency to smash saloons with an ax. (Nation once called Wheeling “the wickedest city in the south” and a “saliva besmeared and rum-soaked community.”) Look for an appearance by Bill Lias, as well. Participants are encouraged to interact with (i.e. hoot and holler at) characters as they make their way through the bar.
SCHMULBACH BREWERY TOUR
On Saturday morning, Aug. 17, Wheeling Heritage will host a walking tour of the old Schmulbach Brewery. Betsy Sweeny, Wheeling Heritage’s historic preservation program manager, will talk about the history and architecture of the building.
“It gives people a chance to be urban explorers,” Sweeny said. “Schmulbach was an anchor for the South Wheeling community.”
Ryan Stanton will cover the human-interest portion of the tour as he shares stories of the brewery and its unusual founder. (Read Stanton’s true account of the famous Schmulbach murder trial.)
“He definitely led a different lifestyle compared to most of the other businessmen in Wheeling, kind of ran with a different crowd,” Stanton said, adding that guests can continue the tour on their own by visiting Schmulbach’s house on Chapline Street near the fish market.
“He lived in that area,” Stanton said. “He took a lot of pride in that area.” Other stops might include the Schmulbach Building (better known as the Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel building), his Riverside Park monument and even the remnants of his massive estate at Roney’s Point.
“Our goal is to educate people about the brewery, but also to get people to go out and explore other parts of Wheeling,” Stanton said. The walking tour of the brewery will take about an hour. Participants should meet at 3330 McColloch St. at 10 a.m. on Aug. 17.
Find Brew-Off tickets online at wheelingheritage.org/brew or the Wheeling Heritage office on the third floor of the Wheeling Artisan Center, 1400 Main Street.
• Laura Jackson Roberts is an environmental writer and humorist in Wheeling, West Virginia. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University and serves as the northern panhandle representative of West Virginia Writers. Her hobbies include hiking, travel and rescuing homeless dogs. Visit her at laurajacksonroberts.com.