Looking through the Ohio County Public Library’s Flickr page is a treat. There are photographs from nearly every era of Wheeling’s history and range from family snapshots to professional portraits to after-disaster documentation. Occasionally, there is a photo, or in this case a collection, that leaves the viewer curious for more. Among the quiet landscape photographs in the Thomas M. Darrah collection, there are a few shots of a curious group of fellows headed out on the Fourth of July. Their wagon is festooned with American flags, and a guitar sits propped up in the front. This is the Gambrinus Club’s annual trip out Wheeling Creek to the fishing grounds at Downey’s Bend.

  • The Gambrinus Club on their way to the fishing grounds in Downey's Bend, Big Wheeling Creek, Marshall County, West Va. The Club are having their photo taken and are trying to look pleasant. Photo taken on July 3rd, 1885. Thomas M. Darrah Collection, Ohio County Public Library Archives.

Presumably founded around 1850 (if John Waterhouse is the fifth director of the club, as the caption indicates) the Gambrinus Club is just another product of Wheeling’s German heritage…but who is Gambrinus? Why did Wheelingites have a club named after him? 

Many Faces, One Name, Much Mischief

King Gambrinus is a German folk hero of mysterious origin. Multiple theories exist as to who Gambrinus was,1 there is no question as to what he was about– beer. The lore of Gambrinus reveals that was the man who first introduced hops (Humulus lupulus) to the beer brewing process.2 Hops don’t just add flavor and bitterness to the beer, but also act as a preservative, helping beer stay fresher longer. This act arguably elevated beer from a fermented grain beverage to something we are more familiar with today. 

Looking for clues in old Wheeling newspapers for clues about the club, the only mention of Gambrinus in the Wheeling papers of the 1850s was in an article picked up and translated (presumably from German) from Cincinnati newspapers.3 The article, titled “The Ruinous Use of Beer among the Germans” took issue that many of the German festivals were overshadowed by excessive beer drinking. It went on to acknowledge that bringing it up the concern with these beer-drinkers would be a problem, acknowledging the “indissoluble bondage with Gambrinus” would take offense to any suggestions of cutting back.

Beyond being man and myth, Gambrinus was also a place in Wheeling. In early February 1864, a Mr. Toby Vance was sent to jail for thirty days for making “Rome howl” (a slang term meaning he caused a great disturbance) at the Gambrinus Saloon.4 Just a few weeks later, “a number of soldiers” broke into the same saloon and “freely partook of the liquors.”5 Sounds like quite the place!

  • Disorderly– A number of soldiers broke into the Gambrinus saloon night before last and freely partook of the liquors. Wheeling Daily Register, February 26, 1864.

Nearly 100 years after the time of the Gambrinus Saloon, the beer king made his way back to Wheeling via Gam Distributing. Gambrinus Brewery opened in Columbus in 1909 and was the only brewery in the city that managed to operate through the Prohibition era by focusing on non-alcoholic beverages.6  In addition to their Columbus and Chillicothe operations, they had a distribution warehouse on 33rd street in Wheeling. 

  • Wheeling Intelligencer, June 23, 1949.

See the blue triangular building on the rail line? The building is labeled as “Beer Warehouse,” so it’s safe to assume that was Gam Distributing Co. It’s interesting that they chose to set up shop in the shadow of the former Schmulbach brewery. Gam Distributing’s time in Wheeling was short, with the company being voluntarily dissolved in 1966. 7

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Wheeling, West Virginia, 1952.

Now that we know a little bit more about the lore of Gambrinus, what do we think of the Gambrinus Club? Were they an early homebrewers club? Were they professionals, working at some of the early breweries in Wheeling? Were they just some merry dudes who liked to drink beer? Either way, they look like a fun group of guys. As the weather warms, you can honor the Gambrinus Club, this quirky footnote of Wheeling history by raising a glass of beer at a local brewery. Prost!

References

1 Herman Schluter, the brewing industry and the brewery workers movement in America. International Union of United Brewery Workmen in America. 1910. [pdf]

2 “King Gambrinus: The Man, the Myth, the Legend.” Cincinnati Brewing History

3 The Wheeling Intelligencer, Wheeling, West Virginia. July 2, 1859

4 Wheeling Intelligencer, February 9, 1864

5 Wheeling Daily Register, February 26, 1864

6 “August Wagner Brewery and the King Gambrinus Statue.” Columbus Metropolitan Library. https://digital-collections.columbuslibrary.org/digital/collection/ohio/id/10556

7 “Gam Distributing Co., Inc.” West Virginia Secretary of State– Business and Licensing. Accessed May 10, 2022 https://apps.sos.wv.gov/business/corporations/organization.aspx?org=57444

• Kate Wietor is an AmeriCorps member currently serving with Wheeling Heritage researching and writing historical content for Weelunk. Kate has a BS in Anthropology from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. In her free time, you can find her lurking in antique stores, marveling at the resiliency of plants in the urban landscape, and enjoying the multitude of hand-painted signs around Wheeling.

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