Beer loses head to progress
The Fuhrmann & Schmidt Brewing Co. went out in a blaze, but its glory was a fading memory by the time fire ripped through the huge Harrison Street building on Monday, November 3,1975.
Hopes of reopening one of Shamokin's oldest and most colorful industries went up in the smoke that rose from a buisness started a century ago by a pair of German immigrants who came to the area via Schuykill County.
The brewery founded in 1895 when P.H Fuhrmann and Max Schmidt purchased the old Eagle Run Brewery, had been closed for about a year after its oweners, James Verrastro and Murray Smith, had declared a "voluntary bankruptcy" However , two longtime employees, Bob Appeal and Adolph John and other workers had been working for several months to reopen the plant by the end of November
In a matter of hours what was ready to go was gone. "Ther was no more brewery because it was all burned out," said Appeal. "We were in there fixing what we could fix and we were ready to go the following week" said Appeal, who worked at F&S since1939. "Another fellow and myself had the bottling building all ready to go." In a matter of hours what was ready to go was gone. "Ther was no more brewery because it was all burned out," said Appeal.
The Coal Township man started off his long career at F&S a few years before he should have "You had to be 21 years old before you could work in the brewery, but I got in when I was 18," said appeal, whose brother Nesbert worked there and later became a brewmaster. He was able to sidestep that rule by working in the bottling section. "I never did work where they were making beer" said Appeal. He didn't get near beer after work either, "One guy had to stay sober," he joked. "We never even had it in our refrigerator," added his wife Ruth.
When Appeal started to work at the brewery the golden age of small breweries was near its peak, F&S was just one of 766 breweries in the United States when it was reopened in 1933 after the repeal of prohibition "All the towns had them," said Appeal "There was one in Mount Carmel, one in Sunbury, one in Mahanoy City."
Back in 1939 - when Shamokin was celebrating their borough's 75th anniversary - F&S was employing scores of people. There were 52 men sporting the distinctive leather bow ties of the brewery in a picture of union members taken that year in honor of the occasion.
Appeal, the only one of the 52 men still living, was there when F&S embarked upon an ambitious eight year building program in 1946.
But by the time the improvements were done in 1954, the handwriting was on the barroom wall that the future of small breweries such as F&S was not bright.
Mount Carmel Brewery, which was opened in the same year Fuhrmann and Schmidt purchased the Eagle Run Brewery, 1895, was closed early in the 1950's.
An improved highway system, big advertising campaigns by big breweries, and the mass population shifts and decline of hometown ties brewed up by World War II and its aftermath was just some of the factors that made Mount Carmel's Brewery, one of hundreds of brewing casualties.
In 1955, Francis "Punch" Zielinski was considering going into the "family" buisness of brewing. He is the grandson of longtime F&S master brewmaster Frank Omlor, son and son-in-law of two longtime brewery employees and nephew of another brewmaster.
He sought the advice of his brewmaster grandfather before making a commitment to attend brewmaster school. "He said I was foolish," said Zielinski. "He said the big breweries would eat up the little breweries and there wouldn't be any more little breweries, thats eventually what happened."
But the end of F&S was not yet in sight. The brewery kept putting out 100,000 barrels a year of its high quality product - 150,000 or 160,000 in a good year - and retained a good share of the local market.
It's production was 160,000 barrels in 1966 the year the Henry F. Ortlieb Brewing Company "ate up" Fuhrmann and Schmidt, not to long after Frank B. Schmidt, had retired after many years as the firms president.
By the early 1970's, Ortlieb's had sold F&S to Verrastro and Smith, two entrepreneurs who had made their money in trucking and not in brewing.
"The brewery just kept fading away when Ortlieb gave it up," said Appeal "We where doing all right, They had a good buisness, Ther was to much competition and we lucky to 100,000 barrels a year, Some breweries had million's."
Then came the voluntary bankruptcy in 1974 and the finishing fire a year later and F&S was destined to become a source of memories to its former employees and their families and a source of collectibles to collectors.
A few years before the end, Appeal, bottling superintendent, and Edward Maerkl, the last F&S brewmaster, had a chance to see a "modern" brewery in operation when they attended a trade meeting at a larger operation in the Lehigh Valley.
After seeing the high-speed, mechanized method during a tour of the plant, Appeal turned to Maerkl and said, "They break as many bottles as we fill" Such is progress.
Article written by Walter Kozlowski
Shamokin News-Item Assistant Editor
Wed. February 28, 1996
Beer loses head to progress
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