Frederick A. Poth: Red Bricks and Gold Beer (Part 1)

N. 30th and Jefferson Streets, June 28, 1951. The former Frederick A. Poth & Company brewery is visible on the right, one block west.

If you enjoy drinking “lager” while watching the Eagles, thank Frederick A. Poth and his Philadelphia “beer baron” friends. Otherwise, you would be drinking ale. Or whiskey. Yuengling might be America’s oldest operating brewery (1828), but it is up the Schuylkill River in Pottsville, not Philadelphia. A century ago, if you asked for a “lager” in a Philadelphia saloon, the bartender would have quizzically responded, “Which one?” Auf deutsch. Schmidt, Ortlieb, Bergdoll, Esslinger, Poth?  All were brewed in Philadelphia. Our city may be enjoying a “craft beer” revival, there was a time when beer was big business. Big enough to build castles fit for a Rhine River robber baron. Architects such as the German-born Otto Wolf and the Americans Willis Hale and A.W. Dilks were more than happy to indulge their clients’ flights of fancy.

Frederick August Poth (1841-1905)

Frederick A. Poth (1841-1905) was one of thousands of German immigrants who flocked to Philadelphia in the mid-19th century. Some were political dissidents, fleeing the brutal government crackdowns that followed failed revolutions of 1848. The city had had a significant German population since the time of William Penn, religious nonconformists such as the Amish, Mennonites, and Schwenkfelders, who braved the North Atlantic to see if Penn’s revolutionary promise of freedom of religion was actually true. Most of these Pennsylvania Dutch (a corruption of Deutsch) aimed to recreate the rural life of their ancestors.  They settled in the village of Germantown or further west in Lancaster County, where they farmed, operated grist mills, and built carriages. This second wave of Germans immigrants, which included Frederick Poth, came to make a new life in the rapidly industrializing 19th century city: shopkeepers, journalists, merchants, craftsmen, and brewers. Protestants largely came from Prussia and the Rhine Palatinate, the Catholics largely from Bavaria and the Saarland, although most German states had mixed populations, a source of strife since the Reformation and the resulting Thirty Years War. There were also a significant number of Jews among these new  arrivals. Among them were the Snellenbergs, Gimbels, Rosenbachs, and Fleischmans.  By the mid-19th century, many German-speaking states had lifted official restrictions against Jews, allowing them to rise into the increasingly prosperous urban bourgeoisie.  However, they were still subject to intense hatred both on the street and in the press, so for many, a move to America made religious and economic sense.

Once settled in their new urban home, the new arrivals started German-language newspapers that kept the flag of liberal republicanism flying high. They also started singing societies such as the Columbia Gesang Verein in Kensington, where men gathered to sing part-songs by Schubert, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Strauss, and Abt. German-born and trained musicians filled the ranks of the Musical Fund Society’s orchestra, which played subscription concerts to the city’s elite. They also brought along a tradition of fine craftsmanships. They made grand pianos (Albrecht, Riekes, and Schmidt), toys (Schoenhut), as well as tools and decorative objects for domestic use. Like many immigrants, they competed for the lowest rungs on the economic ladder. German Catholics, like the Irish, faced considerable persecution from gangs of Nativist “Know Nothings,” who viciously attacked parishioners and burned churches to the ground. Some Philadelphians were more welcoming. Reverend William Henry Furness, minister at the First Unitarian Church and father of architect Frank Furness, formed a close friendship with the rabbi of the German-Jewish congregation of Rodeph Shalom on North Broad Street.

Male singing groups (Männerchor) such as the Columba Gesang Verein in Kensington gathered regularly to sing popular songs such as the “Rhapsody for Alto and Male Chorus” by Brahms and “Wein Weib und Gesang” by Johann Strauss II.  On a less highbrow note, here is a recording of a beer garden band playing dances that reminded Philadelphia patrons of the old country. 

Perhaps their most enduring cultural contribution, however, was transforming America from a whiskey and ale drinking nation into a beer drinking one. Lager beer, to be precise. Derived from the German word “to store,” lager was fermented using a special yeast known as Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Unlike heavy English ales, lager was fermented at low temperatures (40 degrees) in caves or monastery cellars, and was usually gold-colored and light bodied. Although started in Bavaria, the world-wide lager revolution was spearheaded in two American cities. One was St. Louis, another German stronghold and birthplace of the still-flourishing Anheuser-Busch empire. The other was Philadelphia, whose temperate climate and artesian wells made it an ideal beer brewing city. Moreover, the advent of mechanical refrigeration and the growth of railroads — specifically the Mighty Pennsylvania — allowed for mass-production and transport of lager beer on a truly grand scale.

Few exploited this blend of craft, mechanization, and booze better than Frederick A. Poth.  A Roman Catholic, Poth had not come to America to escape religious or political persecution. He had come to make a buck. He was a stocky, mustachioed man known as a “raritache” (litte rarity) in his native Walhaben, Rheinpfalz province. He arrived in Philadelphia at the tender age of 20, and apprenticed himself to Vollmer & Born brewers, where he shoveled mash out of the copper brewing vats and shouldered massive bags of barley from delivery wagons. When the 1876 Centennial Exhibition opened its gates, Poth saw a golden opportunity and built a rambling beer garden opposite the fairground. In addition to his own “F.A. Poth” lager, he served up savory favorites from the Vaterland: most likely wiener schnitzel, sauerkraut, bratwurst, and frankfurters. Think of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s pop-up beer garden on South Broad Street this past summer, only bigger, louder, and rowdier. The timing was perfect.  The eyes of the world were on the newly-unified German Empire at the time of the Centennial. In 1871, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck of Prussia soundly defeated Emperor Napoleon III in the Franco-Prussian War, and then unified the various German states (Protestant and Catholic) under the Prussian Hohenzollern crown.

The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society “pop up” beer garden on South Broad Street. In the late 19th century, they were common throughout Philadelphia, but especially in German neighborhoods such as North Liberties, Brewerytown, and parts of West Philadelphia. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa

Although Poth’s Centennial beer garden appears to have lost money, it got his product out to the entire nation. Poth then purchased a large plot of land at North 31st and Jefferson Streets in North Philadelphia — at the heart of today’s Brewerytown neighborhood — and erected a modern lager brewery that grew to mammoth proportions and employed hundreds of workers. Poth had, according to one gushing contemporary biographer “a keen knowledge of human nature and made a large number of friends who were willing and able to cooperate with him.” Reading between the lines, he also must have been extremely tough, especially when dealing with disgruntled workers during an 1887 strike. His supposedly paternalistic attitude towards labor turned into sour ale as soon as the workers, according to the same biographer, “had the disposition to assume an arrogant attitude.” Poth then used “all the force of his personality, determination, and diplomacy” to settle the strike. Day drinking among all classes was extremely common in late 19th century America. Philadelphia’s brewery workers expected a half-hour beer break every day. Hatmakers at the Stetson factory were especially notorious for their beer intake. The dust and the animal hair irritated their throats, and beer eased the pain. Small wonder the workers became rowdy after downing a few pints, especially when hours were long and working conditions dangerous.

By the 1880s, F.A. Poth & Company had made its founder and his family extremely wealthy. He and his wife Helena (also born in Germany) had five children: two daughters and three sons, one of whom would follow him into the business. Poth also enjoyed music, belonging to several German singing societies. As one of the city’s largest brewers, Poth’s decided to invest his riches in West Philadelphia real estate, near the spot where he had introduced his beer to the world at the 1876 Centennial. The Powelton area — in the blocks just north of Lancaster Avenue between 33rd and 40th Streets — was already an attractive place to live,  filled with slender, elegant Italianate and Second Empire twin houses occupied by upper middle class professionals. A Centennial guidebook described the area as “a location much sought after for private residences and consequently is filled with handsome edifices and delightful villas.” The brass bands and cheering crowds were long gone from the fairground, but Poth believed he could add some Gilded Age grandeur to the rather prim neighborhood.

He would build a castle and real estate barony fit for a Rhinish prince, and would grow his fortune in the process.

204 N. 35th Street, March 10, 1969. One of many large Italianate twin houses in the Powelton “streetcar suburb” section of West Philadelphia that built just before the Civil War. Frederick A. Poth would outdo this house and others in the neighborhood.

Sources:

Leon S. Rosenthal, A History of Philadelphia’s University City (Philadelphia, PA: West Philadelphia Corporation, 1963), http://www.uchs.net/Rosenthal/wphila.html

Phillip Scranton and Walter Licht, Work Sights: Industrial Philadelphia, 1890-1950 (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1986) pp.105, 166..

“Frederick August Poth,” Philadelphia: Pictorial and Biographical. (Philadelphia, PA: S.J. Clarke and Company), 1911.

http://poweltonvillage.org/interactivemap/Biographies/Poth%20Family%20Bio.pdf

“216 N. 33rd Street: A History of the Building”

http://poweltonvillage.org/interactivemap/files/216n33rd.htm

“500 Years Ago, Yeast’s Epic Journey Gave Rise to Lager Beer,” Genetic Archaeology, August 24, 2011.

http://www.geneticarchaeology.com/research/500_years_ago_yeasts_epic_journey_gave_rise_to_lager_beer.asp

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