BLOOMINGTON - Looking for that last-minute Father's Day gift? Too bad it's been 85-plus years since the Meyer Brewing Company of Bloomington shuttered its doors. There are probably plenty of dads out there that would appreciate kicking back with a cold bottle of Meyer's "Extra Select" lager beer.
Established during the Civil War, the hometown brewery sold kegs and later bottles of beer until Prohibition in 1920. First known as Meyer & Wochner, the brewery was located on the south end of Bloomington, on the grounds of what's today Highland Park Golf Course.
The brewery, like most of its 19th century counterparts, was owned and operated by German immigrants. The first owners, Anton (or Antone with an "e") Meyer and Francis X. Wochner, were born in the Baden region of Germany. Meyer became a well-traveled brewery foreman in the United States, and Wochner settled on a farm near Springfield. Around 1862, the two moved to Bloomington and purchased a small brewery.
Meyer married Sophia M. Wochner, sister of his business partner, making the ties between the two families both financial and familial.
According to an October 1883 description of the brewery, the complex included the main building, two ice houses, two malt houses, stables, cooper shops (for the assembly and repair of barrels), a well house, and an office. The main building held a 100-barrel capacity copper kettle where the barley mash and hops were "cooked." The beer was then cooled and stored in casks in the brewery's vaults.
Meyer & Wochner primarily served the local market, though the beer was sold in other areas of the state, and perhaps even elsewhere in the Midwest. The brewery was known for its "American Eagle" brand beer, and by 1910, it was advertising "Blue Label" and "Extra Select" lagers.
Periodic waves of temperance fervor swept across the United States throughout much of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Not surprisingly, savvy brewers responded by extolling the supposed health benefits of beer, especially in comparison to whiskey and other hard spirits. "A Cool, Invigorating and Healthful Beverage," proclaimed a Meyer & Wochner advertisement from 1895.
Also, brewers began selling bottled beer for home consumption in order to promote their product as respectable and family friendly. "Drink it at Luncheon and Dinner - Keep it at Home," read a 1910 newspaper ad. "We Make a Specialty of Supplying Family Trade."
Meyer unexpectedly died in 1883 at the age of 50. When Francis Wochner passed away in 1899, Meyer's eldest son, Henry, assumed control of the brewery. Several years later, the business reorganized as Meyer Brewing Co.
With the emergence of an active local temperance movement in the 1910s, the Bloomington brewery faced an increasingly precarious future. The end, though, apparently came with passage of the 18th Amendment, which banned the manufacture and sale of "intoxicating liquors."
In the spring of 1922, the city of Bloomington purchased the idle brewery and extensive grounds. The city renamed the area Highland Park, and then built a nine-hole golf course (later expanded to 18 holes) on the site.
There were other Bloomington breweries, such as Louis Stein's, bought out by Meyer & Wochner in the 1870s. It was Stein who constructed the "cave" in what's now called Forrest Park in order to keep his beer cool. Many longtime residents will remember clandestinely exploring the brick-lined tunnel before city workers sealed off the entrance.
Thankfully, the old brewery has not completely disappeared from the landscape. Local architect Edgar Lundeen once recalled that salvaged bricks from a Meyer & Wochner building were used in the construction of Ewing Manor, which was completed in 1929. At Highland Park, two brewery buildings still stand. The large maintenance building and the smaller pro shop are reminders of Bloomington's long-gone age of German brewers.