Early Kansas breweries kept even small-town residents in drink, culture
State prohibition snuffed once-big business
The Walruff Brewery
Read the Journal-World’s 2010 feature on Lawrence’s Walruff Brewery.
While some early Kansas settlers may not have known otherwise, those from Germany were accustomed to a life where celebrations, meals and most Sundays were washed down with fresh beer.
But in the days before refrigerated railcars rolled through every small town, there was really only one way to keep up that kind of life on the plains.
“If you needed beer,” said historian Cindy Higgins, “it was just easiest to make it right there.”
Breweries were big business in pre-Prohibition Kansas, where many tiny towns had one and bigger cities had several. Lawrence was home to a large operation called the Walruff Brewery, but fewer people realize even neighboring Eudora had its own brewery that not only stocked the town’s numerous pubs and German bellies, but also helped bastion Germanic cultural and social life there.
A brass horn player, who played at German gatherings in Kansas, took a photo of Eudora’s brewery and wrote in his album, “Here an old Dutchman brought a keg of that hole in the ground for Brother Elijah and myself in 1872.”
The “old Dutchman” was town brewer Charles Bartusch of Prussia, who arrived in Eudora with his wife in 1862, Higgins wrote in “Where the Wakarusa Meets the Kaw: The History of Eudora, Kan.,” published online at eudorakshistory.com. The “hole in the ground” was Bartusch’s brewery, located along the railroad tracks at the confluence of the Wakarusa and Kansas rivers.
Higgins, a Eudora resident, includes Eudora’s brewery in her book, “Kansas Breweries and Beer: 1854-1911.” Since the book came out in 1992, she’s seen the previously all but forgotten subject spike in popularity.
On Saturday evening, she’ll speak about her research at a special “Beer Night” event at the Watkins Community Museum of History, 1047 Massachusetts St. In addition to the history talk, Lawrence’s modern-day breweries, Free State and 23rd Street, will provide beer samples and Lawrence Brewers Guild members will be on hand to talk about homebrewing.
Saturday’s event is full with a waiting list as long as its capacity — a testament to people’s fascination with the subject, said Abby Pierron, education and programs coordinator for the museum.
“Kansas has a long history in beer brewing,” Pierron said. “It was interrupted by Prohibition — Kansas was one of the first places to enact Prohibition — but even with that, it started with and continues to have a rich history in brewing beer.”
Federal Prohibition lasted from 1920 until 1933, but in Kansas, breweries were shut down decades earlier and not allowed to reopen until decades later.
In 1987 Kansas law was relaxed to allow “brew-pubs,” and in 1989 Free State Brewing Company opened as Kansas’ first licensed brewery since state prohibition.
By that time, more than a century had passed since the last brewery operated legally in the state — plenty of time for a lot of brewery documentation and memories to be lost or forgotten.
A social lubricant
Before they were outlawed, Kansas had more than 90 commercial brewing plants, making it a significant industry for the state, according to Higgins’ research.
In Eudora, the Bartusch Brewery produced 200 barrels a year, she said.
In addition to supplying beer for the town’s saloons — far more numerous than they are now — Bartusch played a role in building Eudora’s Turner Hall, Higgins said. Such halls, found in most German-settled towns, derived their names from Germany’s traditional Turnhalles, where residents would gather to practice gymnastics, play other games such as bowling or fencing, and, of course, drink beer.
He no doubt also provided the fuel for Eudora’s Bock Sundays, gatherings featuring beer drinking and games similar to those enjoyed by German settlers in larger towns, where breweries set up beer gardens in shady groves for just such a purpose.
Delivering beer around Eudora and other cities took a decidedly different form than it does today, Higgins added. “You didn’t just go down to the grocery store and buy it.”
“Germans and other beer aficionados drank their Kansas brew served up in pails, by the glass, or by the bottle in saloons. They drank at restaurants, holiday celebrations, community picnics, and on the street as the brewery teamster made his rounds and sold beer off the wagon in a manner similar to ice cream vendors,” Higgins wrote in an article for the Kansas Historical Society.
An 1879 Lawrence Journal article mentions the brewer picking up beer in Lawrence — implying he may have had to buy beer to supplement his own stock for his customers — and described injuries he sustained after overturning his wagon, Higgins wrote in “Where the Wakarusa Meets the Kaw.” The accident left the brewer with “an eye sunken in out of sight” and “bruises and wounds without number.”
But it wasn’t injury that stopped Bartusch from brewing — it was state prohibition.
Prohibition takes hold
Unlike a number of Kansas breweries who fought the law — Walruff took one of the most famous stands — or continued operating illegally, Bartusch closed his brewery in 1882, let go his Bavarian assistant, John Greiner, and sought a new line of work. He opened a bakery and later an ice cream parlor and restaurant on Eudora’s Main Street.
Bartusch abandoned the old stone brewery building, which was devastated by fire in 1903, caused by a spark from a passenger train’s smokestack, Higgins wrote. Through the years, the building slowly crumbled until the railroad finally leveled it.
The sudden shutdown of their livelihood left many brewers in financial ruin and sent others packing to faraway states, Higgins said.
Though more covert beer drinking continued, the culture that once surrounded it in Kansas towns would never return in the same way.
Higgins wrote in her Historical Society article, “Fresh beer, which ranked with the German language as essential to maintaining Germaness (Deutschtum), was gone as well as the social and cultural life the hometown brewer often sponsored.”