A Beer Baron Is Born

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George Muehlebach, source unknown. Image courtesy vintagekansascity.com
George Muehlebach, source unknown. Image courtesy vintagekansascity.com
George E. Muehlebach (1881-1955)
George E. Muehlebach (1881-1955)
Harmony Lunch restaurant at 4th and Grand, showing Muehlebach Beer sign on the side.
Harmony Lunch restaurant at 4th and Grand, showing Muehlebach Beer sign on the side.

On April 24, 1833, George Muehlebach was born into a farming family in Argau, Switzerland. He went on to operate the Muehlebach Brewing Company; one of the most successful businesses in Kansas City by the early 20th century. Even after his death, the Muehlebach name lived on in Kansas City at the baseball field that eventually became Municipal Stadium and the luxurious Hotel Muehlebach.

At the age of 21, George Muehlebach, along with his three brothers and his sister, left Switzerland and moved to Lafayette, Indiana. The four brothers moved on to Westport, Missouri, where George started a saddle and harness business. He soon left Westport and delved into the overland freight business near Quindaro, Kansas and later searched for gold in Colorado. George finally found his calling, though, in 1869 when he and his brother, John, purchased the Main Street Brewery from George Hierb at 18th and Main Streets in Kansas City, Missouri.

The brewery was located on a sub-43 degree freshwater well that was a perfect source of water for a brewing operation. The Muehlebach brothers started with an annual production capacity of 3,000 barrels a year, but steadily expanded their operations to 3,932 barrels by 1879. Then John died in 1880, which left complete ownership of the brewery to George. He pressed forward and in the same year constructed a new Romanesque-style brick and stone building on the original site. Kansas Citians referred to the new building as the "Beer Castle" and relished the Pilsener beer for which the Muehlebach Brewing Company was known.

Between 1870 and the beginning of national Prohibition in 1920, the brewery held four different names, but remained in the Muehlebach family. By 1899, capacity had increased to 25,000 barrels annually, and the company deployed seven local delivery wagons. The company soon added a brewhouse, a stockhouse, and an engine house to support its operations. Fueled by local demand, even this capacity skyrocketed further to 50,000 barrels in 1907, 80,000 barrels in 1910, and 100,000 barrels in 1911. The Muehlebach brewery was by then the second largest in Kansas City, behind only the Kansas City Breweries Company.

Unfortunately, George Muehlebach did not live to see the heyday of the company he founded. He died on December 22, 1905, leaving his 24-year-old son, George E. Muehlebach, in charge. Also in 1905, George E. took control of the Muehlebach Estate Company and developed a substantial number of land holdings in the Kansas City area. In 1916, the company opened the opulent 500-room Hotel Muehlebach at 12th and Baltimore. The hotel went on to serve many famous guests, including every U.S. President from Theodore Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter (whether before, during, or after their administrations). Other famous guests included Babe Ruth, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, as well as many of the visitors to the 1928 and 1976 Republican National Conventions. In 1931, the Muehlebach company sold the hotel to Barney Allis, who managed the hotel until shortly before his death in 1962. Since 1998, a restored portion of the original Hotel Muehlebach, (known officially as the Muehlebach Tower) has survived as a part of the Kansas City Marriott Downtown.

George E. Muehlebach also left his mark on Kansas City's baseball history. As a youth, he had played first base for the Muehlebach Pilseners, a local team sponsored by his father. In 1917, he bought the minor league Kansas City Blues. In 1923, he opened a new ballpark for the Blues and the Negro League Kansas City Monarchs. Named "Muehlebach Field," it stood at the corner of 22nd and Brooklyn. The New York Yankees purchased the Blues as a part of their farm system in 1937, and renamed the ballpark "Ruppert Stadium." Eventually the stadium became "Blues Stadium" in 1943 and finally "Municipal Stadium" with the addition of an upper deck of seating to prepare it for the major league Kansas City Athletics in 1955.

By then, the Muehlebach Brewing Company had been through turmoil, dissolution, and a rebirth. During Prohibition, the company limped along on the sale of its non-alcoholic soda drinks and a "near" beer named "Mulo." In 1930, at the onset of the Great Depression, the brewery closed its doors. In 1937, however, the company was reborn under the leadership of Robert A. Drum, president of the Fontenelle Brewing Company, and George E. and his brother Carl A. Muehlebach. Using the original Muehlebach formulas and stressing the beer's local heritage (albeit with a new brewery at a new location) the company reignited sales in the 1940s, became the largest brewer in the region, and even expanded for the first time into 10 other states.

Despite the initial success of the new company, local sales began to drop in the early 1950s as competition increased and expansion-related expenses mounted. This unfortunate combination forced the company to sell out to the Schlitz Brewing Co. of Milwaukee in 1956, just a year after George E. Muehlebach's death. The sale permanently ended the Muehlebach brewing tradition. Although the Muehlebach name is no longer associated with local brewing or baseball, it retains a connection with the downtown hotel scene and remains synonymous with Kansas City's rich historical heritage.

 

Read full biographical sketches of people associated with the Muehlebach family and business, prepared for the Missouri Valley Special Collections, the Kansas City Public Library:

 

View images relating to the Muehlebach brewery and related businesses that are a part of the Missouri Valley Special Collections:

 

Check out the following books and articles about the Muehlebach family and businesses, held by the Kansas City Public Library:

  • Hometown Beer, by H. James Maxwell and Bob Sullivan, Jr.; contains a chapter entitled "George Muehlebach Brewing Company," pp. 37-61.
  • Kansas City, Missouri: Its History and Its People, 1800-1908, by Carrie Westlake Whitney, 1908; photo and biographies of George Edward Muehlebach Sr. and Jr., pp. 74-77.
  • "Little White House?," by Deborah Bauer, The Kansas City Star, February 17, 1992; article about presidential visits to Kansas City, including the Hotel Muehlebach.
  • "Saving the Muehlebach," by Tom Bogdon, The Kansas City Star, July 10, 1992; about the Hotel Muehlebach.

 

Continue researching the Muehlebach family using archival materials from the Missouri Valley Special Collections:

 

References:

Deborah Bauer, "Little White House?," The Kansas City Star, February 17, 1992.

Tom Bogdon, "Saving the Muehlebach," The Kansas City Star, July 10, 1992.

Barbara Magerl, "Biography of George Muehlebach (1881-1955), Businessman," the Missouri Valley Special Collections, the Kansas City Public Library, 1999.

H. James Maxwell & Bob Sullivan, Jr., Hometown Beer: A History of Kansas City’s Breweries (Kansas City, MO: Omega Innovative Marketing, 1999), 37-59.

Mike Vaccaro, "Parks & Recreation Kansas City Has Rich Baseball Stadium History," The Kansas City Star, April 7, 1998.

About the Author

Dr. Jason Roe is a digital history specialist and editor for the Library’s digitization and encyclopedia website project, Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. He earned a doctorate in American history from the University of Kansas in May 2012 and is the author of the Library’s popular “This Week in Kansas City History” column. For assistance with general local history questions, please contact the Missouri Valley Special Collections.
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