Monday, October 20, 2008
The Story of The Kurth
In 1859 Henry John and Fredericka Kurth came to Columbus Wisconsin with a four barrel brewers boiler(about 124 gallons) and immediately purchased land on the south side of town. Columbus at the time was a promising prospect for the young brewers. Many German families lived in town and on surrounding farms. The fertile rolling fills of Columbia County produced great quantities of barley and hops in the 1850,s and 1860's. The Kurths built a little frame brewery, dug a well, and the brewery became known for it's "creamy, dreamy" beer.
In 1865 they spent $4000 (approx $54,000 in todays money) to erect a large brick brewery building just south of their origional structure and in 1866 they put in a large boiler. In 1870 Kurth was the largest of the three breweries in Columbus. In that year the Kurths produced 100 barrels (approx 3,100 gallons), and in 1880 the production was up to 250 barrels. Also in 1880, Henry turned the operations over to his son, John Henry (1854-1931). Henry died in 1882 and another son, Christian, joined the firm in 1886 at which point the business became known as "John H. Kurth & Co."
The next two decades were years of great growth for the Kurth Brewery. By the year 1900 the brewery complex included a tall grain elevator, a four story malt house and a three story brewery. The old frame building that was built in 1859 was then used as an office and beer cellar. Also on the site were a few other buildings including a chicken coop, wagon shed and an ice house.
A bottling department, established in 1895, sat across the street with underground pipelines and the infamous tunnels going under the street. Two magnificent Queen Anne houses of John and Dorothea and Christian and Amanda Kurth were also on that side and rumors also have tunnels leading to their houses.
In 1902-1903 the new Kurth office building was erected. Several other structures were added to the complex around the same time including a new five story brewery, more beer cellars, and major additions to the malt house, plus a elevator and bottling plant and a large new barn for draft horses and wagons.
In 1904 the company incorporated as "The Kurth Company" with a capitol stock of $400,000 ($9,120,000 in today's money).
The heyday of the business was around 1914. In that year the brewery was large enough to produce 100 barrels of beer a every day, making it the largest brewery in the country. The Kurth Brewery produced several brews: the light colored "Banner" beer ("creamy, dreamy"?) the dark "Luxembourg" brand, the heavier Bock" beer and the special "Christmas" Brew. A separate lager was produced for draught beer and at least one other brand, "Columbia".
However the most significant thing about the company at that time was it's malting operations. The malt house at that time had the capacity of 800,000 bushels. In addition a to that the company had a separate malt house which was established in 1911 in Milwaukee and run by Christian. This had the an unheard capacity at that time of two million bushels. The combined capacity made the Kurth Company the largest of it's kind in the United States.
The brewery was one of the largest purchasers of barley in Wisconsin using an average of 1,500 bushels of barley a day. Farmers from Columbia, Dane and Dodge Counties supplied barley for the brewery and carlots were also brought in by train from Minnesota, Iowa and the Dakotas.
The company owned two ice houses to supply itself and also the needs for local businesses. It had its own electric dynamo and its own cooperage. It owned a large grain elevator near the railroad depot downtown and also owned beer distribution warehouses in Tomah, Portage and Luxemburg.
The company grew hops on it's own Columbia County farmland. The firm also owned three saloons in Columbia County and at least 17 others in south central Wisconsin communities.
Disaster struck the Kurth on July 20, 1916. According to one account at the time, "it may be that no fire has ever been on the magnitude of the Kurth Brewery fire." The elevator and malthouse were destroyed and stood in ruins for many years (now Pizza One and True Value stand in it's place).
In 1919, prohibition dealt another cruel blow to the firm, which had converted its operation to production of soda pop in assorted flavors.
After the repeal of prohibition in 1933 the company resumed production of beer in a limited capacity. However in 1949 it was one of the 55 Wisconsin breweries in that year alone to shut down for good.
Members of the Kurth family (John William Kurth and his son, John Ford Kurth) continued a beer distribution service for several years, but the only part of the business to remain to this day is the part time tavern operation now run for tradition's sake and not for profit by Lauretta and John Kurth, the great great grandson of the firm's founder.
The Kurth office and reception building is clearly the most representative building remaining associated with the Kurth Company. In it's prime this building was the heart of the thriving business. Farmers received payment for their loads of grain, and complimentary schooners of beer were offered to salesmen and the general public.
I'd like to thank Lauretta and John for hopefully letting me reprint the typed pages where this came from.
I was scanning the internet for information about the Kurth and found . . . . nothing. I was shocked.
So I figured SOMEBODY better get some information out there about one of the true diamonds of Columbus.
It's too bad The Kurth no longer brew their own beer as I think many people passing through this small friendly community would appreciate it. Still, it's not the building or the beer that makes this such a unique place, it's the people.
Or . . . . maybe it is the building that brings in the people creating the magic that happens every Wednesday and Friday night.