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Rockford Brewing Company

One of the mammoth enterprises of Rockford was that of the Rockford Brewing Company, a labyrinth of diversified departments necessary to produce beer. The brewery's beginning dates back to 1849 when British immigrant Jonathan Peacock founded Rockford's first brewery under the name Peacock's Brewery. Peacock born in 1821 learned the brewing trade  from master brewers in his homeland, later refining his skills at Chicago’s Lill & Diversey Brewery. At age 28, he moved to Rockford with limited resources, he launched Peacock's Brewery from a small limestone Greek revival style home he purchased which was built in 1840 at the corner of Prairie and North Main Streets, near the Rock River. He began making ale in the basement of the house. He produced ale that quickly attracted a loyal following and Peacock soon outgrew the small basement brewery. This was the beginning of Peacock Brewery.

He constructed a brew house, as well as an independent bottling plant, the  E.H. Peacock Bottling Works, named for Peacock's son Edwin on Prairie  Street and what was then known as North Main Street on Rockford's east  side. After the east and west side of Rockford merged the street was renamed Madison Street. The brewery would see many expansions to the brewery between 1857 and 1919. Peacock used the most modern and  approved methods, the best and purest material was used, artesian wells  on site supplied fresh water, ice blocks cut from the Rock River in the  winter supplied the cold storage areas in the basement for summertime  refrigeration, and  direct access to the Chicago & Northwestern Railway  line made shipping and receiving easy. "Nothing but the choicest cereals and imported hops were used in the production of these beers" claimed an article in the Register Gazette.

E. H. Peacock Advertisement 1880

After only brewing cream and stock ales, Peacock would introduce his first lager in 1870, a light beer brewed by slow fermentation. Peacock’s timing was good, as working-class immigrants moved to Rockford for factory work. That same year he started producing specialty products, among them pilsner, porter's beer and malt extra. One of the lagers, Nikolob, became the favorite of many in Northern Illinois and Southern Wisconsin. Popular in part due to its clever slogan: "You'll find good cheer in Nikolob, the beer that made Milwaukee jealous." The advertising campaign was geared towards better-known Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company, which manufactured "The beer that made Milwaukee famous.” Schlitz was a major competitor here in the Rockford beer market against Peacock.

Schlitz was not the only competition Peacock would face, six other Rockford brewers attempted to grab a share of the beer trade from 1856 to 1893. The longest competitor was August Kauffman, a butcher who owned a meat market at 820 South Main Street began doubling as a brewery in 1856. Kauffman purchased Diamond Brewery in 1879, founded in an adjoining building by John W. Diamond. Kauffman ceased   production of beer in 1881. At Peacock brewery a candle left unattended in the shipping room set off a blaze that gutted the first and second floors of the brewery.  On July 2, 1894, employees from the waterworks across the river from the Peacock Brewery saw flames shooting from the building shortly after midnight. The blaze started from a candle left burning in a window sill in the shipping room on the first floor. The second floor of the large brewery was practically gutted; the roof of the ice house was burned off as well. Because of its brick construction the building survived although contents of the first floor and basement were thoroughly soaked. Peacock had two thousand bushels of barley stored in the building that were destroyed for brewing purposes. Although Peacock had no insurance on the brewery, he undertook rebuilding immediately after the fire at his own expense.

August Kauffman Advertisement 1869

Founder Jonathan Peacock died in 1896 at the age of 75. In addition to Peacock Brewery, he owned seven taverns in Rockford and also taverns in Pecatonica and Belvidere. The estate was left to his heirs and control over what had become the oldest brewery in Illinois, as the great Chicago fire of 1871 had destroyed those that came before it.  Edwin Peacock became president of E. H. Peacock Bottling Works, and he and his brother Frank wasted no time expanding the company. They invested much money on more space and equipment. As a result, annual production jumped from 6,000 barrels to 20,000 barrels.

The business flourished until tuberculosis would end the lives of both brothers in 1899. Frank's widow, Louisa, ran the company briefly. Then, in 1900, she sold Rockford Brewery to a tycoon named John V. Petritz of Montana for $50,000. Petritz pumped $150,000 into his newly acquired company. It was money well invested. He commissioned the architectural firm of Widmann, Walsh & Boisselier out of St. Louis to design the new Rockford Brewing Company building, and erected a six story, brick and stone brew house over the old one. He added all new boilers and machinery as well.  Petritz continued to manufacture the Nikolob brand, and by 1909 was turning out 75,000 barrels a year. Petritz began buying and leasing property around the city to acquire saloons where he could sell his product.

But there was also more trouble brewing for Petritz, Beginning in 1908, Petritz faced at least two hundred and seventy charges of violating city liquor codes. He pled guilty in a number of cases and paid fines totaling $2,350. In Rockford, as elsewhere, public opinion toward alcoholic beverages had changed against it. Rockford citizens had a long connection with the temperance movement by their charter affiliation with the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Petritz ignored restrictions placed on his business. In 1916 he was cited for maintaining a common nuisance, the  fact that the company has pleaded guilty repeatedly to infractions of the  law against selling liquor in anti-saloon territory furnishes the basis for the  charges. Petritz was engaged in other battles as he had undermined on many occasions attempts by the International Union of the United Brewery Workmen to organize the brewery's labor force into a union shop. After a short lived conspiracy and elaborate scheme to circumvent the law by Petritz and two beer distributors via a fictitious company, money was deposited in a Beloit, Wisconsin bank and order forms shipped to the brewery by rail. In this way orders were placed in wet territory, the brewery would ship beer to Beloit by the Chicago & Northwestern, only to have the beer returned to Rockford by the Rockford & Interurban Railway passenger line, for local delivery. Petritz reasoned that none of the prohibitions explicitly banned beer drinking by local people if purchased in a wet territory. Petritz found this to be too laborious and time consuming and  decided to resume its practice of accepting orders in dry territory and start  shipping beer directly from the brewery once again.

Judge Kenesaw Mountain  Landis

Word soon reached the federal authorities about the artifice and Petritz became the subject of a grand-jury probe. Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, a federal judge with the United States District Court of Northern Illinois and the future commissioner of professional baseball (1920 -1944), oversaw the investigation. In May, the grand jury handed down indictments against Petritz, his son Frank, his brother Matthias and Earl Blewfield, who was responsible for depositing money in the Beloit bank for the dummy company, Petritz was jailed on a $7,500 bond pending trial. The City of Rockford joined the suit, charging Rockford Brewing Company in civil court with 1,250 retroactive violations of liquor laws and the Winnebago County State's Attorney filed a 2,341 count criminal complaint.

A settlement was eventually reached which allowed those charged to escape criminal prosecution in return for payment of $15,000 to be split evenly between the City and County. On the federal charges the brewery and its real-estate holdings were put up for sale at the price of $125,000. Landis ordered that any alcohol seized as evidence and suitable for medicinal purposes be turned over to the base hospital at Camp Grant, while "the remainder is used to flush the sewers. Petritz swore he would never operate a brewery in this county again and when the company’s federal brewing license expired in July 1918 he did not renew it. The Petritz family had been prominent people in Rockford and after suffering the indignity of being arrested and prosecuted, John V. Petritz was able to reinvent his business and regain his stature in the community. He quickly transitioned the building to a state of the art cold storage facility, leveraging the refrigeration that was still in place from the brewery.

The Eighteenth Amendment ushered in National prohibition on January 16, 1920 and along with it speakeasies, bathtub gin and mobsters. Rockford gained a reputation as a place of illicit alcohol, rival gangs fought to control the lucrative liquor business and gunshots rang out with alarming frequency. Rockford would experience gangland slayings in proportions previously unheard of outside Chicago.

The brewery building was converted into a storage facility around 1919 known as Rockford Storage Warehouses.

When prohibition ended in 1933 brewers faced the task of re-establishing legitimate trade in a product that had been controlled by organized crime. John G. Petritz, tried his hand at re-establishing his father’s brewery after prohibition. When the brewery reopened, it was only used for aging and bottling. The beer, sold under the name Petritz, was actually brewed in Chicago but the venture did not last long. A year later, an employee, Edward M. Fox, bought the company. Samuel Hirsch acquired the brewery from Fox in 1937 and changed its name to Rock River Brewing Company.  Hirsch's brands included Coronet Old Vat and Grand Prize. Closure as a brewery was in 1945.

The brewery building was still utilized for other purposes after the manufacture of beer had ceased and in 1947 it would house Linde Air Oxygen Products, B & W Storage Warehouse and Bell Beverage Company who were a beer distributor for Budweiser and Michelob and utilized much of the building by 1951 but would move to 821 Kishwaukee Street. Past occupants of the building include Modern Laundry and Dry Cleaning, Rock-A-Bye Diaper Service, storage and various other small tenants such as woodworking shops, furniture refinishing, an antique store and others would continue to occupy the building over the years.

Above are some of the Rockford Brewery crew working in the bottling department.

In the late 1990's a full service marina featuring a deck with three docks and 60 boat slips was built. Currently the old brewery is gaining new life as partners Gary W. Anderson, Diane and Lloyd Koch, Chris Manuel and David Kase further renovate the 76,000-square-foot former brewery which is now known as the Prairie Street Brewhouse. They plan on turning the building into a mixed use development which would include dining, entertainment, office and retail space, and luxury loft condominiums. Word is a micro-brewery might be included in the project also. In January 2012, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places. This endeavor has not been an easy one and has taken many years of blood, sweat and tears on the part of the developers to bring the project to reality. I for one whole heartedly thank this group for their non-tireless efforts to save this historically significant landmark structure for all of us to enjoy in the years to come. Please visit the Prairie Street Brewhouse website to find more information by clicking on the picture below.

The Prairie Street Brewhouse as it appeared in 2015. Photo courtesy of Gary W. Anderson Architects

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