Back to our Village’s beer history, but first a few definitions. One of my smartest readers noted that I was throwing around the terms saloon, tavern, and bar loosely, and she wondered whether there were differences among them? After doing some digging, the answer is “almost none.” They all refer to a public drinking establishment (public house or pub). Tavern is probably the oldest word – at a time when society was more rigidly divided into classes, a tavern was a common place where people would drink together, where men could drink alongside the people for whom they worked. In the mid-1800s the term saloon began to appear, based on the French word salon, which meant a large room or hall, often in a hotel. In the Old West, saloon came to mean a large room for drinking, card-playing, billiards, pool, and cowboys. Bar, of course, refers to the solid piece of furniture you lean on when knocking back a cold one, but the term has been expanded to include the whole building.
Clarkson had all of these – saloons, taverns, and bars. But what the early Czech immigrants were probably really looking for was a hospoda or hostinec. Back in the Old Country, these public inns provided a quiet place to spend the day, playing cards, listening to music, conversing with your comrades and enjoying a meal of pub food washed down with the local brew. It is still common in Czechia to see patrons of a hospoda sit at a table for hours over a beer or two, quietly solving the problems of the world, undisturbed by the wait staff. Our ancestors brought this pleasant habit with them, and it was slow to die out. When I was young, you could walk into any tavern in Clarkson and see old men whiling away the hours, playing cards and enjoying a smoke (cigar, cigarette, or Pfeife) and 25-cent beers. Tavern owners didn’t make much money from these customers, smoking up their place and spending the day lingering over a beer or two, but they probably didn’t have to break up many fist fights either.
Clarkson was a rougher place in its earliest days – on the edge of civilization where cowboys still mixed with homesteaders. One of the first saloons in town, the Roether & Becker Billiard Hall and Saloon, had to deal with rowdies from the John A. Wisherd Ranch. Jon Trzcinski, scion of the Oklahoma Branch of the Roether Family, told of a cowboy from the Wisherd ranch riding into the saloon on horseback when a young Joe Roether (Jon’s grandfather) was tending bar. Neither the cowboy nor the horse could be coaxed into leaving until Joe’s father, John Roether, showed up, took the reins, and led the horse out the door. (It might have taken considerable courage on John Roether’s part to grab the horse clattering around inside his saloon – John had once been kicked by a horse, which had left his neck permanently crooked and his head bent to one side).
Randy Vavrina shared a story told to him by his grandmother, Marie Slama Vavrina. Marie and her sister Libbie were little and were up on the second floor of the Slama Saloon on a late Saturday afternoon, when a burly bunch of cowboys from the ranch came to town. They rode their horses into the tavern and began shooting their guns into the ceiling as they rode in. Apparently they were excited to have a cold beer but the little girls cowering upstairs were terrified. There may still be bullet holes in the metal ceiling tiles.
The Clarkson Diamond Jubilee book noted the citizens’ reactions to this lawless activity in 1897:
With the location of the Wisherd Ranch also known as the Bilby Ranch north of Clarkson, our village was the scene of “Wild West” activities especially during pay day of the ranch hands from that ranch. These men would ride into town on horseback, gunshots would be heard, as they rode up and down the streets. While this was going on, the citizens would take cover in the buildings on the street. The saloon keepers would have their day and activity would increase. The ranch hands would stream into town in large numbers and although money would be spent in the saloon, the keepers would have their anxious moments. This finally led to a petition on behalf of the citizens of Clarkson and presented to the Board of Trustees petitioning them to “furnish better protection from the rough hired hands from the ranch and asking saloon keepers to refrain from selling alcoholic beverages to them.”
Everyone loves a cold beer (and lemonade and ice cream), but how did they keep these treats cold in the days before refrigeration (Clarkson first got electricity in 1908)? With home-made ice. Paul Filipi, who at the tender age of 98 has a longer memory than anyone in our fair village, remembers how ice was made in Clarkson:
“I vividly remember the ice houses in my youth, i.e. the 1920’s. They consisted of a round hole in the ground about 10 ft. in diameter and maybe 12 ft. deep. It was covered by shed that included a door for access and a beam across the top to which was attached a block and tackle. This allowed attachment to an ice hook for handling the blocks of ice.
I know of 3 in Clarkson: one in back of the Gloser ice cream and candy parlor, another across the street in back of the back of the building just north of the empty lot and a third in back of the Slama building.
Businesses that sold ice cream and beer needed them. I remember going and getting a block of ice to make ice cream. Some farmers had their own ice house. The late Lester Kabes’ parents had one.
In Clarkson the ice was not used for ice boxes (refrigerators) as most houses had caves (cellars) to preserve food. In Omaha they had ice wagons that delivered ice regularly to homes with ice boxes; ice was harvested from Carter Lake.
To get the ice, Raymond’s Creek, a creek coming in from the North West (tributary to the Maple Creek), was dammed with a 10-ft-high concrete structure that diverted water into a large pond. The lake was crescent-shaped and as I remember it was about 100 yards wide and maybe 500 yards long or more. This was the place where the Odvarka Brothers built the dance halls. Even after refrigeration became popular in the 1930’s it was still used as a swimming hole and fish pond. In winter when the ice was thick enough to harvest, men would saw blocks of ice and used horses to transport the ice. Later I remember skating on the pond. I understand the pond has been filled in and nothing remains but memories.”
A dray service transported the ice from the pond to the ice houses and barrels of beer from the railroad station to the taverns. On December 27, 1887, Rudolph Reinsdorff was awarded the right to operate dray services from the depot to the town, for which he was assessed a fee of $20 per year. Beginning in 1898, a drayage was run by Adolph Filipi; in 1928 he sold the business to James Krofta, who continued to operate the service until the railroad tracks were taken out in the early 1960s.
I thought about trying to list all of the saloons, taverns, beer joints and bars in Clarkson since its earliest days, but quickly realized that there have been so many that it is an impossible task. So here, for the record, is as close as I can come- a partial list of beer joints in town in its first 129 years:
1887 – Joseph Cibulka & Co’s Pool, Beer, and Billiard Hall; John Roether & Joseph Becker’s Billiard Hall and Saloon; and Anton Zabka’s Clarkson Beer, Pool, and Billiard Hall.
(You can read more about the Roether & Becker Saloon in an earlier posting: https://clarksonhistory.wordpress.com/2012/03/25/the-clarkson-philharmonic/ )
On September 29, 1887 all saloons in Clarkson were instructed to be closed on Sundays and also after 11 PM on weekdays. On November 19, 1887 Anton Zabka acquired the first license to sell liquor (cost of a liquor license was $575); Joseph Becker received his liquor license on December 12, 1887.
1890 – Joseph Fajman opened a saloon, bringing the total to 4 saloons for a village of fewer than 300 souls.
1908 – The business directory lists saloons owned by John Bos, Joseph Slama, John F. Swoboda , and Emil Tomes/Emil H. Slama.
1913 – Luxa and Hamsa saloon.
1915 – Five saloons owned by Frank Bos, Joseph Cibulka, Joseph R. and Vaclav Krofta, Joseph Slama, and John F. Swoboda in a town whose population had reached 825.
1935 – In January, Emil Uher bought the Henry Knapp Saloon, and with the assistance of his wife conducted business to the time of his death in 1945. After his death, his wife took over until she sold it in 1954 to Louis F. Vlach.
1946 – Louis J. Tomes opened the Silver Bar. (One of the earliest buildings in Clarkson, in later years, it housed taverns operated by William Uher, Lumir J. Novotny, V.O. Berger, and Joe A. Urbanovsky)
1948 – In February, William Uher bought out the Louis J. Tomes Tavern.
1952 – On May 1, Frank E. Svik assumed ownership of the former Frank Mihelich tavern.
1954 – In February, Marie Uher Zrust sold her tavern to Louis and Mildred Vlach. From the February 24, 1954 issue of the Colfax County Press: Mrs. Zrust, the former Mrs. Uher and her late husband Emil Uher, moved to Clarkson nineteen years ago, when they took over the tavern formerly operated by the late Henry Knapp. The Uher¹s always ran a clean-cut tavern without any major law infractions. Mr. Uher passed away in death in 1933(?) and since then his widow, now Mrs. Zrust, operated same. Mr. and Mrs. Zrust are as yet undecided as to their future plans.
1955 – In September, Louis Vlach sold “Louie’s Tavern” to Reuben and Lillian Uecker. They took possession on November 1, 1955 and made extensive improvement to the front and interior of the building (the Brass Rail) over the years.
1956 – On May 1, Frank L. Bukacek took over the former Joseph Jirsak Tavern.
1958 – On May 1, Mr. and Mrs. Bert Addleman purchased the Frank Svik tavern.
1959 – In May, Reuben and Lillian Uecker purchased the building in which they operated their tavern, renamed it The Brass Rail, and remodeled the bar inside and put on a brick front.
1961 – The Diamond Jubliee Book lists 3 taverns: Brass Rail (Reuben Uecker), Joe’s Tavern (Joe A. Urbanovsky), and Bert’s Place (Bert Addleman). Between 1946 and 1961, the building occupied by Bert’s place also housed taverns operated by Walter F. Hahn, William H. Toomey, Joseph M. Houfek, Rudolph Plisek, Frank Mihelich, and Frank E. Svik.
1964 – On November 1, the Ueckers sold The Brass Rail to Valentine (Spitz) and Helen Belohrad, who operated it for nearly 13 years.
Late 1960s – There were 5 bars going full blast in our town of fewer than 1,000. They were operated by Spitz Belohrad (The Brass Rail), Rudy Studnicka (Rudy’s?), Frank Bukacek (?), and Harold Neuhaus (Lone Star). Can anyone fill in the blanks in my memory? As someone said, if you remember the Sixties, you weren’t there.
Early 1970s – Harold Neuhaus sold the Lone Star to Lois Beiermann.
Also, there was a Stockman’s Bar – who owned that? I’m hoping the younger generation can sort this out.
Late 1970s – Lone Star Bar operated by Linda and Ed Blaha.
1977 – In June, the Belohrads sold The Brass Rail to Dave and Mary Kay Herout.
1986 – Taverns still operating in Clarkson included The Brass Rail, Friday’s Lounge, and Stockman’s Bar.
1987 – Keith Brabec took over operation of the Brass Rail.
2015 – Harry’s Brass Rail is sold to Richard Mundil and on November 21 reopened as Pine Street Pub and Pizza. The 56-year reign of the Brass Rail, Clarkson’s most modern and, in recent years, only beer joint, has ended. The King is dead – long live the King!
ADDENDUM: After posting this list, I got several additions/corrections from readers (and I hope that I get more). I’ve just received the following list of bars and their owners from about 1960 to the present time, a period during which I was mostly in absentia:
Brass Rail – Reuben and Lillian Uecker, Valentine and Helen Belohrad, Dave and Mary Kay Herout, Bill Drees, Rich Mundil, Keith Brabec, and Rich Mundil.
Rudy’s Bar (next to the Press Office) – Lumir and Eleanor Novotny (Novotny’s Bar), Joe and Jane Urbanovsky (Joe’s Bar), Rudy and Bertha Studnicka (Rudy’s Bar), Ray and Wilma Stara (Stara’s Bar?), and Don, Jeff, and Greta Chleboun (Chleboun’s Bar/Stockman’s Bar?).
Lone Star Bar (by Karel’s Store) – Frank and Sylvia Bukacek, Harold and Lilian Neuhaus, Ron Ondracek, Lois Beiermann, and Linda and Ed Blaha.
K&E Cafe (now Rob Brabec’s True Value Hardware storehouse) – cafe owned by Joe W. Kucera and Jim Evans. They sold the building to Frank Bukacek, who continued to run the cafe and opened a bar in the back of the building briefly in the early 1960s (remember the parachute hanging from the ceiling?)
Pheasant Bar – Bert Addleman (Bert’s Place), Delbert and Virginia Nelson, Shirley and Lester Probst, John and Bette Carley, Carroll Vacha, Lois Beiermann, Frank and Elsie Jirsak, Jan Jirsak, Karen and Dean Lapour, Rich Mundil, and Keith Brabec (?)
There you have it – as I always say, corrections are welcomed, especially if they are factual. It’s a long and bewildering list of names, but it demonstrates that a community of Czech and German blue collar workers can support a significant beer-based economy.
So, we know where it was served – where did all the beer come from? The Storz brewery in Omaha supplied beer to at least two of the early taverns – the Slama saloon and the Tomes and Suchy (Tomes and Slama?) saloon (notice the words “Česky Hostinec” on the window, which would have lured homesick immigrants). Presumably the barrels and bottles of Storz beer were loaded onto railroad cars at a siding next to the brewery, transported to Clarkson on the Fremont, Elk Horn, and Missouri Valley Railroad, and offloaded at the Clarkson railroad depot by Reinsdorff or one of the other draymen.
Around the turn of the 20th Century Omaha had three major breweries: Metz, Krug, and Storz. The Metz Bros. Brewing Company was established in Omaha in 1859, at 1717 S 3rd Street (close to the Missouri River and the train tracks). The Metz Brewery, that was said to have “no equal in the country” closed because of Prohibition and never re-opened.
The Fred Krug Brewery was also founded in 1859, and had an initial output of 1.5 barrels per day. By 1880 it was brewing 25,000 barrels of beer per year, and in 1894 it moved its operations to a large building at 29th and Vinton in South Omaha. Krug brewed beer under several labels (Fred Krug, Cabinet, and Luxus), supported an amateur baseball team, and established Krug Park, an amusement park in the Benson neighborhood. The Krug Brewery suspended operations during Prohibition (1920-1933) and three years later was sold to Falstaff Brewing of St. Louis. Falstaff Beer was brewed at that South Omaha location until 1987. (In the 1960s, Falstaff was the third largest brewer in the U.S.)
The Storz Brewing Company opened in 1863 at 1807 N 16th St in Omaha, and didn’t cease operations until 1972. They brewed 150,000 barrels of beer per year, and in 1960 produced one-third of all the beer sold in Nebraska. Their product was sold under a variety of names, but Storz Triumph was their flagship label. Some of you ladies may remember that in the 1950s the company manufactured “Storz-ette” beer, which came in an 8-ounce can that had an orchid on the label and a tagline that read “calorie controlled”; they were sold as four-can packages called “Princess Packs.” The original brewery was closed in 1972, but in 2013 was opened again to sell a line of craft beers.
Although not counted as a major brewery, the Jetter Brewery in South Omaha made a lot of suds. Established in 1887 by Balthas Jetter, its flagship brand was Gold Top, a beer that “always snaps and sparkles, that never leaves a bad effect, that is a good beverage and a better tonic, that is Gold Top.” With a peak capacity of 100,000 barrels annually, the Jetter Brewery quenched the thirst of thousands of immigrants working in the South Omaha stockyards and packing plants, but it didn’t survive Prohibition and the death of its founder).
But you didn’t have to go as far as Omaha to buy a good beer. In the late 19th century there were small breweries in many Nebraska towns (much as in the early 21st century). Sorting out the names and owners is as tortuous as the list of Clarkson’s taverns, but there were breweries in Fremont (Fremont Brewing Co., 1891-1934), Columbus (1866-1954; All-American and Pawnee beer), and West Point (West Point Brewing Co. 1868-1917). The West Point Brewery made an alluring church key (can opener) of a reclining woman to advertise its Social Beer – let’s hope there were no “social diseases” associated with the consumption of Social Beer.
Closer to home, Schuyler had at least two breweries. Martin Jetter was the proprietor of the Schuyler Brewery, which was erected around 1870 by Mr. Fritz Lammert: The brewery was housed in a building 16×50 feet in size, 2 stories high. Employing 3 men, the Schuyler Brewery had a capacity of as much as 15 barrels per day and produced 1,000 barrels of beer annually. Jetter was born in Germany on January 19, 1845, came to America in 1865, worked two years in a brewery at Dunkirk, N. Y., then about a year in Burlington, Iowa, and from there to Omaha, Neb., and worked in same business until 1875, when he bought the above brewery in company with Max Lenz. They continued in company a year, when Martin Jetter bought the whole interest and renamed it the Martin Jetter Brewery. He married Miss Barbara Seyfried, a native of Germany and had three children–John M., Fred W., and Lena C. Jetter operated the brewery from 1875 to 1884.
Another Schuyler brewery (possibly the same one) was operated by the Platz family for 20 years. The brewery went under the names Platz & Kurth Brewery (188?-1888), F. William Platz Brewery (1888-1900), William Platz Brewery (1900-1902), and Paul P. Platz Brewery (1902-1904). One of the owners, F. William Platz, was the father of Lena Platz. Lena Platz came to Clarkson to teach and coach women’s basketball, and married Anton Odvarka, Jr., the longtime publisher of the Colfax County Press.
I have not found any information that locates Schuyler’s brewery, but I have to wonder if it stood on Brewery Hill, the first, small hill north of town, before you get to Fuller’s Hill. When I was a boy my dad told me the hill got that name because it was the site of… a brewery.
But even closer to home, of course, is homebrew. Many people made their own beer, certainly during Prohibition (yes, it was legal) but also at other times as a cheaper and more convenient alternative to commercial beers. We didn’t make beer at home, but I imagine it was a simple procedure – buy a 1-gallon can of malt syrup (Blue Ribbon was sold with or without hop extract), mix it with the appropriate volume of fresh well water, stir in some bread yeast, and let the mixture ferment for a week or two in a large earthenware crock covered with cheesecloth (to keep the flies, gnats, and curious boys out – no artificial ingredients, please). Bottle it up and store it in your root cellar next to the potatoes. I remember seeing cans of Blue Ribbon malt syrup on the shelves of Otrodovsky’s grocery store in Schuyler in the 1950s.
Has all this talk of beer on a hot August day made you thirsty? Do you ever wonder what the beer tasted like that you see in these pictures? Beer is made from only 4 ingredients (water, malt, hops, and yeast) – if you can find a recipe, is it possible to make that beer again? And, even if you have the original recipe, are the original ingredients and brewing technologies still available?
After pondering these questions over many sleepless nights, I consulted a knowledgeable brewmaster, George Bluvas. George is the son of Edith Kudrna Welch and the grandson of Adolph and Blanche Kudrna of Clarkson. Since 1999 he has been the Director of Brewing Operations at Water Street Brewery in Milwaukee. Braumeister Bluvas confirmed my fears:
“One of the really drastic changes is the way we’ve selectively bred/engineered barley. It is not even the same barley as 20 years ago, drastically different in fact. Same with hops, as our science progresses, some of the little things that today are considered not good are what contributed to nuances to make beers (of the past) different. We understand chemistry better and are trying to get brewing efficiency up; these things may have not been as important in days gone by.
The Hamms brewery has been defunct for a few decades; it is now produced by Miller, here in Milwaukee. Unfortunately it too is not exactly the same beer as before, probably close, but cooking beer on different equipment with different ingredients can only get so close. Luckily there is a renewed interest in “retro” beer and Miller has been producing a bunch like Pabst, Schlitz, and Blatz. Although some say they are the “original” recipes they just can’t (or don’t want to) recreate what technology has gone beyond. When Miller acquired Leinenkugel’s in Wisconsin, all the old timers complained that they wrecked the beer. What they did is clean the place up, and the “dirty” that gave Leinie’s a unique taste was gone. Add the fact that most of these beers are brewed slightly “heavier” with a bit more strength…that means they taste more like “beer” than the watery light/lite beers that are too dominant today. “
So, over the last 100 years the ingredients (barley, hops, and probably even the water) have changed, and the brewing techniques and equipment have been altered. Further, the way the beer is handled (age, bottles vs. steel/aluminum cans, aluminum vs. wooden kegs, control of storage temperatures from brewery to drinking glass) has evolved, and little things like that make a big difference to the connoisseur of beer.
However, Mankind’s Quest for Knowledge is not to be denied! Determined to drink the beer that I see in these old photos, I found a recipe for Pre-Prohibition ale that probably comes as close as you can get. It uses a light-colored malt extract, supplemented with corn sugar (to give it the clean, crisp finish that the Old World pilsners had). The hops flavor comes from a variety called Cluster, an old, landrace strain which once comprised more than 80 percent of the hops used in the U.S. but now is almost extinct. You would have to have a Time Machine in order to take my glass of beer back to 1890 for a truly scientific, side-by-side comparison, but I’m pretty sure that this is exactly what you would find. I have made it several times now (the last time for a Catholic charity dinner) and it is very popular. My Pre-Prohibition Ale is a bit more “substantial” than today’s mass market beers, and it has a nice, old-timey flavor and aroma. If you brew, I’d be happy to send you the recipe so that you can whip up a batch, pour a sparkling bottle of it into a heavy glass mug, and imagine you are standing next to the bar in the Slama saloon, having a leisurely beer with Great Grandpa. Or, if you don’t brew, stop over at my house for a taste – I still have a few bottles left.
And now… it’s time for a beer. Na zdraví!
Clarkson’s Diamond Jubilee book (1961) and Centennial book (1986)
Prohibition in Omaha: http://www.omaha.com/go/prohibition-and-nebraska-in-a-largely-dry-state-omaha-wanted/article_771d36e9-afbf-554c-bd0f-4f8dee162274.html
List of old breweries in Nebraska: http://www.oldbreweries.com/breweries-by-state/nebraska/
Andreas’ History of the State of Nebraska – Colfax County: http://www.kancoll.org/books/andreas_ne/colfax/colfax-p1.html