Courtesy of Anuta Research Center
An architect’s sketch shows the historic United Beverage Co. that functioned in Marinette and Menominee during the Prohibition Era. The company made “Near Beer” or “3.2 Beer” along with various carbonated flavors of soft drinks at its Marinette plant in the 1700 block of Pierce Avenue. United Beverage was a consolidation of Leisen and Henes Brewery and Menominee River Brewing Co. The artful drawing is the company’s main operation on Sheridan Road at Stephenson Avenue.
Courtesy of Anuta Research Center

An architect’s sketch shows the historic United Beverage Co. that functioned in Marinette and Menominee during the Prohibition Era. The company made “Near Beer” or “3.2 Beer” along with various carbonated flavors of soft drinks at its Marinette plant in the 1700 block of Pierce Avenue. United Beverage was a consolidation of Leisen and Henes Brewery and Menominee River Brewing Co. The artful drawing is the company’s main operation on Sheridan Road at Stephenson Avenue.

The Prohibition Era was a colorful, if not exciting chapter in American history, it started well before my generation was born but it didn’t end until 1933, which means many of us were born, but in our toddler years.

Prohibition meant the restriction or prevention of the manufacture and sale of alcoholic drinks. The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution imposed a federal prohibition law across the country. In spite of the intensive economic and group pressures that brought it about, it was too unpopular and expensive to enforce.

A notorious time of gangsterism followed, with a vast illegal liquor business in the control of some of the infamous criminals of the period. Al Capone and a band of others made a fortune on illegal liquor activities which was known as bootlegging. Marinette and Menominee counties had their own clandestine network of bootleggers that gave the small number of law enforcement units and part-time prosecutors of the times a good run.

Prohibition was repealed in 1933 by the 21st Amendment, although a few states in the U.S. maintained local prohibition laws as late as 1966.

There are so many different brands of beer on the market nowadays it’s hard telling how they would have fit in during the Prohibition Era. When military assignments in the Korean War put us in places where prohibition laws were still in place, we were able to buy “near beer” or “3.2 beer,” where the alcoholic content was less than the normal percentage.

Actually, Michigan went arid in 1916, three years before the federal law took effect. The law put the hand-cuffs on two local brewers who did a brisk business — Leisen and Henes Brewery and Menominee River Brewing Co. The famous labels that touted their products — “Old Craft Brew,” “Silver Cream” and “Golden Drops” — were placed in storage. No longer could the thirsty purchase their favorite brand marketed under catchy slogans like “The Best What Is” and “The Beer That Made Milwaukee Jealous.”

Nor could the imbibers with parched throats continue to have their choice brand delivered to their doorstep for 50 cents per dozen bottles. At that price, one wonders how brewery owners became wealthy people.

It was legal for brewers to have the genuine amber-colored malted hops in storage, but it would cost them $25,000 if they were nabbed selling it. The penalty was risky considering a customer could have 12 bottles delivered to him at home for 50 cents, and beer was sold in taverns for five cents a glass.

So what did the two Menominee breweries do when Michigan enacted a prohibition law before it was federalized?

Wisconsin was still an “open state.” The Menominee brewers merged to become United Beverage Co. and moved to Marinette.

United Beverage incorporated under the laws of Wisconsin in 1918 and constructed a bottling plant, refrigeration facility and ice house at 1701 Pierce Ave., about where FNT Industries is now located. A railroad spur was extended to the plant. The area was near the city limits and the neighborhood sparce with people and buildings.

The original plan of the brewing company owners was to eventually move one of the brewhouses to Marinette. The plan was scuttled when the entire nation went dry when the 18th Amendment was adopted.

The bottling plant operated in Marinette from May 1, 1918, (World War I Era) until Jan. 5, 1921, when operations were back to the Leisen and Henes facility at the corner of Sheridan Road (1st Street) and Stephenson Avenue (14th Avenue).

One of the principal reasons behind the move was because company officials did not want to lose key personnel at the Menominee facility. The company continued to employ its workers in Menominee from the time it transferred operations to Marinette until the bottling portion was returned to Michigan in 1921.

Frank Erdlitz was president and general manager of United Beverage in its fledgling years. Wolfgang Reindl was vice president, John Henes was secretary and Joseph Leisen served as treasurer. All were well-known and smart businessmen in the industry.

Thirteen brewers were operating in the Upper Peninsula during the hey-day of the two Menominee brewers and before Prohibition. Five were in the Copper Country. The others were in Iron Mountain, Escanaba, Marquette, Bessemer, Ironwood and Sault Ste. Marie.

United Beverage manufactured a line of carbonated soft drinks called “soda pop.”

The flavors were orange, strawberry, raspberry, cherry, peach, lemon sour, cream soda and root beer. The brewmaster also concocted a blend labeled Rock Ginger Ale, added a grape cider mixture, and produced a new creation known as “Birch Beer.” The latter was sold in bottles and kegs.

Although bootlegging and “home brew” made people like Al Capone, Eliot Ness and J. Edgar Hoover famous during the Prohibition Era, beer drinkers were delighted when prohibition ended after a 14-year run. While prohibition had its share of supporters, the greater consensus was that the ranks of people who enjoyed beer and those who preferred law and order was not a good mixture for society.

Will Rogers, a famous comedian and lecturer during the Prohibition Era, probably summed up the feelings of a majority of the country when it came to “Near Beer.”

“The fellow that named it was a durned poor judge of distance,” he declared.