When three German immigrants—brothers Otto and Gustav Meeske and their business partner Gottlieb Ninneman—started the Muskegon Brewing Company in 1876, little did they know the venture would become one of the city’s biggest businesses and dominate the beer industry as one of the best brewing ventures in the country.
Perched on a bluff overlooking Muskegon Lake—a space once called Brewery Hill that is now Cole’s bakery—Muskegon Brewing Company was born at a time when lumber reigned as king of the region’s economic landscape. (Just several years before the brewing company began, Muskegon had just supplied much of the timber Chicago needed to rebuild after its devastating fire in 1871 and, by the mid-1880s, about 46 sawmills surrounded Muskegon Lake.) Launched just 11 years after the end of the Civil War, the company became something akin to today’s Bell’s Brewery and went from churning out 8,000 barrels around the time it started to 60,000 barrels by the 1890s.
“This firm is composed of thorough, practical brewers, they having been connected with some of the best breweries of the country, and in the short time they have been in business here they have been a decided success,” H.S. Reed writes in his book, “The Industries of the City of Muskegon,” published in 1880.
The Muskegon Brewing Company—and the iterations that followed, the Grand Rapids Brewing Company and Goebel Brewing Company, both of which operated in Muskegon—would, like the city itself, ride the ups and downs that the arch of history threw its way: the end of the logging industry and the rise of manufacturing, World War I, Prohibition, a fire that destroyed its brewery, the Great Depression, and World War II, just to name a few. As it shipped the name of Muskegon throughout the region, the company paved the way for a brewing industry that, a century and a half later, is filled with the spaces helping to revitalize a downtown that just years ago was a series of unpaved roads after the demise of the Muskegon Mall: Unruly Brewing Company, Pigeon Hill Brewing Company and Rake Beer Project.
Opening to the public tomorrow, December 7, a new Lakeshore Museum Center exhibit will explore and celebrate this extensive history of brewing in Muskegon. “Cheers! A History of Brewing in Muskegon” will feature such artifacts as bottles, labels, advertisements, crates, and even the door from the Muskegon Brewing Company building, with the items coming from the museum’s collection, the personal collection of Pigeon Hill co-owner Michael Brower and the Heritage Museum in downtown Muskegon. Additionally, the exhibit will allow museum-goers to design their own beer labels, smell brewing ingredients, learn the science behind brewing, and more.
“It’s really exciting,” Brower said of the exhibit. “Muskegon’s beer history is something a lot of people don’t know. They don’t know we had one of the biggest breweries here; they don’t know we made Guinness here. I’m excited to show people that making beer downtown is not new.”
With the exhibit, viewers will be able to delve into decades upon decades of brewing history, from the Muskegon Brewing Company opening in 1876 to Grand Rapids Brewing Company taking it over in 1935 and the Detroit-based Goebel Brewing Company coming on board in 1946 and ultimately ending operations in Muskegon in 1957. It’s a history filled with seemingly endless narratives: stories of navigating this country as new immigrants, of companies that would become economic powerhouses, of riding out the Great Depression’s economic turbulence that would sink businesses throughout the region and country, of the beer made for soldiers heading to fight in World War II. Of family. Of community. Of the city of Muskegon.
“Beer is a community-binder,” said Kate Curto, the Lakeshore Museum Center’s exhibits designer. “Its history here, and how it has connected to the community, is incredible.”
For both Curto and Aaron Mace, the Lakeshore Museum Center’s assistant program manager, the exhibit serves not only as a way to celebrate the city’s history, but to further connect the area’s past to everyone from residents whose families have been here for generations to newer transplants—like Curto, who recently moved here from Philadelphia, and Mace, who grew up in Detroit.
“I’m a fan of craft beer and a West Michigan transplant, and, when I moved here, it was cool to see all the different breweries in the area,” Mace said. “When I started working in Muskegon, I got interested in the breweries here; there’s quite a long history.”
As he spent time in Unruly, which opened almost exactly six years ago in December 2013, and Pigeon Hill, which debuted in March 2014, Mace began to formulate an idea for a brewing exhibit that would celebrate the history of an industry now undergoing a revival, here and across the United States. Two years ago, he pitched the idea to the museum and began conducting research for the project, doing everything from combing through decades-old articles to connecting with the Meeske family, who now live on the east coast, and Brower, who has spent years collecting local brewing artifacts.
“It’s a great way to connect to the area, and you see history repeating itself,” Mace said of the brewing industry. “I loved getting to meet the Meeske family, and it was cool to learn from them about their history and even be able to share some history with them that they didn’t know.”
Otto Meeske and his brother, Gustav Meeske, moved in the 1871 from Swinemunde, Germany, where they learned the ins and outs of brewing, to Milwaukee, where they worked in the brewing industry. They then headed to Muskegon to launch their company here with Ninneman, who moved from Germany to the United States in the 1850s and also served on the Muskegon City Council. Their success quickly took off, with the company selling beer at their saloon properties in such cities as Muskegon and Grand Rapids, as well as other venues throughout the state and in Chicago, Mace explained.
“By the 1890s, they were up to 60,000 barrels a year; that’s even more than Short’s does now,” Mace said of the Michigan craft brew powerhouse. “It’s a significant amount.”
Once Prohibition hit in 1920, Muskegon Brewing Company, like alcohol businesses around the country, had to figure out a new way to make money and began to sell soda, ice and non-alcoholic beer. Once Prohibition ended in 1933, the company was just beginning to regroup and again launch its brewing operations when a fire swept through its five-story facility in 1935. On Dec. 13, 1933, Otto Meeske died, and, just days before the fire destroyed the brewery, Gustav Meeske died on May 25, 1935. That same year, Frank McKay purchased and rebuilt the brewery, which became the Grand Rapids Brewing Company. In 1946, the space that was once the Muskegon Brewing Company was again sold, this time to the Detroit-based Goebel Beer Company, which would go on to brew Guinness at the Muskegon facility. After sales slowed, Goebel ended operations in Muskegon in 1957.
The stories told in the exhibit are ones that make the past 150 years dissolve in some ways: they make us realize that while a century and a half is a long time, and that we’ll never know those who launched Muskegon’s brewing industry, we still walk the same streets as those who began this world of brewing, we watch the same Muskegon Lake as them, and we sit on Western Avenue and raise our beers to a city that they, too, loved.
“It gives me even more of an appreciation for the breweries we have in Muskegon now,” Mace said of learning the industry’s history. “They’re great community centers to meet and listen to music. The jobs they generate and the positive impact they have here is really important.”
Brower, and his brewing colleagues throughout the city, have a deep understanding of the impact beer can have on a city. More than 50 years after Goebel closed in Muskegon, Unruly and Pigeon Hill—and, more recently, Rake Beer Project—are helping to reshape a downtown that, even just six years ago, was struggling to bring people to the area. Situated in historic buildings themselves—Pigeon Hill in the Noble Building, Unruly in the Russell Block Building, and Rake in the old Al Perri furniture space—the breweries are, once again, showing the world that Muskegon knows beer.
“The growth of microbreweries throughout the country has helped to contribute to the revitalization of downtowns that were crumbling,” Brower said. “The breweries here, as well as the other risk-takers, helped with what we’re seeing in downtown right now, this turnaround that a lot of people didn’t even think was possible.”
Of course, it’s not just that Muskegon knows beer. Perhaps more than anything, it’s that Muskegon understands how to persevere, even when it seems like the rest of the world has dismissed it. The revival of Muskegon’s beer industry is, in many ways, emblematic of the city at large: a place that, as Brower said, is “a town that takes care of its own.” It’s a place that has known joy and sadness and struggle and triumph—it has seen industry come and go, it has known soaring unemployment, and, now, it’s once again witnessing a bustling downtown brimming with commerce, including, of course, the breweries.
“It creates jobs here; it gives us a local product we can consumer, but it blasts out to the rest of the state that, hey, we’re here, Muskegon’s here,” Brower said, referring to the brewing industry. “It’s part of the reason Muskegon is on our cans—it’s to make people think. This town is completely different than people’s perceptions—and it was never as bad as people’s perceptions. We are, and have been, exporting things left and right from Muskegon—beer, the spring in your pen, what’s in your car.”
Muskegon is a place filled with history— a history that people not only remember, but celebrate.
“The exhibit is a great reminder of the rich history we have in Muskegon,” Brower said. “I think a lot of us either don’t know, or have forgotten, how many great things did happen here. This is a chance to look back on our history with pride and see the parallels of today, see that Muskegon has a strong history and we’re working on a strong future.”
“Cheers! A History of Brewing in Muskegon” will run from Dec. 7, 2019 through May, 18, 2020. The public is invited to a free open house on Friday, Dec. 6 from 5:30-7:30pm, when museum goers will get a sneak peek of the exhibit. For more information about the exhibit, please click here.