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(Haunted) Beer History: The Rise & Fall of the Lemp Dynasty

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[Photograph: paparutzi on Flickr]

Today's beer history installment is something of a micro-level view of my previous column on German-American brewers—but this one has a Halloween twist. The story of the rise and fall of the Lemps, once one of America's most powerful brewing families, reads like something out of gothic fiction; and, as would be entirely appropriate for that genre, some say that they've never left.

The story begins familiarly enough: Johann 'Adam' Lemp immigrated to the United States in the late 1830s. He first settled in Cincinnati, then moved on to St. Louis, where he opened a grocery store, selling his own homebrewed lager and vinegar alongside the other usual mercantile offerings. Trained as a brewer in Eschwege, Germany, Lemp soon realized that demand for his beer far outstripped his grocery business, and he opened the Western Brewery (the spot is now occupied by one of the legs of the Gateway Arch) in 1842. That facility was also quickly outgrown, but Lemp was able to use the cave system underneath St. Louis to allow his beer to lager. Other newly-arrived German brewers followed suit, but Lemp had a strong lead; he died a wealthy man in 1862.

Adam Lemp was succeeded by his son, William J. Lemp, who had been left behind in Germany until his father had firmly established the business; arriving at age 12, he completed his education in St. Louis and began his career with the Wilhelm Stumpf Brewery.

After his father's death, the younger Lemp and his partners ran the Western Brewery as the William J. Lemp and Company Western Brewery, but by 1864, Lemp had obtained full control. He then began a major expansion, building a new brewery directly over the cave system his father had previously accessed via horse-drawn cart. Within a few years, the brewery was the largest in St. Louis, and one of the biggest in the country.

Lemp added a bottling plant to his brewery in 1877 (then something of an innovation) and artificial refrigeration the following year, which helped speed the lagering process. By this time, Lemp's lager was already well-known in every State in the South and West. But his vision was more expansive; over the next decade, Lemp set up a network of distribution centers and built his own railway, the Western Cable Railway Company, to ensure quality-controlled shipping, and by the 1890s, Lemp lager was available coast to coast.

Pasteurization and further advances in refrigeration allowed Lemp to distribute worldwide—their beer was even well-regarded in Germany, and could be found as far afield as Australia and South America. The Lemp portfolio of beers included six successful brands—Tally, Tip Top, Standard, Culmbacher, Extra Pale and, in a few more years, Falstaff. William J. Lemp's sons had been groomed to take over the business (while one of his daughters, Hilda, had married Gustav Pabst, daughter of Lemp's close friend, Frederick Pabst), so continued success seemed assured—but the first of many tragedies to befall the family was imminent.

In 1901, Frederick Lemp, an accomplished mechanical engineer and the 'favorite' son became unwell; following the advice of the time, he moved with his wife and daughter to Pasadena to recuperate. Unfortunately, the move did not improve his health, and he died of heart failure, aged only 28. His father was devastated, but his brothers pulled together, with William Lemp, Jr. (usually known as Billy), continuing to push the family business forward—he registered the Falstaff trademark and logo in 1903. William Sr. never recovered from his son's death; he withdrew from society and was rumored to only visit his brewery via the caves so long used for lager. With the death of his friend Frederick Pabst as a second major blow, he could take no more, and committed suicide in February, 1904—just before the family planned to debut the Falstaff brand at the St. Louis World's Fair.

Billy Lemp took control of the family brewery, and while the launch of Falstaff had gone well, there were further troubles on the horizon. Although the brewery was now the third largest in the country, its position was in no way assured. The forces of Prohibition were on the march, and competition was becoming tougher—in 1906, nine local breweries joined forces to become the somewhat ironically-named Independent Breweries Company. It would eventually double in size, leaving only Lemp, the Louis Obert Brewing Company and one Anheuser-Busch as truly independent brewers.

Billy Lemp's personal life took a toll—his acrimonious divorce in 1908 was the subject of much unwanted media attention, and he and the other members of the family began to lose interest in the business. Shortly before Prohibition went into effect, the Lemp brewery was converted to produce Cerva, a near-beer, but the returns on the investment were not inspiring—with little ceremony (and no warning to his employees), Billy closed the brewery. He sold the rights to the Falstaff name to the Griesedieck Beverage Company for $25,000 and had the brewery buildings auctioned off for only $585,000 to the International Shoe Company—just pennies on the $7 million dollars at which the plant had been valued before Prohibition.

Without the business, Billy Lemp became depressed; in 1922, like his father (and aunt, Elsa Lemp Wright, who had committed suicide two years earlier), he shot himself in his home. The youngest son of William J. Lemp Sr., Charles Lemp, inherited the family mansion and lived there until 1949 (long after the Griesedieck family had successfully revived the Falstaff brand) —when he shot his dog before turning the gun on himself. Peculiarly, there seems to have been something of a tradition of suicide among St. Louis brewers—P. H. Nolan, Otto Stifel, and August Busch all met the same fate.

With so much tragedy in the family, it is not surprising that rumors of ghostly activity began to circulate not long after Charles died; the mansion became a boarding house, with the usual reports of knocks, footsteps and moans. By the 1970s, the neighborhood and the Lemp Mansion had seen better days—both were in very poor condition. Dick Pointer and his family took on the challenge of restoring the house and turning it into a restaurant and inn. Workers reported everything from unusual sounds (including the hooves of ghostly horses) to glasses flying off the bar; others simply felt they were being watched. By 1980, LIFE magazine called the Lemp Mansion, "one of the most haunted houses in America." The Pointer family continues to run the business today, and do not shy away from capitalizing on the house's reputation for spooky goings-on, with regular ghost tours and Halloween sleepovers.

But what of the beer? While attempts to revive the Lemp name have not been (so far) hugely successful, beer is once again being brewed on their former property. The Lemp's old stables now serve as The Stable, a brewpub and microdistillery that features both their own beers as well as craft brands from across the country—complete with enormous chandelier. The old Lemp brewery, however, still stands largely empty—perhaps a more fitting (and more verifiable) ghost than any alleged to be haunting the former family home.

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