New Orleans brewing dates back to the earliest German families in the city.
ED note: This article originally appeared at GoNOLA.com in 2012. Updated with different images and some additional history.
JAX Brewery, Decatur Street, 2013, Ed Johnson photo.
New Orleans Brewing
The German celebration of Oktoberfest is defined by beer. New Orleans has enjoyed a long love affair with beer, chiefly in part because New Orleans has had a strong German community since the 1700s. Those German families built up a strong local beer industry, laying the foundation for today’s excellent local New Orleans brewpubs and craft beers resulting in serious Oktoberfestivities.
Germans have lived in New Orleans and Southeast Louisiana since the 1720s, since the days of John Law’s Mississippi Company. The biggest influx of Germans into New Orleans took place in the 1850s, the result of the turmoil of the mid-late 1840s in Continental Europe. By the late 1850s, the Germans were a strong force in the community, with their own church in the Irish Channel that rivaled the one the Irish built across the street.
Maginnis Cotton Mills, originally the Fasnacht Brewery. Illustration in New Orleans, the Crescent City, as it Appears in the Year 1895.
The first commercial brewery in New Orleans was opened in 1852 by Louis Fasnacht. Fasnacht and his brother, Samuel, came to New Orleans from Switzerland in 1846. They bought the Poeyfarre’ family home, located at Constance and Poeyfarre’ streets, and built their brewery next to it. The Fasnacht brewery did not survive the Southern Rebellion’s tight economic times. The brothers sold the brewery in 1869. The location became Erath and Company Brewery. The Fasnachts re-acquired the brewery in 1872. They closed for good in 1875. The site became the A. A. Maginnis Cotton Mill in 1882. The building is now the Cotton Mill Apartments.
The re-opening of the port after the rebels surrendered the city encouraged others to open breweries, most notably George Merz, in 1869. Merz brewed lager beer. Lagers require cooling. Purchasing ice from Maine boosted the price of Merz’s beer. He operated the Old Canal Brewery in the block bounded by Villere, Toulouse, Robertson & St. Louis. (“Old Canal” refers to the Carondelet Canal, built in 1795.)
Brewing lager made Merz an innovator as well as a brewmeister. He acquired an air compression system built by a Frenchman, Charles Tellier, to improve cooling in his plant. Merz hired a local engineer, F. V. De Coppet, to install it. The Merz brewery became the first with air-conditioning with this installation. Tellier’s system ultimately did not work out as A/C, but De Coppet modified it as an ice-making machine, acquiring several patents for his work.
Brewing continued to grow in the 1870s, and by 1880s, New Orleans became the largest beer-making city in the South. Merz’s Old Canal Brewery, Southern Brewing Company, Crescent City Brewing, Weckerling Brewery, Pelican Brewery, Lafayette Brewing, and Louisiana Brewery all distributed their beverages regionally. Steamboats heading up the Mississippi River and sailing ships connecting ports along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts spread the popularity of New Orleans beer. As part of the cycle of business growth, the industry eventually grew to the point where it was ripe for acquisition. To avoid acquisition by a syndicate of Englishmen, the German brewers merged their operations into the New Orleans Brewing Company, basing their operations at the Louisiana Brewery plant at Jackson Avenue and Tchoupitoulas Street, Uptown, and the Weckerling plant, located at what is now the Louisiana Pavillion of the National World War II Museum, in the Warehouse District.
American Brewing Co. truck, featuring Regal Beer ads, 29-Oct-1954. Franck Studios photo via HNOC.
The American Brewing Company opened in 1891. American acquired an old winery on Bourbon Street, between Bienville and Conti Streets. They brewed “Regal” beer. The name is “Lager” backwards! American brewed Regal until 1962.
In 1891, a group of investors opened a brewery across from Jackson Square in the French Quarter. They named their company after the famous general whose statue dominated the square. By the late 1890s, restaurateur Lawrence Fabacher acquired the Jackson Brewing Company. The company purchased the “JAX” beer name from a company in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1956. The facility closed in 1974, to be resurrected as a specialty shopping center in 1984.
Dixie Brewery. Unnamed illustration for the article, “New Brewery Opens: Magnificent Plant on Tulane Avenue Receives Guests.” The Daily Picayune 1 November 1907, p. 6
In 1907, Merz’ son, Valentine, built the brewery at 2401 Tulane Avenue, and the family began to brand their product “Dixie Beer.” Dixie grew in popularity, becoming a top-seller prior to Prohibition. The beer regained its position as one of the city’s popular brands when the 18th Amendment was repealed. In 1982, Coy International acquired the brewery. They sold it to Joe and Kendra Elliot Bruno in 1985. The Brunos filed for Chapter 11 protection in 1989, coming out of reorganization in 1992. Dixie added other beers, including Blackened Voodoo and Crimson Voodoo. The plant was severely damaged during the Federal Flooding of 2005. The Tulane Avenue location never re-opened, and the Dixie brand was farmed out to a Wisconsin producer.
The iconic Tulane Avenue location merged into the new Veterans Administration hospital, in Mid-City’s medical complex. In 2017, Tom and Gayle Benson acquired the Dixie brand from the Brunos. Tom Benson died in 2017. Gayle Benson opened a new brewery for Dixie in 2018. On 26-June-2020, Benson announced re-branding of her beer. The brewery will drop the “Dixie” name.
The German community recognized the need to control the distribution and retail aspects of the beer business, so they opened up a number of restaurants and bars across the city, outlets that would in turn sell their beer. This synergy of manufacturing and retail continued to grow through the end of the 19th Century and into the 20th, but hit a brick wall with the passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920. Most of the small breweries were unable to survive Prohibition, so the industry was quite changed until it could resume legal production in 1933. St. Louis-based Falstaff moved into the New Orleans market with its acquisition of National Brewing in 1936.
Falstaff Brewery, 2600 Gravier St, ca 1949-1950. Franck Studios photo via HNOC
By the 1950s, the incredible diversity of the industry prior to Prohibition was reduced to four brands: Falstaff, Regal, Dixie, and JAX, controlling 80% of the New Orleans market. As the Interstate Highway system expanded, it became easier for national companies to distribute their products, making it more and more difficult for local companies to compete. JAX, Falstaff, and Regal all closed their plants, leaving Dixie as the only old-line brewery left in town. Hurricane Katrina did Dixie in, the owners moving production of the beer to Wisconsin, since the storm did such horrendous damage to the Tulane Avenue plant.
Maskers prepare to board a streetcar in the Phunny Phorty Phellows parade, 6-Jan-2012, dressed as mugs of Abita Beer. Infrogmation photo.
Micro/Craft brewing came to metro New Orleans in 1986, with the opening of Abita Brewing Company on the Northshore. The last 25 years have seen incredible growth of this industry, including new breweries and several brewpubs in town. Like many industries, extreme consolidation opens up opportunities for small operators, who continue the tradition of the Germans of New Orleans.
(Thanks and a raise of my NOLA Brewery tulip glass to www.thebeerbudda.com for great background info!)
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NOLA History Guy Podcast 05-April-2020 presents the first of a four-part series on the Riverfront Streetcar line.
Rollboard sign on NORwy&Lt 208, showing it running on the Tchoupitoulas line, 1925
NOLA History Guy Podcast 05-April-2020
Two segments on NOLA History Guy Podcast 05-April-2020, our pick of the week from NewOrleansPast.com, and the start of a series on the Riverfront Streetcar line.
Today in New Orleans History
Ad in the Times Picayune, 28-March-1924
Our Pick of the week from the Facebook group, Today in New Orleans History, is Campanella’s entry for April 2nd. Daniel Henry Holmes opened his store on 2-April-1842. The first store was not the Canal Street location. He opened up at 22 Chartres, in the French Quarter. The store did well, and Holmes moved to the 800 block of Canal Street in 1849. D. H. Holmes is an icon, from “meet me under the clock” to the selection of merchandise, to the suburban stores.
There’s nothing more New Orleans than a discussion on social media about which store your momma liked better, Holmeses or Maison Blanche! We thought about adding a discussion or quote section in NOLA History Guy Podcast 05-April-2020, but it can get ugly.
The 2-April entry at New Orleans Past shows two ads from the Times-Picayune. The first is from 28-March-1924. It includes a pictorial history of D. H. Holmes around the border. Very nice!
Da Clock! Ad in the Times-Picayune, 2-April-1938
The second ad is from 2-April-1938. To celebrate the store’s birthday, D. H. Holmes ordered a 400-pound birthday cake, featuring, naturally, the clock!
Riverfront Streetcar History
NORwy&Lt 208, Ford, Bacon & Davis car, on the Tchoupitoulas line in 1925 (Franck Studios/HNOC)
We present a four-part series on the Riverfront Streetcar Line. The line rolled for the first time in 1899. The series:
I. Background – streetcars running along the New Orleans Riverfront
II. The Riverfront line, 1988-1997
III. The updated line, 1997-present
IV. NORTA 461 – History of a Riverfront streetcar
Today: Part I – background leading up to 1988
Johnson Bobtail streetcar passing the French Market, ca 1880
Prior to the Riverfront line, streetcars didn’t operate close to the riverfront. That’s because the wharves and railroad tracks occupied the space. The closest streetcars were on the streets servicing the Riverfront, like Tchoupitoulas, Laurel, and Annunciation Streets uptown, and N. Front and Decatur Streets to the French Market on the downtown side.
Rapp’s Luggage still sells leather goods and luggage in Metairie
Rapp’s Trunk Store sign on the side of 604 Canal Street.
George Rapp came to New Orleans from Germany, just at the end of the Civil War. He got settled and entered the leather goods business. By 1865, he put together the means to purchase Mack’s Trunk Store, located on Common Street. Rapp changed the name of the business to his own, and moved it to Canal Street.
Rapp continued to refer to the business as a “Trunk Store” when he took over. That’s because “steam trunks” were a huge part of his sales. When folks from New Orleans went to Europe, they did so by taking a four to five week trip on a steamship. Since it took four weeks to get there, people didn’t just turn around and go home in a few days, or even a week. That meant they needed to bring enough clothing and accessories for a months-long adventure. So, Rapps sold those trunk. They also repaired steam trunks. Those things weren’t cheap! Customers wanted to extend their life as much as possible.
604 Canal Street, next to the JW Marriott Hotel, was the home of Rapp’s Luggage.
This building is 5 stories tall. The Merchants Mutual Insurance building at 624 Canal is four stories tall. So were the buildngs that were demolished to make room for the hotel in-between 604 and 624. So, with most of the block four stories tall, Rapp was able to paint a sign on the lake side of 604 Canal. While the building on the river side of his store was also five stories, the lake side was more important. People walked down Canal Street in the afternoon and evening, heading back to the ferry landing, or the L&N passenger termnal. The building is currently home to a store in The Athlete’s Foot chain.
Leaving Canal Street
Canal Street faced competition from suburban malls in the 1970s. Rapp’s recognized this shift. They left Canal Street, moving across Severn Avenue in Metairie. They also opened stores in The Plaza at Lake Forest, and the Uptown Square Mall. Later, the company expanded to Baton Rouge. They opened a store in the Bon Marche mall.
The faded sign remains on Canal Street!
Smokey Mary linked Faubourg Marigny to Milneburg for almost a century
The Smokey Mary at Milneburg, 1860s.
The Pontchartrain Railroad operated from 1831 to 1930. The trains ran out to the fishing village of Milneburg. A port facility developed along the lakefront at Milneburg. The railroad connected that port to the city. The Pontchartrain Railroad carried freight and passengers. After the Civil War, it ran mostly as a day-trip line. By the end of the 19th Century, it carried almost exclusively passengers.
The railroad purchased two steam engines in 1832. Those engines lasted for about twenty years. The railroad cannibalized one for parts to keep the other going. By the late 1850s, the railroad purchased the larger engine shown in the photo above. This engine operated to the end of the 1800s. The big smokestack inspired most of the stories and memories of the train.
The Smokey Mary ran simply from the Milneburg Pier to a station at Elysian Fields and the river. Eventually, the railroad added a stop at Gentilly Road, but it was only by request. The railroad terminated operations in 1930. The WPA paved Elysian Fields from river to lake in the late 1930s. Pontchartrain Beach opened in Milneburg in 1939.
The village of Milneburg was located at the end of what is now Elysian Fields Avenue. Shipping traffic came in from the Gulf of Mexico, through Lake Borgne, into Lake Pontchartrain. Ships docked at the Milneburg pier. Merchants offloaded their goods and put them on the Pontchartrain Railroad, to bring them down to the city.
Jazz on the Lakefront
By the 1910s, Milneburg’s residents lived mostly in fishing camps. Musicians rode the Smokey Mary out to Milneburg to play some of the small restaurants. They also walked the piers, playing for locals. They busked for tips. This kept them busy during the day. The musicians rode the train back to the city in the late afternoon. They then played gigs at dance halls and saloons in town.
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The Touro Buildings
Touro Buildings, 1873 (public domain image courtesy THNOC)
The Touro Buildings – Canal Street Retail
This pod begins a series we’ll be presenting on the connections between Krauss Department Store and other merchants up and down Canal Street. The logical place to start is the 700 block of Canal Street, between Royal and Bourbon Streets. From it’s beginnings as the first location of Christ Episcopal Church, to the end of the 19th Century, the 700 block is the story of the Touro Buildings and the merchants who set up shop there.
Second Christ Episcopal, Bourbon and Canal (public domain image courtesy THNOC)
700 Block of Canal Street, ca 1842. (public domain image courtesy THNOC)
Christ Episcopal was founded in 1805. They built their first church on Canal and Bourbon in 1816. That church lasted about 25 years. Because Protestant Americans kept moving to New Orleans, they outgrew the church. So, the chapter demolished the first church. They built a second on the same corner. The second church looked like a Greek temple, with six massive Ionic columns. The second church serviced the congregation until 1846. The chapter needed more land for a larger church. They purchased the corner of Canal and Dauphine, in the 900 block of Canal Street.
The chapter sold the second church to businessman Judah Touro. Touro worked to buy up the 700 block of Canal. While he acquired the rest of the block, he set up Temple Sinai in the church in the 700 block. While Touro wrapped up the 700 block, he moved Temple Sinai further uptown. He demolished the buildings in the 700 block of Canal. He built the “Touro Buildings,” a set of four-story buildings with shared walls, townhouse-style. Touro opened the buildings for lease in 1852.
A. Shwartz and Sons
Sanborn Fire map of 700 block of Canal St, 1856 (public domain image courtesy Tulane Howard-Tilton Library)
Abraham Shwartz was born in 1820. He opened his store, A. Shwartz Dry Goods, in the 1840s. In 1852, he moved into the newly-opened Touro Buildings. So, the store become A Shwartz & Sons in the 1870s, when Abraham’s firstborn, Nathan, joined the company. Abram’s second son, Leon, soon followed. When third son Simon was old enough to join the company, he traveled to New York, to become the company’s buyer in that city.
Bernard and Leon Fellman
Touro Buildings, 1880s. (S.T. Blessing photo in the public domain)
Bernard and Leon Fellman came to New Orleans in the 1860s, and opened their first store in the Touro Buildings in 1873. In 1878, they expanded from the first store at 133 Canal, opening a second store down the block at 129 Canal. In 1889, The brothers split. Leon bypassed the 800 block of Canal, moving to the Mercier Buildings in the 900 block. So, Bernard closed 133 Canal, keeping 129 Canal as B. Fellman Dry Goods.
The Fire, 16-February-1892
Fire in the 700 block of Canal Street, 16-Feb-1892 (public domain photo courtesy THNOC)
Almost the entire 700 block of Canal Street, the Touro Buildings, were destroyed in a fire on February 16, 1892. The fire burned out both the Shwartz and Fellman stores. The impact of the fire was dramatic. Abram Shwartz died weeks later, of a heart attack. The family always said the loss of the store killed him. Bernard Fellman’s store burned as well. While Bernard’s health was not good before the fire, the circumstances did not improve him. He passed away on September 3, 1892. His family did continue to operate the store into the 20th century.
The MB Book!
Maison Blanche Department Stores