Fresno Brewing Co.

November 7, 2010

Then: The Fresno Brewing Company at 100 M Street, in 1913. Six-story brewery at right, which was torn down in 1955. Office, which also housed the bottling works and warehouse, at right, which survives today.

In the heart of Fresno’s old warehouse district stands a sort of time capsule, untouched for 62 years.

Walk though the office door of the old Fresno Brewery and be transported to 1948, the last time the manual typewriter keys clicked or money was counted in the bronze cashier’s cage.

The decorative tin wall and ceiling panels, oak counters and desks, Arts and Crafts-style lighting fixtures, and walk-in safe are all as they were, left alone, in silence. There’s still paper in the typewriter.

Just as the office is a monument to a different era, the brewery that used to reside at the foot of M Street once was a vast testament to a burgeoning city. Built in 1900, it became the largest brewery in the Valley, employing 1,000 workers and pumping out enough beer to help quench the thirsts within the city’s 50 saloons.

Although the main brewery and five other structures were torn down in 1955, the warehouse remains, and the office is intact, as if waiting for everyone to come back to work tomorrow.

You could call it a case of accidental preservation.

Keeper of history

Margaret Mingle, 98, is a living link to the brewery’s storied past. She lights up when she remembers how it used to be. Her memories of the place date back to her childhood in Prohibition-era Fresno.

Then in 1949, a year after the brewery closed, her late husband, Fred Mingle, bought the office and warehouse portions of the property for his trucking business.

Fred was “delighted” with his purchase, which offered him a large warehouse and a great location, with two railroad spurs for deliveries, she says. He never really needed the old office, preferring to operate out of a space closer to the warehouse.

Margaret took over the trucking business, now called Starr Transfer, when Fred died in 1951. She moved Fresno Tent and Awning, a business her father started, to the site as well.

But she left the old brewery office alone. “There was no need to renovate it,” she says, and she’s glad she never did. When she walks into the office now, she feels like she’s stepped back in time.

When Margaret was a girl, her mother would pack her, her little sister and her stepbrother into the family’s Model T for a trip to the brewery for a treat on hot summer days. Because Prohibition had cut off the beer taps, brewery owner William Eilert, son of founder Ernst Eilert, had turned to making soft drinks and ice cream.

She still recalls how imposing the six-story brewery looked to her as a child. She can almost hear the hustle of workers coming and going, their heavy leather workboots on the wooden dock, the clip-clop of draft horses’ hooves. There was water everywhere (“They had these big hoses with brass nozzles and would water everything down. It was a very clean place.”).

She and her siblings would pick their sodas from a box holding bottles of lemon, orange or strawberry, but “no cola. They wouldn’t let us have cola because it had dope in it” — a reference to the early days of Coca-Cola, when it contained small amounts of cocaine. The price was 3 1/2 cents a bottle at the brewery, a savings since it cost 5 cents at the store.

Her mother would occasionally point out William Eilert as he toured around town in his fancy Stutz Bearcat roadster. William inherited the business after Ernst Eilert died from a heart attack brought on during a bout with cholera after eating tainted cucumbers at age 60 in 1902.

William completed the complex, which had already become Fresno’s first major industrial plant and had transformed the skyline with what was called the city’s first “skyscraper.”

Right location

A German immigrant and quality brewmaster, Ernst Eilert had owned another brewery in Neillsville, Wis., before he decided to move west.

Fresno had many attractions, and one was water quality. Before laying one brick for Fresno Brewery, Eilert sunk a 250-foot-deep exploratory well and sent the water samples back East to be tested. The results showed the water was very good for manufacturing beer.

In Fresno, the Eilerts built a sprawling, 20-acre complex with a brewery, a laboratory, a warehouse, a bottling plant, a racking room and a stable. Also on the site was a 30-ton refrigerating plant with generators and boilers custom-made for the plant, and an early model Otis elevator.

The brewery was built in the Romanesque Revival style, also known as Streetcar Industrial Brick architecture. Construction began in early 1900 and took about five months to complete. Eilert had planned to use extra land on the 20 acres to cultivate his own barley, but it is unclear whether he ever did. The surviving 42-foot by 173-foot office, bottling works and warehouse, which remain, were built in 1907, replacing a large wood structure.

Initially, 150 men were employed at the brewery and they worked in shifts around the clock, seven days a week. A beer-tasting room was open to patrons, who sampled five high-grade lager-style beers in small glasses etched with an image of the brewery. The plant at its peak employed more than 1,000 people.

All ingredients were locally grown, except malt, and the beer was shipped by rail to cities as far south as Bakersfield, as far north as Merced and into Nevada. Among the brews marketed were Sierra Brew, Mt. Whitney and Bohemian Beer. Production was robust, at 60,000 barrels a year, with 2,500 dozen bottles a day coming out of the plant.

Eilert sold the business in 1924 and, after Prohibition was repealed in 1933, beer production resumed. The brewery changed hands again before closing in 1948.

When the office for the Mingles’ businesses moved into the brewery building, the old bottle storage warehouse, a large tin and wood structure at the rear, was converted to an office since it was near the work at hand, leaving the brewery office virtually intact and untouched.

The brewery, though torn down, might still live on, in a way. A story about the demolition in the Feb. 22, 1955, Bee reported there were “more than 2 million bricks in the building, enough to furnish veneer for 1,500 homes or possibly more.”

Also salvaged were an estimated 400 tons of steel beams, heavy lumber, plumbing, electrical conduits and doors.

Surviving and sharing

Today the office and warehouse are on the National Register of Historic Places, the California Register of Historical Resources and the City of Fresno Local Official Register of Historic Resources.

“I’m very glad it has survived, and my husband would be very proud that it has been kept the way it was,” Margaret Mingle says.

Recently the site has been a backdrop for photo shoots, a study topic for a Fresno State class on historic architecture and a stop on a bicycle tour of historic Fresno.

Mingle’s daughter, Pat Haun, 68, who manages the trucking and awning businesses now, is enjoying the renewed interest in the old brewery office. She’d like to open it occasionally for special occasions such as historic tours and share it with others.

“It’s part of Fresno’s history. And it’s important to see where we came from as a city, and what makes Fresno and the Valley who we are,” she says. “We’re all fortunate it has been preserved.”

Martha Eaves, 55, Haun’s assistant, admits her favorite haunt is the old office.

“I’m amazed and transported to the past every time I go in there. I see and hear the hustle and bustle of running that office back then, the footsteps, the voices of the bookkeepers and customers paying bills, trying to get the best deals, pages of ledger books turning,” she says.

Gesturing to an oak ledger cart, which had to be wheeled out of the walk-in safe every day, she says, “This was the computer of the day. … I can hear the wheels turning on the floor, the big ledger books being pulled out from these shelves with little rollers.”

What also impresses her is the ambience of the office, especially the craftsmanship evident in the oak cabinetry and lighting fixtures.

“Who would have made this? The detail to their craft is amazing,” she says. “I think it should be shared.”

John Walker/The Fresno Bee

Now: 1907 Fresno Brewing Company office and warehouse today.