Fesenmeier Brewery (1934-1972)
Fesenmeier Brewing Company circa 1956, ©1981 by Steve Fesenmaier
Modern machinery bottled and capped Fesenmeier beer. Date and photographer unknown. Courtesy of Goldenseal Magazine.
The brewery sometime in the early 1900s. Image courtesy of the West Huntington Public Library.
Backstory and Context
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The temperance movement found its most enthusiastic proponents by tying into the message of evangelical preachers who saw alcohol consumption as a threat to the morality of America. Given the different cultural attitudes towards alcohol in among the people of Germany and Ireland, and existing prejudice by many native-born evangelicals towards these immigrant families who tended to follow Catholicism, campaigns against alcohol were sometimes proxy campaigns against immigration.
It was during this time period that the Fesenmeier family arrived in Huntington. The family purchased the old American Brewing Company on 14th Street West and Madison Avenue. At first, the family renamed the American Brewing Company to West Virginia Brewing Company and offered two beers called “Fesenmeier Brew” and “West Virginia Special Export Beer.”
Fesenmeier, like many breweries, relied upon underground cellars that they could store beer in to keep it from spoiling during the summer months. Transportation was difficult owing to the many hilly and poorly-maintained dirt roads, and the business grew slowly while also working to overcome negative attitudes towards beer consumption.
For West Virginia, the road to prohibition started before the 18th Amendment. West Virginian voters approved a measure to make their state dry in 1914. The vote coincided with a rise in evangelicalism and a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment that was aimed largely at Eastern Europeans who began arriving in the leading cities of the state. The Yost Law prohibited the manufacture, sale or importation to of beer and liquor. However, West Virginians could still import one half-gallon outside of the state for personal consumption.
This brewery became the Fesenmeier Meat Packing Plant: Pork and Beef Packers in 1916, a business that would keep the company afloat during the years of Prohibition and the family's brewing equipment would lay dormant during this time period. It was not until the 1930s that both national and state governments would realize the resounding failure of Prohibition as it fostered bootlegging and disregard of the law in general.
Local breweries began to resume production but they faced competition from large breweries in Milwaukee and others that were able to ship beer around the country. M.W. Fesenmeier invested over three hundred thousand dollars to remodel the brewery. In 1934, the family changed the company name to the Fesenmeier Brewing Company. They were highly successful, although the local demand for beer shifted from their traditional lager to beers that resembled English types of ale. The company soon began to produce these styles to match demand.
World War II restrictions on grain led to another challenge. The company also adapted to new tastes by offering a total of twenty-four different types of beer. The company's “West Virginia Pilsner Beer” became the most popular but competition from national breweries also led to a limited market. By the 1950s, companies like Milwaukee’s Best, Anheuser-Busch, and Pabst Brewing Company were able to produce high quantities of product and displace local breweries through marketing and offering deals to distributors. With the rise of television, larger brewing companies were able to advertise their products to larger audiences.
Brewers like Fesenmeier could not match these companies in terms of production or advertising. In 1969, the brewery was sold to Huntington businessman Robert Holley, who changed the name to Little Switzerland Brewing Company and turned the facade into a Swiss Chalet. The writing for local breweries was already on the wall by this time and changing the building' facade did not change this fact. Within three years, Little Switzerland was bankrupt. The company filed for bankruptcy in 1972 and closed the brewery permanently.
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