A major tenet from The Gentle Art of Wandering is that, no matter where you are, you can always find something interesting. On a recent trip to the Midwest, my dog Petey and I wandered around looking for old Tied Houses.
Tied houses were taverns owned by a large or local brewery. The tavern was tied to the brewery for the beer they sold. Tied houses were very common at the turn of the last century and obviously went dark in 1920 with the coming of Prohibition. One of the provisions of Repeal at the end of 1933 was to eliminate the practice of tied houses. Breweries were now required to sell their product to a distributor who in turn sold the beer to a tavern or retailer. This three-tier distribution system is still in place today. A notable exemption from the three-tier system are brewpubs and craft breweries.
Tied house buildings are worth searching for because they oftentimes have distinctive architecture with symbols of the brewery built into the design. They are also a reminder of what urban life was like 120 years ago. Many of the surviving structures are so distinct that they have been registered as historical landmarks. If you look hard enough you may even find a tied house for a brewery that has been out of existence for more than a century. In a sense wandering around an old neighborhood looking for tied houses is a form of urban exploration and finding an urban archaeological site.
Looking specifically for tied houses illustrates another tenet of The Gentle Art of Wandering. Sometimes you need an idea such as a tied house (or public stairway) to get you out the door to start wandering. You can add some context to your idea by doing some research to get some specific locations to start the journey. It’s the combination of an idea, some context, and then taking action that makes for a wandering adventure. A wandering adventure consists of not only what you expect to find. It is also about what else you find along the way, even if it is a complete shock or surprise.
As for tied houses, you can find them in older neighborhoods of old industrial cities. In Milwaukee and Chicago you can find buildings that once housed taverns not only on commercial streets but also on residential streets. The corner tavern was very common in those cities.
It’s clear that taverns played major part in industrial cities with large immigrant populations at the turn of the last century. In addition to having a tavern always within walking distance, many of them offered a free meal if you agreed to drink a beer while you ate. Jurgis Rudkis, the protagonist of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, staved off starvation by nursing a beer while filling up on the free food. He did this so often that he had to keep finding new taverns so he wouldn’t be thrown out.
Here is some of what we found while looking for tied houses:
As you may be starting to notice there are many Cream Style Brick buildings in Milwaukee. The brick was made locally and the distinct color comes from the chemical composition the local clay. Although the brick is no longer made, it is still a unique identifier for Milwaukee and the surrounding area. At one time Milwaukee was called the Cream City because of the brick.
With the pictured Pabst tied house located in Racine, this is a good time to take a walk and see what else is around. Exactly one street to the east of the tied house is the world famous headquarters of the Johnson Wax. The building complex was built in the late 1930s and designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Both the exteriors and interiors of the buildings are fabulous and well worth taking the time to tour.
At one time Racine had the largest concentration of Danish immigrants in the country. You’ll pass several Danish Kringle bakeries on your way to the tied house and Johnson Wax. Kringles are very tasty and have now been named the official state pastry of Wisconsin.
To continue with the theme of wandering, one block to the east of the bakery is cemetery named Mound Cemetery. Whenever you see the name Mound it’s always worth taking the time to check it out. And true to its name, Mound Cemetery has fourteen intact Native American burial mounds.
When Petey and I reached Chicago, we found several more tied houses including these:
But the most interesting tied house we saw in Chicago was for a brewery that went out of business before Prohibition – the Edward R. Stege Brewery. It went out of business in 1905.
With Chicago being a very difficult city to drive around, your best bet is to pick one old neighborhood to explore. That is, park the car once and start walking. As you walk, look around. I am sure that there will be something that catches your attention. It might even be a tied house that no one else had recognized before!