Maestro's moonshine found

Bottles: Workers at the Peabody Institute uncover a cache of homemade hooch apparently left by the late conductor Gustav Strube.

October 25, 2003|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

Workers remodeling a 19th-century rehearsal hall at the Peabody Institute have found 10 dusty jugs of moonshine in an unlocked closet, where they apparently sat for nearly 60 years. Faded labels on the bottles suggest that the hooch was the handiwork of Gustav Strube, the first conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Strube, who came to Baltimore in 1913 and lived here until his death 40 years later at age 85, was one of Baltimore's most beloved characters. A composer, conductor, violinist and music professor known as "Papa Strube" to his students, he was locally renowned for his succulent goulash and his home-brewed beer, wine and liquor.

Strube was "a fearsome brewmeister," said Peabody archivist Elizabeth Schaaf, who recognized Strube's handwriting on several labeled vintages, such as "Wild Cherry 1934" and "Big Blue Grape 1946."

All told, there are about 8 1/2 gallons of colorless liquid sealed in eight one-gallon glass jugs and a pair of quart bottles.

The bottles haven't been opened. But Peabody Institute spokeswoman Anne Garside hopes to have a tasting of the Peabody private label.

"We must find out if the stuff is drinkable," Garside said.

Jennifer Dawson, the senior project manager for the remodeling, said workers were about to install a new floor and walls in a rehearsal hall on the ground floor of the George Peabody Library this summer when a supervisor noticed a fancy paneled closet near the back door.

The supervisor asked, "`Has anybody ever looked in here?' and he opens the doors and goes, `Whoo!'" Dawson said.

Workers moved the moonshine to the institute's archives. Schaaf was on leave, so boxes full of papers waiting to be archived soon buried the bottles.

Schaaf returned to work this month and tunneled her way to the dusty bottles. "I looked at the handwriting - sure enough, it was just who I thought it was," she said.

Home-brewed whiskey and beer were commonplace in Germany's Harz Mountains, where Strube was born in 1867, said Wolfgang Justen, dean of the Peabody Conservatory.

"I have tasted all kinds of home brews," said Justen, who grew up in Germany's Rhineland, "and some of it is poison, and some of it is very good." The Wild Cherry 1934 is "a classic vintage," he said, "and it's very appropriate that we've found it right at the time that the Germans are celebrating Oktoberfest."

Strube came to the United States in 1889 to be assistant conductor for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In 1913 the Peabody hired him to teach composing, conducting and music theory.

He was the conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra from 1916, when it was founded, to 1930. For many years, he conducted the Peabody's student orchestra, which rehearsed in the hall where the booze was found, Garside said.

Strube made friends with H.L. Mencken, editor, writer, classical music fan and amateur pianist. Mencken was a founder of the Saturday Night Club, whose members met once a week for nearly 50 years to play music, eat raw beef sandwiches and drink beer.

Prohibition didn't affect the club's devotions. Members simply met in one another's homes. Mencken, Strube and others brewed beer for those get-togethers, according to club members' reminiscences.

Strube was a demanding teacher who often lost his temper with fumble-fingered students, "but they forgave him because of his warmth," Schaaf said. "He was a twinkly guy."

Garside said she wants to exhibit a bottle of the brew during the institute's reopening celebration in April. Some of the cache will be stored in the archives, Schaaf said. "After all, this gives us a deeper understanding of all of Maestro Strube's works," she said.

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