The man who brewed city's 1st legal beer


Irish immigrant's granddaughter tells story of Repeal

Back Story

May 04, 2008|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,Sun Reporter

All local beer lovers know of the colorful 1879 statue of King Gambrinus, "the patron saint of brewers," which stood in a niche for years above a door of the old J. F. Wiessner Brewery in the 1700 block of N. Gay St., beckoning passersby to enjoy a cold one. It now rests in the Maryland Historical Society.

But how about raising a chilled mug to the idea of erecting a statue to Irish immigrant John J. Fitzgerald? "Who's that?" you're probably asking yourself.

My column several weeks ago, about the return of legal beer to Baltimore after partial repeal of the despised Volstead Act in 1933, brought an e-mail and later a phone call from Abbie Fitzgerald McCormack Flynn Sullivan Schaub, who lives in Laurel and is the granddaughter of John J. Fitzgerald.

"I'm proud of my Irish family even though I'm married to a German," said Schaub, 56, with a laugh.

She wanted to tell me about her grandfather, John J. Fitzgerald, who is credited with brewing the first batch of legal beer served in Baltimore. And she provided ample documentation to support her claim.

Fitzgerald was, at the time of Repeal, assistant brewmaster at the Globe Brewing Co., at Hanover and Conway streets, which produced Arrow Beer.

"To John J. Fitzgerald, then assistant brewmaster, fell the honor, distinction and extreme pleasure of being the first brewer in Maryland to produce legal beer after the repeal of Prohibition," wrote William J. Kelly in his 1965 book, Brewing in Maryland: From Colonial Times To The Present. "His satisfaction in changing from `near beer' to real beer was one of inexpressible joy."

Kelly bore witness in a downtown Baltimore hotel (he doesn't say which one), when the first truckload of Arrow arrived one minute past midnight April 7, 1933.

"At that precise moment the author, along with probably more than one thousand parched gulleted Baltimoreans saw and tasted the first Arrow Beer delivered to one of Baltimore's downtown hotels," he wrote.

"Of course, real beer drew the long suffering and anxious patrons, and curiosity to taste the long shelved article brought the crowds out at that moment, at various spots," he wrote, "but the real underlying purpose was the return of liberty and the overthrow of illiberal puritanical reform and a desire to take part in a demonstration in such a celebration."

Kelly pulled no punches in recalling the significance that glorious evening.

"It was akin to the spirit of those present when the bell in Philadelphia in 1776 proclaimed liberty to all the world," he opined.

Fitzgerald was born in 1870 in Newmarket, County Cork, Ireland, and emigrated in 1887 to Baltimore, where he took a job as an apprentice brewer at Thomas Beck's Rock Spring Brewery at Baltimore Street and Calverton Road.

While at the brewery, Fitzgerald learned to brew ales, and later was sent to the Philadelphia Brewers' Academy, where he continued his education, graduating in 1901.

He then moved to Scranton, Pa., and went to work at the Fountain Spring Brewery as brewmaster. He returned to Baltimore in 1902 and joined with a partner, Daniel O'Neill, in establishing O'Neill & Fitzgerald Brewing Co. at Chester and Bank streets.

After a year, the business failed, and Fitzgerald returned to Scranton, where he took a position with the Anthracite Brewing Co.

He tried his hand again at operating a brewery and established Fitzgerald & Sullivan, which brewed only stouts and porters, in Scranton. It too, failed.

"His partner absconded with all the possible assets, so they were bankrupt," wrote Mary Fitzgerald Keczmerski, a daughter, in an unpublished family memoir.

"Pop took all the debt on himself and worked better than ten years to pay them all off," she wrote.

He returned to Baltimore again as brewmaster at the Dukehart Brewery, which was later purchased by Gottlieb-Bauernschmidt-Straus Brewing Co.

In 1916, he joined the Globe Brewing Co. During Prohibition, Globe, like many other breweries, remained in business by brewing "near-beer" that had an alcoholic content of 0.5 percent.

After brewmaster Theodore Weinhart retired in 1933, Fitzgerald assumed his job. In addition to Arrow Beer, he introduced Shamrock Pale Ale, whose logo was naturally a green shamrock.

He was still brewmaster at his death in 1944.

In addition to his work, Fitzgerald married and raised a family.

He and his brother Patrick married the two McCormick sisters.

In 1904, John J. Fitzgerald was married to Bridget "Delia" McCormick, who died from influenza in 1917, leaving him with six children to raise.

After Patrick died, his wife, Jennie, came to Baltimore from New York City with her two children, and the two families combined for both economic reasons and mutual support.

"Of course, there wasn't any Social Security in those days," Schaub said. "People probably thought the arrangement was a little racy, both unmarried and living with each other. She supposedly worked for him as a housekeeper."

In her memoir, his daughter Mary wrote, "Pop had a very hard and lonely life. ... He never got over my mother's death."

Fitzgerald was up every morning at 5:00 and at work by 6:00 a.m., leaving there 12 hours later. He worked six days a week and was often called back when there were problems.

"All the men who worked for him came to him with all of their troubles," Keczmerski wrote. "He could never turn anyone down, so he never had anything extra for himself."

Fitzgerald, who never knew her grandfather, said family legend describes him as a "stern father who did not allow drinking in his home, even when his children were grown."

Fitzgerald, who lived in Ten Hills, died of anemia Nov. 11, 1944, and was buried next to his beloved Bridget in New Cathedral Cemetery.

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