'Best job I ever had': Stag workers recall Belleville brewery's heyday

News-DemocratJune 28, 2014 

Beer and Belleville have always gone hand-in-hand, largely because in its early days the city was predominantly made up of German settlers who brought their recipes with them when they moved to the new world.

Working to brew beer was a way of life for hundreds of Bellevillians dating back nearly until the city was founded in 1814. It lasted until 1988 when the Stag Brewery closed, ending more than a century and a half of tradition.

"I loved working at the Stag Brewery," said Kathy Weygandt, an employee at the Stag Brewery from 1978 until when it shut down permanently a decade later. "It was the best job I ever had. A lot of us were really heartbroken when it closed."

Weygandt said she was working at nursing home when she was encouraged by some brewery employees to apply to work making Stag, Black Label, 905 Beer and the other brews produced at the time in west central Belleville.

"When they called me they said they had a job for me -- but I had to take it right now," Weygandt said. "I told the people at the nursing home I couldn't come in because my mother was sick and I went to work at the brewery."

Stag employed about 240 people in its heyday, according to Judy Forbes who worked in the office in the payroll department from 1972-79. She said the people who worked at the brewery were a close-knit bunch who got the job done -- but had a good time doing it.

Even if you didn't work there, Stag was a part of everyday life for Belleville residents. From miles away, you could hear the steam whistle that blew five times a day to signal shift changes. The towering red brick smoke stack with "Stag Beer" painted in white vertical letters was a familiar sight on the city's landscape.

Freight trains were constantly coming and going with loads of aluminum cans and glass bottles to be filled while the loading docks buzzed with trucks carrying the filled containers to stores, restaurants and local taverns that all seemed to have a Stag Beer sign hanging above the entrance or in the front window.

Judy Belleville, of the Industry and Labor Museum in Belleville, said the organization has dozens of pictures and newspaper clippings which document Stag Brewery's history. But the favorite item for longtime Belleville residents is the Stag Brewery whistle that looks like it's still ready for action -- except for evidence of several repairs to the lever that was pulled to sound it, damaged from being pulled so many times over the decades.

The first brewery in Belleville was built near the Public Square by Jacob Leischbein in 1832. By the time the city reached its 50th birthday, as the Civil War raged in 1864, it boasted no less than six breweries that boomed through the end of the 19th century, providing not only suds for the metro-east, but also the southeastern part of the country.

One of those early beer makers was the Neu & Gintz Brewery which began to brew in 1851. A minor player in the early days with only 2,000 barrels of beer produced annually, the brewery was gobbled up by a group of investors in 1873.

After sinking a bunch of money into the brewery to beef up its facilities, the amount of beer produced increased 10-fold to 20,000 barrels a year. The new company was eventually named the Western Brewery and purchased by Henry L. Griesedieck in 1912.

Griesedieck, a relative to the Griesedieck Bros. Brewing Co. owners who made Falstaff beer in St. Louis, began to produce a German style beer named "Kaiser" in honor of German emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II. But when all things German lost popularity in the metro-east during the run up to World War I, a contest was held to rename the brew.

A man named George Wuller won $25 in gold for his submission to a contest to rename the beer. His suggestion: "Stag."

One by one, through the years, the other brewers it town consolidated or closed. The last major competitor in Belleville to Stag, the Star Brewery located on Lebanon Avenue where St. Teresa's School now stands, shut down for good in 1958 and was demolished a short time later.

People clamored for jobs at the Stag Brewery because it offered good pay and steady hours. When it closed in 1988, workers at the brewery averaged $12 an hour or $24,960 a year. Adjusted for inflation of 2.67 percent a year, that works out to be $23.20 an hour today or about $48,256 annually. The average income in St. Clair County was $24,841 in 2011, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau information available.

"I was working as a truck driver and I drove a taxi in the days before I got a job at the brewery," said Dominic Galati, who started work at the Stag Brewery in the fall of 1947 and was one of the last two people on the payroll when it finally closed for good in 1988.

"I knew the brewery business because my dad had worked at the Star Brewery. I got a temporary job for five months as a truck driver and then they had an opening in the engine room," he said.

"My boss asked me if I wanted it and told me I had five minutes to make up my mind or else he was going to offer it to another guy. I took it and it was one of the best decisions of my life."

It wasn't easy work. But it was an honest day's work for an honest day's pay, Galati said.

His first job after getting out of the trucking department was as an "ash blower" which is exactly as glamorous as it sounds: He cleaned the boiler by blowing out the ashes with compressed air.

"My boss liked me, though," Galati said. "So I was able to move up the ladder and keep getting promoted. I did a lot of jobs in all the years I was there."

John Hoehn was a 16-year-old student at Township High School in 1951 when his occupational studies program assigned him to work at the Stag Brewery.

"I went to school for half a day and worked in the office at the brewery for half a day," Hoehn said. "I ended up getting a job there full time and worked there until 1975. I loved working with the people there."

Weygandt said she also held many jobs at the brewery. But her favorite was in the packaging plant where she had to have a quick eye and a quick hand, hitting a button to stop the machinery when she spotted cans or bottles that weren't up to par. If a bent can got into the filler, Weygandt said it could cause the whole production line to come to a crashing halt.

"I liked it because it was fast-paced and it kept you busy," Weygandt said.

Empty cans came into the brewery ready to be filled and capped. Occasionally, a soda can meant to go someplace else would make it onto the beer filling line. Employees loved to snatch them up, take them home and pass them to an unwitting friend who was expecting something else when they took a sip.

When she was new on the job, Weygandt said some of the men in the brewery didn't like a woman moving in on their turf.

"The caps, we called them 'crowns,' came in a box that weighed 35 pounds," Weygandt said. "That was heavy and the men, when they'd see me carrying it would say, 'If you can't carry that you don't belong here. There's the door.'"

She said she never asked for help and eventually, the men accepted her as a member of the team.

One of the perks of working at a brewery that people don't often get in other lines of work is that employees were actually allowed to knock back a few pints while they were on the job.

"They had a beer boy who would come around twice a shift and ask you if you wanted a beer," Galati said.

Of course, there was plenty of beer to be had all around if the employees wanted it. As long as the work got done, the bosses didn't seem to mind. Not, at least, until the brewery closed in 1979 and then reopened a short time later under a new owner.

When the brewery initially closed, many of the workers had reached retirement age and they either chose not to come back or else they weren't invited by the new management, Hoehn said.

A bunch of younger folks were hired when it reopened. And they didn't seem to be able to handle the privilege of sipping suds as well as the veterans.

Forbes remembered that one drunken worker drove a forklift off the loading dock while another one climbed in a box car for a siesta after downing a few brews on the job. The train left with him still on board. After that, there was no more drinking on the job.

Rule No. 1 of their G. Heileman Brewing Co. employee handbook, a copy of which is in the Industry and Labor Museum's files, dictated absolutely no consumption of alcohol at work. The tradition of giving employees free beer with their paychecks also ended. Instead, they were offered the opportunity to buy beer at discounted prices.

Despite the changes over the years, Forbes and Galati remembered the Stag Brewery as a place where the bosses were fair and helpful.

"We were union and it seemed like they treated us with more respect and fairness than other places I worked," Forbes said.

Galati said he though the bosses were good to the workers because almost all of them worked their way up through the ranks as opposed to coming in from outside the brewery to take a management position. They knew what it took to do the job and cared about the health and safety of the workers.

There were few serious incidents at the plant, according to the former brewery workers.

Galati said there was an ammonia leak on one occasion during which he had to put on a gas mask and go in to turn off the valves to cut off the flow of the dangerous gas. Workers said they recall stories of one man being killed when a pipe carrying hot wort, the liquid produced by the mashing process of brewing beer, burst and scalded him.

When the brewery was reopened in 1979, the city held a big party on the Public Square to celebrate the occasion. But the good times were short-lived.

Once a stable place to work, employees noticed that maintenance wasn't getting done and investment in new equipment came to a stop. When an Australian brewer bought Heileman in the mid-1980s, Galati said workers knew they were on a list of breweries that would be closed.

Galati was one of the last two employees, along with co-worker Walter Dill, to be employed at the Stag Brewery. The pair spent six months in a deathly quiet brewery where the sounds of canning machines, hissing steam and voices filled the air for so many years, packing up equipment and loading it on trucks to ship to other breweries.

When the work was done, Galati said he and Dill were taken to a restaurant, told to order whatever they wanted off the menu as a thank you for their hard work and, when they finished their meal, the Stag Brewery in Belleville was no more.

Hoehn said Stag, which was a Belleville favorite for more than a century, left a bitter taste in the mouth of younger workers who lost their jobs.

"When the brewery closed the first time a lot of the guys were close to retirement age and they had their houses paid for and they were ready for it," Hoehn said. "They didn't come back and a bunch of younger guys were hired. When they lost their jobs they couldn't pay their mortgages and put food on the table. It was really tough on them and I always felt bad about that."

Galati's son, Terry, was one of the younger generation who lost his job. He told the News-Democrat in a story published about 15 years after the brewery shut down that he refused to drink Stag that was brewed in other cities because of the way the company turned its back on him and the other employees of the plant.

The elder Galati said Stag was part of his life for 41 years and it's not as easy for him to put that behind him.

"Yeah, I still drink Stag," Galati said. "I still think it's a good beer. It's sad it's gone. But I'll always think that was the best job I ever had."

Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at swuerz@bnd.com or call 239-2626.

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