The Peoples Brewing Company: America’s First Black Owned Brewery

My version of “Peoples Beer” logo

In one of my earlier posts I talked about the Oshkosh Brewing Company, but there was another great brewery in my college town that last a few years longer than Oshkosh Brewing Company. The Peoples Brewing Company made history when it became the first brewery in the country to be owned by a Black man, an event that ruffled a few feathers in Oshkosh.

The Peoples Brewing Company was founded in 1911 when Oshkosh area residents, led by  Joseph J. Nigl, came together to form a new business to compete with other breweries. Pabst, Schlitz and Oshkosh Brewing Co. had a hold on the local beer market, so these men formulated a plan to start their own brewery to compete with the big names. Out of 11 names considered, “Peoples” was the name chosen for the new venture. Nigl was named president of Peoples Brewery, and construction got underway to build the new brewery in Oshkosh.

The Peoples Brewing Company
(Oshkosh Beer Blog)

By January 1920, Prohibition was in effect and breweries across the country were either closed or forced to make other products. The Peoples Brewing Company survived the dry years by making soft drinks, but once Prohibition was repealed the breweries were back to making beer.

The Peoples Brewery survived Prohibition, but 2 more storms were brewing at plant. In 1970, the brewery was bought by Theodore Mack, a Black Milwaukeean who would make history. It had been Mack’s ambition to keep the brewery operating in Oshkosh, but to also tap into markets in Milwaukee and Gary, Indiana. He had also hoped to score a contract with the U.S. Military to supply beer to bases. Mack received a fair amount of resistance from the residents in the Oshkosh area. The media penned him as the “Milwaukee Negro” who came to fire whites and  hire only black workers. Although Mack faced opposition, there were those who appreciated his efforts to keep the brewery running.

It seemed the hysteria over Mack coming into Oshkosh and buying a brewery had subsided, but more hard times lay ahead. Mack’s ambition to gain a contract with military failed. He did manage to spread the brand to other states and even got his beer at popular Milwaukee venues. In November 1971, The Peoples Brewing Company announced that it had acquired the defunct Oshkosh Brewing Company. Even though Mack was pushing to make the small brewery a big player in the national beer market, his efforts came to a screeching halt in September 1972. The IRS filed a suit against  Peoples Brewing Company for not paying its excise and withholding taxes. The brewery was broke. Mack tried desperately to keep it open, but his efforts were futile. Two months later, Mack officially announced that Peoples Brewing Company had stopped production. Peoples Brewing Company was the last big brewery in Oshkosh. All the other breweries had succumb to the pressures of changing times.

For more information on brewing in Oshkosh, check out Oshkosh Beer Blog.

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