The long, outdoorsy history of beer

Karen Wils photo The bear Pfeiffer’s sign that scared young Jim.

ESCANABA — “Roll out the barrel; we’ll have a barrel of fun.”

Let’s put our blues on the run, like the famous Beer Barrel Polka says.

Beer is a big thing in Upper Michigan. What made Milwaukee famous has spilled over into our area, too.

A nice cold beer has long been the ultimate relaxing beverage for adult Yoopers. I am not a beer drinker or an expert on the subject. Typically I have a half a beer on the hottest day of the year, but even I can see that beer has changed a lot in the past 50 years.

Let’s polka back in time to the 1950s in Delta County. A hot summer Saturday night meant Spar’s, the Arcadia, Swallow Inn, Chum’s, Chet’s and Skinnies and many other taverns were selling plenty of beer.

Names like Schlitz, Stroh’s, Pabst, Busch, Pfeiffer’s — and who could forget Hamm’s beer with Hamm’s bear in the land of sky blue water!

There was something outdoorsy about beer back then. Breweries marketed it with pretty girls and nice fishing, hunting and vacationing scenes.

To my parents, a beer and a pizza on a Saturday night and maybe a game of dartball or cribbage was truly a great time. Down in the cellar room of our basement, there was always a case of beer — the old-fashioned, heavy cardboard, fold-down-top box — with bottles of beer for special occasions or if company came over.

Everybody had their “favorite” beer back then. But with family sizes so big back then, cheap beer was good beer and the only bad beer was a warm beer.

Beer has a long, long history. Recipes for beer-making were found from before the time of Christ.

In the U.S. in the 1870s, there were over 4,000 breweries. Consolidating and buy-outs brought the number down to 89 by 1980. Beer consumption was not down, but was about to change.

Craft breweries and micro-breweries began to spring up all over the Midwest, even here in Escanaba. The average person got a taste of pale ale, dark stout, and specialty beers.

Today, they claim there are 7,450 breweries in the U.S., with Anheuser-Busch and Molson Coors leading the pack.

Beer means a lot of different things to folks these days, but there is still something classic and country about beer. The Budweiser Clydesdales and the bull terrier Spuds Mckenzie of Bud Light and Miller time all have one thing in common — the beauty of beer.

Years ago, beer companies were famous for distributing signs, plaques, bottle openers and hats with their name and logo on them. Some of these are collectables today.

My dad acquired a Pfeiffer’s beer (Detroit Company) plaque years ago. It had a macho-looking black bear with an open mouth on it that any sportsman would love. Dad put it up in camp.

When my brother Jim was just a little tyke, he was afraid of the “scary” Pfeiffer’s bear. Little Jim cried until my dad’s friend, who had a Pfeiffer’s sign with a duck on it, switched with him.

For many years, we had the duck Pfeiffer’s sign at our camp. My brother Jim was re-gifted the bear sign for his wedding present!

Let the beer stories flow this weekend, but also remember common sense.


Karen (Rose) Wils is a lifelong north Escanaba resident. Her folksy columns appear weekly in Lifestyles.