Oktoberfest is with us once again.
Oktoberfest is with us once again.
In Germany in general, and Bavaria in particular, Oktoberfest is quite an important event. And this year, the 200th anniversary of Oktoberfest, is more important than usual. Running for three weeks until the first week in October, the annual celebration allows literally millions of people to gorge themselves on such quaint European gourmet delights as pork knuckles, pretzels and yes fish on a stick. All of this is washed down with legendary quantities of good German beer.
Ah, life on the continent waxes well.
Columbus is a little less exuberant than Bavaria at its best depending on your view of unbridled alcoholic excess in its celebration of Oktoberfest. But Columbus does celebrate, as well as it has for many years albeit for three days rather than three weeks.
The event is a reminder of both the significant role that German people have played in the development of the city and of the central importance of beer to that community. When one visits the Alte Sud Ende or Old South End of Columbus today, one is inevitably drawn to the houses, gardens and "old world charm" of the German Village historic district south of Livingston Avenue and east of High Street. The village is living proof that inner city neighborhoods are places of beauty, vitality and energy.
Across High Street to the west is an area of tall, imposing and impressive factory, warehouse and office buildings that compose the Brewery District. For more than a century, German Columbus made its beer here.
The early breweries were small and their owner-operators lived in them or quite close to them. Over time, as the town grew and the breweries grew as well, the buildings became bigger and the houses began to be removed to make way for even larger buildings. Today, if one walks through the Brewery District, one would be hard put to find any of the homes of the great Columbus brewers with one exception.
While the homes of the owners of the Hoster, Born and Wagner breweries are gone from the district, the stately home of Nicholas Schlee still stands at 543 S. Front St. It is the home of the Germania Gesang and Sport Verein, a local German singing and sport society. That the home is still standing is rather remarkable.
But then, Nicholas Schlee was a rather remarkable fellow.
Born in Bavaria in 1836, Schlee was the son of a brewer and grew up learning that business. In Columbus, several breweries were being built to serve the needs of the growing town even as Schlee was growing up in Germany.
In 1856, the 34-year-old manager of one of them, George Schlegel, died of typhoid fever. The brewery needed a new brewmaster. Schlegel's family sent letters home to Germany, seeking help. In response, George Schlegel's nephew, young Nicholas Schlee, came to America and became the new brewmaster at the Blenkner-Schlegel Brewery.
The move proved to be a good one for Schlee and for Columbus.
Young, energetic and creative, Schlee was soon making changes that would make his one of the most successful breweries in the region. He moved from dark beer and ales to the lighter beers more favored by American drinkers. He had fewer workers but paid them more and expected more of them than was the case at other breweries. By 1870, he was producing 5,000 barrels of lager beer a year.
He captured the heart of George Schlegel's widow, married her and had two children of his own. His son, Theodore, soon began to learn the brewing business as well.
Nicholas Schlee made something of a success of himself in the 1880s. His large and impressive Bavarian Brewery was completed in 1875. The old Schlegel brewery had been acquired and would be rebuilt as Schlee's Malt House in 1883.
As Nicholas Schlee prospered in the brewing business, he diversified into other fields and new enterprises. He became vice president of the Central Bank and saw it transformed into the Fourth National Bank and then the First National Bank. He also began to dabble in real estate. He bought the Lyceum Theatre and the Bismark Café, as well as several farms in the surrounding area.
In 1894, in the wake of the Chittenden Hotel fire that took out most of a city block, a group of German businessmen, led by Schlee, decided to build a hotel to attract convention trade to downtown Columbus. The Great Southern Fireproof Hotel Co. was built to be the safest building in the city and it is still, as the Westin, a very nice place to stay.
In 1904, the Schlee family brewery became one of four firms to form the Hoster-Columbus Associated Breweries in an effort to compete for a regional share of the business of brewing beer. The Associated, as it came to be called, was ultimately unsuccessful and passed from the scene. Nicholas Schlee's personal life took a turn for the worse as well.
In 1906, Schlee's wife died, and in 1909, his son, Theodore, the heir to the kingdom, died of a combination of heart trouble and rheumatism at the age of 48. Nicholas Schlee, now elderly and increasingly infirm, took over the day-to-day operation of his brewery. Even then, in his 70s, he was still very good at what he did.
In 1913, Nicholas Schlee was found to have contracted tuberculosis. He died of that disease at his home across the street from the brewery that was his life on April 26, 1914.
If you walk down Front Street from Livingston Avenue, you will soon come to the house that Nicholas Schlee built to be his home and that now houses Germania. Across the street still stands his massive Brew House and a bit to the north is his Malt House. If you look up, you will see Nicholas Schlee looking down on you in bas relief. He still watches over the place he came to love so well.
My thanks once again to Don Schlegel, whose book, "Lager and Liberty: German Brewers of 19th Century Columbus" was most helpful in preparing this story.
Ed Lentz writes a history column for ThisWeek.