Time Travel to the Rettig Brewery and Residence
With the arrival of Spring I rolled down my car window and drove down along Pottsville’s West Market Street passing some of the forgotten buildings of the city. Soon my eyes focused on the empty solid brick residential building at 817-819 West Market Street. There was something about that edifice that hauntingly attracted my attention for many years. The house seemed to have been abandoned forever, an eternal ruin along the main thoroughfare in the city. While desolate, forlorn and gutted of its contents, it still managed to maintain some dignity as it faces the north with its combination of open and boarded up windows and doors. Its appearance had a prophetic, Marley’s ghost-like character, almost as if the double home wanted to warn those passing by as to what our grim future will be unless we change neglectful habits.
No one has legally lived there for many years but the building is not ownerless. It has a titleholder – JAW Properties, LLC, an absentee owner – whose registered address is in Metuchen, NJ; Allan J. Walther is listed as the manager. The City of Pottsville has been its “conservator” for a number of years, having been appointed by the county court on June 26, 2014 after a legal determination that building is a public nuisance and unfit for human habitation. The role of the court-appointed conservator is to prevent more deterioration and to market the property for sale. If you look at the photo, $1 appears on the lower left of the building. Yet I saw no for sale sign. Maybe the dollar is negotiable.
I remembered that this building, as so many others that I pass by daily, has a story to tell of days gone by, of the boom years in the anthracite area. I needed to find out more of the history of that 900 block of West Market. What secrets would I discover about its history? Who were the people who had caused the double home to be built? I needed to go back in time.
My brown 1972 Ford Pinto wagon, with its vinyl “woody” siding, may not travel the farthest or the fastest, but it does have the ability to travel the furthest than any other car. Yes, my Pinto takes me back and forth through time. I took you for a few rides before (if you don’t remember, then check the SCHS blog archives). When I got in the car, I inserted my Chambers Brothers cassette, and drove down Market Street and before you could say “put a little sprint in your life” I was at the beginning of the 20th century. I was back in the year 1910. My eyes cautiously veered to the north side of the street as I needed to be alert for the trolley cars and horses that mixed in with the automobile traffic. I pulled over and was impressed by the great four-story brick and stone Rettig Brewery located on the property which is now, in 2018, a scruffy closed service station. Besides the brewery I could see the brewery engine house and various outbuildings. It was certainly a busy place; many employees were moving about loading heavy barrels of porter, beer, and ale into wagons. I believe over 20,000 barrels were produced yearly. I thought of having a beer in a nearby tavern but declined as I had to get back to the 21st century before dinnertime.
Charles Rettig and his father-in-law had founded the brew house. At first it was known as the Market Street Brewery and since 1872, Charles Rettig had was the sole proprietor and called it The Rettig Brewery. Mr. Rettig was born in the Grand Dutchy of Baden in 1839, which is now a part of Germany. He arrived in the United States with only 25 cents in his pocket. He certainly did well economically in Pottsville before his death in 1893. After his passing, his family continued operations. When I arrived in the year 1910 in my Pinto wagon, listening to the Chambers Brothers’ psychedelic soul cassette, it was still a highly successful brewery in the borough of Pottsville.
I looked across the street at the homes that would be eventually become eyesores in the 21st century. In 1910 they were new, impressive and built to last. Charles’ widow, Augusta Liebner Rettig, resided at 817 together with her widowed daughter, Emma Grim. Mrs. Rettig had lived across the street on the north side of the street, east of the brewery, with her husband at 900 West Market but, in 1905, that homestead was razed for the enlargement of the brewery. She built the double house to keep the family close. Next door, to her west, at 819 lived her son William Rettig, his wife Mamie and their four children. William succeeded his father as general manager of the brewery. However the business would soon begin to change hands. By 1911, it would be sold to an Allentown syndicate headed by August Schimpf for $200,000 which today would be approximately $5 million. Unfortunately, the brewery could not survive the Prohibition years when the consumption of drinking alcohol was criminalized. Federal agents raided the brewery in 1928 and padlocked its doors for the crime of manufacturing beer of 4% alcohol content. Rettig’s had been one of the finest breweries in the state and many residents found employment there but its final demise occurred in 1929 when it was sold off to pay numerous creditors. It was never a brewery again.
Now when driving on West Market Street, you may see, on the north side, the scruffy lot that has the abandoned Rettig beer cave in the side of the mountain, but I don’t. I still see the busy brewery in full operation. Across the street, on the south side, you may see the abandoned brick building now being cared for by the city under its watchful conservatorship, but I don’t. I still see the German-American Rettig family on their porches of their beautiful tidy, well-maintained double homes. But I am in my 1975 Ford Pinto wagon, the car that can still go further (but not farther) than any other, still listening to my overplayed Chambers Brothers cassette, while you are not. Time has come today.