Grave Sightings: Joseph Schlitz, Brewing Magnate

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Stacy Conradt

For years, every time we so much as touch a toe out of state, I’ve put cemeteries on our travel itinerary. From garden-like expanses to overgrown boot hills, whether they’re the final resting places of the well-known but not that important or the important but not that well-known, I love them all. After realizing that there are a lot of taphophiles (cemetery and/or tombstone enthusiasts) out there, I’m finally putting my archive of interesting tombstones to good use.

Today we visit Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and the gravesite of the man who made “the beer that made Milwaukee famous.” Sort of. Technically, the man who made the beer was August Krug, who opened up his own brewhouse in 1849. Less than seven years later, Krug kicked the bucket, leaving an opening for his young bookkeeper to step in to run the business—and marry his widow. Though former bookkeeper Joseph Schlitz renamed the business after himself in 1858, the company didn’t become a household name until disaster struck more than a decade later.

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When the Chicago Fire devastated the Windy City in 1871, the company sent barrels and barrels of beer down the river to their smoldering sister city. A lovely gesture, sure, but also a shrewd one: Many of the big breweries in Chicago had burned to the ground or were severely crippled as a result of the fire, so by sending in his reserves, Schlitz was able to secure a whole new hops-loving market. Sales more than doubled.

Joseph Schlitz didn’t live to enjoy his success for long. In 1875, he booked tickets for a European trip via the SS Schiller. It was a fatal mistake. The ship struck a reef; lifeboats were inadequate and/or damaged, so many passengers either drowned or died of hypothermia before rescue arrived in the morning. Schlitz's body was never recovered. The gravestone at Forest Home Cemetery in Milwaukee is actually a cenotaph, a monument erected to a person whose remains are missing or simply located elsewhere.

After Schlitz died at sea, the Krug family resumed control of the brewery, but couldn’t change the name back due to a stipulation in Schlitz’s will. It’s just as well—“When you’re out of Krug, you’re out of beer” just doesn’t sound right.

By the way, the founders of the Pabst and Blatz breweries are buried in the same cemetery, not to mention some of the founders of Harley Davidson—but I’ll save those stories for future Sightings.

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August 20, 2013 - 12:30pm
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