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Theodore Mack and the Peoples' Brewing Corp.

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Theodore Mack Sr. & The Peoples Brewing Company 

Upated 2/14/09 - slight corrections to the page thanks to Barry

This page veers away from my theme a bit, which was dedicating this site to the beers I drank in the 70s and 80s. I write articles on the history of brewing for the journal of the American Breweriana Association and have just finished an article on Peoples Brewing in Oshkosh which closed in 1972.

An interesting footnote to this history is that this was the first brewery in the USA owned by an African American. I found this story so interesting I decided to post it out on the web. I think it would be a good theme for a movie (but I guess your average teenager might not be too interested in a story about beer.....) David against Goliath as it were.

 The owners of the tiny Peoples Brewery in Oshkosh saw the handwriting on the wall in the fall of 1969. Small breweries were failing everywhere, and as only the 11th largest brewer in Wisconsin, they were very vulnerable. They decided to sell out before the company plunged into bankruptcy. The 58 year old company had survived Prohibition but could not survive the onslaught of Pabst, Schlitz, A-B, and Miller.

In 1970 the owners found a buyer in Theodore Mack, Sr.. Mack, then 41 years old, had been chairman of United Black Enterprises. UBE had earlier bid $9 million for the Blatz subsidiary of Pabst after its sale had been forced by Federal Government anti-trust action. UBE’s  offer had come up short, and Blatz was been sold to G. Heileman Brewing Company of LaCrosse for $10.8 million. Mack and his associates were on the lookout for another brewery to purchase when Peoples came up on the block.  

Peoples was sold for $365,000 plus an additional $75,000 for the inventory. The financing was secured by a loan from the Small Business Administration. Mack also sold stock for the new company to raise additional capital as well investing his life’s savings. He was now the first African-American to own a brewery in the USA 

Mack had been born in Alabama and enlisted in the army after high school. He claimed to have been so dedicated to getting an education that he walked seven miles to school each day. Mack attended Ohio State University on a football scholarship and finally graduated from Marquette University in Milwaukee.  He did some post-graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin in psychiatric social work and worked for five years at the Milwaukee County Welfare Department. But this proved frustrating to Mack, as he found himself unable to affect any change to the social services system. He then joined Pabst Brewing, where he eventually worked his way up to a plant manager with the company. But he dreamt of running his own brewery, which lead him to purchase People’s. (Nigl's Grocery in Oshkosh w/ cool Peoples Sign thanks to the "Highlanders of Oshkosh" site)

On October 12, 1970 a ribbon cutting ceremony was held that was attended by local politicians and regional African-American leaders. But it was not an easy road for Mack and his associates. News of the sale and its new owners took many residents of this conservative city by surprise. The area was so conservative that maverick candidate George Wallace had actually carried the Fox River Valley in his bid for the presidency a few years before. Many locals simply stopped drinking the beer while others went as far as calling for a boycott. From the very beginning Mack was bedeviled by rumors and racial issues that had nothing to do with his business. Consumers were afraid the brand would be turned into a “ghetto beer” and marketed strictly to minorities like Black Pride Beer from Lithia Brewing in West Bend had been. There were also rumors that Mack intended to replace local (white) workers with minorities brought up from Milwaukee, which was also untrue. Mack held a press conference in April 1970 stating:

"I want to get away from the blackness and whiteness, I don't believe in black power and I don't believe in white power. There is only one power in this country. That's green power - money".

But this resistance gradually faded as Oshkosh residents realized Mack was articulate, intelligent, and deeply committed to the employees of Peoples Brewing. Mack said “They noticed I was above average in education and I was sincerely interested in promoting jobs in the community. Finally they started to relate to me as a person and as a result I have made a satisfactory adjustment to the community” “I did not get this far by osmosis, but by hard work, by saving my capital, and by getting along with all men”. Sales for Peoples Beer continued to rebound in Oshkosh thanks to Mack’s PR crusade and within a year all of the taverns that had dropped their beer brands began selling them again.  Mack’s business also received the full support of the Oshkosh Common Council as well as the Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce. (tray from www.trayman.net)

Mack offered shares in the brewery, but 24,000 of them remained unsold. Despite this, Mack soldiered on.

Mack took an active role in the sales of his beer and expanded into Racine, Kenosha, and Madison, Wisconsin. “When the going gets rough, I send me” he said in an interview with the Associated Press.  Peoples Beer became available at the Milwaukee Arena and County Stadium, home of the Bucks and the Brewers respectively.  

Sales began to increase considerably and Mack set his sights on Milwaukee. But the major brewers did not want Mack to gain a foothold in this important beer market. The shelf space in many outlets were suddenly filled to the brim by Pabst, Bud, Schlitz, and Miller products and Mack found himself relegated to marginal outlets in the city’s near north and south sides. The illegal practice of “Black Bagging”, i.e. paying kickbacks to outlets, by the big brewers also continued in Milwaukee and frustrated the sales efforts of all smaller brewers. Years later in 1976, the SEC would be called in to investigate Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Schlitz, and Pabst for these practices. (Ho Reefer from www.greenwayproducts.com)

Mack’s competitors and detractors continued to spread false rumors about the product’s quality, and Mack enlisted the Siebel Institute in 1971 to examine his beer. This highly respected institute reported the sample “makes an exceedingly good impression in almost every respect”. Then Wisconsin Governor Patrick Lucey declared that Peoples was "One of the really shining examples of minority capitalism".

Peoples then attempted to expand their sales into Gary, Indiana which had a sizable minority population. But when their three delivery trucks arrived at the Indiana border, they were met by the Gary Police, Indiana State Highway Patrol and Indiana excise agents. The agents were armed with a search warrant and order to impound the beer if it entered into the state. $15,000 worth of Peoples Beer was turned back and returned to Oshkosh. The police had been tipped off to the arrival of the Peoples trucks by a “mystery caller” who might have been a competitive beer distributor or even Gary beer truck drivers, who were conducting a strike at the time. The state claimed that Peoples was attempting to operate as its own distributor, which was against Indiana law. They also claimed the trucks “might be overloaded” so could not enter the state. Gary mayor Richard G Hatcher and the city government became involved and expressed their desire to have Peoples Beer sold in that city. The company was eventually cleared of the charges and the beer released to an independent distributor, but another barrier had been put in front of the struggling company. Mack came out in an article in the Oshkosh Northwestern saying he feared there was an industry conspiracy to bankrupt his company, stating when the company closed “they’ll all jump and down and clap their hands – see, the n*gg*r can’t do it”.  (picture of Peoples in 1960 from "Badger Breweries" by Wayne Kroll - for a recent photo of the office building scroll down below.)  Mack sold more beer in a week in Gary than a whole month in Milwaukee, and despaired for the lack of support for his beer from Milwaukee's black community.

Peoples neighbor, The Oshkosh Brewing Company, failed after 107 years on October 18, 1971 and Mack announced on November 5, 1971 he would be purchasing the Chief Oshkosh, Badger, Rahr’s, and Lebrau brands.  Oshkosh had been brewing 20,000 bbls per year at the time of its closing, and Mack hoped this additional volume would help ensure the survival of his company.  But by now Peoples was bleeding cash. 

In January of 1972 Mack announced to shareholders the company was losing money and in dire financial straits. He said that would try to expand their markets to Tennessee, Missouri, and California to boost volume. But lack of funds prevented any advertising or promotion, and the big brewers continued their sales efforts into Peoples home market of the Fox River Valley, taking over important sales outlets. 

The company’s problems came to a head that September when the IRS filed a $35,809 lien against the company for unpaid excise taxes and social security withholdings. Peoples' also defaulted on a $390,000 bank loan.

In October, Peoples Brewing filed suit against two government agencies, claiming that despite trying for 2 ½ years, it was being prevented from participating in contracts for the sale of beer to the armed forces. Part of the covenant that Mack had as the only minority owned brewery in the country was to receive some assistance in obtaining access to these contracts from the SBA.  At the time, the Defense Department purchased $10 million worth of beer each year. People’s asked for $100 million in damages from the Department of Defense and the Small Business Administration but the suit was dismissed by  Federal judge Myron F. Gordon. The big brewers would continue to control sales of beer to the military.  

On November 8, 1972 the company halted beer production. Mack had been at the helm only two short years.  The company was producing 1800 bbl out of total capacity of 5000 bbl per month at the time of closing. 20 full time and 10 part time employees lost their jobs. The company had 1071 stockholders, all of whom lost their investment.  

In June of 1973 the company’s assets were put up for auction by David S. Gronick and Co. 12,000 returnable cases of beer were hauled away after being purchased by Leinenkugel’s and Pabst. A year later the brewhouse was razed, but the offices and bottleshop remained & were integrated into a new building on the site. (tearing down the brewhouse July 18, 1974)

Mack was bitter about his experience. In a 1973 newspaper interview he said “ Maybe no black man can make it in America. I’m beginning to think ‘maybe not”. Maybe a few of us got educated on the way things really work in America.” Another man’s dream had been brought to an end by the relentless advance of the big corporate brewers. After 61 years in business, Peoples Beer was no more.  

Part of the brewery buildings remain and can be seen at 1506 S Main in Oshkosh, now home to Blended Waxes, Inc.

Most of the breweriana items on the page were for sale on eBay

The Peoples Beer Bus (?) at the Burning Man Festival / Another great tray from the Trayman's site

Playing cards / Peoples Bock


Loading Docks / Former Office Building / Back of Brewery complex 5/2003