Switzerland & Midwest Connections: The Muehlebachs Kansas City Beer Barons
Welcome to the History Blog featuring the connections between Switzerland and the Midwest. I am Joerg Oberschmied, Deputy Consul General in Chicago. My interest in history started at an early age and continues to this day. The views expressed are solely mine and I hope you enjoy these journeys through time.
The Swiss Muehlebach family left a deep rooted mark in Kansas City during the first half of the 20th century which resonates to this day. The name Muehlebach is associated with a famous brewery and a popular Pilsner beer, a Baseball team, a Baseball Stadium and a landmark hotel.
From The Aargau to Kansas City
George Muehlebach was born 1833 into a farming family in the Canton Aargau, Switzerland. He emigrated aged 21 with his sister and three brothers to Lafayette in Indiana and from there to Kansas City, Missouri, where he initially operated a saddle shop. George Muehlebach and his brother John purchased the Main Street Brewery in 1869, starting with an annual production of 3,000 barrels a year, which they steadily increased. John died in 1880, leaving full ownership of the brewery to George. By 1899, capacity had increased to 25,000 barrels annually, and the company soon added a brew house, and an engine house to support its operations. Local demand reached 100,000 barrels in 1911, making the Muehlebach brewery the second largest in Kansas City. George Muehlebach did not live to see the heyday of the company, he died in 1905, leaving his son George E. Muehlebach in charge.
Baseball and Rebirth
George Edward Muehlebach was born in 1882 and spent his summer jobs at the brewery. In 1905, at the tender age of 23, he assumed leadership of the Muehlebach Brewing Company. A lifelong baseball fan, he played for the Muehlebach Pilseners in his youth, a local team sponsored by his father. In 1917, he bought the minor league Kansas City Blues, twice American Association champions, and in 1923 opened a new ballpark — Muehlebach Field — for the Blues and the Negro League Kansas City Monarchs (Kansas City is also home to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum). The New York Yankees purchased the Blues as a part of their farm system in 1937. By then, the Muehlebach Brewing Company had been through difficult times and in 1929 even had to close its doors as a result of prohibition and the depression. Using the original Muehlebach formulas and stressing the beer’s local heritage, the company reopened in 1937 and in the forties became the largest brewery in the region, even expanding into ten other states. Despite these successes, sales began to fall and the company ended up being sold in 1956 to Milwaukee’s Schlitz Brewing Company, ending the Muehlebach brewing tradition for good.
The White House West
In 1905, George E. also took control of the Muehlebach Estate Company and developed a substantial number of land holdings in the Kansas City area. In 1916, the company opened the opulent 500-room Hotel Muehlebach at 12th and Baltimore, where it still stands today. The hotel went on to serve many famous guests, including every U.S. President from Theodore Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan. Other famous guests included Elvis Presley and the Beatles. Truman Capote, who wrote for the Kansas City Star, penned ‘In Cold Blood’ in the lobby. Ernest Hemingway mentions the Muehlebach hotel in his novel, “Across the River and Into the Trees”. President Harry Truman, a Missouri native, was at the hotel so often that it had become known as the “White House West.” In 1931, the Muehlebach Company sold the hotel to Barney Allis, who managed it until shortly before his death in 1962. Since 1998, a restored portion of the original Hotel Muehlebach, (known officially as the Muehlebach Tower) has survived as a part of the Kansas City Marriott Downtown.
In his lifetime, George E. also was Kansas City’s first Liquor Control Director and known for his fairness and modesty. He died in 1955, aged 73. In 1954, James V. “Bud” Harrington broke ground for a Funeral Home and named it after his mother’s maiden name since it was so recognizable. Today the Muehlebach name is no longer associated with local brewing or baseball, but remains synonymous with Kansas City’s rich historical heritage.
Special thanks go to the Kansas City Public Library (www.kchistory.org) for their assistance with this article.