History's Headlines: Neuweiler: The Allentown beer legend that was once Nix Besser
Arthur Flegenheimer, aka “Dutch Schultz,” is not remembered as one of your major league 1930s gangster headline-grabbers like Al Capone or Jack “Legs” Diamond. But such a view badly underestimates the man and his ruthlessness. And when he strode into the offices of Louis F. Neuweiler and Sons Brewery on Front Street in Allentown in 1932 he must have seemed formidable enough.
Cutting to the chase, the dapper dressing “Dutch” had some words for brewery owner Charles Neuweiler, son of the brewery’s founder and then the company’s president. He wanted to buy out the Neuweiler family operation which, since the start of Prohibition in 1920, had been reduced to turning out ice cream, "near beer" and carbonated soda water. He was offering $500,000 in cold cash.
Schultz may have thought he had made Neuweiler an offer he couldn’t refuse. It's not known if the Dutchman’s “boys” were hanging around with itchy trigger fingers on their “gats” during the conversation.
But according to Charles’s son, Theodore Neuweiler, who recounted this tale to the press in the 1950s, his father was not biting. “We have always made honest beer,” he recalled his father saying before ordering Schultz off his property. And apparently the gangster went quietly.
Shortly thereafter FDR would be elected, Prohibition banished, and happy days here again. And “Dutch” would die in 1935 on a hospital operating room table in Newark, New Jersey, following a hit by rival gangsters.
Today Neuweiler’s, which closed in 1968 and was left in a state that could only be called abandonment, is once more in the local news. Plans about its possible future as apartments, lofts or shops as part of the Neighborhood Improvement Zone- aka “the NIZ”- have caused much speculation. Could Neuweiler’s-at least the building if not the brewery-come back to life?
All of this activity would have undoubtedly impressed old Louis F. Neuweiler, the brewery’s founder, although he might be disappointed that nobody is talking about making beer there. As a native of Wurttemberg, Germany he knew what beer was to all good Germans of his time and place- a thick hardy brew that was both food and drink and had been as long as there had been Germans.
For a time, Neuweiler worked in a Philadelphia brewery and rose within the ranks of the company. In 1891 he came to Allentown and teamed up with longtime local brewer Benedict Nuding. A Civil War veteran and several years Louis Neuweiler’s senior, Nuding’s brewery was located at 7th St. near Union.
Beer making had been going on in the Lehigh Valley probably since the first German settlers arrived. Commercial operations in Allentown are usually traced to the Eagle Brewery that opened at Lehigh and Union Streets in the 1850s. By the start of the 20th century there would be a number of breweries dotting the Lehigh Valley in Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton.
By 1900 Nuding was ready to retire and Neuweiler brought him out. But even then Neuweiler had bigger ambitions. He had just admitted his son Charles into the business and began to look around for a space that was much larger than the site on 7th Street and also closer to a railroad line that would make shipment easier.
What the new brewery also needed was a supply of pure water.
Neuweiler found all that he was hoping for- even a lake of pure water 900 feet underground- on a 4.5 acre site at the corner of Front and Gordon Streets. To build the brewery he hired Peukert & Wunder, Philadelphia architects with a national reputation for brewery design.
Work began on Neuweiler’s in 1911. It was completed two years later and opened for production on April 28, 1913. The Lehigh Valley had seen many brewery openings before but Neuweiler’s was something special. With its red brick tower that could be seen for many miles it dominated the horizon along the banks of the Lehigh River. In an extra architectural flourish a huge N, similar to those on a Paris bridge that honored Napoleon, framed and mounted in a colossal cartouche, was placed on the side of the building. The era didn’t nickname brewers “beer barons” for nothing.
Despite its size Neuweiler’s was a family business. Charles had been required to learn the business from the ground up, including driving a wagon load of beer barrels when called on to do so. Even the female members of the family played a role by keeping the brewery’s books.
Neuweiler’s was not a democracy. Patriarch Louis F., while a generous father to his family, expected obedience from them, even as adults. Although there is nothing on the record this may explain why one of his sons, Louis P., left the family business and got into local banking.
One of the longtime family stories that was recorded dealt with a confrontation between Louis F. and a telephone operator. When she could not understand the number Neuweiler was asking for he became so enraged he suggested there was a warm place she should go and ripped the phone’s cord out of the wall. His sons, fearing local reaction and gossip, told their father he had to call her back and apologize. According to the surviving sources the exchange went something like this:
Neuweiler: “Is this the woman who I told to go to hell?”
Operator: (timidly) “Yes”
Neuweiler: “Well you don’t have to go now!”
Louis F. died in 1929 and with the end of Prohibition in 1933 Neuweiler’s flourished. But the rise of national brewers and the post World War II preference for lighter beers doomed Neuweiler's and other local ethnic brewers. But, who knows. Thanks to the NIZ the big N may rise again.
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