“Beer is food,” said Ken Stewart on Saturday during his presentation on the history of brewing in South Dakota, which the audience ate up.
Stewart is a researcher at the archives and library at the South Dakota Historical Society and is an oft-published authority on the state’s history. He said he's researched this topic for a long time.
His talk on breweries from 1861 to 1941 was under the theme of the Historical Society’s annual history conference, this year in Pierre -“Everyone Eats: South Dakota’s Food Heritage.”
Beer is the second-most popular beverage in the world, after tea, Stewart said.
He traced its popularity in Dakota Territory beginning during the Civil War as dozens of breweries sprang up across what became a state, until World War II.
The brewers had to deal with a series of prohibitions, beginning with the first law passed by the new South Dakota legislature after the state went official in November 1889, outlawing booze, Stewart said. Another state prohibition came on in 1917 that continued through the nationwide dry period 1920-1933. And then, "only 3.2 beer" was legal for a time in the state, Stewart said.
Many breweries tried to survive prohibition periods by re-working their recipes and making “near-beer,” or malt liquor without the liquor. One sold out to a creamery. Others kept on by telling state officials their beer was all going out of state to legal customers, although at times “it was going out the door and down the street,” Stewart said.
The breweries were started pretty much by German immigrants who were following a tradition from the old country, Stewart said.
The gold rush in the Black Hills in the 1870s provided a rather instant population of thousands of men, nearly all of them young and unmarried. “What a great market for beer,” Stewart said, drily. Brewers quickly struck gold, often serving the beer in the same building it was made in the pretty lawless Hills.
Gold Nugget Beer was maybe the best known beer in the state, but there were other notable labels, such as Rosebud and Black Hills Export, too, he said.
It took commitment to make beer in the Black Hills, since the barley had to be hauled by ox and wagon from Fort Pierre and water was at a premium, most of it used for mining.
Historians learned only recently there once was a brewery in Pierre, Stewart said.
Henry Meyer, who married a brewer’s daughter in Yankton where he also learned to turn barley into beer,came to Pierre in 1880 “when Pierre wasn’t really a town,” Stewart said. Pierre was founded that year but wasn’t incorporated until 1883.
It was a short-lived brewery and Meyer’s tenure as a brewer here was only about five years, Stewart said. Meyer built his brewery at the corner of Capitol Avenue and Lakeside Lane, “not too far from here, a couple of blocks,” Stewart said, referencing the Ramkota Convention Center where the conference was held.
Meyer died in 1887 and his widow sold the brewery to a man named Zickler and it burned down in 1889. Meyer’s widow married a Pierre teacher named Turner and had more children.
“It was a mystery of history. Until three years ago, we had no clue there had been a brewery in Pierre.”
Brewing in the state ended about 1941 as the big beer companies began dominating, using lower prices and more volume and advertising to crowd out the small beer makers, Stewart said.
Until the contemporary trend to craft brewing, South Dakota went through a dry spell in brewing since World War II, he said.
Only two former brewery buildings still stand, in Yankton and in Lead.
About 140 people registered for the South Dakota State Historical Society’s annual history conference which opened Friday at the Ramkota, said Michael Lewis, president of the Society's Foundation.
With its own history dating back to the Civil War era, the Society, an arm of the state education department, has a $5.2 million budget appropriated by the legislature, about 40 employees and nearly 2,000 members statewide.
The idea of the heritage of food in the state, said keynote speaker Susan Evans McClure, is that since most people eat from time to time, looking at food is a good way to look at the wider history of any culture, or people or state.
McClure is director of the Smithsonian Food History Programs at the National Museum of History and she spoke Friday.
This weekend includes old traditions of food in the state and what’s going on still.
Jerome Kills Small, Reva, showed the audience foods and herbs used by Lakota people and spoke of how the Lakota used food in ceremonial ways and why buffalo meat is so great.
The Historical Society’s emphasis on Laura Ingalls Wilder continued Saturday with a session by Sarah Uthoff, who was scheduled to present “In the Kitchen with Laura.” Uthoff, a college librarian in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is a nationally known authority on Wilder.
Kevin Ganz, of the Siouxland Heritage Museum in Sioux Falls, spoke on “Cruisin’ Cuisine: The Drive-Ins of Sioux Falls.”
Howard Bonneman spoke about SDSU’s unique history of making legendary ice cream in many flavors by getting students together with the research farm’s milk cows for hands-on education.
At the Saturday awards luncheon, the Governor’s Awards for History were presented to several individuals and organizations, including Fort Pierre’s Verendrye Museum “Bring It Home,” committee for reclaiming and restoring the 1906 railroad depot, a $1 million project.