Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The History of Thornton Illinois' Breweries and the Bielfeldt Brewing Company.

The brewing of beer started early in Thornton’s history. Don Carlos Berry brewed beer and owned a saloon in 1836. Berry brewed the beer in a log cabin on the west side of Thorn Creek at Margaret St.  At that time, Thorn Creek was approximately forty feet wide and six feet deep. He later sold the cabin to Gurdon Hubbard, a large property owner in Thornton Township. There is no written record that Hubbard ever brewed beer.

John Simon Bielfeldt, born in 1834, emigrated from Hemme, Holstein, Germany with his parents in 1851. At seventeen years of age he went to work for the Illinois Central Railroad in Homewood. Not happy with this work, he went to Blue Island to learn the science of brewing. Upon completing thorough and valuable training, his ambition was to become the best brewer in the United States.

John S. Bielfeldt (1877)
Bielfeldt purchased the cabin from Hubbard in 1857 and began brewing beer with a 10-barrel kettle using water from an artesian well on the property. The brewery was the first in the state. John married Crescentia Ledoux in the early 1860’s. It wasn’t long before the John S. Bielfeldt Brewing Co. added a frame building on the property. The business flourished and in 1876 a brick brewery was built.

To accommodate his family of eight children, an eight room residence was built on the second and third floors (above the artesian well). The residence was stately and featured a large roofed porch that overlooked Thorn Creek. A tunnel to lager beer was also constructed at that time. Brewing capacity increased to a 20-barrel kettle. The beer was sold under the label of “Bielfeldt’s Old Fashion.” William E. Trautmann was the brew master in 1893. Trautmann later became a key figure In the United Brewery Workers’ Union. Mr. Bielfeldt increased to a 50-barrel kettle in 1895 and in 1896 put up an ice plant.  Beer was being delivered by horse and wagon to the towns of Beecher, Blue Island, Eagle Lake, Lansing, Hegewisch and Thornton, Illinois and to Crown Point, Dyer, and Hessville, Indiana.
The name of the brewery was changed to Bielfeldt Brewing Company in 1897. Bielfeldt’s sons, Frederick J, William S, and John B. had become officers and trustees in the business. In 1899, his son John B. became president. John S. Bielfeldt had become prominent in both social and political circles. He had served on the school board, held positions in Thornton Township and served one term in the Illinois State House in 1877. He passed away on December 31, 1899.

Upon his death, the business was turned over to his sons. Fred Zimmerman was the brewer. The brewery was damaged by a flood in 1902 and a tornado in 1904. A delivery truck was purchased in 1910.

Carl Ebner, Sr. became president and manager in 1918. The plant was modernized and a bottling department was added. A fire caused a loss of approximately $10,000 in 1919. Two men, Ebner and Mandelkow, were badly burned.

At the onset of Prohibition, the Bielfeldt family sold the brewery. It is believed that they sold to Carl Ebner, Senior. Ebner is listed in the 1920 Illinois Census as a manufacturer of soda pop. Despite prohibition, some beer making continued. It is believed that the brewery supplied beer to the disreputable roadhouses that had sprouted up east of Thornton (Dutch’s Place, Blue Lantern, Rose Bowl, Red Lantern and Viking Gardens). Due to suspicions of violating the 18th Amendment, the brewery and roadhouses were raided by Federal Agents; residents tell tales of the beer being dumped into the creek. Brewing operations ceased. The brewery was partially destroyed by fire in 1922.

Joe Saltis (1920)
It was around this time that “Polock Joe” Saltis (Soltis) came on the scene. Saltis was a Slovakian (Hungarian) immigrant who became owner of a saloon in Joliet. Saltis was an independent bootlegger who controlled many of the bootlegging operations on the southwest side of Chicago as well as the south suburbs. In the early years of Prohibition, Saltis managed to piecemeal together a network of small breweries ranging from the south suburbs of Chicago to Wisconsin. The former Bielfeldt Brewery in the quiet town of Thornton proved to be a valuable asset to Saltis. Stories told by residents say that trucks would pull up to the brewery’s docks during the night to load beer for delivery to Saltis’ speakeasy accounts.

Saltis began supplying illegal alcohol to speakeasies in Chicago with the assistance of John “Dingbat” O’Berta and by 1925 Saltis controlled the southwest side.

Saltis remained on good terms with his south side neighbor Al Capone whose Chicago Outift began dominating Chicago’s bootlegging soon after his arrival in the early 1920’s. By the mid 1920’s, only the Saltis-McErlane organization remained independent from the eight satellite gangs under Capone’s control. “Polock Joe” soon became entrenched in territory disputes with many of Capone’s satellite gangs. He began talks for a secret alliance with Capone rival Earl “Hymie” Weiss’s north side gang. Al Capone began to move into Saltis’ territories. In 1927, O’Berta, along with Saltis, arranged a conference including Al Capone, George “Bugs” Moran, Vincent “The Schemer” Drucci, Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik, Ralph Sheldon, William Skidmore, Maxie Eisen, Jack Zuta, and Christian Betsche and managed to agree on a ceasefire of the various gang wars. The ceasefire lasted a little over two months before war broke out again. After several of his associates had disappeared or been shot and his organization mostly destroyed, Saltis retired to his home on Barker Lake in Winter, Wisconsin. Despite his retirement, Saltis gained nationwide notoriety when he was ranked as Public Enemy No. 9.  (Al Capone was No. 1 – Ralph Capone was No. 3) by the Chicago Crime Commission. (The lengthy information on Saltis is included in this history of the brewery because of the many prohibition stories that have existed regarding mob activity at the Thornton brewery. Perhaps this will clarify some of the rumors.)

With the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the Thornton Brewing Company was soon up and running again. By October 1936, bankruptcy papers were filed listing debts of $20,000. Jacob Silver and Dominic Frederick were the two leading bidders at the auction of the property. Joe Saltis warned Frederick that if he persisted in bidding there wouldn’t be any brewery left. Frederick withdrew his bid.  After the auction, bankruptcy Court Referee, Wallace Streeter, had Saltis cited for contempt and the brewery property went to Frederick.

Frederick operated the brewery as Illinois Brewing Company from 1937-1940.

The brewery was renamed Frederick’s Brewing Company in 1940. They did business under this name until 1948. Water from the artesian well continued to be used until 1945 when a new well was dug. Over $400,000 was spent to modernize the brewery. Sixty-five men were employed at the brewery at that time. During World War II, Frederick’s Four Crown Special beer was shipped by railroad throughout the United States. Boys from Thornton were quite surprised to receive beer from home. In mid-1940, the brewery contracted with Crown Cork and Seal to produce J spout cans of Pilsner and Frederick’s beer which are now highly prized by collectors.

James, Frank, Joseph, and Dominic Frederick formed a partnership in 1948 and bought the McAvoy Brewery name.  McAvoy was originally located in Chicago but it did not survive the Prohibition.  McAvoy had a 100,000 barrel capacity.

The Frederick boys were very poor business men. They filed for bankruptcy in 1943 but continued to operate until 1949 when they really went bankrupt due to race track gambling debts.

Ildefonsas Sadauskas, a Lithuanian immigrant, bought the brewery in 1951. The buildings were in shambles. The first stock certificate for 200 shares was issued November 8, 1951. A brewer from Lithuania, Sadauskas brewed a dark, Baltic-style lager call White Bear.  The beer didn’t catch on in this area.  He advertised in Lithuanian newspapers; White Bear was sold throughout America. He made his own barrels and had a 100,000 barrel capacity. In 1955, Sadauskas claimed he was run out of business by the crime syndicate because he refused to pay “protection.” The truth is that he didn’t pay his federal taxes.

Sadauskas and his partner then brought in small industrial companies to fill the space. It was called the Thornton Industrial Complex.

The drilled well was sold to the Village in 1957.

A variety of businesses have been in various parts of the complex through the years. At one time, there was a Canfield’s bottling plant and a cabinet maker and most recently an auto repair and a body shop.

In 1985, Ken and Dick’s, a pizzeria from Roseland, opened a restaurant in the residence portion of the building.  Since then, a variety of restaurants and taverns have had businesses there but were not successful. Customers complained about climbing stairs to get to the entrance and, once inside, had to climb another flight of stairs to the restaurant.
Business partners Chad Spicer (left to right), Steve Soltis, Andy Howell and Micah Kibodeaux are opening "Soltis Family Spirits," a distillery, in the Thornton building where Soltis' great-grandfather ran a beer bootlegging operation during Prohibition.

NOTE: I received this email from Deirdre Capone on November 6, 2017, 6 days after posting this historical account. Deirdre Capone is Al Capone's grandneice. Deirdre's grandfather is Ralph Capone, brother to the Chicago Crime Commission’s Public Enemy #1: Al Capone.
Neil, I loved reading this. You are a good historian. Reading this brought me back in time. You are correct in the information concerning my uncle Al. It is funny but I met Joe Saltis and I worked with his grandson at Carson Pirie Scott downtown Chicago. The two of us, over lunch, would compare stories. 
Deirdre Marie Capone


John S. Bielfeldt Brewing Co. (1857-1896)
Proprietor:  John S. Bielfeldt
Label:          Bielfeldt’s Old Fashion

Bielfeldt Brewing Company (1897-1920)
1897:   President - J. S. Bielfeldt
             Secretary – Frederick J. Bielfeldt
             Trustees – William S., Frederick J & John B. Bielfeldt
1899:   President – John B. Bielfeldt
1900:   Brewer – Fred Zimmerman
1918:   President/Manager – Carl Ebner, Sr.
             Vice President – John B. Bielfeldt
             V.P./Asst. Treasurer – Paul Mueller, Jr.
             Secretary – Carl Ebner, Jr.

J. S. Bielfeldt Lager Beer
Bielfeldt’s Old Fashion Beer
Famous Thornton Lager Beer
Quality Beer

Prohibition – 1920-1933

Thornton Brewing Company (1933–1936)
President and Treasurer – John M. Kubina
Vice President – Edward B. Kenny
Secretary – R. W. Bielfeldt
Brew Master – Andrew Marra
Chief Engineer – G. Swanson


Famous Thornton Lager Beer
Good Old Fashion
Van Nestor

Illinois Brewing Company (1937-1940)
R. W. Bielfeldt
Dominic, James, Frank and Joseph Federico
J. Capodice
Frank E. Weber

Export Pale Lager
Malt Sinew Tonic
Muencheners Bohemian Beer
Pennant Lager Beer
Pilsner Type Light Lager

Frederick’s Brewing Co. (1941-1948)
President – Joseph Frederick
Vice President – Joseph Capodice
Secretary – Dominic Frederick
Treasurer/Manager – Frank Frederick
Master Brewer – Otto Schaffhauser
Later – Henry Scholl
Assistant Brewer – Ernest Buehler
Chief Engineer – Henry Scholl
Later – Gus Swanson
Bottling Superintendent – John Menzor
Later – Andrew Marra
Sales – Otto Schaffhauser

American Club
Bohemia Style Beer
Extra Pale Beer
Four Crown Special
Frederick’s Export Beer
Frederick’s Extra Pale Beer
Gold Bear
Muenchener Style Bohemian Beer
Old Fashion
Pilsner Type Lager
Queensville Premium
Thornton Beer
Van Nestor Beer
Van Wyck Brand Beer

McAvoy Brewing Company (1948-1950)
James Frederick
Frank Frederick
Joseph Frederick
Dominic Frederick

American Club Pilsner
McAvoy Malt Marrow
McAvoy Premium
Van Nestor

White Bear Brewing Company (1951-1955)
1951:  President – Ildefonsas Sadauskas
            Vice President – Stanley Simkunas
            Chairman – Antanas Stakenas
            Master Brewer – Henry Scholl
1955:  President – Albert Brazis
            Vice President – Dan Kuraitis
            Treasurer/Manager – Ildefonsas Sadauskas
            Assistant Brewer – Tom V. Sadauskas

Amberlite Pilsner
Embassy Club
White Bear Beer
White Bear Light Pilsner

1) History of Thornton authored by seventh grade students 1947.
2) History of Thornton authored by several Village of Thornton Historical Society Members.
3) Chicago Heights (including Homewood, Glenwood, Thornton, South Holland) 1910.
4) “A History of Beer & Brewing in Thornton, Illinois” by Debbie Lamoureux, 2007.
5) Saltis (Soltis) information from internet biography.        

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.


  1. Neil,
    You have done an amazing job of capturing the history of this brewery. My grandfather, Al Frederick, worked at this brewery as a young boy for his uncles Frank, Joseph, and Dominic Frederick (aka: Federico). I've heard many interesting stories about the brewery while it was operating under the Frederick name.
    My grandfather is 94 and would be happy to give addition history if you every have an interest.

    Thank you for such an interesting read.

    Larry Frederick


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