Saturday, December 2, 2017

The History of the Lill and Diversy Brewery, Chicago, Illinois

The year 1833 not only marks the incorporation of the town of Chicago, but also the establishment of Chicago's first commercial brewery. German immigrants William Haas and Konrad (Andrew) Sulzer arrived in Chicago from Watertown, New York that year. They brought with them one hundred and fifty barrels of ale, a load of malt, brewery equipment, and $3,000 ($75,630 in 2017). The Haas & Sulzer Brewery was an immediate success, producing approximately 600 barrels (31 gallons per barrel) of ale for a town of about 350 residence.

Sulzer sold his interest in the brewery to William B. Ogden in 1836 the 1st Mayor of Chicago (1837-1838). Noting the high cost of shipping beer from the East, Ogden financed the erection of a larger structure (the plant) at Pine Street (now North Michigan Avenue) and Chicago Avenue to take advantage of the growing market. During his tenure with the brewery, he also managed to serve full time as the City of Chicago's first mayor in 1837-38.

William Lill, an immigrant from England, settled in Chicago in 1835 after famously walking to Chicago from Louisville, Kentucky, a 300-mile journey. Lill bought a large share of the Haas & Sulzer Brewery in 1837.
1837 Chicago Directory Listing
Michael J. Diversy[1], an immigrant from the current Alsace-Lorraine area of France, shared the ice stored on the premises of the Haas & Sulzer Brewery, operating a dairy from the same building.

Michael Diversy bought out Ogden in 1841. The plant was sold in 1843 to Lill and Diversy, which was renamed "Lill & Diversy," also known as "The Chicago Brewery." Their first year’s brew was about 460 barrels of Ale. Both Haas and Sulzer left the brewing business.
A portion of an ad for Lill and Diversy's Brewery from the 1858-59 Chicago Business Directory.
By 1857, the Lill & Diversy plant, covering an entire city block and had grown into the largest brewery west of the east coast. By 1861 the business was producing nearly 45,000 barrels a year of beer, porter, stout, and their most popular drink, "Lill's Cream Ale." For many years “Lill‘s Cream Ale” was one of the most famous brands in the country.
The Lill & Diversy Brewery was damaged by fire in 1860 and 1864. In 1866 the brewery expanded, sprawling over two acres on the corner of Pine Street (later North Michigan Avenue) and Chicago Avenue and employing up to 75 men. In fact, the four-story structure towered over the Water Tower Pumping Station completed just across the street a year later.
1868 Chicago Directory Listing
Lill's Premium Stock Ales, 167 State Street (today; 101 S. State St.), Chicago, Illinois. Circa 1868
Michael J. Diversy died on December 10, 1869, and is buried in Saint Boniface Cemetery in Chicago.

Lill continued the operation alone. Unfortunately, this story, like so many stories from this period in Chicago's history, ends with the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The Lill & Diversy Brewery burned to the ground and never reopened. William Lill lost an estimated $650,000 ($14,057,300 today) in damages with the destruction of the brewery.

Looking north from Chicago Avenue at Pine Street (today's Michigan Avenue) in 1872, after the Great Chicago Fire. The photo was taken from the top of the Water Tower as you can see its shadow in the lower right-hand corner. The ruins in the foreground are the Lill & Diversy Brewery.
Ruins of the Lill & Diversy Brewery.

William Lill passed away on August 11, 1875, and is buried at Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago.
Michael Diversy was a Chicago Alderman and a noted philanthropist. He donated land for the McCormick Theological Seminary, was the founder of St. Joseph Catholic Church (now at Hill and Orleans streets), and donated land for St. Michael's Church (the Church named to honor Diversy's patron saint) at Eugenie street and Cleveland avenue. Michael Diversy was so important to Chicago that three streets were named after Diversy; Diversey Avenue, Diversey Parkway, and Diversey School Court. William Lill was also honored by Chicago naming Lill Avenue after him.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

[1] The original spelling was without the "ey" as it is now spelled in Chicago's street names. It is said that his signature had a flourish at the end that looked like the spelling would be DIVERSEY. 


  1. Interesting story. Adding pictures of what’s currently at the locations would round out the story. As an amateur brewer, I thank you for the research.


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