Just about everyone in St. Louis has heard of the Lemp Mansion and the Lemp Brewery. The tragic demise of the Lemp Family has become part of our urban lore. Very few St. Louisans realize that there is more to the Lemp story than ghosts. The Lemp Brewery Empire was actually very large and expanded across St. Louis and into several states. In 1900, the Lemp Brewing Empire boosted net sales of ten million dollars. Adjusted for inflation, that would be just shy of three hundred million dollars in today’s economy. An empire that size is bound to leave its mark on a city the size of St. Louis, and if you look closely you can still find the lost and forgotten pieces of the Lemp Family Empire. In the next three blogs, I will point out three seldom talked about and rarely known pieces of this lost empire that have almost been completely forgotten and nearly lost to time.
In 1838 the Adam Lemp immigrated to St. Louis from Germany. St. Louis in 1838 was becoming one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation, but in 1830, St. Louis’ future was in question. In 1830, the city’s population was less than five thousand people. Before 1837, the city’s growth was stunted because it had no usable port for river boats to dock. If you look at a map of St. Louis, you will see that St. Louis is built inside of a long shallow bend in the river. What was happening, the slower moving water on the inside of the bend was allowing river silt to be deposited along St. Louis' Riverfront. The water along Laclede’s Landing had become so swallow that river boats couldn’t dock. In geological terms, the Mississippi River was moving east, away from St. Louis.
In 1837 a young Army Engineer by the name of Lieutenant Robert E. Lee came to St. Louis and devised the system of “Wing Dikes.” Lee built his Wing Dikes on the eastern bank along the outer bend of the Mississippi River. These dikes slowed the speed of the water in the outer bend (Illinois Side), thus forcing the water to speed up in the inner bend (St. Louis Side). The now faster-moving water washed away the river silt from Laclede’s Landing, making it deeper. After the Riverfront became usable for shipping, St. Louis was poised to become the Gateway to the West. If you travel west on the J.B. Bridge, you can still see the long “L” shaped rock piles that make up the wing dike system.
Throughout the latter part of the 1830’s, St. Louis started growing rapidly. Migrants and immigrants made their way to St. Louis to seek prosperity. In 1838, Adam Lemp came to St. Louis and started a dry goods store in the Commercial District. Today this area is better known as the Jefferson National Expansion Park, or more simply put, where the Arch is located. The address of Adam Lemp’s Store was 112 South Second Street; which would put his store somewhere in the proximity of the south leg of the Gateway Arch.
Adam Lemp was a taught the art of brewing by his father, but his first attempt at brewing in St. Louis wasn’t beer, it was apple vinegar. His ability to brew apple vinegar attributed to the success of his grocery store. In the age before refrigeration, food packaging, and preservatives, canning was the only way to prevent perishable items from spoiling. Adam Lemp’s ability to brew apple vinegar gave him an advantage over his competitors. Migrants making the long trip out west could now preserve their perishable food items. According to some sources, Adam Lemp made more from his brewing of apple vinegar than he did from his sale of dry goods. It wasn’t long until Adam Lemp, already a skilled brewmaster would start brewing beer. Adam Lemp soon decided to introduce St. Louis to a new beverage called lager beer.
Before Adam Lemp, nobody brewed beer in St. Louis on a commercial basis, and it soon his beer became very popular. Adam Lemp’s storeroom brewery was rather primitive, and the limited space forced him to brew only one product at a time. This altering between beer and apple vinegar probably contributed to his early success. Apple vinegar has antibacterial properties. Now my family comes from a long line of coal miners and moonshiners. A common trick for keeping your moonshine from developing a metallic, penny-like taste is to clean your copper pot on a regular basis. Since most cleaners are poisonous, I was always taught to clean your copper pot with ketchup or apple vinegar. Both products are nonpoisonous and have excellent cleaning properties. Since Adam Lemp was alternating between beer and apple vinegar, he was in effect sterilizing his brewing equipment, which undoubtedly improved the taste of his beer. It’s not clear when Adam Lemp moved his brewery from the Old Commercial District to the present day site of the Lemp Brewery. The oldest buildings of the current Lemp Brewery Complex were built in 1864, but old plat maps, from the early 1840’s, mark the entrance to Lemp’s Brewery Cave. Showing that he owned the property decades before building the current Lemp Brewery Complex. Adam Lemp brewed Lager Beer, which requires time and a constant temperature to ferment. Again in the era before refrigeration, cave storage was really the only means to ferment beer. Cave temperatures typically average between 50 to 60 degrees all year long. Caves such as these provide the perfect set of conditions for brewing lager beer.
In 1849, the disaster known as the Great St. Louis Fire occurred. This fire destroyed much of the Commercial District, along with twenty-nine steamships moored along the St. Louis Riverfront. The chances are that the original Lemp Dry Goods Store and Brewery were destroyed in the fire. However, the Lemp retained ownership of the land and opened a satellite brewery office sometime in the 1850’s. Since river boats were the primary means of shipping cargo, this satellite site probably served as their shipping office. Also, in the very same building, Adam Lemp opened a tavern which no doubt increased the popularity and sales of his lager beer by conveniently offering it to workers in the Old Commercial District.
The Lemp satellite building once located on 112 South Second Street was torn down during the razing of the Old Commercial District that happened throughout the 1930’s. In the 1920’s the Old Commercial District was deemed as a blight upon the city and started purchasing property in the forty-block Commercial District in order to make way for the future Jefferson National Expansion Park and Gateway Arch.
St. Louis Riverfront, ca. 1862
The Old Commercial District