Philadelphia’s fugitive brewery heir

There was a time in this city when everyone knew the name – and not just those who drank his family’s famous beer.

He raced in the Indianapolis 500, got into fistfights with cops, flew a Wright brothers biplane, and joined Pancho Villa’s rebellion in Mexico. He was a rogue, a draft dodger and a fugitive.

And 50 years ago yesterday, he died a madman.

Grover Cleveland Bergdoll, heir to one of the city’s greatest beer empires, never worked in a brewery. But the so-called Playboy of the Eastern Seaboard was surely the most notorious character in Philadelphia’s long, sudsy beer history.

His grandfather Louis J. Bergdoll launched the beer empire in 1849 with a small brewery at Fifth and Vine Streets. Within 10 years, the German immigrant moved his brewery to the other side of town, where it became one of the great anchors of Brewerytown. His Protiwiner Export and Philadelphia Lager Beer were world-renowned.

Louis Bergdoll lived like a king, building mansions in the city and suburbs. One of his estates featured a roller coaster. His giant, domed mausoleum is among the most magnificent at West Laurel Hill Cemetery.

Grover Cleveland Bergdoll never knew his grandfather; his father was a vague memory at best. Both were dead before the boy reached age 3.

Raised by his mother, Emma, in a mansion at 22nd and Green Streets, Grover was a classic third-generation scion – a hell-raiser with no interest in the family business, but plenty of money to burn.

By the time he was a teenager, Bergdoll was already well-known around the city and suburbs for racing fast cars made by his older brother’s Louis J. Bergdoll Motor Co. In one incident, a police officer tried to stop him for reckless driving in Ardmore only to find himself clinging to the running board as the privileged boy sped home.

For his youthful indiscretions, Bergdoll typically got off with a slap on the wrist and a meager fine.

His need for speed had no bounds. In 1912, he traveled to Dayton, where the Wright brothers taught him to fly and sold him a biplane. He built an airfield along West Chester Pike, where the Manoa Shopping Center now stands, and wowed thousands of spectators with his stunts.

On his first flight over Philadelphia, according to an often-told story, Bergdoll circled three times around Billy Penn’s hat above City Hall, then back across the Schuylkill.

In the next years, there were more arrests for reckless driving. Bergdoll went on to fly with Pancho Villa’s nascent air force during the Mexican border war, fighting against Pershing’s American force.

Later, he competed in the Indianapolis 500 against Eddie Rickenbacker, the American fighter ace of World War I.

It was during that war that Bergdoll achieved his notoriety as a “slacker,” a label then used for draft dodgers.

Refusing to fight against Germany, he fled the city in 1917, taunting authorities with postcards from his various hideouts, according to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. His disappearance made national headlines. When he was finally tracked down in 1920, he was court-martialed and sentenced to five years in prison for desertion.

In an incredible chain of events, however, Bergdoll escaped once again, persuading his captors to accompany him to the secret location of a “pot of gold” he’d buried in the mountains of West Virginia. Along the way, they spent the night at his mother’s mansion.

The next morning, Bergdoll climbed through a window and sped off in a waiting car, eventually making his way to Germany.

The escape made headlines around the world, and though a congressional committee investigated allegations that the guards had been paid off, no one was charged.

President Warren G. Harding ordered the seizure of the family’s assets. During Prohibition, the Bergdoll brewery closed and finally died.

Bergdoll married a German woman and, over the years, faced down kidnap attempts by bounty hunters seeking to drag him home. He finally returned on his own in 1939 and spent World War II at hard labor in Leavenworth federal penitentiary.

His life after his release from prison was relatively quiet. He lived for years at his farm in Downingtown. He moved to Virginia. He divorced his wife.

With age, he slowly withered into dementia, living his final years in a psychiatric hospital. On Jan. 27, 1966, he succumbed to pneumonia at 72. He was buried in a modest grave.

The Bergdoll name is a just memory in Philadelphia, but remnants of the beer empire remain. The mansion on the northwest corner of 22nd and Green still stands. Part of the Bergdoll plant, at 29th and Parrish Streets, is now the Brewery Condominiums.

And the Wright brothers’ Model B biplane – the one Bergdoll flew around Billy Penn’s hat – hangs from a ceiling at the Franklin Institute.

-30-

1

Comments

  1. Joseph G.  January 28, 2016

    Don – Great and interesting article. Who would have thought there was an airfield at the Manoa Shopping Center? Truth really is stranger than fiction! See you at Bell’s on Feb 5.

    Joseph