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Jul. 28, 2006 | Beer was THE attraction in 1876

ONE HUNDRED thirty years ago this month, Philadelphia kicked off "the most stupendous and successful competitive exhibition the world ever saw."

Obviously, it did not involve the Phillies.

It was the Centennial Exposition of 1876, a six-month world's fair on the grounds of Fairmount Park that attracted 10 million visitors. Dozens of colossal buildings were erected for the event, including the Main Exhibition Hall, a glass palace that covered as much ground as Citizens Bank Park.

This wasn't just a celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It was the first real chance for America to show itself on the world stage. Alexander Graham Bell's telephone, the typewriter, root beer and Heinz ketchup - they were all unveiled at the exhibition. It was the coming of age for the nation's scientists, tradesmen, artists, farmers, manufacturers...

And, yes, brewers.

By the Centennial, there were more than 2,500 breweries operating in America (69 in Philadelphia alone). The majority of them had been opened in the previous 50 years alone, spurring huge growth in barley farming, hops production, timber, railroads and other industry.

And the suds were already among the finest in the world. German immigrants had brought centuries of beer-making know-how with them, opening breweries with names that would remain familiar a century later: Anheuser, Yuengling, Schmidt, Schlitz, Blatz.

It was these men and others who would show off their finest ales and lagers... if they could get into the fair.

Originally, the beer-makers were to be housed in the exposition's giant Agriculture Hall. But they were blocked because of opposition from the nation's growing temperance movement.

Area beer historian Rich Wagner, who has researched the exhibit, notes that by the Centennial, more than 5,000 temperance chapters had formed nationwide. "They had begun to view lager beer with as much disdain as distilled spirits," Wagner said. "The brewers defended their product as 'healthful, nutritious and mildly stimulating.' "

Eventually, the brewers built their own hall, Wagner said, "but it was located downwind from the livestock displays."

Smaller than the exhibition's grandest buildings, Brewers Hall was still about three-quarters the length of a football field.

Wool-jacketed men and ladies with parasols entered beneath a statue of a laughing King Gambrinus, the patron saint of beer.

Inside, they marveled at the latest implements of 19th-century brewing - pumps, buckets, elevators, rinsers, shovels, scales, hoses, malting equipment. Mammoth wooden vats held gallons of ale. A separate ice house kept storage temperatures in the mid-40s.

The centerpiece was a functioning 150-barrel brewery (about three times the size of Victory's recently upgraded brewhouse in Downingtown). Nearby was a replica of William Penn's 17th-century brewhouse at Pennsbury Manor.

Visitors sampled dozens of beers from around the world, carrying their schooners to the rooftop observatory, where they enjoyed an idyllic view of the Schuylkill.

The beer, you can only imagine, must've been delicious.

Wagner says the grand prize, awarded to Philadelphia's Bergner & Engel for its Tannhaeuser Beer, "established the United States brewing industry on par - or superior to - that of Europe."

Today, the site of Brewers Hall is a patch of woods, just east of the ball fields at Belmont Plateau. Indeed, only one major building remains from the Centennial: Memorial Hall, which housed the art gallery. (The smaller, now-abandoned Ohio state building, at States Drive and Belmont Avenue, is also standing.)

But 130 years after the exposition, we are left with two beery memories.

One is Pabst Blue Ribbon. Good, ol' PBR gets its name because of the blue ribbons the Milwaukee brewery began tying on bottles after it won first-place for bottled beer at the exposition.

The other is about a mile away from the site of Brewer's Hall, just in front of the Mann Music Center. There, you'll find the Catholic Total Abstinence Fountain.

Two years in the making, the marble fountain features a larger-than-life statue of Moses atop a 16-foot-high rock that spouted water into a 60-foot basin. Among the statues surrounding the fountain is one of Father Theobald Matthew, an Irish temperance crusader who administered an anti-drinking pledge to more than 600,000 Americans in the mid-19th century.

Today, the fountain is dry, crumbling and filled with weeds.

*

Research help from Rich Wagner of Pennsylvania Brewery Historians and "Frank Leslie's Illustrated Historical Register of the Centennial Exposition 1876."

© Copyright 2006 Joe Sixpack