Mansfield’s Grossvater: The Legend, the Beer, the Joke

There is an old joke in Mansfield I need to pass along to a new generation before it floats down the river of time and out of sight forever.

Like many old jokes that originated in former eras of our nation’s culture, it requires a little background in order to fully appreciate the humor.

To get this joke it is important to understand three things:  1) Mansfield was located where it is on the landscape because of its proximity to an abundant water supply; and 2) the city’s population through the years from its inception has had a significant percentage of folks from Germany; and finally, 3) Mansfield rose to prominence in early America as a hub of agriculture by gathering, storing, and distributing Richland County produce: particularly grain.

These three elements comprise the necessary ingredients for the old joke: water supply, Germans, and grain.

These three things also constitute the elements of another great American legacy: beer.

1) The Brewery District

Mansfield’s Brewery District is located on North Diamond Street in the blocks around Temple Court. All of the famous breweries of the city were located within easy shouting distance of that corner; you don’t even have to shout very loud.

There is one other crucial Mansfield historic landmark located in that very same place: it was called The Big Spring. If you had positioned yourself on the forested hillside of North Diamond Street in 1808, you could have heard the soft waterfall of springwater rushing out of the earth.

Today that spot is near where Temple Court intersects North Diamond Street.

When Mansfield was laid out in the wilderness by the founding fathers, they chose a lofty hill with a lovely view, because they wanted it high enough above the Rocky Fork so as to be free from mosquitos. Ordinarily such an elevated site would necessarily be without the benefit of water, which always seeks lower ground; but they chose this particular site because it had an amazing natural artesian well within easy walking distance of the Square, where hundreds of gallons of water poured out of the planet every day; maybe every hour.

For the first decades of Mansfield’s life, the little village was utterly dependent on the Big Spring, and the inexhaustible blessing of fresh springwater. Every person in town drew from the Big Spring for essential needs of cooking, cleaning, drinking.

As soon as there were sufficient alternate sources of water around town, from wells, cisterns and rainspout barrels, The Big Spring was re-appropriated to the other life-giving source of Mansfield: making beer.

2) The Germans

The settlers who filled up the population of Mansfield during the first several decades of its life came from many different places on the globe, but the highest percentage of them originated in Germany. In the 19th century it was well known fact that Germans, in particular of all the European immigrants, had a certain genius for beer.

The Mansfield Germans who ultimately rose to lead the local brewing industry were Martin Frank and Henry Weber, who each came to America from the tiny brewing community of Schillingstadt, Baden; and George Jacob Renner of Dannstadt in Bavaria.

Their beer enterprises went by different names in different decades: the Union Brewery, and the Eagle Brewery in the 1800s; but ultimately, by the 20th century, their companies were known as the M. Frank & Son Brewery on Diamond Street, and the Renner & Weber Co. on Fourth Street.

These breweries faced different directions in downtown, but they both backed up to Temple Court; and the true epicenter of their brewing empire was The Big Spring.

This view of the Renner & Weber Brewery shows the complex from Temple Court, with Fourth Street up on the left side of the image.

Behind this marching band photographed on North Diamond Street can be seen the M. Frank Brewery.

This photo of the Renner & Weber delivery wagon was taken in front of a tavern on Orange Street that proudly displayed beer signs on the front of the building promoting Mansfield’s two principal lager producers: Frank’s and Renner & Weber. 

At its height in the 1930s, Renner & Weber produced 250 barrels of beer a day, 60,000 barrels a year.  The brewery ceased production during WWII due to mechanical shortages, and its huge underground vaulted storage rooms were appropriated as bomb shelters.  The building stood until 1978. (Photo: Eileen Wolford)

3) The Kingdom of Malt

The beer biz is essentially all about grain. Renner & Weber proudly advertised their drinks were the best use of Richland County barley.

Their grain supplies went through a series of wringers in the early decades of the 20th century: first there was a Federal limit placed on grain for the war effort during WWI, when they lost rice, corn and hops; and then Prohibition paralyzed the breweries by outlawing production of anything alcoholic.

During the Prohibition limbo, from 1919 to 1934, Renner & Weber stayed alive by producing various near beers and soft drinks like Bevo, Servo, and Ledo. Known as the “o” drinks in bars and saloons, it stood for “other.”

The day Prohibition ended—they could all tell you the exact date: March 10, 1934—a brass band climbed aboard the new Renner & Weber brewery truck and cruised around downtown all day playing “Ach du Lieber Augustine:” the prototypical German drinking song.

Which brings us back to Germans and beer.

4) The Joke

One of Renner & Weber’s best-selling, most wide-spread beers was called Grossvater.

If you spoke German you knew it means Grandfather.  It was actually a tribute to the old country and the forefathers who started the Webers brewing back in Schillingstadt.

If you didn’t know German it sounded like Gross Water.

Tired of Prohibition, when folks had to had to settle for various forms of non-alcoholic drinks from The Big Spring; all the beer lovers were thrilled to have the real thing back.  They had enough of that sugar water; that flavored water; and that almost-something water; that tea-totaling “nice” water.

As soon as happy days arrived once again, the old men used to love to walk into the saloon; slap their hand on the bar and call out, “Give me some of that Gross Water!”

This Renner & Weber label provides a rare view of the Schillingstadt brewery in Germany where the Webers perfected the craft they brought to Mansfield in the 1800s.  There is a micro brewery in Schillingstadt today that produces a pilsner beer called Dorzbacher.

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