The Rise and Fall of M. Vassar and Co.

By Samuel Wagner

Wagner1

Vassar College Libraries Archives and Special Collections. M. Vassar & Co.’s brewery. Images of Early Vassar [1]

After arriving in New York City and searching the East Coast extensively for places to settle with his family, James Vassar was both surprised as well as relieved to find his future home just up river from where he first entered the United States as an immigrant. In 1796 he returned to the City to greet his wife and four children, and to accompany them on their journey up the Hudson River to the 150 acres of farmland he had purchased in the Wappinger’s Creek Valley.[2] The Vassar Farm, just 3 miles east of what is now Poughkeepsie, appealed to the family in many of the same ways that it had with James and other families of English immigrants; the geography and climate were similar to that of their previous home in Norfolk, England, as were many of the local plants.[3] According to one early historian, “… to the eyes of the English settlers nothing was more pleasing than a score of saplings along the borders of their farm, draped with the spiral vines of the wild hop (humulus lupulus), from whose clustering blossoms they might…distill home-brewed ale.”[4] In addition to finding many of the means to make ale growing freely across their new Hudson Valley home, the Vassar family found that their fellow English settlers too had brought with them a taste for freshly-brewed ale.

In 1801, due to ongoing growth in population of both residents and successful industries, Poughkeepsie was formally incorporated into a village. Later that same year James sold the land he had only just recently purchased so that he could afford to build a proper brewery.[5] James’ brother Thomas Vassar had returned from a successful voyage home to England, bringing with him the one key ale ingredient not found naturally in the Hudson Valley, barley.[6] Purchasing a substantial plot of land from heirs of the Von Kleeck family, Dutch immigrants who were the very first to settle the area, James had his brewery built between what are now Mill and Main Streets in downtown Poughkeepsie.[7] Then, in 1805, an advertisement for the brewery (and of course for the ale it would produce) appeared in a local Republican newspaper, The Political Barometer.[8] With a plentiful supply of hops and barley growing closely on-hand, James’ venture took-off alongside the beginning of an entire century of industrial success for the booming river town.

Matthew Vassar, James’ youngest son, first entered into the story of the Vassar ale-brewing legacy at a time of great misfortune. John Guy, the elder son, responded with haste and enthusiasm to his father’s call for help with the growing family business.[9] Matthew however, just 14 years old at the time, rejected his father’s many career opportunity offerings and convinced his mother to help him run away.[10] Parting with her via a ferry across the Hudson, Matthew is said to have wandered toward what is now the city of Newburgh, where he was lucky enough to convince the owner of a country store to let him have work.[11] Matthew finally returned home, four years older and wiser, after working several jobs: “On the basis of very limited education, he there [Newburgh] laid the foundations of a business ability excelled in efficiency by few men.”[12] However in 1811, shortly after he returned and agreed to take up the position of bookkeeper, his father’s brewery burned to the ground. By the time the flames finally subsided James Vassar had lost an estimated $14,000 from the uninsured factory as well as the life of John Guy, who suffocated in an attempt to save some hops from the smoldering wreckage.[13]

The fire at the first Vassar brewery was one of the biggest in the history of Poughkeepsie, and it marked both an untimely and gruesome end to the successful business career of an enthusiastic English settler. Nevertheless the brightest years of the Vassar brewing legacy, at that point, were still ahead. Matthew Vassar’s proper entrance into the story, just after the fire, marks the true beginning of one of Poughkeepsie’s, and certainly his own, greatest business success stories. The second phase of the Vassar brewing legacy began small, though almost entirely by the hands of James’ sole surviving son. Though he then shared little money and options along with the rest of his family, “…Matthew proved equal to [the] sudden increase of his responsibilities.”[14] Multiple biographical accounts note the passion and diligent effort Matthew displayed as he revived the Vassar ale tradition—brewing small batches in the basement of his brother-in-law’s dye-house factory, only 3 barrels at a time, and hand delivering the ale to local residents.[15]

On July 14th, 1813, Matthew announced that he would be entering partnership with Thomas Purser, a wealthy Englishman who is said to have been particularly fond of the Vassar ale.[16] Though Purser’s stake was sold to two individuals in the mercantile business only two years later, the partnership officially kick-started the firm known as M. Vassar & Company, with a sufficient level of capital investment to open up a formal brewery.[17]

Erected in the summer of 1814, this brewery spanned the distance between modern-day Vassar and Bridge Streets. From this point onward M. Vassar & Co. followed a general trajectory of success. Furthermore, while he and the various business partners who came and went over the years (e.g.. Nathan and Mulford Conklin) nearly saw the business collapse on several occasions, the lessons Matthew had learned in his youth kept M. Vassar & Co.’s afloat long enough for it to prosper. Another early historian noted, “…he overcame all obstacles and at length, when he had been engaged in brewing for about twenty years, a tide of uninterrupted prosperity bore him on to the possession of a large fortune.”[18] The Vassar ale rose to a level of popularity such that in 1836, a new and much larger brewery, the very one that would be the firm’s last, was erected adjacent to Main Street Poughkeepsie on the banks of the Hudson (pictured above).

By the 1830s the population of Poughkeepsie was 6,000 and rising fast.[19] In order to command this growing market, according to President Emeritus of Vassar College John H. Raymond, Matthew knew that the new brewery would need both incredibly high capacity as well as sophisticated production methods to insure an advantage in quality over his competitors. The ale-brewing factory, nicknamed “Eagle,” is said to have produced an average of 50,000 barrels of ale annually, with only 50 men on the job at any given time.[20] Moreover the brewery commanded market share not only with sheer size, but also with a high degree of technological sophistication. Innovations in factory efficiency such as Eagle’s gravity-based transportation mechanism—wherein brewing ingredients traveled from the top floors downward as they made their way through the various brewing processes—enabled M. Vassar & Co. to produce a high quality product at relatively low cost.

What resulted was the successful mass production of consistent, strong, and great tasting ale and porter style beers. During the Eagle brewery’s most successful years (1836-1866), M. Vassar & Co. typically produced two types of ales, a single and a double, in addition to a porter.[21] Within the double category—double referring to the use of twice the normal amount of ingredients—it produced a standard double, amber double, and a pale double. In contrast with standard English ale production methods, the commercial release of each beer produced within these style categories was purposefully timed in harmony with the hop and barley growing season.[22] The firm took the time between April and late August to brew its “highly-hopped” ales (i.e. bitter and higher in generally higher in alcohol content), whereas in autumn it released single ales, porters, and other styles meant for more immediate consumption.[23] By the middle of the 19th century, with the advent of steamboats and the railroad as viable methods of commercial transportation, M. Vassar & Co.’s was able to (and did) ship beer to nearly every state in the U.S. Ultimately, Eagle was able to operate according to the ebb and flow of the local seasonal ingredient availability, while simultaneously producing beer that would last long enough (i.e. have a high enough “hopping rate”) to be stored and transported for long periods of time.[24]

At the height of its success M. Vassar & Co. was an important component of 19th century Poughkeepsie’s flourishing economy. However the firm and its operations at Eagle in particular fell into steady decline after its founder’s connection to the business ended in 1866.[25] Furthermore the overall decline in English ale’s popularity, and rise in that of German lager, suggest that market forces and changing consumer preferences were more heavily involved in leading the Vassar brewing legacy to its operational end. As an early 20th historical account of this trend suggests: “Apart from the fact that lager beer suited the American taste, its popularity was hastened by the arrival after 1848 of large numbers of Germans seeking political freedom in the United States.”[26] While the arrival of sophisticated steam and refrigeration techniques contributed accordingly to improving ale-brewing operations at Eagle, the switch to lager production simply never occurred.[27] Product quality, as well as the physical plant itself, steadily declined until 1899, at which time the brewery was put up for sale.[28] By the time Eagle was finally torn down in 1909 it had been stripped of all valuable machinery and metal fittings, and had even seen use as a cold storage facility and temporary jail.[29]

Despite meeting a rather drawn-out and tragic demise, M. Vassar & Co. thrived along the banks of the Hudson for several decades—supporting the local economy with jobs and the entire U.S. with fresh beer. The humble and bountiful environment in which James Vassar first found opportunity, the very same in which his son Matthew eventually built his own fortune, today exists as one of the few remaining relics of the Vassar ale-brewing legacy. The Hudson River and Vassar College, however, are perhaps the best remaining examples of the relationship between the environment and the prosperity of humanity’s cities. Founded upon the wealth once made from the direct use of the river, the College would not stand today without the existence and exact location of the Hudson. Accordingly, though it no longer appears as the bustling trade highway that it once was, the mighty Hudson remains a beautiful reminder of what made the College, as well as the Vassar ale, possible.

 

Bibliography and Suggested Further Reading:

Booth, David. The art of brewing. London: Baldwin and Cradock, 1829.

Daniels, Elizabeth. Matthew Vassar. Vassar College Encyclopedia, 2004. http://vcencyclopedia.vassar.edu/matthew-vassar/matthew-vassar.html. Accessed: April 7, 2013.

Keller, Allan. Life along the Hudson. Tarrytown: Sleepy Hollow Restorations, Inc., 1985.

Lossing, Benson John, and Matthew Vassar. Vassar College and its founder. New York: C.A. Alvord, 1867.

Raymond, John. Biographical sketch of Matthew Vassar: the founder of Vassar College. Albany: Harvard University Convocation Proceedings, 1868. The Hathi Trust Digital Library online: http://hdl.handle.net/2027/hvd.hn51d6. Accessed April 7, 2013.

Thomann, Gallus. American Beer: glimpses of its history and description of its manufacture. New York: U.S. Brewer’s Assoc., 1909.

Vassar, Matthew-17, Brewery. Biographical File. Vassar College Libraries Archives and Special Collections.

Vassar College Libraries Archives and Special Collections. M. Vassar & Co.’s brewery. Images of Early Vassar.

Weeks, Morris. Beer and brewing in America. New York: United States Brewers Foundation, 1949.

Footnotes:

1 Vassar College Libraries Archives and Special Collections. M. Vassar & Co.’s brewery. Images of Early Vassar.

2 Raymond, John. Biographical sketch of Matthew Vassar: the founder of Vassar College. Albany: Harvard University Convocation Proceedings, 1868. p.109

3 Lossing, Benson John, and Matthew Vassar. Vassar College and its founder. New York: C.A. Alvord, 1867. p.18

4 Lossing and Vassar. Vassar College and its founder, 18.

5 Ibid., p.20

6 Ibid., p.19

7 Ibid., p.20

8 Vassar, Matthew-17, Brewery. Biographical File. Vassar College Libraries Archives and Special Collections.

9 Lossing and Vassar. Vassar College and its founder, 23.

10 Lossing and Vassar, Vassar College and its founder, 24.

11 Ibid., p.24

12 Ibid.

13 Vassar College Libraries Archives and Special Collections.

14 Raymond, Biographical sketch of Matthew Vassar: the founder of Vassar College, 110.

15 Lossing and Vassar, Vassar College and its founder, 33; Raymond, Biographical sketch of Matthew Vassar: the founder of Vassar College, 110.

16 College Libraries Archives and Special Collections.

17 Lossing and Vassar, Vassar College and its founder. 33; Raymond, Biographical sketch of Matthew Vassar: the founder of Vassar College, 110. 

18 Ibid., p.34

19 Vassar College Libraries Archives and Special Collections.

20 Vassar, Matthew-17, Brewery. Biographical File. Vassar College Libraries Archives and Special Collections.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

24 Vassar College Libraries Archives and Special Collections.

25 Raymond, Biographical sketch of Matthew Vassar: the founder of Vassar College, 111.

26 Weeks, Morris. Beer and brewing in America. New York: United States Brewers Foundation, 1949. p.22.

27 Vassar College Libraries Archives and Special Collections.

28 Ibid.

29 Ibid.

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