Editor’s Note: Joe Russo is a “Nortsider”, a retired teacher, and an aspiring writer. We’ve asked him to share his stories of the past and offer his perspective on the present and future of our neighborhood. His posts will appear each month under the category, “Old Times on the Northside”.
Growing up on the Northside I really didn’t know anything about the cultural or economic significance of brewing beer. But I did know that King Gambrinus or his ancestors were making beer on Butternut Street. A larger than life statue of the good king protruded from the outer wall of the Haberle Brewing Company. I often walked by the brewery on Butternut Street. It seemed whether I was on my way to the White Branch Library or the Modern Bakery for a slice of tomato pie I passed under the outstretched arm of King Gambrinus. He was holding a frothy overflowing mug of beer as if proposing a toast. “Have a good day at school” or “enjoy that tomato pie” he might have said.
Beer to me represents a friendly part of our culture. A long necked brown bottle dripping with frosty sweat reminds me of a hot summer’s day. It went well with burgers and sausage on the grill. Every backyard had a metal tub filled with beer, soda and ice. My parents only approved of my drinking a soda but I longed for the time when I’d be old enough to drink legally. I also wondered if one of my relatives might help me achieve this rite of passage before the age of eighteen. Would it be my Dad, my uncle Sammy or my uncle Harold? He was German and knew more about beer than anybody.
Of course I carried on this conversation with my friends Artie Francheschini and Frankie Garafalo. While walking down Butternut Street one very hot summer day the three of us stopped at the Haberle Brewing building. The doors were open to cool down the workers and the building. This was an era before the air conditioned work place. We were fascinated by the hustle and bustle of the workers. It was a noisy work place were one had to shout to be heard even if the other person was close. As I look back through the eye of my youth it was like a scene from the old Charlie Chaplin movie Modern Times . Men in sweaty sleeveless undershirts moved in quick herky-jerky motions. They were lifting, pushing and yelling out commands above the noise.
The process that interested us most was the bottling assembly line. Brown glass bottles moved along a track lined with steel rollers. Empty bottles went through a series of start-stop movements first to be filled with the brew of the day then to have the bottle cap pressed tight. Once filled and capped the bottles moved to the end of the assembly line where they were loaded into thick cardboard cases. All the workers had to work quickly to keep up with the pace of the machine. Artie noticed that many of the men were struggling with the heat and the fast pace of the work. One thing all three of us noticed was how the line of beer filled bottles curved close to the open door where we were standing. Several times one of the work men would warn us to stand back away from the door.
It occurred to Frankie first, “Hey, we can just grab a bottle, run fast and they’ll never catch us.” Artie and I just laughed. The workmen looked at us suspiciously. We stepped away from the door and huddled up to concoct a plan. Timing our move was the biggest challenge. The assembly line had a start-stop rhythm. We had to time our run to get to the line just as it stopped then snatch a bottle and run. Empowered by the thrill of getting away with something we waited for the closest workman to turn his back toward us. Then in Keystone Cops fashion we tripped and stumbled over each other while lunging for the beer.
Our timing was off, the assembling line was still moving when we got there. I couldn’t get my bottle out of the chute, neither could Artie or Frankie. The brewery workers were faster than we thought. The burly sweaty guys just picked us up and escorted us out the door. “If we ever see you guys here again were calling the cops.” said one of the workers. “Oh no”, I thought, “my Uncle Harold is a cop. I hope he doesn’t find out.” We rolled around laughing at each other for a long time before we moved on to the next foolish idea.