Then and now: Uncovering Duluth’s storied People’s Brewing Co.

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People’s Brewing Company operated in Duluth from 1908–1957 (this photo was taken sometime between 1934–1937) // Image Detail, Archives and Special Collections, Kathryn A. Martin Library, University of Minnesota Duluth

People’s Brewing Company of Duluth was ahead of its time. Founded on socialist principles in 1907 by Martin Smith, F.G. Sandstedt, and Michael J. Gleeson, the brewery stood up to big beer long before it was hip to do so.

At that time, Duluth had two other breweries, Fitger’s Brewery (unaffiliated with Fitger’s Brewhouse) and Duluth Brewing and Malting Company, but heavyweights from the Twin Cities and Wisconsin—such as Pabst and Miller—had a strong foothold in the Duluth–Superior market, according to author and beer historian Doug Hoverson.

Hoverson says that People’s Brewing Company was one of a number of breweries around the country in the early 1900s operating on the fringe of socialism. “They were not all necessarily socialist politically, but they were out to try to break the monopoly of big brewers,” Hoverson explains. Producing better beer and getting a cheaper beer supply may have been part of the plan, but the central idea was to control profits—and to keep the resulting revenue local.

Smith, Sandstedt, and Gleeson were all immigrant saloon owners in West Duluth. Ed Gleeson, grandson of Michael (and current co-owner of Carmody Irish Pub), says People’s Brewing was a politically motivated business. Michael Gleeson owned what is now the Western Tavern, which Ed says served as an important gathering place. “Workers could speak freely in a saloon without retribution from their bosses. And that seemed to be the only physical place where someone could voice their opinions,” he says.

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A brewery worker mans the bottling line at People’s Brewing Company in 1937 // Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections, Kathryn A. Martin Library, University of Minnesota Duluth

Duluth had been a hotbed for labor organizing for 25 or so years before the opening of People’s Brewing Company. The book “By the Ore Docks: A Working People’s History of Duluth” depicts the callous resistance organizing workers faced around the time the brewery started. That year, 1907, ore dock workers went on strike in Duluth, precipitating a historic strike of Iron Range steelworkers that would temporarily shut down the Mesabi Range mines. Eventually, hired thugs used intimidation and violence to break the strike.

Corporate bosses were so incensed by increasing union organizing that they got together to formulate a plan to punish workers, says Gleeson. They went to Fitger’s and demanded the brewery stop selling beer west of Lake Avenue, where the majority of the organizing was occurring and most of the saloons where operating. Gleeson says this discriminatory practice provided additional impetus for the establishment of People’s Brewing.

It’s not entirely clear where three immigrant tavern owners got the capital to fund such an ambitious project. Gleeson says he can’t pinpoint the funding, but he’s certain labor money was involved. Hoverson confirms that it wasn’t entirely unusual for breweries to start up this way. They would get subscriptions from area saloons and sell shares of the brewery to labor groups. He likens it to a “labor-based Kickstarter campaign.” It was an innovative, crowd-sourced method of obtaining crucial starting capital.

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