Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Hum a few bars and I'll fake it

For whatever reason, I'm suffering from memories of Bethel Park. Part of the problem, of course, is that I can't remember. But with football season underway, my mind is awash in fight songs. Fight songs that I remember, by the way. For instance:

"On Bethel High,
On to victory.
Drive through your foe,
Show them all your might.
Fight! Fight! Fight!
Wave banners high,
We're all for thee.
Drive right on down the field
To victory!!!!"

And who among the Bobcat alumni can forget:

"Here's to the school of might,
Here's to the school of fight.
Here's to old West Virginia Wesleyan."

Why, I can even remember a couple lines of the West Virginia Wesleyan alma mater. Granted, part of the reason might be that sometime in the 1980s I heard Daffy Duck and a few others belting out the tune. Then, several days later, listening to Karl Haas's "Adventures in Good Music" - how's that for eclectic tastes: Looney Tunes and Karl Haas - I discovered that "Alma Mater of the Mountains" is set to the sextet from Gaetano Donizzetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. Other than Mimi being the heroine of La boheme, a fact I picked up from doing crossword puzzles, the origin of the tune for the Wesleyan alma mater is the extent of my operatic knowledge. Still, I can remember a few lines:

"Alma mater of the mountains,
West Virginia Wesleyan.
At thy magic, mystic fountains,
Noblest dreams of life began."

But for the life of me, I can't remember a single word of Bethel Park Senior High School's alma mater, other than perhaps "Bethel" and "alma mater." Perhaps someone can help me.

Most of the people who fritter away their time reading this stuff probably have seen my e-mail on the subject. But I fancy myself a writer, and boring people is my job. So, back in the days when the Harris clan was still headquartered on Myrna Drive, Grandma was spending a few days with us. One morning, while a few of us were sitting around the kitchen table, Grandma began hurling imprecations at Kaiser Willy. The problem was, Willy got into a war with the United States, and the American not of Germanic descent got upset with the Americans of Germanic descent who insisted on speaking German. This was a problem for Grandma because she had learned her catechism in German, and now, she said, "I can't even remember the Commandments. " While that seemed to explain a lot to us, it upset her.

Then earlier this week, I came across the following article from the Cincinnati Enquirer, which was reprinted in the Plain Dealer. Obviously, the good Germans of Cincinnati had something other than the Commandments on their mind.

City's brewing past bubbles up with new book, tunnel discovery

Cincinnati went from the "Paris of America" to a "cesspool of hell, rot and filth" in the blink of a generation's eye.

The reason for the Queen City's ascent and its decline: Beer made by German-American breweries in Over-the-Rhine.

The city's Parisian image went to hell with the start of World War I and the dawn of Prohibition in 1920.

That change, in the words of Michael D. Morgan's upcoming book, "Over-the-Rhine: When Beer was King,'' helped rob Cincinnati of its image, its soul and its economy.

Shockwaves from that robbery still reverberate today. Over-the-Rhine remains in a 90-year struggle to regain its once exalted status.

"The war demonized everything German in America," Morgan says. That included the German-Americans' beverage of choice: beer.

Prohibition, the so-called "noble experiment" turned nightmare, arrived on the heels of World War I. The era tried and failed to turn America into a nation of teetotalers.

When Prohibition became law, the beer taps went dry. That dried up the lifeblood of Cincinnati's German-American culture. In 1915, that culture had been labeled by evangelist and temperance leader Billy Sunday as a "cesspool of hell, rot and filth."

Masters of intolerance, Prohibition's advocates "took aim at Germans and drinking," Morgan notes. "They attacked them for being anti-American with much of the same anti-immigrant rhetoric that we are hearing today."

Prohibition, Morgan adds, "killed Over-the-Rhine, with a knife right to its heart, the beer industry." Without that foamy brew, the restaurants, beer gardens, music halls and clubhouses of the heavily Germanic neighborhood closed.

Breweries and their support systems, ice houses, architects, builders, carpenters, bottle makers, printers, stone masons, farmers and teamsters, went out of business. Thousands of workers lost their jobs.

The fun went out of Over-the-Rhine. "Cincinnati lost its equivalent of New Orleans' French Quarter," Morgan adds. "And that severely altered the city's image."

Cincinnati's conservative image, "is a recent development," Morgan says. "Before Prohibition, Over-the-Rhine was a fun-loving, progressive place. And, for years, that was Cincinnati's image."

The attorney and Over-the-Rhine historian let out a long sigh. The sound of his sigh echoed in a recently discovered tunnel.

The subterranean space is located 20 feet below street level in what once was Over-the-Rhine's John Kauffman Brewing Co. and will someday soon be the new home of the Christian Moerlein Brewing Co.

The stone- and brick-lined tunnel was uncovered last week for the first time since Prohibition put the Kauffman brewery out of business 90 years ago. "This old tunnel may look as though it just goes from one building's basement to another," Morgan says. The structure connected the defunct firm's brewing facility with its bottling plant.

"When we opened the tunnel, we did not find any gold or old beer recipes or Jimmy Hoffa," Morgan says.

What he did find, however, "was a symbol," a metaphor for hope.

"This tunnel, finally being uncovered, stands for our reclamation of our history and our pride. We have done a poor job of preserving and celebrating our heritage," he adds. "A lot of that is linked to its German-ness."

Over-the-Rhine was once so German that the language in the street, on street signs and in the neighborhood's newspapers was German. English was spoken there - but often as a second language.

German-Americans dominated Cincinnati. They ruled city hall, ran the zoo and the Cincinnati Reds.

In 1890, the city was still basking in the 12-year-old light of a local newspaper's declaration that the Queen City was the "Paris of America." This was when 70 percent of the population had German roots.

That same year, the Cincinnati Reds returned to the National League. The team had been booted from the league after the 1880 season when its owners refused to go along with a ban on selling beer at games. In Cincinnati, beer and baseball were synonymous.

The league came to its senses about beer in time for the 1890 season. The Reds returned to the fold. Beers in hand.

Also in 1890, Over-the-Rhine was home to more than 300 saloons, a dozen breweries and nearly 45,000 people. (Today's population: an estimated 7,000). It had 3,704 buildings. A century later, that number was down to 1,274.

Many of those buildings were related to the neighborhood's most important product: beer.

Cincinnatians brewed 35.7 million gallons of beer in 1890. Most of that beer was made in Over-the-Rhine. Moerlein, the city's largest brewer, made 500,000 barrels.

Kauffman produced 55,000 barrels. And, most of that output was consumed locally.

"Moerlein exported lots of beer to New Orleans and even to South America," Morgan says. "But most of the local breweries' customers were in Cincinnati."

The Queen City was a very thirsty place in 1890. Cincinnati was the seventh-largest brewing town in America. But it led the nation in quaffing.

"The national annual per capita consumption of beer in America back then was 16 gallons," Morgan says. "In Cincinnati, it was 40 gallons for every man, woman and child."

After 1920, the Queen City's thirst could not be legally quenched.

"Prohibition changed everything," Morgan says. "Over-the-Rhine's German culture took a one-two punch and never recovered. The city's major brewers never came back. And neither did the neighborhood."

As he looks around the dry, dark tunnel, Morgan sees a glimmer of hope.

"Prohibition hid this tunnel and our city's history just like the sands of Egypt covered the tombs of the pharaohs," he says.

"Now, with this tunnel being opened and the Moerlein Brewery returning to Over-the-Rhine, we have a chance to reclaim our history and celebrate it once more."

Have a suggestion for Our History? Contact Cliff Radel at or 513-768-8301.

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