By Diane Euston
Kansas City has a sudsy history full of pre-Prohibition distilleries and breweries that catered to the thirsty patron near and far. Breweries such as George Muehlebach Brewing Company, established in 1868 and J. Rieger & Co., a whiskey and spirits distillery started in 1887 in the West Bottoms wet many whistles.
It’s safe to say it was never hard – even during Prohibition- to get a drink in Kansas City. The West Bottoms on 9th Street from the state line east to Genesee became known as the “Wettest Block in the World.” When the state of Kansas opted to pass a state law prohibiting liquor sales in 1881, this area was flooded with businesses ready to serve the men and women working in the West Bottoms. At one time, 23 out of the 24 businesses along this stretch of road was a saloon or liquor store.
With statistics like this, it shouldn’t be a surprise that businessmen involved in breweries saw the opportunities which existed in Kansas City. Under the guidance of one enterprising man from the other side of the state, a new brewery entered the scene in 1884 and launched a legacy which we can still see portions of today.
Ferd Heim’s Climb to the Top
Trained in his father’s profession of ropemaking in Austria, Ferdinand Heim, known as Ferd, was born in 1830. At 21 years old, he emigrated first to Utica, N.Y. and then to Dubuque, Iowa. By 1851, he had landed softly on his feet in St. Louis, Mo.
At the time, over half of the population of St. Louis was of German descent. And, these German immigrants came with German taste and style. By the middle of the 19th century, lager beer became extremely popular across the country, and St. Louis had plenty of Germans who were willing to brew it. Within short order, St. Louis was the home of several breweries, including what we now know as Anheuser-Busch, established in 1852.
Ferd Heim didn’t immediately abandon his rope-making skills for the suds. He and his younger brother, Michael (b. 1839) first got involved in the dairy and cattle business. Like so many newly-arrived immigrants, the Heim brothers were willing to roll the dice on pretty much any industry.
In 1857, Ferd started a small brewery in Manchester, Mo. that operated for a few years under his younger brother, Michael’s management. In 1862, Ferd operated a well-known tavern on the main road between St. Louis, Mo. and Belleville, Ill. Several years into the operation, Ferd began making his own lager beer for his patrons. Its popularity inspired him to take one last shot at the brewery business.
Ferd bought out partial ownership of Sieman & Krug Brewery in East St. Louis, Ill. In 1870, the entire ownership of the brewery shifted to Ferd and Michael Heim and became known as F. Heim & Brother.
The Familial Ties in Brewing
Ferd and his wife, Elizabeth and his four children, Mary (b. 1852), Joseph James “J.J.” (b. 1860), Ferd, Jr. (b. 1862) and Michael (b. 1865) relocated to East St. Louis, Ill. as the brewery became larger and more successful. In its first months of operation, the brewery put out 2,653 barrels of lager beer; one year later, F. Heim & Brother produced 5,824 barrels.
It was all hands on deck for this operation, and oldest son J.J. Heim began working in the beer business at 12 years old. He was taught every aspect of the brewery business while his father, Ferd kept a close eye on his protége at their one-acre property in East St. Louis.
In 1881, brothers Ferd and Michael opted to change the name of their operation to Heim Brewing Co. where they had grown to include a steam brewing plant. In fact, the original steam engine was once proudly displayed in Kansas City’s Heim plant years later.
Tragedy struck the family in 1883 when Ferd’s brother, Michael passed away at 44 years old. He left a wife and two boys named Ferdinand and George. Even though J.J. was only 23 years old at the time, he was able to step into his uncle’s role and help his father continue the operations of the East St. Louis plant.
He must have been pretty successful because in 1889, Heim Brewery merged with St. Louis Brewery Association for a hefty payout of $385,000.
It was Ferd’s desire to ensure that his sons were set up with a successful business venture they could operate independently. In 1884, a visit to Kansas City inspired Ferd to invest in his sons’ futures on this side of the state.
Relying upon his oldest son, J.J.’s experience in the beer business, Ferd Heim bought the Kumpf Brewery at 14th and Main St. and changed its name to Ferd Heim Brewing Co. The daily operations fell to J.J. as his two younger brothers, Ferd, Jr. and Michael finished school.
In the first year of operation in Kansas City, the company made 12,000 barrels of beer. By 1900, they produced over 130,000 barrels of beer, had 250 employees and had grown to be the largest brewery west of St. Louis. The brewery outgrew their location on Main St., so in 1887, the Heims began construction of a brand new facility in the East Bottoms on Guinotte Ave.
Ferd, Sr. kept abreast of the new business venture in Kansas City but spent a great deal of time in California. In 1895, Ferd, Sr. passed away at the age of 65 while visiting friends in East St. Louis. He was described as “a self-made man, remarkably energetic and industrious, strictly honorable in all his dealings, and possessed of the highest qualifications, both executive and advisory.”
His estate at the time of his death included 250 shares (25%) of Ferd Heim Brewing Co. stock in Kansas City valued at $1000 per share, and 997 shares of Heim Brewing of East St. Louis stock valued at $100 per share.
Mixing Family in Business
It’s always a risk to go into business with family, and the Heims were no exception. When Ferd, Sr. passed away in 1895, his brother’s two children came forward and said they were never given their share of the estate when their father, Michael died in 1883.
The two nephews, aptly named Ferd and Michael, claimed that their mother was “absolutely ignorant of business methods” and didn’t question anything when her husband’s estate was never properly probated. They claimed their uncle sent them away in 1890 to live on a ranch in Nevada hundreds of miles away from civilization so they “would be killed by the Indians or die of want or neglect.”
Interestingly, his nephews would have been 21 and 17 years old when allegedly “sent away,” but the courts certainly did listen to the accusations made. Headlines briefly surfaced of the scandal but quickly disappeared, likely due to a settlement out of court.
The two nephews of Ferd, Sr. worked with their cousins for a short time at the expanded Heim operation in the East Bottoms until California called for them. Both lived the rest of their lives quite comfortably in Los Angeles and continued their own involvement in brewing out west.
Meanwhile, the three Heim brothers in Kansas City built more than just an empire in beer.
John Joseph Heim: The Moneymaker
Some of the most impressive legacies left behind by the Heims are three exceptionally well-preserved brick Victorian homes. The brothers must have gotten along, because they all chose to build homes on Benton Blvd.
At the age of 26, J.J. Heim married Hettie Henze, a well-connected young lady from St. Louis. The couple had a daughter named Gertrude who they sent to Europe to study music and languages.
Serving as president of the Heim operations, the company at one time grew to include three different breweries in Kansas City: Rochester, the Imperial and the original Heim Brewery in the East Bottoms.
In 1889, J.J. purchased a lot in the northeast at 300 Benton Blvd. and built a Queen Anne home. Just shy of 5000 square feet, the brick mansion sat on a corner lot with an impressive view of Concourse Park.
In 1923, J.J. Heim sold his mansion. Two years later, it was being used as a nursing home. A woman named Nettie Eddy operated the Nettie Eddy Sanitarium there, focusing on “chronic, nervous and mild mental cases.”
J.J. Heim passed away in 1927. He had expanded his business interests well beyond the brewing industry that the brothers had smartly divested themselves of prior to Prohibition. He was involved in several railway operations, a telephone company and a construction company. His estate was worth over one million dollars.
Ferd Heim, Jr.: The Saver
Ferd Heim, Jr. arrived in Kansas City in 1891 after he completed his studies at Irving Park Military School in Chicago. At the age of 19, Ferd served as secretary-treasurer for Heim Brewing. He married Crecentia Auchter and had one daughter named Elizabeth.
In 1894, Ferd bought two lots two doors down from his brother, J.J. on Benton Blvd for $6,700. Not one to be left out, youngest brother Michael purchased the lot adjacent to Ferd’s for $3,300. There on fashionable Benton Blvd., the two brothers built twin mansions side-by-side with a massive carriage house in the rear.
Separating the two homes was a singular driveway leading to a heart-shaped center island with a large fountain.
Unlike his brothers, Ferd stayed in his mansion for 50 years until his death. He had invested heavily in real estate and enjoyed in his retirement growing roses on his property at 324 Benton Blvd. He was also a man of firsts; he was the first $1,000 donation for the Kansas City Museum and the first man in Kansas City to own an automobile with a back seat.
He was cautious with his money, and when he passed away in 1943 with an estate valued around one million dollars, he must have recalled the unfortunate lawsuit his cousins filed against his father’s estate just shy of 50 years earlier. His will clearly stated to give one dollar “to any relative which may have a claim” against his estate.
Michael Heim: The Spender
The most eccentric of the brothers was the youngest, Michael. Born in 1865, Michael was sent to Poughkeepsie Military Academy in New York before he arrived to take up his position as secretary of Heim Brewing in 1892.
Michael married Olympia Droz and had three children named Mabel, Joseph and Michael, Jr. He was said to be quite generous with his family and delighted in any occasion to have a party.
In 1899, the brothers wanted to draw patrons to the East Bottoms to their brewery, and they invested $96,000 to build their own streetcar line from the City Market to their front door – but no one showed up. It was the creativity of Michael that led to a success that no one could have predicted.
Michael had spent time at Coney Island in New York where the first enclosed amusement park had opened in 1895. It may have taken some convincing, but Michael was up to the task. If no one would use their electric streetcar line to come to the brewery to sample their suds, then they needed to give them another reason to visit.
In the Spring of 1900 under the direction of Michael Heim, Kansas City’s first amusement park was opened just north of Heim Brewery. It featured an open theater with seating for 2500 people, a German village and, of course, a beer garden that pumped Heim beer directly from the brewery.
It was an instant success. Around 20,000 people a day flooded into Electric Park. They added new attractions every year, building up their small acreage to include a ferris wheel, a roller coaster, a Japanese tea garden, an alligator farm and a dancing pavilion. At night, the park was lit up with thousands of lights.
In 1906, the Heims, under the direction of Michael, invested in land at 47th and The Paseo so they could build a bigger and more impressive Electric Park. Unfortunately, the main mission of selling Heim products wouldn’t continue at their new location; the city refused to give them a liquor license when neighbors in the area rejected the idea.
Regardless, Michael Heim took Electric Park under his wing as his brothers turned their interests elsewhere. He was so devoted to the park that he sold his impressive Heim mansion at 328 Benton Blvd. in 1919 and lived in a home overlooking the second Electric Park. In 1931, the three-story home on Benton Blvd. was donated to be a “convent house” for Assumption Church across the street from it.
The glory days of Electric Park included the park’s manager, Michael Heim. In his later years, Michael invested in Florida real estate and would spend winters there. A fire in the 1920s destroyed part of the park, and a second fire in 1934 closed the park forever. Ironically, this was the same year that Michael Heim passed away at his Florida home.
Michael used to joke about their family’s flow of money. “J.J. makes [money], Ferd saves it, and I spend it,” he laughed.
The Legacy of Heim
It’s quite rare to have more than one structure associated with one family still standing from over 100 years ago, especially in Kansas City. The Heims, however, have several remnants remaining of their electrifying past.
All three of the Heim mansions on Benton Blvd. have been carefully preserved and are privately owned. On Oct. 15, the Northeast Kansas City Historical Society (NEKCHS) will host a homes tour which will feature Michael Heim’s residence.
In the East Bottoms, the large brewery has long been leveled, but the Heim Bottling Plant, built in 1901, still stands. At one time, 100,000 bottles of Heim beer were bottled in the facility. Today, the building has been carefully preserved by J. Rieger & Co., a pre-Prohibition distillery that reopened their doors in 2014 and began extensive renovations of the Heim bottling plant in 2018.
Just last year, J. Rieger brought back a little bit of Electric Park to the East Bottoms when they opened the Electric Park Garden Bar adjacent to their building at 2700 Guinotte Ave. Complete with fire pits, a swing set table, and lounge seating, this park-like space pays homage to the Heim’s playful past.
These different spaces that still exist of the Heim family remind us that the past can be preserved and repurposed. Heim descendants may not still live in Kansas City, but pieces of the legacy they left behind can be celebrated and cherished even today.
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to http://www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com.