Saturday, January 11, 2014

Fred Schiek Bought “Good Taste” to Minneapolis

 As a boy growing up in an impoverished German town,  Frederick Schiek probably never dreamed that one day he would be hailed in the United States not only for the quality of  cuisine in his Minneapolis restaurant but also for the excellence of design on the labels of the whiskey he bottled and sold.

Schiek was born in 1836 in Sinsheim, Germany, established as a city about 1192.  Throughout history it had been a rather poor town, affected heavily by the wars that raged over its environs from the 16th to the 18th Centuries.  It is not clear how much education Schiek received but as soon as he was able, at age 16 in 1852,  he took a ship to America. As a boy in Germany he likely had been engaged in brewing and upon arriving in New York he engaged in both the brewery and grocery trades.   Shown above as a young man,  Schiek was married in 1857 to Barbara Kehr, like himself an immigrant from Germany.

A year later the couple moved to Iowa, a state with a substantial German population and located in Center Township, Allamakee County.  The area lies along the Mississippi River at Iowa’s extreme northeast.  There Fred, as he became known, purchased 75 acres of land which he farmed until 1862.  Apparently tiring quickly of working the land, in 1862 he and his family moved to nearby Lansing, a Mississippi river town of about 1,000 population.  There he opened a saloon.  After twelve years of success in the liquor trade Schiek expanded his building in 1874, adding a stock of groceries and other provisions.  With business success came other recognition as townspeople elected him to both the Lansing School Board and the City Council.

During this period, the Schieks also were busy raising their family.  They had five children. The eldest was Louis, born in 1861.  Then came four girls,  Carolina, 1863; Mathilda, 1866; Louise, 1873, and Emilie, 1875.  Also living with them was Barbara’s younger brother who worked as a clerk in Schiek’s store.   Then in the late 1870s or early 1880s (dates differ),  Fred pull up stakes in Lansing and relocated his family and business up the river to Minneapolis.


While the reason may have been an ambition to succeed on a larger stage, Iowa’s continual flirtation with Prohibition must have been a contributing factor.  The Hawkeye State started to go “dry” early, passing restrictive laws on alcohol in 1847, just a year after statehood.  Legislators successfully added an amendment to the state constitution in 1882, making all manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages illegal within the state.  The Iowa Supreme Court quickly declared the amendment unconstitutional the following year but other Prohibition legislation quickly followed.


After arriving in Minneapolis, Schiek opened a retail liquor store, with a separate saloon nearby, both located on Washington Street.  There he began to import name brand whiskeys from their distillers in bulk and then bottling them with his personal labels for retail sale.  He also was buying raw whiskey, blending and compounding it in his facilities and producing unique labels for those house brands. The labels of Schiek’s designing, demonstrated an artistic taste unusual in the whiskey trade.

Among the national brands Schiek bottled were “Lotus Club,” “Finch’s Golden Wedding,”  “Gaines’ Hermitage Rye, “ “Gibson’s XXXX,” and “Guckenheimers Pure Rye.”  Principal among his own brands were “Press Club Bouquet Pure Rye,” and “Mount Hosmer Bourbon.”  The latter name was a reference back to Schiek’s life in Iowa.  Mount Hosmer was a bluff at the Mississippi River that looms 450 feet above downtown Lansing.  Fred saw it as an appropriate name for his flagship whiskey.

With the success of his liquor trade,  Schiek moved into the restaurant business. In 1887 he opened an eatery at 45-37 South Third Street, one of the major thoroughfares of Minneapolis.  A photo caught the cafe sign as a well-attended circus parade marched down the avenue.  

Here is a description of Schiek’s restaurant interior from a local publication:  “Sumptuous Victorian interiors sparkled with beveled glass, carved fretwork, intricate tile, and ornate plasterwork.  Dark and moody by design, the fanciful environment enveloped diners while they contemplated an extraordinary dinner menu or an equally long and and diverse list of after-theater and midnight snack offerings.”  There were two entrances to Schiek’s.  One opened onto the main dining room; a side entry was for ladies only.  A shy woman could proceed down a long corridor leading to the rear of the restaurant, thus shielding her from being ogled upon entry.

The elegance of the restaurant is captured in a photograph from archives of the Library of Congress, shown here.  Note the elegant carved bar, the mirrored alcoves and the statuary both behind and on the bar itself.  Moreover, Schiek’s food  was reported to be of exceptional quality.   In short,  this was not a typical Minneapolis saloon.  It was “Schiek’s Cafe,” another example of the German immigrant’s good taste brought to the Twin Cities.

The 1900 U.S. Census found the mastermind of this elegance, now age 63, residing with wife Barbara in a fashionable section of Minneapolis.  Son Louis, still a bachelor, was engaged in the business with with his father and living at home, along with two as-yet unmarried daughters.  Although Schiek’s last name is misspelled on the census form, his occupation is correctly given as “restaurant and liquors.”  He had never ceased to be in the retail whiskey business despite the success of his cafe.


Four years later,  Fred Schiek died in April, 1904, a few days shy of his 68th birthday.  Surrounded by grieving members of his family he was buried in Lakewood Cemetery, Hennepin County, Minnesota.  His son Louis, thoroughly schooled in the family businesses, continued to manage the restaurant and liquor sales after his father’s passing. When National Prohibition put a stop to all alcohol sales Schiek’s establishment became strictly an eatery. The restaurant has continued to this present day although locations and cuisine have changed over the years.


A photograph taken on January 1,1934, features a happy bartender at the Schiek Cafe. The man is serving up steins of beer on the stroke of midnight, the moment that the repeal of Prohibition became official.  It had been 14 years between drinks. Fred Schiek, a man who brought style and “good taste” to Minneapolis, would have savored the deliciousness of this historic moment.

















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