A bit of American history is hidden among the trees along Interstate 5 in Tumwater, Washington, just south of the capitol city of Olympia. Abandoned buildings – some dating back to 1905 are now simply relics of what used to be a top-selling national beer. If only those buildings could talk, what a story they would tell. Actually, one is still alive and still telling stories! The Schmidt House was the residence of the owners of Olympia Beer and today it’s open for tours and looking as good as ever! Jeff gets a tour from Don Trosper and learns all sorts of interesting trivia, including why Clint Eastwood insisted on drinking Olympia in his movies.
One of the most beautiful stretches of interstate 5 is in a place called Tumwater. It sits half way between Seattle and Portland. You might be more familiar with it’s neighbor – Washington’s Capitol city of Olympia.
This southern end of Puget Sound gets lots of rain. Lots of rain – the stuff comes down buckets. I had to pull over once because I couldn’t see two feet beyond my rain pounded windshield. Good news is that on clear days Tumwater offers a gorgeous view – like driving through an enchanted forest. As the freeway meanders around hills densely covered with tall fir trees, the dome of the Capitol building comes into view, grabbing the attention of everybody behind the wheel. Most folks keep on driving, satisfied with that bit of eye-candy.. What more could there be to see?
Actually — something quite special. Those who drove this route back in the day might turn their head to search for something else tucked into those trees. No, they aren’t looking for the big footed hairy beast that starred in Harry in the Hendersons back in the 80s, or the legendary fellow known as DB Cooper that parachuted from a commercial airplane with a briefcase full of stolen money in the early 1970s (yeah a guy really did that).
What these old timers are looking for is a relic – one that remains from an era that was crucial to putting this wet little city on the international map as well as 20th century pop culture. Yes Tumwater made something – a product that was so good it was a found in homes across the world.
So where is this relic? It sits along the east side of the freeway, just south of where I-5 turns eastward from the Capitol. What is it? A vacant building – a worn, sad looking mid century industrial structure – about four stories high. Its dirty gold color suggests it hasn’t been painted in years and it would never get your attention on its own accord. You’d have to be riding with one of those old timers who’d point it out for you and tell you a story – one quite likely similar to mine…
It was the summer of 1972. I was eleven years old and my family was returning home to Seattle from a vacation on the Oregon coast. It was a beautiful day and those green trees looked exceptionally pretty against the deep blue sky. My Dad suddenly announced that we’d be stopping in Tumwater. We three kids were excited because our butts were sore after sitting in the car for an hour and a half. I remember this place making a great first impression – a park setting along a river with small waterfalls and terrace ponds that looked like glass. We headed toward the golden colored building – it was topped with a gigantic blue sign that seemed to scrape the sky – it read: Olympia Brewing Company.
“Were taking a tour” Dad said. Why he thought three kids would give a rat’s ass about touring a brewery I still can’t figure out. We protested all the way to the entrance then Mom told us we’d get a surprise at the end. Walking among those giant tanks, the place reminded me of Willy Wonka’s factory, sans the chocolate and whimsical host. A pleasant, earthy aroma filled the air – reminding me of the boiled green beans my grandma made. When the tour concluded, Mom and Dad enjoyed a free beer and we kids got root beer – as much as we wanted!
So – Olympia beer impressed me well before I reached legal drinking age. Best of all, it gave me something in common with Clint Eastwood, the most bad assed man in America. The brewery made its way into his heart as well – So much that he insisted that Olympia be the official beer he drank in his movies – He holds a can in Play Misty for Me, Any Which Way but Loose, and Magnum Force to name a few.
I always pictured Olympia beer as something that came out of the mid century – born around the time I was born. ..I never gave a second though to its history. All those years of driving past that big golden building, I assumed that’s when Olympia started brewing beer. Boy was I wrong.
The place has been around since the nineteenth century. Another relic – just down the river proves this. Did I mention I didn’t know this other relic still existed?
Here’s how I found it…
Last summer, I wanted to attend to my high school reunion in Seattle. I waited until the last minute to book an airplane and couldn’t find anything for Donna and I. The only thing available was a flight into Portland, meaning we’d have to rent a car there and make the three hour drive north. This marathon day of travel didn’t sit well with my wife.
“We can stop by the Olympia Brewery.” I suggested. She just rolled her eyes. By the way, her family, while on vacation in that same summer of 1972, also toured the brewery. I went nuts when I discovered this and just loved telling people we met, not during college, but as preteens on a brewery tour. I know, it’s a pretty weak, but bringing up Olympia Beer at this point in my life suddenly created a renewed interest in the place. Apparently the park along those falls was still open – right there in the shadow of the abandoned brewery! I thought it might be fun for Donna and I to visit the place together for the first time.
I jumped on Google.
As I clicked through the pages, I discovered something. – it blew me away and embarrassed me at the same time. The original brick brew house built in 1905 was just down the river! Still standing! How did I miss this? I became fascinated with the place – current photos of the graffiti covered brick taken by flying drones, or intruders taking photos. The tower still loomed high and proud. It was magnificent. I researched on.
The brewery was considered state of the art at its time and boasted its own electric powered ice house. The photos suggested the compound sat tucked away in an area that looked difficult to access. Here’s what surprised me the most – comments from people saying they could see it from the freeway.
How did I miss this all those years?
Now, I was on a mission.
I tried to get a tour of the original brewery, but with no luck. The current owners have placed it strictly off limits. The newer brewery, that gold building where I drank two rest stops worth of root beer, also off limits. Any standing remnants of a place that brewed, stored, or distributed beer was off limits, and just sitting there – decaying! Would I have to settle for peering through chained link fences at a former bustling operation that produce one of the nation’s top beers? Wasn’t there a museum or someplace like that where I learn more, see more?
Thankfully, there was.
Before we go there, I’ll give you a little back story.
Olympia Brewing should be remembered as a great American success story. At a time when Midwest Brewers dominated the national beer market, Olympia took on these giants and won back it’s region, then grew to compete with those big guys at the national and international level. How? First of all, it tasted great. The secret was exclusive to Tumwater – something called an artesian well that delivered super pure water off the nearby Cascade mountains. The motto of Olympia Beer was “It’s the Water” and those wells had plenty of it. But making a good beer was not enough. Somebody had to master the business side. That somebody was a German immigrant by the name of Leopold Schmidt.
Around the same time Leopold built that brick brew house, he built a house for his family within steps of the brew house. It’s a beautiful house on pristine grounds – and it’s still there, and I’m here to tell you it looks great! This is where the Olympia Beer story is kept alive.
Our tour guide was Don Trosper, Public History Manager of the Olympia Tumwater Foundation. Don is related to one of the founders of Tumwater and still lives on property purchased in 1845. We were fortunate to have Don as a guide of the Schmidt House. Inside we saw a well built, yet non-ostentatious home. The Schmidt house is where archives and artifacts are maintained and stored for Olmpia brewery and the Schmidt family. Hisorical talks and other events are held there. People even rent it for weddings and parties. The sturdy foundation is built with stone from nearby Tenino, which also supplied stone for the brew house. The walls of the house are adorned with photos of bustling 19th century Tumwater after Schmidt moved his brewery here from Butte Montana and named it the Capitol Brewing Company. Wait, that’s a different name. I guess everybody called it Olympia beer so Schmidt decided to formally change the name.
Don described a bustling business with happy workers. They were paid top wages so there were no labor issues, and safety rules were strict even by today’s standards. Employees of the brewery made up the city’s volunteer fire department.
The Schmidt family was quite active in the community. They provided educational scholarships and parks.
Life in Tumwater was good because of the Schmidts. And the business kept growing. Their beer was so much in demand their facility barley kept up, so they opened two additional breweries. The future looked rosier and rosier every year.
Until Prohibition, when everything came to a halt. The Schmidts tried making juices, but that proved to be lackluster. They already owned hotels in the northwest, so focused on that business, starting the Westin chain.
After prohibition, Olympia Beer came back bigger than ever. They deemed the old brewhouse inefficient, so built a new, much larger facility just south of the old brew house. They eventually bought out other breweries including Lone Star and Hamms. They became one of the top ten national brewers and by the 1970s the popular beer found it’s way to Hollywood.
Don told us that back in the day, the Schmidts had a tent at a San Diego golf tournament. A young man was peeking around the tent. The family invited him inside and offered him a beer. He was treated so well, he always remembered the family. The young man was Clint Eastwood and because of his loyal friendship with the Schmidts, paid tribute to them by drinking Olympia beer in his movies.
Olympia beer played a starring role in many acclaimed movies – Dustin Hoffman held a can while floating atop his pool in The Graduate, Jack Nicholson tipped a bottle in One Flew over the Cuckoos nest and the Blues Brothers drank $300 dollars worth of the stuff at “Bob’s Country Bunker”
Don lead us downstairs to the archives where we found more treasures. Megan, an intern working on a very special project was preparing paintings that were advertisements for Olympia beer that would go on display at an art show in November. She showed us a few brightly colored, intensely detailed paintings from the 1930s and 1940s – each about as wide as a yardstick and about 18 inches high. They were captivating. They were used as a guide for artists to reproduce the image – most painted directly on 10 by 40 foot billboards. I had no idea how much work went into creating billboards back then. Talk about a slice of advertising history.
The basement was filled with all sorts of memorabilia The Schmidts produced educational records, many of them broadcasted on radio. They also taught locals about electricity by creating displays at local fairs and public events. Typically they demonstrated how advancements in electricity were being used in the brewery.
We had a chance to meet archive curator Karen Johnson in the middle of researching collectables. She explained there is an entire culture of beer collectors and Olympia paraphanalia is in high demand, especially collectables from the pre-prohibition era. She pulled out a brewer handbook from the 18th century. It was amazing to look through this “bible” of brewing from that time – thankfully this German publication was in English!
While down there we saw old bottling machines and wooden kegs dating back to the Capitol brewing days. It was good to see the history of this important brewery is being kept alive.
So what happened to Olympia Beer? In 1983, after a period of flat sales, the family sold to Pabst Brewing. American beer production was heading toward a corporate model of higher production from fewer regional breweries – this also resulted in the higher profits investors wanted. A good thing right? Well depends who you talk to. Several northwest breweries closed down and consolidated – former competitors like Rainier, Lucky Lager, and Henrys became orphans and found a temporary home at the Tumwater facility. Olympia was eventually purchased by Miller. In 2002 South African Brewing or SAB bought Miller and it was they who determined even the Tumwater facility was too small to earn the scaled up profits they wanted, so they closed it in 2003.
The label rights were purchased and today, Olympia beer is brewed at a mega facility owned by Miller/Coors in Irwindale California. It’s still around, but not the same.
I was dying to see that old brew house. Don gave us directions to Tumwater Historical Park located just down the river. He promised that from there, we could look across the river and see it. Off we went! We parked by the riverside and walked down to the banks. Sure enough there it was. The brick tower peeked out beyond overgrown trees and brush. The site made me feel melancholy. How sad that this once-successful businesses that contributed to the community and created so many local jobs was suddenly shut down – not because it wasn’t profitable, but because it wasn’t profitable enough. A shame really
Ah well, I can’t end this story without some upbeat news. Since our visit, Don told me the owners of the brew house are working with the city of Tumwater, who is working out deals with local contractors to seal the roof and preserve he building until the millions of dollars can be raised for its restoration. The hope is to repurpose the buildings into a craft brewing center, museum, or some sort of education facility.
Until then, you should experience what I did. If you should find yourself on Interstate 5 between Seattle and Portland, take the time to visit these parks and see these buildings. They are just off the freeway. Visit our web site for more information including Schmidt house tours and the billboard painting art show that will be running during the entire month of November 2017. That’s savoryroad.com. Thanks for coming along. I’m Jeff Baker.
Tumwater Falls Park – This pretty little place was built by the Schmidt family for the community. It’s currently maintained by the Olympia Tumwater Foundation. It’s in the shadow of the post-Prohibition brewery, the one everybody toured. Bring a sandwich, spread out your blanket and gaze up at the abandoned brewery. Just off the freeway!