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Big Things Brewing on the Riverfront

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Over the years, it’s sheltered craft brewers, shady characters, local and federal authorities, entrepreneurs and artists. What’s ahead for this revitalized downtown landmark? Jim Killam tells the story behind the Prairie Street Brewhouse.

A prime view of the Prairie Street Brewhouse and Marina along the Rock River lit up at night. (photo by C. Tyson Photography)

Throughout its history, the site of a Rockford building now known as Prairie Street Brewhouse has attracted a constant stream of attention from the likes of craft brewers, shady characters, local and federal authorities, entrepreneurs and artists.

More recently, the attention came from a family with a dream. As that dream has taken shape – slowly at first, and now at the speed of a runaway draft wagon – the eyes of the community again turn toward Madison and Prairie Streets. On the banks of the Rock River, largely hidden from street view, stands perhaps Rockford’s worst-kept secret.

The Prairie Street Brewhouse is buzzing. It doesn’t even serve its own food yet, and already this summer the Thursday evening “Dinner on the Dock” averaged 400 people a week; 1,000 showed up on a sweltering July 11 night to hear Miles Nielsen and the Rusted Hearts perform. A banquet facility, which is already hosting more than 75 weddings and 120 events this year, is booked well into 2014. A church even meets here on Sundays.

All of that’s only been a preview. For more than a year now, 50 to 80 workers have daily filled the air with the roar of backhoes, jackhammers, power saws, grinders and more. It would be inaccurate to say that the 156-year-old building is being brought back to life, because it never really died. Still, this project is a radical transformation. By the end of 2013, the five-story, 85,000-square-foot Brewhouse will house the new Rockford Brewing Company and restaurant. Ten apartments will open as they’re finished over the next year. Three of four office suites already are occupied. All of that joins the existing 60-slip marina and banquet facility.

The community is buzzing.

“People can’t wait,” says Diane Koch, who, with husband Loyd, bought the site in 2000, with a vision in mind. “They can’t wait for the microbrewery. They can’t wait for a restaurant.”

Adds the couple’s 31-year-old son, Dustin, a partner in the Brewing Company project: “The thing I hear over and over is, ‘This is exactly what Rockford needed.’”

House Brew

Jonathan Peacock might have said the same thing in 1849. Peacock, a British immigrant and brewer who trained first in his homeland and later in Chicago, paid $200 for a Greek revival home at Prairie and Madison Streets. He launched Peacock Brewery there, grinding malt in a hand-turned coffee grinder, mixing it in a washtub and then delivering the beer to local establishments in a wheelbarrow.

The product quickly gained a regional following. His secret: naturally filtered water from two artesian wells on the property. By 1857, he needed more space, so he built the original brick structure next door. The river proved more than an attractive setting; in the winter, it also provided huge ice blocks that were cut and dragged to the brewery’s cellar for refrigeration during the summer.

Peacock eventually would develop several varieties, including a popular lager called Nikolob, whose marketing slogan became: “You’ll find good cheer in Nikolob, the beer that made Milwaukee jealous.” It represented a friendly thumb of the nose to the giant Joseph Schlitz Brewing Co.

A July 1, 1894, fire heavily damaged the brewery’s contents, including 2,000 bushels of barley. The brick walls remained intact, though, and Peacock rebuilt. He died the next year, at age 75, leaving the business to two of his sons, Edwin and Frank. But both sons would die before the century turned, and in 1899, the family sold the brewery to John V. Petritz.

Dry Runs

Petritz, who had made his money operating hotels and saloons in Montana, invested heavily. He adopted the name Rockford Brewing Company, built the five-story structure that exists today, and by 1909 was producing 75,000 barrels a year. He ran the brewery during the nation’s run-up to Prohibition, running afoul of local laws – including a 1917 ordinance that made Winnebago County officially dry. In one scenario, he shipped beer by freight train to Beloit, Wis., where orders were received and payments collected. Then the beer was quietly sent back to Rockford via passenger train for delivery to local customers. Finally, the authorities caught up with Petritz. Criminal indictments landed him and family members in federal court. They escaped with a $15,000 fine, but the brewery’s license had expired and Petritz didn’t renew it. On May 21, 1919, the company became Rockford Storage Warehouses.

After Prohibition’s repeal in 1933, Petritz’ son, John, reopened Rockford Brewing Company, aging and bottling beer that had been brewed in Chicago. Two other owners would follow, ending with the Rock River Brewing Company, which turned out its last beer in 1939.

For the rest of the 20th century, the Brewhouse hosted a wide variety of business tenants, including Cellusuede Products, which now has the factory next door and uses the original Peacock house as its office.

“I Had a Vision For It.”

Loyd and Diane Koch owned the now-defunct Joe’s Marina next door from 1971 to ‘76. The year they sold it, they moved to a home on the Rock River, north of downtown, but in sight of the Brewhouse, and they’ve lived there ever since. An avid boating family, the Kochs always wished Rockford had more to offer on the river, like a destination.

“You get on the water, you want to go somewhere, do something,” Dustin says. “Not just go up and down, but have a bar or restaurant to go to.”

During pontoon-boat outings, Dustin remembers his parents taking special notice of the Brewhouse every time they’d pass it.

“Everybody would look at it and think, wow, this is such an amazing building,” he says.

Diane adds: “I would always say, I wish somebody would do something with it. I can see a restaurant with a patio out here … I had a vision for it.”

The property had been in the Stormont family since 1945, and for much of that time had been home to their Modern Laundry and Dry Cleaning Company. By the 1990s, owner Jim Stormont was urging the Kochs to buy the place. They always declined, until the day in 2000 when their daughter Megan, having heard enough of those family discussions to know her parents were serious, talked them into it.

So the Kochs bought a treasure; but the treasure, it turns out, was also a mess.

“It was full of stuff,” Diane remembers. “Jimmy was a packrat, and he liked collecting things. Old parts, nuts and bolts. I can’t tell you how many dumpster loads of stuff we hauled out of here.”

“It seemed like every tenant he had was a packrat,” Loyd says. “They had a machine shop on the third floor, of all places. All these big, heavy machines up there. They brought them down that poor old elevator. That stuff was heavy.”

The building still had a few tenants, including a law firm, an antique shop, a woodworker, a furniture refinisher and a photographer. And it had an antiquated heating system, featuring a huge boiler that Diane nicknamed Big Bertha.

“It was my job to take care of Big Bertha during the winter,” she says. “I had to feed her once a week, and check her every day.” (Meaning, Diane added chemicals to keep the furnace clean, and bled the lines to keep the pressure correct.) “We live just up the river, so I’d get up in the morning and get out my binoculars and look. If I saw smoke coming out of the smokestack, I knew Big Bertha was working, so I didn’t have to rush down.”

Their vision for the place included a restaurant, apartments and a marina. They debated which to tackle first.

“Unfortunately, we did the marina first,” Diane says with a chuckle. “We had a couple of really, really bad years with the river being closed [due to high water], so that kind of did us in.”

That experience, in the early 2000s, provided valuable market research.

“Every day, somebody would come down here and ask where the restaurant was,” Loyd says. “We got so tired of hearing that.”

Destination Venue

Meanwhile, another experiment was about to shed light. Diane was friends with Barb Berman, executive director of the Northwestern Illinois Arthritis Foundation. Berman suggested that they use the Brewhouse for a couple of fundraisers, starting with a Roaring ’20s speakeasy party.

“Oh, we had so much fun,” Diane remembers. “We had little boys with their knickers, selling papers. Old-fashioned cars. And you came into a room and had to know the secret password to get in. You came into this big area and that’s where the party was. We told everybody we could get raided, so be prepared. If we get raided, put your beer under the table. We had people who were going to come out in their robes and pretend we were doing a church event.

“So, of course, we got raided. … Everybody put their beer under the table and we were singing Hallelujah.”

The party was a huge hit – so much so that they hosted a few more themed fundraisers over the next couple of years. “But the city said if we were going to do parties, we had to bring it up to code,” Diane says. “So that’s kind of what spurred us into going ahead and doing the rest of the building.”

The banquet room came first, in 2010, in what had been indoor space for the marina. The unique spot, along with the boardwalk outside, quickly became a popular venue for weddings and parties. Every weekend is booked with multiple events, and this summer, the Brewhouse hosted two to three weddings a week, says Events Manager Rachael Pennell.

“People love it,” Diane says. “They love the old building. They love being able to come down and choose their own caterer.” The new restaurant will offer catering, Dustin adds, but people will still have the option to choose their own.

In 2011, the Brewhouse and the original Peacock house next door were added to the National Register of Historic Places. That means the outside look of the buildings can’t be significantly changed, says property manager Chris Manuel, president of CMM & Associates. When windows and doors are restored or replaced, they have to retain the building’s historical integrity.

While that’s presented some challenges, all involved know that the site’s history is a big part of its attraction.

“There are artifacts that we’ve kept – parts of the building that we did not demo, but we’re going to showcase,” Manuel says. “We’re going to do shadowboxes in the hallways, so when people walk around they can see the history of the building and some artifacts that we were able to save.”

To add to those, Diane already has purchased a few antiques: a coffee grinder, a washtub and a wheelbarrow, to showcase Peacock’s original brewing and delivery methods. They’ll also display old newspaper ads for Nikolob.

One prime artifact, the original elevator pulley system, has been crafted into a chandelier by local sculpture artist Jeremy Klonicki. It will grace one of the apartments.

A Brewery Again

Even after the massive remodeling job began, one thing was missing. What’s an old brewery building without a microbrewery? It wasn’t part of the plan, or the budget.

“It just seemed like it really needed the brewery to make it right,” Dustin says. “So we had to figure out how we could add it, after the plans had been finalized. We excavated maybe 2,500 square feet of basement, so that was a big deal.”

With the holding tanks and piping in place, the huge mash tub and kettle were installed this July. The brewery will make and serve at least 14 different kinds of beer, Manuel says.

The restaurant will encompass several parts of the building, including a dockside bar and grill by summer 2014, Dustin says. Once finished, the complex could employ more than 100 people.

Though realizing their vision has taken 13 years, the process has been gratifying for Loyd and Diane, who came to Rockford in the late 1960s. Loyd, a Nebraska native, first worked for Sundstrand and later co-founded the machine tool company Bourn & Koch Inc. Diane, from Iowa, taught at Garrison Elementary School in Rockford.

“Basically, we came to Rockford with nothing – just jobs,” Loyd says. “Rockford’s been really good to us. This is a chance for us to kind of pay back, rather than take off and go somewhere else.”

Diane chuckles as she recounts the massive project. “We’ve had lots of people say, ‘Wouldn’t it have been easier to just tear it down and start over?’ Yes, it would have been.”

That wouldn’t have been the same adventure, though. And, it wouldn’t have fit the Kochs’ vision for bringing something special to the riverfront.

“The whole Madison corridor could just be such a beautiful destination for people, with the trolley, and the boat rides,” Diane says. “It could really be something. You could bring tour buses in, and hit Anderson (Gardens) and Nicholas (Conservatory), and come for lunch here.”

“It’s the kind of thing that people love about going to Chicago or Milwaukee,” Dustin adds. “They have this there. We’re trying to make it right here in Rockford.”

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