“So, which way did you take into town?”
Someone asked me idly. We were both sitting in the food court of some downtown shopping mall. Although I had taken a shower only an hour before, my skin still felt sticky from my long drive—it had taken all morning to travel from Minneapolis to Kansas City.
I didn’t know which highway brought me to this point, just that the speed limit was too slow and there was a speed trap on the edge of the city. Shrugging, I suggested, “The one that goes straight to Minneapolis?” “Oh,” they continued knowingly, “you passed right by Imperial.”
“What’s that?” I posed while my mind plugged-in the variables during the half-second of silence: ‘Imperial Theatre,’ ‘Imperial Hotel,’ ‘Imperial-’… “Brewery,” they finished the phrase, before a confident, “You’d like it.”
It’s a Pretty Thing
Outside the mysterious structure I could tell summer was drawing to a close by the cool breeze whipping hot parking lot dirt into my teeth—or maybe it was the disintegrating building itself blowing apart in front of us. It had been a while since we left the bustling food court and we split off from the main group to see how preserved this defunct brewery was.
Anticipating adding another brewery to my archive, I didn’t say much, but squinted through my sunglasses at the growing building, getting closer, looking bigger and older and more ruined by each step. It sure looked like a brewery; “That probably used to be the delivery carriage house—there’s the wash house—and, yeah, sure looks like a big old brew house on the eastern side.”
“Rough shape though,” I said to myself, squinting at the blue skies on the other side of the pockmarked wall, “But you can’t deny it’s a pretty thing.”
Built for Beer
Imperial Brewery was constructed in 1902 for 200,000 dollars on the outskirts of Kansas City on the banks of Turkey Creek. It was strategically positioned between the stone-houses across the boulevard and the new, busy rail corridor shuttling freight between booming factory districts. There was competition locally, but plenty of breathing room for new brews. KC had a population of 170,000—a number that was jumping every day as the industrial districts attracted southern Blacks and eastern immigrants.
Before Imperial was built, three of the tastiest brewing companies called KC home: Kansas City Brewery, Star Ale and Weiss. On stones laid by the German immigrant Ludwig Breitag, the famous stonemason behind more than 50 houses and churches in Kansas and Missouri, Imperial Brewery took market share, slowly and surely.
Differentiating itself from competition, the Imperial invested in a 20-ton ice machine to the side of its brew house in 1904. Before then, only one other company in the region even had a rudimentary ice machine, and this was cutting edge technology. When the new “refrigeration generator” hit city headlines and boosted the sales of the fledgling booze-works, stock price blasted to $100 per share—an all-time high. By 1907, maps of the complex indicate 2 stock houses, expansive packing and racking areas, a keg wash house (only kegs were available at this time), malt mill, engine and boiler houses and a brand new engine room to power everything.
The output of the brewery at this time was 60,000 barrels annually–impressive.
Expansion and Prohibition
As time went on, the red bricks lining the Imperial Brewery walls expanded ever closer toward the bank of Turkey Creek, a tributary that exploded one day in 1914 after seven inches of rain fell, causing severe flooding throughout the lower floors. Repairs were swiftly coordinated made, not knowing that just four years later the Volstead Act would pass.
The Act describes that, “After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.”
In accordance to the new “dry legislation,” the heavy wooden doors were bolted shut on December 16, 1918 and the building’s mortgage terminated. The expansive rooms with tall ceilings and thick windows, however, were not to remain empty and collecting dust for long.
A flour broker by the name of Otto Bresky acquired the aging brewery shell in 1919, the second such property to be in his possession, and breathed new life it: the life of a flour mill. Here, the brewery becomes two-faced: in conception and design it appeared to be a brewery, but the functionality was unmistakably that of a roller mill. I knew enough about early flour mill layouts and have seen their chute-lined hallways packed with antique gauged rolling equipment, the kind I found inside Minnesota’s “Red River” and “Pillsbury” plants.
Kansas had 89 such other factories when Imperial was converted, all rolling the local “kanred” hard wheat into general-purpose, or “straight flour.” After the 18th Amendment was finally repealed, Imperial Brewery reestablished itself across the city and was eventually sold its brand to the Grieseldieck Brewing Company of Saint Louis, Missouri in 1938.
The mill in between Imperial’s walls operated for 60 years producing “Meadowlands Brand Flour” before closing in the 1980s. It stood, waiting, crumbling, losing whatever it lost until entire walls became piles of rubble.
Now about a third of the complex is demolished, though there is a lot left to be saved yet. Plans for a restaurant have recently come and gone as well, though the people that know the odd story of this strange roadside attraction are eager to see a preservation effort. Count me in.