Everything Old Is New Again
The Texas Story Project.
Imagine living in the same city for decades and watching history in the making. Now, picture watching an old rusty factory transform into a bright and shiny multi-use complex. This is the experience of several of my family members as they witnessed the demise and rebirth of a place they worked for over half of a century.
The Pearl in downtown San Antonio, Texas has not always been a tourist attraction filled with restaurants and hotels. In its previous life, it was a local brewery that survived prohibition by bottling soft drinks, and came back stronger once prohibition ended. I sat down with my grandfather, George Miller, Jr., a retired machinist of the Pearl Brewery, to talk about his unique experiences while working at the Pearl Brewery. My grandfather started working on the wash rack on October 15, 1965. He worked in this department for about six months washing the large trucks and 18 wheelers once they arrived back from making deliveries. Then he applied for an opening in the machine shop as an oiler, and worked his way up to an apprenticeship. At the age of 26 he completed a four-year apprenticeship where he learned all the different facets of being a machinist such as operating lathes, mills, and grinders. As he became more experienced, he would fix machines so large a man can stand inside of them as well as making, welding, and installing machine parts to keep the lines running. This was not his first experience at the brewery. My grandpa grew up running around the different factory buildings since his dad, my great-grandfather, was a brewery supervisor. My great-grandfather, George Miller Sr., worked at the Pearl for a total of 51 years. My mother also has childhood memories running around the brewery property, mashing pennies on the railroad, and smelling the hops boil.
My grandfather, George Miller Jr., thought that when the brewery closed in 2001 it would just sit there like, “a big eye-sore.” However, everything changed when a man named Christopher Goldsbury, heir to the Pace Picante fortune, purchased the brewery just as it had been left, old equipment and all. My grandfather never imagined in his wildest dreams that it would become what it is today, but it exceeded his expectations and he describes it as “gorgeous” and “good for the city.” He has so many great memories from working there when it was still an operating brewery, and he continues to make memories at the reinvented brewery with his wonderful wife, Red. The two of them met in the bottle shop where he worked as a machinist and she worked on a bottling line. In fact, Red was one of only four women working at the brewery, and the only female shop steward in the history of the brewery. Red and George both recall that the bottle shop where they met burned down during renovations, but that did not deter the reincarnation of this property. In fact, although most of the original buildings remain, the entire compound has completely changed.
They described how many of the buildings have changed from structures for production to structures for pleasure. The bottle shop which was originally connected to the beer cellars has been renovated to stand alone and has become, “The Bottling Department Food Hall.” What did the cellars become? The majority of cellars were turned into condominiums that still bear the same name. Other cellars on the north-side of the Pearl are now hotels. The massive brew house has been turned into multiple restaurants and is now where the Hotel Emma sits. Where the brewery president and other executives once had offices, people now enjoy meals in the restaurant named Cured. The Stables is now a venue for wedding receptions and other fancy gatherings. However, the stables used to be a rustic and dusty dwelling for the delivery horses. It is a good thing that they did not knock them down once the short-line railroad came into use for transporting beer. Over the years, George recalls them painting the place so many times that he did not think they would be able to save most of the original brick. But with a great amount of effort they were able to save most of the original exteriors. For example, the large smokestacks that read “Texas Pride” are indeed the original bricks, which had to be removed by hand one-by-one, cleaned to not remove the original words, and carefully put back. Texas Pride was originally brewed at the Pearl Brewery. Over the years, the brewery manufactured several recipes sold under various names in order to remain profitable. Again, the business adapted to compete in the growing market.
My grandpa has many fond memories of the brewery. Business was doing quite well and the brand continued to grow. He remembers that it was in 1970, when, for the first time, the brewery sold one million barrels of beer. Pearl also owned Gett’s Brewing company in St. Louis, so combined they sold over a million barrels of beer. This was due to combined sales at the local brewery and their St. Louis location, which operated under the name of Goetz Brewing Company. It was a fun place to work. Co-workers became family and multiple generations often worked together. Pearl was the official beer of The San Antonio Spurs and large company picnics occurred throughout the year. The brewery operated 24 hours a day so employees would work in shifts and maybe share more than one meal a day with their co-workers. It also operated 365 days a year so the executives would try and help out by giving turkeys at Thanksgiving and hams at Christmas to ease the holiday schedule. Not only would they eat together, but they would also drink together. They had a deal in their employment contract to receive beer each month and even had an employee bar. In 1986, because of insurance reasons they had to take that privilege away. As this tradition ended, so did many things which would eventually lead to the demise of the brewery. Pabst took over some production, and the label along with its recipes would eventually be taken over by Miller Brewing Company in Ft. Worth, Texas.
My grandfather worked at Pearl Brewery for a total of 36 years and was one of the last people to leave the property. Most of the people he worked with all got along with each other. In fact, many of them still get together for breakfast on the first Tuesday of each month. They also have an annual family reunion at The Stables. As they age the group gets smaller, but the bond becomes stronger. They recognize how times have changed. People rarely stay with employers for years let alone decades in today’s world, and the current sense of mutual respect and loyalty has truly diminished.
When the brewery closed its doors for the last time in 2001, it was devastating to all the employees who had been working there for more than 30 years. My grandpa was sad but told himself to, “just keep a good attitude and see what happens next.” When the Pearl closed, the employees were able to take signs and memorabilia from the Pearl. Due to my grandpa working there the longest, he was given one of the coolest neon Pearl beer clocks I’ve ever seen. When asked if he had any regrets, he wished he had taken more photographs while he still worked there but it was difficult to remember to take a camera. Now we have our handy camera with us at all times, so I am reminded to capture moments whenever possible. He also has the opportunity to take pictures of The Pearl in its current form every third weekend when he has the privilege to take people on tours and share with them the history and transformations of this landmarks location.
John Douglas Wittenberg III is a Junior at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, TX. He majors in Communication Studies and minors in Visual Communication Design. John hopes to become a photographer and writer for the St. Mary’s University Newspaper, “The Rattler.” He is currently building his experience in communication-related studies--production, film editing, and journalism-- for future internships. In John’s free time he enjoys playing the guitar and drums with his peers.
Posted September 17, 2019