It looms over Milwaukee's near West Side skyline, but how much do we really know about Miller Brewery, apart from the taste of its beer and its current ownership? To learn more about its history, why not go right to the source?
In this case, that's Tim John, great-grandson of Miller founder Frederick J. Miller, who has written "The Miller Beer Barons: The Frederick J. Miller Family and Its Brewery," a paperback published this month by Oregon, Wis.-based Badger Books.
One of nine children, John is the oldest son of the late Harry "Buddy" John, who was the last member of the Miller clan to take charge of the family business.
"I wrote 'The Miller Beer Barons' because I had found a substantial representation of documentation in my father's collection that derived from the brewery, my ancestors' accountants, inter-family lawsuits and personal correspondence," says John. "Lawsuits, though painful to endure, are a wonderful source of historical data. My family has been lawsuit happy since the 1920s."
He also did research in newspaper archives, the Miller archives and in other places to complete the more than 400-page book.
John says that Miller family lore was hard to come by when he was growing up and much of what he heard was suspect because of his father's stormy relationship with the family and its big-name business.
"My father ... who served a one-year term as its president, discussed precious little regarding our family history while I was growing up. He had such bad experiences concerning the brewery that he nearly turned completely away from it. He had been nearly unanimously voted out as president by his relatives, leaving him bitter toward them and the brewery.
"I don't remember him drinking a Miller product, of the few times I ever saw him consume beer. The only comment that I clearly remember him making without my prompting occurred while we were driving over the Wisconsin Avenue Viaduct and he pointed to Miller Brewery, stating solemnly, 'Your great-grandfather started that brewery.' It was my persistent questioning that ultimately drew some information from him."
The only way for him to get to the bottom of the story and satisfy his curiosity was to dig into history and the result is this book. But did he find what he was looking for?
"I was confident that many of the stories that I had heard from my father and his cousins were only partly true, so I set out to discover what were the facts. Interestingly, my father's own collection discredited many of his stories. My research turned up lots of surprises because my father had preached to us children a history of perfection dating back generations. Upon his death in 1992, I gained access to a treasure trove of historical papers that he had collected, spanning three generations. ... Ironically the papers that he had saved for over half a century showed internecine squabbles, alcoholics, womanizers and yet all of my ancestors were wonderful people trying to make a living for themselves in a different era."
More than just the history of a business, John says that "The Miller Beer Barons" is the story of a family and the way it reacted to and lived with its success in a new country.
"A reader will have an idea of what a prominent and wealthy Milwaukee family earned, spent, did with their leisure time and how they handled family problems," he says. "Most wealthy families are determined to keep this information private, which only drives the curiosity of the rest of society. Without disturbing the lives of current Miller descendants, I told the story of the Miller family to enlighten myself, my relatives and interested readers."
More than a century later, the brewery is still making a living for a lot of people -- although the Miller family sold its stake in the company by 1970. What explains how Miller has thrived even as all of its German brewing competitors have folded?
"Early in its existence," says John, "Miller Brewery was small enough to pass under the radar of the tough competition from the industry giants such as Schlitz and Pabst. From the 1950s forward, it was big enough to overcome market changes and lucky enough to develop Miller Lite, which propelled it into the elite group of America's brewers. It is difficult to find other reasons for Miller's ultimate success because all of the local large brewers had smart leaders, sufficient capitalization and access to all of the substantial benefits that Milwaukee offered to its brewing industry."
In the end, perhaps it's the beer. Although John is certainly not an unbiased judge, he reaches for a Miller product when he's thirsty, he says.
"Without a doubt, Miller High Life is the world's tastiest beer. A bottle will help the reader understand the brewing complexities. It has been a solid brand over the 100 years since its roll out. Additionally, it is the only surviving brand from the era of the Miller family's control of the company. It was developed by my great uncles Ernest and Frederick A. Miller."
Tim Jon will appear at Schwartz Bookshop in Brookfield at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 29.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.