Mary Mueller

Vancouver’s first female brewery owner

The Columbia Brewery at the corner of Powell Strert and Wall Street circa 1892. Photo courtesy of City of Vancouver Archives.

The fact that men dominated the early years of brewing in Vancouver should probably come as a surprise to no one.

However, there is one woman who became a notable exception to this generality—Mary Mueller of Columbia Brewery, which set up on Powell Street in 1889—not far from where Parallel 49 is now. As a lone woman in an industry controlled by men, Mary needed to be smart, unafraid, and fiery. She was all three.

Mary was only 20 years old when she immigrated from Germany to the United States, travelling in steerage—the class reserved for only the most impoverished passengers. As a young woman travelling solo, Mary showed courage and resilience in taking such a journey to America. After arriving in the United States, she married Andrew Mueller in Illinois and the pair made their way to Vancouver, where they would end up as co-owners of Columbia Brewery.

Columbia opened in 1889, not far from the impoverished and disreputable area of Tar Flat, located at the eastern border of Vancouver. German immigrant Joseph Kappler was the brewmaster, known in the city both for his beer and his jolly manner.

However, Kappler didn’t run the brewery alone. Mary and Andrew bought the brewery property and building, and, as a single man, Kappler lived there with them. Together, the three of them ran the business — sleeping upstairs and brewing downstairs.

Mary and Andrew were a couple with true affection for one another, as far as we can tell from our research, and stories in local newspapers testify to their closeness. In one case, Andrew wielded a sickle to threaten a man insulting Mary in the brewery.

In another, Andrew ran into the burning brewery to save Mary’s beloved poodle from the flames (the dog was fine, but there was $10,000 damage to the brewery). The papers announced their 25th anniversary in 1905, an event they celebrated at home with their children and friends.   

Just like her husband and business partner, Mary could take care of herself — and others. Just one example took place in July 1901, when Mary was driving the brewery wagon and witnessed a panicked runaway horse dragging a cart behind it with a young man caught in the harness. Mary was able to stop the runaway horse and rescue the boy.

However, Mary’s courage sometimes led her to make rash decisions. In 1891, a popular fish-and-game dealer known as Dutch Bill, came into Columbia Brewery to collect some items he had left behind and an enraged Mary was waiting for him. She’s heard around town that he’d spread some gossip about her, so she was ready to take her revenge.

According to the papers, when he arrived, she “administered a horsewhipping which left an ugly scar across his face, blackened an eye, and left him covered with bruises.” Another report says she “she gave him a severe licking with a whip. She smashed one end of the whip, then continued hitting him with the butt end.” According to Dutch Bill’s court testimony, Kappler held him down for the whipping and “applauded the deed.” Kappler later denied this.

Mary’s trouble in court didn’t end with her assault charges against Dutch Bill. She also became known for skirting the province’s liquor laws. Most breweries were prohibited from selling beer directly to customers on site. However, Columbia regularly broke this law, selling half-gallons of beer for 50 cents at the brewery.

It seems that Mary — who was the customer service side of the business — was often responsible, and her daughter Emma helped her. There are numerous reports of her being in court and appealing through various legal loopholes. These usually didn’t work, but the fines didn’t stop her.   

Running the brewery meant Mary could handle a crisis or two. Intoxication was common at Columbia, and at one point, the brewery sent a bill for $2 to Vancouver City Hall for the cost of
transporting “one load of drunks” home (context indicates these drunks may have been city hall councillors or employees). While I can’t confirm that Mary herself initiated this sassy bill to the mayor, it seems likely.

In another situation, a petty criminal called “Billy the Rat” broke into the brewery with a friend and drank enough of their XXX Porter to lower the 10,000-gallon vat’s level by several inches. He made off (very drunk) with a sack full of beer bottles, which he proceeded to hide in a neighbour’s guest bed before crawling into bed with the neighbour himself. The neighbour and Mary both gave testimony that convicted the unfortunate Billy.

In another case, the crisis was more personal. An employee who Mary had hired herself, fell back into alcoholism and during an evening spent with Mary and the brewmaster Joseph Kappler, gave clear signals he wanted to take his life. Court testimony reveals that Mary became increasingly concerned for Fritz Herzberg, while Kappler brushed off her worries.

Throughout the night she desperately tried to dissuade Herzberg from his intentions, but to no effect. It was she who found his body when he took his life later that night outside the brewery. Keeping warm with a cloak and pipe, she waited outside with him for the police to arrive.

Mary outlived both Kappler and her husband Andrew and, for the last five years of Columbia’s operation, she was in charge. Newspapers referred to her as running a staff of seven, with a “capable directing mind.” Unfortunately, poor infrastructure decisions by city council combined with terrible rainstorms resulted in the brewery being flooded multiple times. Mary sued the city for damages more than once, but the bureaucratic red tape was thick and prohibitive. She finally gave up and agreed to waive her damage claims so long as the city fixed the culvert near the brewery, which had caused all the problems.

We don’t really know what happened to Mary after the brewery finally shut its doors permanently after 1911. Census records from 1920, show a German woman of her age with possibly matching children living in New York, so it may be that Mary left Vancouver and returned to the port where she initially made landing as an immigrant.

What we do know is she certainly made her mark on the early Vancouver brewing scene and in the city’s early society. Both compassionate and fiery tempered, Mary Mueller was a memorable woman who has unfortunately been lost to history. It’s time we raise a glass to this pioneering woman of Vancouver beer!

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