One of the most powerful senses is that of sound. Sounds surround us, whether we hear them or not, and they have the powerful ability to trigger memories, teach, and turn thoughts. The Morrison County Historical Society’s recent acquisition of the working copper steam whistle from one of the area’s major industries, the Kiewel Brewing Company, adds an important piece to the multiple layers of history available in its vast cultural heritage collections. The whistle, which was used at the brewery located on Seventh Street Northeast in Little Falls, was part of the very fabric of the community. Strong and energetic, its sound symbolized the vibrancy and hard-working spirit that is at the core of Morrison County life.
The copper steam whistle came to the Morrison County Historical Society through Mark Johnson, whose father-in-law, Frederick Francis Pertler, worked at Kiewel as a boiler engineer. According to the donor letter accompanying the whistle, Fred was responsible for maintaining the furnaces and controlling the steam that provided heat for the brewing process. It was this same steam that powered the whistle (Johnson, Mark and Barbara. Letter to the author. 25 October 2017). Fred “rescued” the whistle prior to the brewery’s demolition in 1983 and his son, Eugene, cared for it until it was donated to the museum in 2017.
Fred had a strong connection to Kiewel. He grew up near the brewery, his father worked there until his death in 1938, and he himself was employed by the company for twenty years, from 1937 to 1957. Fred’s father, Henry, died as a result of inhaling poisonous fumes while varnishing a cereal cooker at the brewery. He had been working on spring reconditioning in preparation for the upcoming brewing season. (“Pertler Dies From Fumes.” Little Falls Daily Transcript, 15 February 1938, 1).
The Kiewel Brewing Company got its start almost half a century before Fred’s death, when Jacob Kiewel of Fergus Falls purchased the Little Falls Steam Brewery from Rudolf Koch in 1893. Jacob and his six sons – George, Joseph, Frank, Benjamin, Jacob and Charles – built a highly successful business, expanding and selling product throughout Minnesota and Canada for several decades until the company’s decline in the middle of the twentieth century. The Little Falls brewery was taken over in 1959 by the Grain Belt Brewing Company of Minneapolis. The site closed two years later.
The Kiewel whistle was used to announce important hours in the daily operations of the brewery. It was manufactured by the Buckeye Iron and Brass Works Company of Dayton, Ohio, a brass and iron foundry specializing in brass goods for engine builders and steam fitters. Known for the manufacture of high quality products, Buckeye held many patents related to the industry. Made entirely of copper, the 12½ pound whistle stands about 1½ feet high and is about ½ foot in diameter. In order to produce sound, the whistle would have been connected to a pipe that provided access for the steam.
While the Kiewel Brewing Company has been closed for nearly sixty years, there are many who still remember the whistle’s sound permeating the landscape. Who knows, maybe once again it will sound in Morrison County. Stay tuned!
~ Ann Marie Johnson
This article originally appeared in the Morrison County Historical Society newsletter, Vol. 30, No. 4, 2017.