That Harvard Brewery building stares at you, like it has a secret.
Because it does.
When you pull in to park at Lowell’s Target, those twelve little windows peer forward, each covered with corrugated sheet metal that’s been painted the color of pistachio ice cream. (Why?)
That Harvard Brewery building has ghosts like anything that has survived so long in Lowell.
In 1893, the Harvard Brewing Company began operations just off Lowell’s Plain Street. Its main building stood roughly where Target is now. More buildings lined Payton Street, which runs behind the shopping center housing Target. Today, just a few buildings remain–the building housing Bob’s Discount Furniture and the ghostly brick building with the pistachio-ice-cream windows.
The Harvard Brewery Years: Sometimes Turbulent, Never Quiet
In 1925, that entire site just off Plain Street witnessed one of the largest Prohibition raids in New England history. At a time when federal law prohibited the making, selling, importation, and transportation of alcohol, authorities were closing a months-long investigation when they arrived at the Harvard Brewing Company on August 19, 1925.
The Harvard Brewing Company had fallen on hard times after Prohibition went into effect in 1920. The brewery’s plans to succeed during Prohibition by selling colas, ginger ale, and near-beer weren’t working, and the company found itself eating into its assets to pay its bills. Failure loomed on the horizon.
Executives added the beer back into its near-beer. The money came back. Prohibition agents weren’t far behind.
Prohibition agents traced back the brewery’s illegal beer from as far away as New Jersey. On August 19, 1925, they sped into brewery’s site off Plain Street, ready to seize all illegal alcohol, the brewery’s equipment, and arrest the brewery’s personnel.
Trouble was … when they arrived, the doors were locked. They had to bust them down while they heard the workers inside breaking apart the barrels of beer. Stories abound that tell of workers rolling the barrels out a back door and into the River Meadow Brook, which still runs along the Lowell Connector today.
The doors finally came down, and five inches of beer poured out over the steps and onto the agents struggling to climb into the building. The workers escaped. Nearly 500 barrels of beer didn’t. The agents had hit the mother-load.
A mile away, across from Edson Cemetery on Cosgrove Street, agents closed in on a box truck, offloading booze to rum-runners in waiting ‘touring cars,’ which sped off ‘in every direction’ when they caught sight of authorities.
Police picked one of the cars, chasing it almost into neighboring Chelmsford before it crashed in a ditch. Its occupants leapt out and escaped on foot.
Prohibition Raid Seizes More Than 100,000 Gallons of Illegal Beer
In the end, the government seized more than 100,000 gallons of beer. The brewery’s directors and officers faced years of legal troubles. The brewery also lost its chief revenue source.
Without beer, the Harvard Brewery hobbled along, ultimately running out of money to pay its mortgage. It fell under bank ownership, another victim of Prohibition.
Harvard Brewery’s Ill-Fated Later Years
When Prohibition finally got repealed in 1933, the country rejoiced and the taps started flowing. Under a series of changing owners, Harvard Brewery found new life.
Until bad luck again found the brewery.
In 1941, as the US entered World War II, Harvard Brewery was owned by a man named Fritz Von Opel. Von Opel had great business sense. He also had the great misfortune of having a German-sounding name at a time when anti-German sentiments were rife in the US.
Even though Von Opel had been born in Lichtenstein, the World War II-era Enemy Alien Control Program caught up to him.
In 1942, police arrested Von Opel while he was vacationing in Palm Beach, Florida. They accused him of being a ‘potentially dangerous enemy alien.’ Soon after, authorities seized his property, including the Harvard Brewery, under the Alien Property Custodian Act.
Despite fighting for years to get the brewery back–all the way to a review by the US Supreme Court–the government held the brewery through the 40s and deep into the 50s, long after the Germans had surrendered years earlier.
The End of the Harvard Brewing Company
Governments aren’t usually great brewers. Harvard’s popularity plummeted during its years under government control. When the government finally sold the brewery in 1956, Harvard passed under the control of real estate speculators, who promptly sold it to the Hampden Brewing Company of Willimansett, Massachusetts.
By then, though, the largely vacant brewery had been stripped of its equipment. The final nail closing the brewery’s coffin came in 1957 when a fire ripped through the property, destroying most of its buildings. Another fire followed. Most of what was left was razed when the land was cleared for a shopping center in 1963.
Today, driving by, the most prominent reminder of Harvard Brewery’s years on Plain Street is that ghostly brick building and its pistachio-green windows — the last remnant of a bad-luck brewing company with a rich history of fires, prohibition raids, and accused wartime enemy sympathizers.