A local brewery is celebrating Chicago’s labor history by slapping a reminder on its beer cans.
The Blue Island Beer Co. has added “Massive Political Corruption” to its list of amber ale beers.
The brewery made the announcement on Twitter earlier this week.
New Massive Political Corruption labels are officially here! Huge thank you to Newberry Library for allowing us to use this sketch of a riot in Blue Island during the 1894 Pullman Railroad Strike! We're excited to share this piece of local history with everyone! pic.twitter.com/HnksagR09g— Blue Island Beer Co. (@BlueIslandBC) July 14, 2020
Alan Cromwell, the co-owner of Blue Island Beer Co., says the beer’s inspiration comes from Prohibition — notably the subject of the 2011 three-part documentary series by filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick — not the current social unrest.
The malty, 4.6% amber ale, which is sold in six-packs at the brewery and stores across the city (and on draft at the brewery, 13357 Old Western Ave.), boasts oats and candy syrup among its ingredients.
The can’s artwork takes its inspiration from a Chicago newspaper illustration.
“I think it was a very interesting piece; a very interesting time in history in Chicago and in America,” said Cromwell. “It seemed fitting with some of our other artwork.
“The beer itself, we consider a pre-Prohibition-style amber, which means it’s based on a recipe from before Prohibition, which is kind of where that artwork tied into it. [It’s] really coincidental that, unfortunately, some things have just been kind of ugly lately in history.”
The sketch used on the beer’s label is from a July 3, 1894 Chicago newspaper article titled “Troops to Kill It: Marshal Arnold Overwhelmed by the Blue Island Riot.” The story: Local businesses refused to serve passengers of Pullman’s trains in solidarity with striking workers, while strikers overturned train cars and erected barricades to keep federal troops from entering the Rock Island Rail Yards, according to the Blue Island Historical Society.
The riot was a part of the 1894 Pullman Railroad Strike, where the federal troops were called in to suppress striking workers who took umbrage at their boss, railroad magnate George Pullman, for laying off hundreds of employees and cutting wages for many of the remaining workers while refusing to lower rents in the Pullman neighborhood, where many of his employees lived.National Guardsmen opened fire into a mob, killing 30 people.
The strike was the impetus that led then-President Grover Cleveland to make Labor Day a national holiday.
Union activist Eugene V. Debs often held meetings in Blue Island where Rock Island Railroad workers were in solidarity with Pullman strikers.
“So back in 1893, about a year before the strike, the American economy completely collapsed; it was the worst financial collapse prior to the Great Depression,” said Paul Durica, Newberry Library’s director of exhibitions. “At its height, you had unemployment up around 25%, and this impacted the whole country. But you know Chicago, being such an important center of industry, there were many, many people who lost their jobs and their livelihoods.”
While Cromwell says the timing of the beer launch and the recent social unrest are completely unrelated, Durica believes the sketch for the beer and today’s social justice issues go hand-in-hand.
“ It kind of echoes a lot of the things that we’re kind of grappling within the moment,” said Durica. “It’s great to see the Blue Island Brewing Co. activating that history, to those connections to the Rock Island Railroad, but also the way in which they note their own community’s response to the strike in 1894, and then making use of these historical materials.”