Bowler’s Brewery, an Amsterdam institution

Harry Fitch Bowler was born in Ipswich, England, in 1854 and at age 4 relocated with his family to T

Harry Fitch Bowler was born in Ipswich, England, in 1854 and at age 4 relocated with his family to Troy, where his father, Henry, operated a brewery. Harry grew up in Troy, then worked for a brewer in Virginia. He relocated to New Haven, Connecticut, where he married a woman originally from Palmyra, Julia Imogene Millard.

Bowler honed his craft in Troy, Hudson and Albany before starting his own brewery in Amsterdam in 1889. The facility used water from the Mohegan Spring on the firm’s property on Carmichael Street in the West End. Two of his brothers operated a brewery in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Bowler expanded his wooden Amsterdam plant in 1894. The facility was destroyed by a fire in 1895 that did $100,000 in damage. He then built a five-story brick structure that opened in 1896.

The Bowlers had two sons, Arthur and Harry, and a daughter, Sarah Bowler Burnham. Bowler’s great grandson, world traveler Phillip Malcolm Bowler of Burlington, Vermont, said he never got the family’s beer-making formulas or any of the money.

Phil Bowler really wishes he had the formula for the long-lasting paint his ancestors used to write “Bowler’s Brewery” on the front of their building on what is now Route 5/West Main Street, a faded sign still visible today.

The New York Central Railroad built a siding adjacent to the brewery in 1905. In 1912 a Bowler’s newspaper ad stated, “For the sake of the health of everyone in your family, take my advice and tell your mother to always have in the house a supply of Amsterdam Brew, bottled lager beer and still ale.”

Julia Bowler died in 1913 at age 60. Harry married an Amsterdam woman, Anna Wood, in 1915. He suffered from heart disease and traveled to Newark, New Jersey, to consult with a heart specialist. Bowler, 63, died in his hotel room in Newark on February 9, 1917 before he had a chance to see the doctor. The wake was held at his 24 Grove St. home. He was buried next to his first wife in her hometown of Palmyra.

Bowler was eulogized as a charitable, community-minded family man, a Democrat, although he never ran for public office. Pictures survive showing him hosting gatherings for employees and customers, with plenty of beer in sight.

Beer-making continued after Bowler’s death but Prohibition became the law in 1920. Beer lovers had a temporary reprieve that February. The federal government decided to let Bowler’s sell beer to those who had a medical prescription for it. The medicinal beer had nearly twice the alcohol content of beer sold before Prohibition.

“Tell the glad tidings to suffering men!” wrote the Recorder newspaper. “The hop hounds are howling in happy hilarity.”

As the Roaring Twenties rolled on, Bowler’s switched to making non-alcoholic beverages, at least much of the time. Buildings, land and equipment of the brewery were sold to the John P. Dugan Company in 1923. The operation was renamed the Amsterdam Cereal Beverage Company. In 1924 federal agents staked out the plant and impounded a truck leaving the property, which appeared to contain real beer.

In 1927 what had been Bowler’s was purchased by a Waterbury, Connecticut, brewer named George Largay. Largay and Leo O’Mella of Fonda resumed beer production in Amsterdam when Prohibition ended in 1933. The firm was then known as Amsterdam Brewing Company. Products produced included Amsterdam Porter and Amsterdam Stout. Beer production ended in the early 1940s.

More information on Harry Bowler is included in Michael Cinquanti’s book, “A Year’s Worth of Amsterdam Birthdays.”

Bob Cudmore is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Anyone with a suggestion for a Focus on History topic may contact him at 346-6657 or [email protected].

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