A Historian At Work: Using Facts to Create "Stories". Part One

Part One --- Part Two--- Part Three --- Part Four --- Part Five

A few weeks ago, I was asked to speak to a class at a nearby university (the students had read my history of American beer as part of their course work). One student asked a good question. I don’t remember now her precise wording but it went something like this:

In the first chapter of the book, you describe Phillip Best hauling his new brewing vat through the streets of Milwaukee. But that scene reads like a story; like fiction rather than fact. How do you know that’s what happened? Why should we believe you?

Again, I’m paraphrasing her question but I'm bringing it up here now because it gets to the heart of what historians do. For those who don’t have a copy of the book at hand (Hey! Whatsa mattah wit you? GET ONE.), the scene she’s referring to takes place in the first few pages of the book. The setting is Milwaukee in 1844 and concerns Phillip Best, the man who founded what eventually became Pabst Brewing Company. He’s a recent emigrant, and he’s trying to find someone to make a brew vat for his family’s new venture.

Late summer, 1844. Milwaukee, Wisconsin Territory. Phillip Best elbowed his way along plank walkways jammed with barrels, boxes, pushcarts, and people. He was headed for the canal, or the “Water Power,” as locals called it, a mile-long millrace powered by a tree-trunk-and-gravel dam on the Milwaukee River. Plank docks punctuated its tumbling flow and small manufactories--a few mills, a handful of smithies and wheelwrights, a tannery or two--lined its length. Best was searching for a particular business as he pushed his way past more carts and crates, and dodged horses pulling wagons along the dirt street and laborers shouldering newly hewn planks and bags of freshly milled grain. He had only been in the United States a few weeks and Milwaukee’s bustle marked a sharp contrast to the drowsy German village where he and his three brothers had worked for their father, Jacob, Sr., a brewer and vintner.

Phillip finally arrived at the shop owned by A. J. Langworthy, metal worker and ironmonger. He presented himself to the proprietor and explained that he needed a boiler--a copper vat--for his family’s new brewing business. Would Langworthy fabricate it for them? The metalworker shook his head. No. “I [am] familiar with their construction,” he explained to Best, “. . . but I [dislike] very much to have the noisy things around, and [I do] not wish to do so.

Eventually Phillip persuaded Langworthy to make the vat, and a few weeks later, he returned, picked up the vat, and took it home:

It’s not clear how Phillip transported his treasure the half mile or so from Langworthy’s shop to the family’s brewhouse. Perhaps his new friend provided delivery. Perhaps Phillip persuaded an idling wagoner to haul the vat on the promise of free beer. Perhaps one or more of his three brothers accompanied him, and they and their burden staggered through Kilbourntown--the German west side of Milwaukee--and up the Chestnut Street hill. But eventually the vat made its way to the Bests’ property--the location of Best and Company and the foundation of their American adventure.

As you can tell, the student asked a good question: I wasn't there (even I'm not that old). So how do I know what happened? Is this fact or fiction? Next time: How historians "construct" the facts of their "stories."