Oldest standing brewery in Illinois embraces its colorful past
by Katie Arvia
THORNTON, Ill. (January 31, 2019) – If you’re looking for a good drink, a good story, or just a good time, The Well at the Distillery has all the bases covered. Located at 400 E. Margaret Street in neighboring Thornton, The Well sits on the banks of Thorn Creek, on the west side of the forest preserve.
The doors off of Margaret Street open up to The Well’s tasting room, a former grain tower complete with a limestone bar created with stones from the Thornton quarry and overseen by portraits of past owners. To the left is an old body shop, now being used as a special events space. To the right is the original basement of the building, where there’s more seating room, a modest museum, and a staircase leading down to the distillery’s namesake well.
Andrew Howell and his business partner Jake Weiss, who has owned the property for several years, have been hard at work since 2014 restoring the building to its former glory. The Well is the oldest standing brewery in Illinois, dating back to the 1850s. It sits on land originally inhabited by the Potawatomi, led by Chief Shabonna.
Originally from Nebraska, Howell said he searched all over Chicago and even in New Orleans for the perfect location to house the distillery. After coming across the property in a listing posted by Weiss, he knew it would be perfect.
Howell and Weiss partnered up and worked with the Thornton mayor’s office, who put together an incentives package and became strong supporters of the project. The Thornton Historical Society has also supported The Well since its early stages and even provided several artifacts and most of the photographs that are now displayed throughout the bar and sitting areas.
“I would venture to say that this is the most historical building in Thornton, so the fact that we’re not trying to bulldoze it to build a parking lot—we’re actually embracing the history—they’re really excited. And we’re super excited because they’ve been helping us so much,” Howell said. “We wouldn’t have anything up on the walls right now if it weren’t for them.”
When John Bielfeldt obtained the land in 1857, he built the original grain tower and connected living quarters for himself and his family. Bielfeldt tapped into the natural spring located on the property and built the original well to brew his lager beer. He owned and operated the John S. Bielfeldt Brewing company until his death in 1899. Over the course of the building’s 150-year history, the property has seen numerous changes of hand, several natural disasters, and even a few famous mobsters.
“The building endured throughout the years,” Howell said. “There was a fire here, a tornado struck here at one point, but the brewery endured…until Prohibition. That’s what finally sank it.”
In 1920, Prohibition went into full effect across the country, and Bielfeldt’s children sold the property. According to a census, the building was then used as a soda manufacturer in the 1920s, but beer was still being brewed on the property by gangster Al Capone’s agent Joseph Soltis, who would later be labeled Public Enemy Number 9. (It is said that Capone himself frequented the brewery.) Although Soltis’s main territory was in the Back of the Yards in Chicago, the Thornton location was a huge operation for supplying beer in the south suburbs.
“He sort of picked up where legal brewers left off,” Howell said. “There’s an article about agents raiding the place and pouring out hundreds of barrels [of beer].”
After Prohibition ended, new (legal) operations moved into the space, including Thornton Brewing (1933–1936), Illinois Brewing (1937–1940), Frederick’s Brewing (1940–1948), McAvoy Brewing (1948–1950), and White Bear Brewing (1951–1957).
In the 1980s, Ken & Dick’s Restaurant and Bambino’s Hideaway moved into the space. Later, Widow McCleary’s opened on the second floor of the building, where Bielfeldt’s family once lived. Apartments, a body shop, an ice house, a Schweppe’s bottling line, and more were housed on the property at one point. In fact, the building was once known as the Thornton Industrial Complex due to the numerous businesses operating on site. However, when Widow McCleary’s closed its doors, the building went silent.
It sat vacant for over a decade, until Howell and Weiss began renovating the space in 2014. During renovations, the team stumbled across several treasures, including full bottles from past breweries, original postcards signed by Bielfeldt, glass beer signs, and grains between the floorboards.
“During renovations, we found a bunch of full bottles, some of which were up in the attic, and some things were buried in back. I found some stuff when I was digging through a hole in the foundation wall,” Howell said. The historical society donated a few more bottles, as well as keychains, bottle caps, and photographs. Additional artifacts were donated by one of Bielfeldt’s great-grandsons, and the antique furniture was provided by a friend.
Now Howell and Weiss have plans to renovate the second and third floors to eventually include an additional special event space and a family-friendly restaurant. Currently in the process of obtaining permits, Howell plans to install a staircase in the front of the building to access the upstairs.
With help from carpenter Eddy Chacon, who built the bar, tables, and picture frames, Howell hopes to have the upstairs area up and running by the end of 2019. He wants to offer a unique space, different from the typical banquet hall. Several people have already expressed interest in booking the completed space for events.
Aside from ongoing renovations, Howell and Weiss are also working on new labels to rebrand their products after original designs fell through.
“The new brand is going to be Thornton-centric. It’s all about the town, the quarry, the people,” Howell said, who described Thornton as “awesome.”
However, marketing at The Well has been delayed by the government shutdown, due to the temporary closure of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which has prevented Ari Klafter, The Well’s Head Distiller, from obtaining new labels for their products.
“We’ve been working behind the scenes on some stuff, so we can get ready for market, and this has delayed it pretty substantially,” Howell explained. In the meantime, several hundred barrels are being aged and prepared for consumption; The Well creates its own whiskey, rum, and gin.
Not surprisingly, the production area is just as impressive as the rest of the building. Shiny new distilling equipment fills the room and is a stark contrast to the rest of the space. The room also includes barrels for aging.
“It’s not nearly as pretty as the front of house, but it is functional,” Klafter said. “We’ve got some stuff that’s been aging for well over a year.”
A booming business
Despite several setbacks, The Well is quickly becoming an area favorite. Howell said business is booming and, in fact, has been more successful than he originally anticipated. The Well currently offers tours as well as open mic nights on Sundays and trivia on Thursdays.
“We’re starting to get really busy; we’re starting to host special events. Things are trending in the right direction,” Howell said. “Business has doubled since March. Hopefully, we can be one of the best spots around. Where everyone knows about us—locals and tourists alike.”
The Well at the Distillery is located at 400 E. Margaret Street in Thornton, Illinois. More information is available online at thewell1857.com. The Well is open for business Thursday and Sunday from 3:00–10:00pm, and Friday and Saturday from 3:00–12:00am. Tours can be booked online.