‘Bock Beer Day’, 1870s-’80s

“Today is Bock Beer Day, and the boys will all imbibe freely of the foaming extract of hops,” the Illinois State Journal predicted the morning of May 1, 1882.

Arnold Ammann (1845-86) sold bock and other Cincinnati beer at his saloon until about 1884 (Courtesy State Journal-Register)

It didn’t always end happily for “the boys.”

Bock beer is a dark, strong lager beer that originated in Germany (the German word “bock” means “goat,” which explains the goat images used on the labels of many bock beers). It can be brewed and drunk year-round, but many breweries offer special springtime bocks.

Breweries seem to have been Springfield’s behind Bock Beer Day, which was observed, mainly in saloons, every May 1 in the 1870s and ‘80s. One of the brewers’ tactics was to send free beer to the Springfield newspapers, which dutifully took notice.

“Bock Beer,” a headline read in 1877.

Messrs. Frank Reisch & Bro., ever mindful of their friends on “Bock Beer Day,” did not “stub their toe” before reaching the Journal business office on yesterday. They will accept thanks for a liberal supply of their delicious beer.

The papers’ coverage of the “holiday” was lighthearted. “Yesterday was bock beer day,” the Journal reported on May 2, 1883, “and was observed by all the old soakers about town.”

Encouraging “soakers” to drink stronger beer than usual had predictable effects. This incident was reported in the May 3, 1877, Journal.

“No one to love, none to caress,” sang Johnny Chess yesterday afternoon, while wrestling with bock beer, and the pathos of the melody (or the beer) affected him to such an extent that he selected Dave Smith as an object, and proceeded to caress him – with a chair. Dave wasn’t loving, but pugilistic, and let Johnny have it between the eyes. Then came the police, and both were given ten hours to shake Springfield mud and bock beer – and they shook.

Bock Beer Day 1878 gave the Illinois State Register’s police reporter even more to work with.

The police courts had plenty of business yesterday, in the way of passing upon drunks, disorderlies and other incidents of bock beer day.

The first to appear on deck was Piggy Payran, the ever notorious, who was arraigned before Stratton, charged with raising old Ned generally. After hearing the evidence the justice fined him $5 and costs, and Piggy failing to put up, was turned over to  Constable George Bridges, to be conveyed to the cooler. Piggy didn’t propose to go with George, because he “didn’t wear blue clothes,” and resisted, whereupon a tussle ensued. Joe Reavely came to the rescue, however, and Piggy will abide in the lock-up for a while. Jim Marshal (“Old Kaintuck”) and Mike Whalen were arraigned before the same magistrate, charged with being drunk and disorderly, and a fine of $8 and costs was imposed on each.

Tom Lany, who at an early hour yesterday morning engaged in a “discussion” with an unknown yokel, called upon Sergeant Reavely for assistance, but was too full to describe his assailant, and no arrest was made. Tom mourns the loss of a goodly portion of his thumb, however, which was bitten off by his antagonist during the argument.

Supervisor Bretz yesterday appeared before Condell and obtained warrants for Mat. Cordeman, Jack Berriman, Frank Cole, Milt North and Frank Richards, all of whom were celebrating bock beer day and engaged in a lively row on East Monroe street. Bretz attempted to quiet the disturbance when he was attacked by the gang, and but for the interference of Oscar Phillips and other members of the Button fire company, would have been severely handled. As it was he received a severe cut across the eye.

Bock Beer Day seems to have petered out in the mid-1880s. But with Prohibition in effect in 1921, the Register found itself nostalgic for the day. The paper’s “In a Lighter Vein” column for May 1 that year included a bit of doggerel.

Bock Beer Day!

Remember the signs which appeared about this time in “Big Mike’s,” “Cooney’s,” “Tom Murray’s” and Johnnie Connors’? Which reminds us that the eighteenth amendment has “got our goat” – our Bock Beer Goat, but cheer up boys –

And gather here
Ye fiends for beer
We cannot set up steins
But bock beer day
Prompts us to say
We’ll set up these few lines.

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society. Learn how to support the Society. 


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