William H. Pflaumer, 76; owned Schmidt's brewery

Posted: May 26, 2010

William H. Pflaumer, 76, the last of the local beer barons, died of heart failure on Saturday, May 22, at Pennsylvania Hospital.

Mr. Pflaumer was a quintessential Philadelphia character widely known as "Billy" or, more grandly, "Billy the Beer King."

The final owner of the brewery that produced Schmidt's - Philadelphia's best-known beer - he was sentenced to federal prison in 1983 for evading more than $125,000 in excise taxes.

The Christian Schmidt Brewing Co., between Second and Hancock Streets south of Girard Avenue, was the city's last independent brewery and had been a local institution since 1860. In the years since its closure, the city has become home to numerous craft breweries that have revived the city's long brewing tradition.

After Mr. Pflaumer went to prison in 1986, Schmidt's brands were sold to G. Heileman Brewing Co. of LaCrosse, Wis., in 1987 and the brewery closed.

In January 2000, the vacant brewery complex was sold for $1.8 million to developer Bart Blatstein, and razed.

Today, it is the site of the 28-acre Piazza at Schmidts, a retail, restaurant, and apartment complex.

Beginning in 1959 with $7,000 and one truck, Mr. Pflaumer parlayed the family beer distributorship into a business so large that he was able to build a 227-acre estate in Cape May County known as Beer World, which featured a 28-room mansion with guesthouses, a private swimming pool, a lake, and a golf course.

Besides the brewery, which was the country's ninth-largest in 1980, Mr. Pflaumer and his family controlled a large beer distributorship and a beer trucking company, which allowed him to dominate the industry in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

A 1980 Inquirer series reported that his various enterprises were grossing an estimated $215 million annually.

At the time of his death, Mr. Pflaumer was living in the 1300 block of North Mascher Street, next to the family beer distributorship. The rowhouse block in Fishtown is not far from the site of his former brewery.

A son, Robert, said Mr. Pflaumer's principal residence until recently had been on Fairfax Road off School Lane in Drexel Hill. For more than 20 years, it was storied for its display of Christmas decorations, according to a 1989 Inquirer story.

Mr. Pflaumer's wife, Jeannette, had died in 1988, a day before her 55th birthday, and he had spent most of 1986 and 1987 in prison. But in an interview for that Christmastime story, Mr. Pflaumer said, "People don't care about your petty problems. They enjoy the lights. They want to see the lights."

Mr. Pflaumer grew up in North Philadelphia, where his father, also William, was a beer distributor. Mr. Pflaumer joined the business after graduating from Northeast High School.

In 1976, he bought Schmidt's for $15.9 million.

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board approved the purchase, ruling that Mr. Pflaumer was "of good repute" in giving him a license, even though he had a long history of legal troubles.

"He once illegally accepted $800,000 worth of free beer from a brewer [and] gave bar owners false invoices so that they could skim extra profits and make false tax deductions," an Inquirer series on the LCB reported in 1980.

"He had on his payroll people whose backgrounds included ties to organized crime and records as mob enforcers; one such employee had hit another man in the face - with a hatchet."

The series also reported on federal charges that he had pasted forged Schlitz, Piels, and Schaefer labels on kegs of Ballantine beer in the course of winning the Ballantine distribution business from a rival company.

At the time of the LCB approval, Mr. Pflaumer had two federal misdemeanor convictions for falsely labeling the Ballantine's and for conspiring to evade taxes.

All that was before his 1983 federal sentencing to three years for tax evasion.

Mr. Pflaumer was "a stocky man who prefers work clothes to suits, slicks his dark hair back and habitually wears dark glasses because of a congenital eye defect," The Inquirer reported in 1980.

Besides the brewery, with annual sales of $175 million on production of 3.8 million barrels, the newspaper said, Mr. Pflaumer "owns all stock in K.M.A. Leasing (the initials stand for 'kiss my a-," according to court records.) It is the biggest beer hauling firm in Pennsylvania; its assets include 118 tractors and 175 trailers."

Besides those assets, the newspaper reported, Mr. Pflaumer "has built a huge beer distributorship, William H. Pflaumer & Sons.

"The LCB prohibits interlocking businesses in the beer trade; the same person cannot hold both a beer manufacturer's license and a distributor's license.

"But the LCB allowed Pflaumer to keep his distributorship in the family by turning over its stock to his wife, Jeanette, and his children, through a trustee.

"Pflaumer is often present at his wife's distributorship; she is there about two days a month."

After his jail time, the sale of his brewery, the death of wife, and the sale of the mansion in Cape May County, that building - then the Ponderlodge Mansion in state-owned Villas Wildlife Management Area - was destroyed in an overnight blaze on Oct. 7, 2008. State investigators ruled the blaze an arson.

Robert Pflaumer said his father had helped found Operation Pops, which sent inner-city children to summer camps and supported Police Athletic League programs.

"He aided untold numbers of families in need," his son said. "He didn't take time out for himself. He was a workaholic."

Besides his son, Mr. Pflaumer is survived by sons Ronald and Fred, daughters Barbara Samuelian and Jeanette Tierney, a brother, 13 grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren. His wife, Jeanette, died in 1988, and a son, William, died in 2006.

A visitation is scheduled for 9 a.m. Saturday, May 29, at the O'Leary Funeral Home, 640 E. Springfield Rd., Springfield, Delaware County, followed by an 11 a.m. funeral there. Burial will be in SS. Peter and Paul Cemetery, Marple Township.


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