Black Swamp, Black Frog, Black Cloister

There are five breweries in the city I call home, Toledo, OH. Three of these have one thing in common; they all have the word Black in their name; Great Black Swamp Brewing Company, Black Frog Brewery, and Black Cloister Brewing Company. Despite this commonality the reasons for including Black in their name is different in each case.

The Great Black Swamp
Ohio Historical Marker telling the story of the draining of the Great Black Swamp

The Great Black Swamp Brewing Company was established in 2009. It derives its name from the fact that northwest Ohio was once home to a great black swamp. Running from Perrysburg, OH (a suburb of Toledo) to Findlay, OH in the south and from Sandusky, OH in the east to Fort Wayne, IN in the west the swamp was created 20,000 years ago when the last glacier retreated from the region.  The swamp was forty miles north to south and 120 miles east to west. According to the geographer Martin R. Katz, until it was drained in the late nineteenth century, the swamp was “a feature to be contended with by all who sought to settle in or travel throughout northwestern Ohio”. Kaatz described it as “one continuous region of standing water” which was “so wet as to ooze water when walked upon  in all seasons except the very driest.” David Zeisberger, a Moravian missionary, who traveled through the area in the early 1780s writes in his diaries of the “deep swamps and troublesome marshes” and of seeing horses “wading in the marsh up to their knees”. It took Zeisberger two and a half days to travel the thirty-five miles from Sandusky, OH to Maumee, OH. The first documented use of the term ‘Black Swamp’ is to be found in the  journal of a Robert Lucas, dated June 10, 1812. The name probably derived from the black loam that characterized the soil. In 1853 The Perrysburg Journal speculated on the benefits of draining the swamp. An article in the newspaper stated that ” . . . the wet and overflowed lands of Wood County will be drained and eventually become the garden spot of Ohio. It will take time . . . . the tide of emigration will no longer pass by them to go further and fare worse.” It was local farmers, starting in the 1850s,  who were eventually responsible for draining most of the swamp. Until then it was a haven for mosquitoes and the source of a number of maladies such as malaria, cholera, and typhoid. Today the Great Black Swamp is some of the most productive farmland in the state of Ohio.

One of the many fiberglass frogs that were dotted around Toledo as part of a public art initiative by the Toledo Arts Commission in 2001

The Great Black Swamp influenced the name of another Toledo area brewery, Black Frog Brewery. Established in 2014 the “Frog” part of the brewery’s name comes from the fact that frogs populated the aforementioned swamp. Indeed in the late nineteenth century the city was given the nickname Frogtown. In his book about the early twentieth century Toledo industrialist  Edward Drummond Libbey the author Quentin R. Scrabec Jr. writes that “the hot, humid summer of 1888 was typical of the swampy city that had come to be called Frogtown. Many parts of today’s downtown Toledo were described as a marshy jungle in the summer months . Water was everywhere and it was hard to distinguish drainage canals from streets at the time. The canals often doubled as a sewage system. This created a biblical plague of frogs every summer”. Modern day Toledoeans have not forgotten the city’s association with frogs. In 2001 a public art initiative coordinated by the Toledo Arts Commission resulted in over one hundred fiberglass frogs being placed around the city. Each was sponsored by a private business or non-profit group and was decorated by a local artist. In all likelihood none of the frogs that inhabited late nineteenth century Toledo were black. The owner of the Black Frog Brewery is however. Christopher Harris has the distinction of being a member of an elite group – brewers who are African-American. A ten-year army veteran Harris works full-time as a claims representative for the Social Security Administration. Commercial brewing is an enterprise that he is developing gradually. Until earlier this year, when he opened a taproom, Black Frog brews were only available at a small number of local retail stores. The taproom, while only open on Friday and Saturday evenings, provides Harris with another avenue to get his beer into the hands of local craft beer aficionados. While there is no estimate of the number of African-American brewery owners the number is undoubtedly small. And, writing as recently as 2009 beer commentator Maureen Ogle noted that there were, at that time, no black-owned breweries in the United States.  While he is not the first African-American owner of a brewery in the United States Christopher Harris is the first in Toledo; and that makes him a trailblazer.

The Black Cloister in Wittenberg, Germany

Black Cloister Brewing Company, which opened its doors in downtown Toledo in 2014, takes its name from the home of the great German religious reformer Martin Luther. Following his ordination as a priest in 1507 Luther, in order to continue his studies, took up residence in the Black Cloister Monastery. It was so named because of the black habits worn by the Augustinian monks who lived and studied there. Luther remained there until 1521, at which point he was forced to leave and go into hiding as a result of political tensions with the Catholic Church, emanating from his theological positions. Luther eventually came out of hiding and in 1525 married Katharina von Bora, a former nun. As a wedding gift, John Frederick, Elector of Saxony and Head of the Protestant Confederation of Germany, presented the newlyweds with the empty residence halls of the then abandoned Black Cloister.  Luther lived there until his death in 1546. He and Von Bora raised six children in the Black Cloister. Among  the many household tasks undertaken by von Bora was that of brewing beer. In sixteenth century Europe brewing was the remit of females. As noted by one writer “the primary source of beer during Luther’s era was domestic brewing — home brewing — done primarily by women, a practice as common as cooking and baking are today.” The beer would have varied based on the economic situation of the household, and the skill of the brewster. It was not until brewing became industrialized, and there was money to be made from it, did males start to engage in the brewing process. The CEO and founder of the Black Cloister Brewing Company, Tom Schaeffer, is a practicing Lutheran Pastor – hence the name of the brewery. He was a co- founder of the Glass City Mashers, a home brew club in Toledo. Not only does the Black Cloister brew some delicious, award winning,  beers but on a Sunday morning it is the meeting place for Threshold Church, whose worship services are led by Schaeffer. In homage to Luther and his wife the brewery has a couple of beers named in their honor – Marty is a Belgian Blonde Ale (6.5% ABV) while Katie is a Farmhouse Saison Ale (5.5% ABV).

Further Reading/Viewing

Brooks, Michael E. Settlement of the Great Black Swamp. View video here.

Kaatz, M.R. (1955). The Black Swamp: A Study in Historical Geography. Annals of the Association of American Geographers. Volume 45, Issue 1, pages 1–35.

2 thoughts on “Black Swamp, Black Frog, Black Cloister”

  1. Just a curious question, but I was wondering about a point of clarification as far as Maureen Ogle’s statistic regarding African-American brewery ownership. I’m assuming she’s referring to sole or equal partner ownership, and the thing that came to mind when reading that was Garrett Oliver’s apprentice ownership of Manhattan Brewery. I couldn’t quite remember the details, and I found something online: according to Tom Acitelli’s “The Audacity of Hops,” the year was 1989.
    I love all these breweries and this is some great info on them and what makes them distinctive.

    1. Brenden, yes I believe that Ogle was referring to ownership. My understanding is that Oliver never had an ownership stake in Manhattan Brewery, but was an employee there. I may be wrong of course. I have Acitelli’s book so will have to double check what it says in there.

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