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Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Budweiser's Clydesdales & their Winnipeg origin

© 2012 Christian Cassidy

Each February, Anheuser-Busch's Clydesdales get some pricey air time during the Superbowl.
This year was no different.

On a couple of occasions I have come across references to the fact that the original Anheuser-Busch Clydesdale teams came from Winnipeg, most recently in the documentary Beer Barons of Winnipeg. I thought I would dig into the story a little further.

The story begins in the 1880s with a man named Patrick Shea. He was born in Co. Kerry, Ireland on March 7, 1854 and trained as an engineer. In 1870, he came to North America to work on railway infrastructure projects and eventually settled in Manitoba in 1882. From 1882 to 1884 he was in charge of the water distribution system for the railway construction from Oak Lake westward. When that job was completed he decided to put down roots in Winnipeg. 

Shea met fellow Irishman John McDonagh and together they purchased the Waverley Hotel near Higgins and Main. They became well-known for their hospitality and it became a popular watering hole.

Around this time he also met and married Margaret Burns of Winona, Minnesota. They had five children together, though only one survived childhood.

Winnipeg Brewery ca. 1886 (Source)
Daily Nor'Wester, September 1887

In 1887, the two men decided to leave the hotel business and go into brewing. For $16,000 they purchased from Sylvester Thomas the assets of his defunct and run-down Winnipeg Brewery on Colony Street at Broadway.

Others had leased it from Thomas to try to make a go of it but couldn't. McDunough and Shea, which is what their new enterprise was called, found success. (The Winnipeg Brewery was established in 1873, so Shea's it used that year in their own advertising as the year its brewery was established.)

McDonagh died in 1893 leaving Shea the sole owner. Shea kept the "McDonagh and Shea" business name until 1926 when the brewery had to be reincorporated due to the province's new liquor production rules. It then became known as "Shea's Winnipeg Brewery Ltd."

Shea's Brewery ca. 1930s

Shea became a well-liked community leader and philanthropist. A Tribune story after his death called him "a smiling, kindly, big-hearted boniface." 

Business was good and in in 1903 the brewery underwent the first of many major expansions at the Colony Street site, eventually becoming the city's largest brewery.

A Shea's team at Legislature (Source: MB Archives)

At the time Shea's was created, the only method of urban transportation for the fire department, streetcars or product delivery, was horse power. Different companies had their preferred breed of horse. Eaton's and Crescent Creamery used Hackneys while Manitoba Cartage and Shea's preferred Clydesdales.

Horses were a major investment for these companies. There could be more horses working for an organization than people and the amount of space needed to keep and care for them often exceeded the footprint of the building that they served. An 1882 Free Press article notes that Manitoba Cartage was building "extensive new stables" for their 42 six-horse teams!

An impressive horse or team was also good for a company's public image. Many showed their best animals in competition and a few even became local celebrities in their own right.

Top: Shea's "Warrior", Winnipeg Tribune, Nov 24. 1928
Bottom: November 19, 1926, Winnipeg Tribune

Shea spared no expense when it came to this aspect of the company's image. He was an active Clydesdale breeder and regularly imported champion horses directly from Scotland to keep the bloodlines strong. Shea also had special show wagons built at a cost of $2,000 each a piece. 

The investment paid off as many of Shea's horses and teams won top prize at Brandon, Toronto, Minneapolis and Chicago.

"Aladdin", one of his veterans, took top prize in his class and as overall  grand championship at the Chicago International Livestock Show of 1927. At the same show, along with another horse called Unity, Aladdin also won top in class for best team. The image above shows "Warrior" who arrived from Scotland in March 1928 and took top honours in his class at Brandon and Toronto in years to come.

Another Winnipeg firm, Manitoba Cartage, took similar interest in their Clydesdales and Manitoba's Clydesdale industry had a stellar international reputation. In fact, the Brandon Winter Fair's Clydesdale show was considered one of the best on the continent.

Delivery truck at Shea's ca 1917 (Source)

The era horse-drawn wagon began giving way to motorized vehicles after World War I and  hundreds of horses were being put to pasture each year. Companies such as Eaton's, Manitoba Cartage and Shea's kept their best teams 'on the payroll' and continued to show them.

In the early years of the Depression an aging and ill Patrick Shea decided to sell off his prized teams. He accepted an offer for one of them while at the 1933 Toronto Winter Fair. A brief Free Press story noted that the purchaser was "a St. Louis brewery."

Anheuser-Busch's team in 1934 (source)

That St. Louis brewery was Anheuser-Bush, North America's largest, and brewers of Budweiser beer. On their Clydesdale web site, (yes they have their own website), it notes: "Realizing the marketing potential of a horse-drawn beer wagon....on April 7, 1933, August A. Busch, Jr. and Adolphus Busch III surprised their father, August A. Busch, Sr., with the gift of a six-horse Clydesdale hitch..."

August Sr. was pleased with the gift and the following year his company purchased more of Shea's Clydesdales at the Royal and Guelph Winter Show. Like Shea before him, Busch took an active role in their breeding and today their stables boast over 250 Clydesdales.

July 10, 1933, Winnipeg Free Press

Shea spent most of the early months of 1933 travelling to various U.S. clinics in the hopes to find a cure for what newspapers would only describe as a "lingering illness". He died at his home at 140 Colony Street on July 8, 1933 at the age of 80.

His funeral at St. Mary's Cathedral drew hundreds. Winnipeg beer parlours closed in his honour on the morning of his funeral.

Top: Pat, Margaret Shea. Bottom: Frank Shea, John Boyd

Control of the company went to his widow and only surviving child, Frank, who had worked at the company since 1904. Frank became president, though his tenure was extremely short. 

For some time Frank had been suffering from a "nervous condition", which was usually code in those days for mental illness. (One researcher told me that alcoholism may have been an issue as well.) In early 1932, Frank had what was described as a "severe nervous breakdown" and the strain of losing his father worsened matters. At the end of July 1933, he was sent to the U.S. and admitted to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. 

Frank Shea died suddenly at the hospital on October 20, 1933 at the age of 44.

sheas beer

This left Margaret Shea the the majority shareholder in the company. By this time, though, Shea's was a mature business with a full executive team and over 100 staff.

From 1934 to 1950 the brewery was run by John T. Boyd, a long-time executive who started out as an office boy when the brewery first opened. During that time, Shea's assumed control of two other local breweries, Pelissier's and Kiewel's. It also ran the beer distribution firm Brewery Products Ltd. and had a controlling interest in 41 of Manitoba's 260 hotels.

When Margaret died around 1950 she was succeeded by Ethel Shea, Frank's widow.

Shea's Brewery Bond

Ethel died in 1952 and left 33,000 shares each to the General Hospital and Misericordia Hospital. This put the institutions, particularly the Catholic Miseri, in the uncomfortable position of being the brewery's largest combined shareholder. When added to the shares owned by the Boyd estate, the three had controlling interest.

The hospitals were eager to divest themselves of their shares and the Boyd family alos wanted to sell up. That's when Labatt's was called on. (I have been told that it was the family's wishes that if the shares were ever sold it was to be to Labatt's rather than anotehr competitor.)

December 12, 1953, Winnipeg Free Press
In December 1953, Hugh Labatt announced that his company's offer to purchase the 91% stake in the company owned by the hospitals and Boyd family was overwhelmingly accepted. Manitoba's oldest and largest brewery was now in Eastern hands.

Each hospital ended up making over $1 million, (about $8.5 m in 2012 dollars). The General Hospital put its funds toward the construction of a new
Children's Hospital in 1956. Misericorida put its money toward the construction of its Cornish Wing in 1957.

The Shea's Brewery / Labatt Brewery on Colony Street was
closed and torn down in 1979.

Winnipeg Rail Museum


Most of the above information was pieced together from a couple of dozen newspaper articles. Here are some online sources pertaining to Shea's:
Alcohol and temperance in modern history
Blocker, Fahey, Tyrrell
Brewed in Canada A. W. Sneath
Shea's Winnipeg Diamond Jubilee Booklet
Horse Show Memories Winnipeg Diamond Jubilee Booklet
Also, thanks to beer historian Bill Wright who is writing a book about the history of Manitoba's breweries.

September 21, 1926, Winnipeg Free Press

 November 20, 1930, Winnipeg Free Press


reedsolomon.matr1x at gmail.com said...

Interesting. Well researched.

Anonymous said...


Christian Cassidy said...

Thanks !

I asked at the ebrandon forums if Clydesdales are still big in Westman. Turns out there are some top breeders there and A-B still buys Clydes and hires horsemen from the area ! http://www.ebrandon.ca/messagethread.aspx?message_id=597579&cat_id=57

brent b. said...

great stuff....another interesting story connecting winnipeg and busch is the long standing battle between standard lager (first carling and then molson) and the Budweiser logo copyright....



brent b. said...


sorry...bad link

Christian Cassidy said...

Thanks Brent. Interesting stuff. I guess when these breweries started they never figured they'd get as big as they would so they could "borrow" from each other and not have to worry about it !

One Man Committee said...

This is the first that I've heard of the connection - very interesting stuff! Makes one wonder how things might have played out had Shea's kept them and incorporated them into their own marketing the way Busch did.

Unknown said...

so the good ole religious sisters of misericordia used beer money to build part of their hospital how ironic haha...good to know...i don t remember seeing any of that posted in their history books lol..truth is stranger than fiction

briarlee said...

The Clydesdale is an amazing, gentle, huge, gorgeous equine. I just adore them. It is heartbreaking though to see that some, including Budweiser, still mutilate their horses. Why do people still do this brutal, horrific act? They hack off their tails, not just the hair but vertebrae, nerves, muscles and skin. HORRIFYNG!!

Uninformed folks think it is to prevent tails from interfering with the harness...it is not. It is just an archaic, pointless, cosmetic mutilation.


Here is a link to my petition: https://www.change.org/p/carlos-brito-kees-storm-anheuser-busch-budweiser-beer-i-want-budweiser-to-stop-mutilating-their-horses

Trishymouse said...

Thank you for sharing this remarkable local history. Once again you prove yourself a wonderful researcher and writer of local history!!

rmginter said...

Hi Christian:
I posted this on the MHS Site previously. It ties into the use of the heavy-horses and the paved Cobble-stone Streets that Winnipeg had at one time...I suspect that the horses used on Fire Wagons would have benefited from this paving-stone/horse-shoe combination as well especially due to the City's notoriously muddy Streets.

Cheers, R.M. Ginter


Michael Borgford said...

Fascinating story. Two years ago, I received permission from the City to salvage the oak from the historic Oak Room in St Regis Hotel in downtown Wpg. I spend a week in the hotel carefully extracting the 1911 oak artifacts, which were destined for a micro-distillery which was in the planning stages at that time. One of the things I found behind an oak panel was a long forgotten Shea's bottle opener. Curious about the history of the opener, I found your blog on Shea's and the link to the AB Clydesdales.

The Micro-distillery has come to fruition. It is called Patent 5 (named after the 5th patent issued to the Dominion of Canada in 1869). It is housed in Dominion Express Building - 1904 carriage house and livery stable at 108 Alexander Ave. As promised to the City, the St Regis Oak Room has been carefully re-purposed inside our cocktail bar and looks fantastic.

My reason for posting here is, I would like to edit/print and share the contents of your blog with our patrons, as it make a great story tying together many elements of our space.



Brian said...

My family were among the first to import Clydesdales from their farm near Port Glasgow Scotland to the new farm location north of Portage la Prairie. I suspect that some of the Shea Brewery horses were among those that were raised on that farm, and possibly some of those horses were among the first used by the AB brewery which ultimately became Budweiser.
If you know of any of the names of the Shea horses I would be able to track them through the Scottish Clydesdale registry.
Wonderfully calm and loving horses they are.

November 18, 2019 T 7.58 pm MST

Sheep pottery said...

Hi, fascinating! I hope someone will make a Horse calendar about these horses!

Anonymous said...

I remember Shea's very well...when you drove up, an attendant would come and get your empties for you,ask what you wanted and then brought it to you.
Good beer too.