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Lager Beer Riot Re-Enactment Merges History, Dodgeball and Craft Brewers

By JoshMogerman in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 5, 2015 6:00PM

Paul Durica is an under-appreciated Chicago treasure. He wants people in this town to understand Chicago’s history and how it plays out in the issues we are still debating today. His Pocket Guide to Hell events have looked back on big events that molded this city on a grand scale, in recent years recreating the days running up to the Chicago River’s reversal, a life-sized Haymarket Riot and even the creation of Bozo

Now he is tackling a lesser known moment in Chicago’s history: the 1855 Lager Beer Riot in Bridgeport which culminated in a gunfight across the Chicago River. Even a superficial look at those events points out fascinating similarities to cultural issues at play today. Durica will be using some novel tools to bring that history to life later this month at an event sure to please history buffs and beer fans alike while supporting a Bridgeport institution.

We checked in with Durica about the event:

Chicagoist: Why should Chicagoans be thinking about the Lager Beer Riot right now and what is the significance of this episode in our history?

PD: This April marks the 160th anniversary of the Lager Beer Riot, which the Encyclopedia of Chicago calls "Chicago's first civil disturbance." While many citizens today might not agree with the tactic of taking up arms and taking to the street to protest discriminatory government practices, the ultimate result of the "Riot," which was that the Irish and German communities went to the polls, became politically involved and produced social change, should inspire us. If we don't like the city we have or how it's governed, it's our responsibility to change that.

Chicagoist: History, dodgeball and beer. Could you have put together a better combo? What can folks expect at the event?

PD: We want this to be a fun way to learn about Chicago history, celebrate Chicago brewing and help out a great community organization. We've got 10 matches pitting the forces of law & order (played by Chicago brewers against the Irish and German protesters (played by Bridgeport residents). We've got live broadcasters, historical referees, a marching band and even a Clark Street Bridge prop that pivots to shoot out the dodge balls toward the first side to reach it. And all the breweries are bringing one of their beers to share throughout the evening.

Chicagoist: Issues like immigration, income disparity and legalization of marijuana are huge national debates right now—what does the Lager Beer Riot have to teach us today?

PD: That none of these issues are new in America and that things can change when people take action. The American Party, which controlled the city at the time of the Lager Beer Riot, was blatantly anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic and anti-booze. The Irish and German communities opposed them successfully through collective action. While the tactics they used might not be the best for today's situation, their past success should provide encouragement for people in the present. Things can change; values, attitudes and policies are never fixed.

Chicagoist: What would those folks think about Chicago's craft beer scene today?

PD: On the one hand, brewing was well on its way to becoming a major Chicago industry by the middle of the nineteenth century; however, I think Chicagoans of that period would be amazed by the range of styles of beer now available. Our many bearded brewers of today would make for a familiar site in the nineteenth century.

Chicagoist: And Bridgeport?

PD: Bridgeport is an old, old neighborhood with a distinctive working class character (which has its good and bad points, close-knittedness easily becomes intolerance of outsiders), but it's also changing, becoming much more diverse, and in the mid-nineteenth century the Irish would be witnessing a similar change, as more Germans moved in, followed by Eastern Europeans.

Chicagoist: What is Benton House and why should folks come out to support it?

PD: Benton House is a settlement house on the model of Jane Addams's Hull House that has been serving the Bridgeport Community since 1907. It maintains a food pantry and its programs, to use their language, "fill in the gaps" left by other civic institutions, with a particular focus on after school programs for youth and programs for senior citizens. Many of its volunteer staff are residents, in the traditional settlement house model, meaning they live at Benton House and maintain a very close connection to the communities they engage.

Chicagoist: We love the use of dodgeball as a stand in for gun play. How do we make that more commonplace in Chicago?

PD: I wish it could be more common in Chicago where, as everyone knows, gun violence remains rampant. Since the 1855 Lager Beer Riot involved the two sides firing across the Chicago River at each other, it made sense to re-stage it as a dodgeball match, which allows us to share this history in an engaging and accessible way.

The 1855 Lager Beer Riot Re-enactment and Beer Tasting event will be held at Benton's House Gymnasium, 3052 S. Gratten Avenue on Saturday, April 25. Tickets to the event start at $30 to witness an epic dodgeball tournament featuring brewers (and samples of special beers from) Revolution Brewing, Goose Island Brewing, Spiteful Brewing Company and Haymarket Pub & Brewing. WBEZ’s “Strange Brews” podcasting crew and Chicago History rock star Tim Samuelson will also appear at the event. See you there!