The Morris Arboretum was partly funded by beer, says brewery historian

A brewery historian will speak at the Arboretum on April 19 about the Morris family’s status as Philadelphia’s second—and arguably most significant—brewing clan.

Anthony Morris Brewery
A sketch of the first Morris brewery, part of an early map of Philadelphia's waterfront. 

Before there was a Yards Brewing Company, or a Victory Brewing Company, or any number of do-it-yourself homebrewers in Philadelphia, there was the Anthony Morris Brew House, a major beer operation founded by the ancestor of the horticulturists and donors that brought us the Morris Arboretum

Anthony Morris was the great, great, great, great grandfather of John and Lydia Morris. His brew house—cited as the Ant. Morris Brew Ho. in historical documents—was established in 1687 and was only the fourth brewery in Philadelphia. (The first: a brewery at Second and Walnut streets by William Frampton, approved by William Penn.) The Morris Brew House was also, historians have discovered, one likely source of the Morris family’s colonial wealth, and how they were able to make such a generous gift of their sprawling 167-acre garden. 

“One of the questions we often get is, ‘Where did their money come from?’” says Robert Gutowski, director of education at the Arboretum. “They left the estate as a public garden, and in the 1930s they left about a $1.4 million legacy—a lot of money in 1933 during the Great Depression (around $27 million in 2018). And the answer to that question is not as simple as, ‘Well, they inherited the business from their parents.’”

Gutowski sorted through a five-volume genealogy of the family, compiled in 1909, that traces the descendants back through the colonial era. That’s where he found signs of the brewery, opened by Anthony Morris alongside a malt house at Front and Water streets. 

Morris Brewery Dock and Pear streets
An artist rendition of a Frederick Gutekunst photograph of the Morris Brewery at Dock and Pear streets, built in 1745. The Ritz movie theater now sits in its place.

The Morris brewery business, made up of several iterations and breweries along the way to the 20th century, would get passed through four more generations and span three centuries—an enduring business with a legacy that lasted into the 1960s, with Morris apprentice Francis Perot’s Sons Malting Company. 

Realizing the cultural history to be mined, plus the wonderfully on-topic agricultural tie-in of beer—“You don’t have beer without barley,” he notes—Gutowski sought out Rich Wagner, a Pennsylvania brewery historian, to deliver a lecture that offers more detail about the Morris family’s brewing roots and the economic implications of colonial brewing in the Philadelphia region and beyond.

“By 1800, Philadelphia was shipping more beer than all other seaports in the country combined,” Wagner says. “We’re talking about ships that needed beer because this is a staple that went along with bread and dried fish, or whatever else they’d have on board. Philadelphia was a huge brewing center, from its earliest days.

“And beer was an economic engine—this is an agricultural product. You have to raise barley.”

Rich Wagner
Pennsylvania brewery historian Rich Wagner, author of One Hundred Years of Brewing, demonstrates colonial beer brewing. He'll deliver a talk at Morris Arboretum on April 19.

During the talk, which will be held on Thursday, April 19, at 7 p.m. and supported by the Klein Lecture Endowment, the Laura L. Barnes Lecture Endowment, and the Byron Lukens Lecture Endowment, Wagner will discuss how beer brewing coincided with the industrial revolution and transformed brewing from art to science, while also serving as an economic boon to farmers in the Philadelphia suburbs who grew barley and hops, largely on the back of the Morris breweries’ success. 

He will also draw a parallel to today, examining how the burgeoning craft movement serves to repeat history.

“Following the craft brewing and distilling movements, we now have a craft malting movement,” Wagner says, citing a preservation process that involves germinating barley, retaining some of its enzymes, and drying it. “The brewing and distilling trades died off, except a few major companies. There are now farmers in Delaware and Chester counties encouraged to grow barley varieties for these craft breweries. They have a whole new product, and it’s bringing back to life something that was active in the 17th century. 

“And that’s a big part of the story. Because that’s where you start to look ahead.”