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Economy & Business

Can a Clydesdale pull his weight in a global economy?

Clydesdale-pulled beer wagons went throughout the East Coast to promote approval of the repeal of Prohibition. 1933  300 pixels
From Anheuser-Busch Inc.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: July 14, 2008 - The Clydesdale hitch first paraded down Pestalozzi Street the day Congress set up the apparatus to repeal Prohibition.

Can you name the date?

In 1981, at the age of 82, August A. “Gussie” Busch Jr. roared it out with a blast that blew my hair back: “April 7, 1933!” Then he sat back and basked, smug and joyous over his own marketing genius and his family brewery’s resurrection.

In 1981, Gussie had been replaced as the brewery’s chief executive by his son, August III, the father of the current head (albeit briefly) of the corporation.

The old patriarch still had offices in the executive building, but he was a tad forgetful, so his interviews were severely restricted by PR flaks. As a journalist for the Post-Dispatch, I got in because I said I wanted to talk about the origins of the Clydesdale hitch. No PR flak could rein in Gussie when the subject was horses and in particular his beloved Clydesdales.

He called forth scenes he invested with a semi-magical quality - himself, still a boy, working on the brewery’s docks before Prohibition began in 1916. He watched the wagons coming in with hops all through the night drawn by various draft teams: Belgiums, cross breeds, Percherons.

“The Clydesdales were the best,” he said with his unbrookable authority.

His favorite tableau, of course, was the one where he and “Brother” (that’s how he referred to his elder sibling, Adolphus) presented their father with a hitch to celebrate the looming end of Prohibition. Meanwhile, a second hitch toured the East Coast getting state support to ratify the amendment to repeal.

“And that’s why the family has always voted Democratic, Sweetie.”

It was family folk history. Those Clydesdales were the premiere symbol of a family’s odyssey of struggle and triumph, and every member of the family tribe, no matter how different their individual lives, has identified with that central narrative of the brewery’s rise to greatness. August III, who agrees with MarkTwain about horses being dangerous at both ends and uncomfortable in the middle, not only didn’t cut out the Clydesdales when he took over, he added hitches.

There are six full hitches now, plus the mares and youngsters necessary to keep the teams at full strength.  I’m worried for all their jobs. I never believe new CEOs when they say there won’t be job cuts after a takeover. If Carlos Brito frowns upon the distribution of two cases of free Bud to every A-B employee every month, how fondly is he going to look upon the 150 or so workers who eat, according to brewery information, 60 pounds of hay and 4 gallons of grain daily and travel around the country in 50,000-ton air-conditioned haulers while Brito flies coach?

But the cost of maintaining the Clydesdales isn’t the greatest peril to their continued existence. The greatest peril is that they have always been the symbol of the power and hoopla of a family company that is now about to be subsumed by globalism. Can the premiere symbol of family tradition survive the brewery’s reshaping into a global identity? Will we, the audience, cheer the spectacle of the hitch as passionately as we ever did now that it is about to be unmoored from its central identity? Or will community memory fade and with it our allegiance?

I think again of my interview with Gussie. He called me by my mom’s name the whole time, but he blew the doors off when he yelled out the date of the hitch’s first public appearance. Does Brito know that date?

Florence Shinkle, a St. Louis free-lance writer, knows horses -- and knew Gussie. 

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