Diversey Avenue: A Founding Brewer

For anyone who’s ever had a beer on Diversey Avenue, you have, probably unknowingly, honored the man behind the storied thoroughfare.

Diversey Avenue (or Diversey Parkway east of the North Branch of the Chicago River) was named after Michael Diversey, one of Chicago’s first beer brewers. Known for making strong ale, Diversey was quickly a popular man about Chicago. He became friends with William B. Ogden, the city’s first mayor, and eventually served as alderman. But it was a long way up for this German immigrant who started out as a milkman.

Michael Diversey was not only a partner in a city brewery, but also a civic stalwart. (Courtesy of Chicago History Museum)

Michael Diversey came to Chicago in 1832, when Chicago was barely a town. He started a dairy business and cut costs by pairing with local brewers because, as it turns out, brewery and dairy operations both required a lot of ice for cold storage. So, when Haas & Sulzer opened Chicago’s first brewery in 1833, Diversey sold milk next door.

In 1839, an Englishman named William Lill blew up the partnership. He bought Haas’ share in the brewery, while then-Mayor Ogden bought out Sulzer. It is unclear exactly when Diversey decided to jump from milkman to beer-man, but around 1841 he joined the operation, and it became known as Lill & Diversey.

The brewery was located on the corner of Pine Street (Michigan Avenue) and Chicago Avenue, across the street from the water-pumping station. It was a small operation for years until the creation of Lill’s Cream Ale, the group’s most successful brew.

With increased demand, the brewery expanded to produce more than forty-five thousand barrels per year. By 1861, they were shipping Lill’s Cream Ale as far as New York and New Orleans.

Their success ended, however, when the Great Chicago Fire destroyed the brewery. Diversey had passed away two years earlier, but Lill was still operating the business. With damages totaling more than five hundred thousand dollars (an estimated ten million dollars in 2016), Lill never re-opened the brewery.

Before he passed away, Michael Diversey accomplished much more than brewing. He helped to establish a German school on Chicago’s North Side and was the brief owner of a newspaper called, Der National Demokrat. He held public office as an alderman twice, once for twelve years (1856-1868). He also helped establish St. Joseph and St. Peter’s Catholic churches, as well as donated land for a new parish in Old Town. The church committee was so grateful that they petitioned to have the church named after Diversey’s patron saint, and thus arose iconic St. Michael Church.

Diversey Avenue was so-named by the Lakeview City Council in the eighteen fifties. It dedicated the thoroughfare to Diversey and a shorter street to Lill.

About the author

Sarah Lahey is a freelance writer with an English doctorate from Northwestern University. She most recently worked as a lecturer at Loyola University.

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