A HISTORY OF THE BREWING INDUSTRY IN LA CROSSE
by Steven Baier
La Crosse, Wisconsin
A HISTORY OF THE BREWING INDUSTRY IN LA CROSSE
From the time when La Crosse was still a trading settlement until
the present day, the breweries have played an important part in local history.
They have always been one of the moat important local industries,
second only to sawmills. In 1884, for example, La Crosse produced more
beer than any other city in the state.
The special significance of the brewing industry is that it helped La
Crosse survive the shock of losing its foremost industry, the sawmills.
When the mills disappeared in the early 1900’s, La Crosse needed an industry
to fall back on, to take the place of lumbering. It was at this time that
the breweries were most influential. It is doubtful that La Crosse could
have grown to its present size and importance without its breweries.
For example, the breweries helped La Crosse in minor ways, too.
During the Civil War, Marcus M. Pomeroy, editor of the La Crosse Democrat,
became a strong partisan of the southern cause. The city and region
were primarily northern in sympathy. Mr. Pomeroy went so far as to ask
rhetorically in his newspaper for the assassination of President Lincoln.
When Lincoln was murdered, an angry mob gathered and marched to Mr.
Pomeroy’s house with the intention of hanging the editor from the nearest
lamp-post. But on their way, the mob passed a brewery. They stopped to
quench their thirst and forgot to go on another violent death was thereby
There have been a total of fifteen breweries in the history of La
Crosse. The largest number operating at one time was eight, in the year
1900. The peak of the brewing industry in La Crosse was reached in 1914.
In 1906, the breweries employed 487 men; by 1914, 990 men were employed,
an increase of over two hundred per cent. That year, 1, 640 men were employed
altogether in the breweries, in allied trades (coopers), and in saloons,
at an annual salary cost of $1, 245, 000. The breweries paid out $3, 875, 000
for salaries, rent, repair, taxes, freight, and advertising. Nearly all of
this money went into the local economy. The total investment of the five
major breweries of La Crosse in 1914 was five million dollars.
Wisconsin was rated fourth among states in beer production early
in the twentieth century. It produced 4, 000, 000 barrels of beer in 1900 and
5,000, 000 in 1910. The growth of the industry was just as rapid in other
sections of the state as in La Crosse. There wasn’t a brewery in the city
that didn’t expand during those years from 1900 to 1910.
There are several reasons why breweries prospered in La Crosse.
The most important of these was La Crosse’s ideal location, midway between
Milwaukee and St. Paul. Another reason was that all the resources
needed for the brewing of beer could be found nearby—water from the Mississippi
River, grains and cereals from area farmers, and a steady demand
from local residents. In addition, the city’s large German population and
its heritage contributed to the growth of the industry in La Crosse.
In 1854, La Crosse had a population of about one thousand. There
was little industry, mostly small businesses run by individuals. It was
at this time that the brewing industry in La Crosse began. Beginning with
the earliest and listed chronologically, the breweries of La Crosse were:
The Nicolai Brewery, 1854-1857.
Dr. Gustavus Nicolai and Jacob Franz founded a brewery in 1854.
It was a one-story structure on the corner of Second and Pearl Streets.
Although most local histories credit John Gund with being the first brewer
in the city, an 1856 map of La Crosse has a footnote stating that Nicolai
and Franz placed their beer on the market ahead of Gund, because Gund’s
supply of yeast failed to ferment. Nicolai and Franz dissolved their partnership
on April 20, 1857. The building was torn down in 1886 and replaced
by a Burlington depot which was itself later razed.
The John Gund Brewing Company, 1854-1920.
On October 3, 1830, John Gund, the second of eight children, was
born in Schwetzingen, Germany, a small village between Heidelberg and
Mannheim on the Rhine. He finished his education in the common schools
and then began two years of apprenticeship, working at a cooperage during
the summer and at a brewery during the winter. John Gund came to America
in 1848, sailing by way of Rotterdam and Havre, landing in New York
on May 16, 1848. He stayed in New York a few days before moving westward
to Freeport, Illinois. The rest of the family had been living on a
farm near Freeport since the preceding year. The father, George M. Gund,
a hop and tobacco grower, died of cholera on July 29, 1850. The mother
followed him to the grave three days later of the same disease. In the
fall of 1850, John Gund moved to Galena, Illinois. There he married Miss
Louise Hottman and, in 1852, they moved to Dubuque, Iowa. Gund worked
at the brewery of Anton Heeb for a short while, before returning to Galena
where he and a Mr. Witzel operated a brewery. In 1854, Gund left the business
and came to La Crosse.
In August of 1854, John Gund started a brewery in the log cabin he
had built at the corner of Front and Division Streets. It was a cornparatively
small concern, even for those days.
In 1858, Gund sold the log cabin to C. L. Colman, who used it for
his lumber business. He then entered into partnership with Gottlieb Heileman
and built the “City Brewery.”
Gund sold his share of the business to Heileman in 1872 and began
building the “Empire Brewery” on South Avenue. The brewery consisted
of the main building, 142 feet long, containing the storage cellars, brew-house,
ice house and office the malt house, 140 x 40, three stories high,
with a capacity for sixty thousand bushels; the dry kiln, 26 x 27, forty feet
high, with a capacity for two hundred bushels per day; and the engine house,
30 x 25 feet. The bottle house was across the street. It had a capacity of
2500 bottles per day.
A second ice house was built in 1879-80. It was made up of a basement,
cooling room, storage room, and ice room. The building was 71 x
58 1/2 feet, with a tower 211/2 x 20 feet on top. It had a capacity for the
storage of 1300 tons of ice and 220 hogs-heads of thirty-five barrels each
of beer. All these buildings were built of limestone taken from the bluffs
near La Crosse. In all, 1, 180 cords of stone were used, at a total cost of
over $250, 000.
The capacity of the brewery was thirty thousand barrels per year,
and a staff of twenty-five people was employed at an annual cost of fifteen
thousand dollars. Although a large part of the beer was exported, three
teams of horses were kept constantly at work in delivering beer throughout
In 1873, Gund traveled to Europe and visited his home-land.
The John Gund Brewing Company was organized and incorporated
on May 1, 1880, with one hundred thousand dollars capital. The officers
were: John Gund, president; Henry Gund, traveling agent; George Gund,
manager; and John Gund, Jr., bookkeeper. In 1882, Henry Gund moved to
Minneapolis to take charge of the distributing point that the Gund brewery
had established there. Then in 1887, John Jr. left the business and moved
to St. Louis. He and his wife left La Crosse on September 25, aboard the
steamboat “Sidney.” Henry Gund returned to La Crosse to take over John
Jr. s position at the brewery.
On May 18, 1880, John Gund’s wife, Louise, died. She contracted
a severe cold while visiting a daughter, Emma, in Milwaukee.
The amount of business being handled by the John Gund Brewing
Company was increasing steadily. Additions and improvements were made
to the brewery so that by 1897, the brewery covered five acres. In that
year sixty thousand barrels of beer were brewed. Gund’s beer was shipped
all over Wisconsin, Dakota, Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, and Nebraska.
On September 23, 1897, one of the most disastrous fires in the
history of La Crosse broke out in the John Gund Brewing Company.
The fire was discovered at 1:00 AM by Fred Schultze, a night watchman. He
had been walking around the brewery when he saw a light in the top story
of the brew house. He went inside and, seeing the entire roof ablaze, notified
Louis Hoeffner, another night watchman, and John Dummer, night
engineer. An alarm was sent in at 1:15 AM from box number 221, located
at the brewery. Companies 3 and 5 responded, but when Fire Chief Hunt
arrived, he realized the entire brewery was in danger and sent in a 4-11
alarm, calling out every company in the city. When the firemen arrived,
the entire roof of the brewhouse was in flames and before long, the fire
had spread to the malt house. This building was “as dry as tinder” and the
flames “spread like fury.” The malt house contained three carloads of
malt and about three thousand bushels of barley. The fire department had
seven or eight streams of water on the blaze, but was unable to keep the
fire from spreading to the cold storage building, which contained twelve
thousand barrels of beer. The tower atop the ice house fell to the ground
The fire was finally brought under control at 5:15 AM, but was not
completely extinguished until noon.
The engine house was not damaged. The cold storage building was
burned severely, but the vast quantity of beer was saved. Several carloads
of beer on the tracks near the brewery were saved by a Burlington engine
The remainder of the brewery was a total loss, the damage estimated at
two hundred thousand dollars, of which one hundred twenty-five thousand
was insured. Enough beer was recovered so the brewery could continue
to fill its orders while it was being rebuilt.
John Gund said that the brewery would be rebuilt as soon as the debris
was cleared away. The next day, a group of fifty men was on the
grounds clearing away rubble and cleaning charred kegs. The new brewery
was designed by Louis Lehle of Chicago. The buildings were finished on
August 16, 1898. The plant was larger than the older brewery. It was furnished
with new machinery and equipment, and was fire-proof. The premises
consisted of: the brewhouse, 42 x 39 feet, four stories high; the mill house,
42 x 30 feet, six stories high; the dry house, 42 x 18 feet, five stories high;
the hop storage, 42 x 42 feet, three stories high; the malt house, 116 x
57 1/2 feet, three stories high; the elevator, (“one of the most complete in
the world”), 70 x 47 feet, ninety-five feet high; stock house number 1, 104 x 78
feet, three stories high; stock house number 2, 106 x 72 feet, six stories
The bottling plant was originally built across the street. After the
fire, however, it was built next to the brewhouse. This building measured
186 x 136 feet and was three stories high. It was enlarged in 1900 and a
new bottle washing machine was added. Its annual output was twenty five
In 1900, Henry Gund took a trip to Hot Springs, Arkansas, hoping to
cure his rheumatism. When this failed, he went to Texas. This only aggravated
the condition, so he returned home. He arrived back in La Crosse
on April 15, 1900, in great pain. By October he had recovered sufficiently
to travel to Europe. He returned on November 13th. Learning of this, one
hundred and fifty of the workers at Gund’s brewery gathered and marched
to Gund’s house on Cass Street. The army, headed by a band, stopped in
front of his mansion and sang several selections. They were then invited
in for a luncheon. While the serenaders were being seated, Carl Kurtenacker
presented Henry Gund with a golden walking stick. Taken by surprise, Gund
could only quote Rip van Winkle, saying “May you all live forever and die
happy.” After an hour of merrymaking, the group headed downtown, visiting
all the taverns which handled Gund’s beer exclusively. At first, the men
carried torches. But the burden became too great, and the one hundred and
fifty men marched or staggered in line, guided only by the band, which was
playing “A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.”
On March 15, 1901, Henry Gund was elected vice-president of the
Wisconsin Brewer’s Association. On April 23, 1901, he donated a piece
of land to Lutheran Hospital. This land, worth seven hundred dollars, was
to have been used by the brewery for a new bottling plant, but the hospital
needed it for a new addition. Henry Gund gave it to the hospital along with
a personal check for two hundred dollars.
In 1904, the capital stock of the John Gund Brewing Company was
increased to two million dollars, and it listed the following officers: John
Gund, president; Henry Gund, vice-president and treasurer; Carl Kurtenacker,
secretary and general manager.
On May 7, 1910, John Gund, after an illness of several months, died
of apoplexy at his home, 1910 Mormon Coulee road. The funeral services,
conducted by Rev. Henry Andreas, were held at Gund’s home on May 9th.
A quartet composed of members of the Liederkranz Singing Society sang
various selections, and members of the Brewer’s Union attended. The
Gund brewery was closed for the day and other plants of the city shut down
for the afternoon.
In June of 1903, rumors were spreading that the John Gund Brewing
Company, now under the leadership of Henry Gund, was planning to build a
branch brewery Omaha, Nebraska. The rumors were stopped, however,
when Henry Gund announced that the establishment in Omaha was a branch
store, not a brewery.
The Gund Brewing Company was the largest brewery in the old Northwest,
outside of Milwaukee. “Gund’s Peerless” beer was internationally
famous. It won he award of Medal and Diploma at the Paris Exposition in
1900, and the Gold Medal at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904. A
sign advertising Gund’s beer was seen in Puerto Rico during Prohibition.
By 1910, Gund’s brewery employed 450 people at an annual payroll
of five hundred thousand dollars. Rent, taxes, freight, advertising, and
traveling expenses amounted to one million dollars, and equipment for
saloons owned by the brewery cost over fifty thousand dollars. Cases,
bottles, and kegs cost one hundred thousand dollars per year. In 1910,
over six hundred thousand barrels of beer were brewed. Every employee
was given a turkey for Thanksgiving and a chicken for Christmas.
In 1919, Prohibition was enacted and the John Gund Brewing Cormpany
closed down. But on May 27th of that year, the ruling of a New York
judge made possible the manufacture of beer with an alcoholic content between
2. 3 per cent and 4 per cent, called “war beer.” The Gund brewery
re-opened and began production of this beer.
In 1920, the Brewery Worker’s Union in La Crosse went on strike
to outlaw open shops (businesses in which both union and non-union men
could work). Being the largest employer, Gund’s was the hardest hit. Notices
were run daily, advertising jobs for men, women, and children. Then,
one day, a woman who was driving one of Gund’s new electric delivery trucks
crashed into a street car. From then on, the advertisements asked for men
and children to work at the brewery.
Later in 1920, complete Prohibition closed the John Gund Brewing
Company once again. This, along with the strike, proved to be too much
the Gund family. They packed up and moved East. The city of La Crosse
thereby lost one of the most important businesses it ever had.
The buildings of the Gund brewery stand today just south of Lutheran
Hospital on South Avenue. Although several changes and alterations have
been made, one can still get an idea of the immensity of this operation.
The brew house is now being used by the G. Heileman Brewing Company.
The bottling house is being used by the Nesco Sign Company and by Gateway
trucking. The wash house is used for storage, and the cooperage is owned
by Lutheran Hospital. Across the street is the office, now a rental agency
and the stables are now used by the Bakalars Brothers Sausage Company.
The well-house and aging cellars have been torn down.
The Bluff Brewery, 1857-1870
The history of this brewery is very fragmentary. Not only are there
very few records of this operation (a total of eleven sentences), but the exact
location of the plant is unknown. It is believed to have been located in what is
now Hixon Forest, where Defenthaler also had a storage cellar dug into the
The brewery was founded by Fritz Defenthaler in the late 1850’s.
Defenthaler also operated a dance pavillion and a summer garden. These
were both located in the woods, probably near the brewery. (The eastern
city limit at that time was West Avenue.) The brewery ceased operations
around 1870, probably a result of its out-of-the-way location and the fact
that Defenthaler never once advertised or was mentioned in any of the local
English newspapers. In fact, the English - speaking community considered
the brewery “legendary.”
The La Crosse Breweries, Inc. (Michel), 1857-1965.
This brewery was founded by two brothers—Charles and John Michel.
Charles F. Michel was born in St. Goer, Germany, on January 6, 1826. He
came to America in 1847 ahead of the rest of the family to avoid a three-year
army training period. He spent the winter on a farm near Buffalo, New York,
working for four dollars a month and not knowing a word of English. Charles’
brother John was born in Germany on March 17, 1831. He came to America
with the rest of the family in the spring of 1848. The entire family moved
to Philadelphia, where the two brothers set up a building and contracting
business. In 1849, the pair, attracted by stories of fabulous wealth in
California, traveled to San Francisco by way of the Isthmus of Panama.
They stayed on the west coast for several years before returning to Philadelphia,
disheartened. They soon left for Chicago. Not liking it there, they
decided to head up-river to St. Paul. They left aboard a steamboat in the
spring of 1856. However, they got only as far as Lake Pepin before ice
blocked their way. They decided to return to La Crosse and wait until the
ice thawed. Liking the area, the Michel brothers decided to make La Crosse
their permanent home. They set up a contracting business and several of
the houses they built are still standing.
In 1856, they became aware of the fact that the City Brewery
(see page 16 ) could not handle all the demand for beer in La Crosse. They
built-a brewery in 1857 on the southeast corner of Third and Division streets.
Several additions were made and the business expanded across the street.
It was called the “La Crosse Brewery.”
In 1872, Charles Michel married Miss Louise Gund, daughter of the
founder of the John Gund Brewing Company. (See pages 3 to 11)
In 1882, the company was incorporated under the name “C & J Michel
Brewing Company” and had one hundred fifty thousand dollars capital stock
By 1889, the brewery buildings covered more than five acres. The
plant included a brewhouse, malt house, elevator, ice houses, bottle house,
cooper shop, engine house, and stables. A large ice-making plant was added
in 1888. The company owned several refrigerator cars which transported
its beer over the entire region. The annual capacity of the brewery in
1889 was seventy-five thousand barrels and the bottling department used
seventy barrels per day. The company employed sixty men and used fifteen
horses for local deliveries.
1900 was a bad year for the brewery. On March 10th, a blaze
broke out in the pitch room of the brewery at 6:30 P.M., but was extinguished
by the employees before firemen arrived. On March 18th, an employee
named Albert Sewaski was injured seriously in a freak accident. He
was coating the inside of new barrels with pitch when the hot pitch exploded,
blinding him. On December 18, 1900, Joe Geminer, another employee, was
caught in a rapidly moving shaft. His clothes were torn from his body and
he was badly bruised
In 1907, the brewery was moved to the west side of Third Street at
a cost of over one million dollars. The old Michel home became the office
building for the firm. The capacity of the new brewery was nearly one
hundred thousand barrels annually. “Elfenbrau Beer” was well-known
throughout the United States.
In 1919, when Prohibition went into effect, the brewery changed its
name to the “La Crosse Refining Company” and continued to operate by
manufacturing malt and malt syrup.
With the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the brewery again started
making beer, in addition to malt syrup. Its name was changed to “La Crosse
The Michel brothers bought the “Peerless” trademark and label
the John Gund Brewing Company and started making “Peerless Peer.”
A new beer-can machine was added in 1948. In 1950, the average employment
eighty-eight persons, with one hundred fifteen employed during peak
On March 9, 1956, the Dahl Motors Company bought a 1/2 block
tract of land from the brewery, containing its office, garage, and hospitality
room. In 1958, the brewery was run by Theodore D. Solie. The firm
closed in 1965.
The Eagle (Bartl) Brewery, 1886-1933.
In 1857, Jacob Franz built this brewery on the corner of Twelfth
and La Crosse Streets. The plant passed through many hands. It was
owned by Franz and Frederick Mueller in 1864; by Muekker and Peter
Kappes in 1868; by Kappes and Hofer in 1873; and by John Hofer in 1876.
Hofer converted the brewery into a beer garden, called the “Park Saloon
and Garden.” He ran this until 1885, when the establishment was bought
by Franz Bartl.
Franz Bartl was born on July 4, 1840, in Vollman, Bohemia. He
learned the brewer’s trade in his home town and in Budapest, Hungary.
He came to America in 1870. At first, he worked at a brewery in Oshkosh.
Later he became foreman at a Menasha, Wisconsin brewery. He came to La
Crosse in 1874, working at the Zeisler and Gund breweries for ten years.
Then he moved to Winona, Minnesota, and worked at the Peter Bub brewery
for two years. In 1886, Bartl returned to La Crosse and bought the Eagle
brewery, formerly the Park Saloon and Garden.
In 1895, Bartl tore down the old structure and built a new brewery.
In 1900, a bottling plant was added to bottle lager beer. It was called
the Eagle Bottling Works and was run by Henry Lexius. The brands of
beer manufactured were “Matchless” and “Premium” beer, in bottles, and
“Bavarian Lager” beer in kegs.
On June 30, 1904, the company was reorganized. It was incorporated
the name “Franz Bartl Brewing Company”, with a capital stock of
one hundred thousand dollars. The officers of the company were: Franz
Bartl, president; Joseph A. Bartl, vice-president; Frank Barti, secretary
-treasurer. Joseph and Frank Bartl were the sons of Franz Bartl. It was
rumored that several large outside stockholders from the German-Amen-
can Bank had been admitted to the firm, but this was denied. Extensive
changes were planned for the brewery. A new bottling house was built in
On October 5, 1914, Franz Bartl died. He had suffered diabetes
for several years, but the cause of death was listed as heart disease. The
business was then managed by his sons.
On May 27, 1919, Bartl’s Brewery announced that it would begin
manufacturing 3.2 per cent (alcoholic content) beer. This was in response
to Prohibition. In 1920, complete Prohibition forced the business to make
beverages and bottled soda drinks. The office continued to operate
until 1953, but the actual brewing of beer ceased in 1933. The building,
on the northwest corner of the intersection of La Crosse Street and West
Avenue, was torn down in 1971.
The City Brewery, 1858-1872.
This brewery was the result of a partnership between two of the
most prominent local brewers — Gottlieb Heileman and John Gund. They
built the brewery in 1858 at the corner of Third and Mississippi Streets.
The plant consisted of the brewery proper, a malt house, ice house, and
bottling works, all built of stone. The partners started operations on November
13, 1858. At first, a limited quantity of beer (under five hundred
barrels per year) was placed on the market, but as the demand increased,
so did production. In its final year, 1872, the brewery produced an unprecedented
3,000 barrels of beer. In that year, Gund sold his share of the business
to Heileman, who continued to operate it under the now-familiar “G.
Heileman Brewing Company” name.
The G. Heileman Brewing Company, 1858-present.
Gottlieb Heileman was born on January 6, 1824, in Wurtemburg,
Germany. His parents, Caspar and Fredrika (Meyer), had seven other
children. Gottlieb emigrated to America in 1852, living in Philadelphia
before moving to Milwaukee. There he entered into partnership with one
of his countrymen, Gottlieb Meyer, and started a bakery. In November of
1857, Heileman came to La Crosse and became foreman of the Nicolai
Brewery. He quit after one month and started working for the Michel
brothers. In 1858, Heileman returned to Milwaukee and married Miss
Johanna Bandel, daughter of Ludwig and Catherina (Sigel) Bandel. Gottlieb
and his wife returned to La Crosse in the fall of 1858. Heileman entered
into partnership with John Gund and founded the City Brewery. Heileman
continued to run the brewery after Gund left the firm in 1872.
On February 20, 1878, Gottlieb Heileman died. His wife Johanna
operated the brewery until 1890, when it was incorporated into the “G.
Heileman Brewing Company.”
In 1900, the annual payroll reached two hundred thousand dollars.
In 1901-02, extensive improvements were made in the brewery, bringing
its annual capacity to one hundred sixty thousand barrels. On March 2,
1902, the company was re-organized. Its capital stock was raised from
$75,000 to $350,000, and plans were made to increase its capacity to
175, 000 barrels. Also, the old brand, “Golden Leaf” beer, was replaced
by “Old Style Lager” beer.
On August 23, 1902, the G. Heileman Brewing Company signed the
union wage scale. Formerly it had been the largest non-union plant in the
By 1920, Heileman’s had an investment of $1,250,000 and employed
285 men. Brewing could still be a dangerous business. On June 25, 1920,
George W. Williams, an employee, was killed in an accident at the brewery.
He failed to shut off a pump after closing the valve between the pump and a
tank. The packing around the pipe blew out under the excessive pressure,
sending a torrent of steaming water over him.
Heileman’s brewery survived Prohibition and when that amendment
repealed in 1933 Heileman’s was swamped with demands for beer. The
staff was working eighteen hours a day in an attempt to fill part of the orders
that were being made by telephone, by wire, and in person. These orders
were not just coming from all over the Midwest, but from all over the continent,
as far away as Boston, Los Angeles, Winnepeg, and even the West
Indies. One Boston dealer demanded fifty carloads of beer. When that was
turned down, he asked for fifteen carloads. Even that was turned down.
Truck drivers from all over the Midwest refused to leave without a truckload
of beer. Some even said they dared not return without beer. Beer
was made legal again on April 7, 1933. From 12:01 A. M. on April 7th,
Heileman’s sent out eleven thousand cases of beer, and before 2:00 A.M., they
were turning trucks away. The plant released about 2, 500 barrels in the two
days following the repeal of Prohibition and plans were discussed for brewing
twice a day. While rumors drifted into the city that many breweries
throughout the Midwest were closed temporarily because they ran out of
beer, Heileman’s continued to deliver beer. One part of the staff was kept
busy turning down orders, while another part was busily engaged
in returning the checks for thousands of dollars which accompanied huge
orders that could not possibly be filled.
The G. Heileman Brewing Company had been under the management
of six presidents over the last forty-three years: Harry Dahl, 1 933-1936;
Albert Bates, 1936-1945; Nordal Nustad, 1945-1950; Ralph T. Johanson,
1950-1956; Roy E. Kumm, 1956-1971; Russell G. Cleary, 1971-present.
The brewery has acquired seven other breweries in the thirteen
years from 1959 to 1972: the Kingsbury Breweries Co. of Sheboygan,
Wisconsin in December, 1959; Fox I-lead Brewing Company of Waukesha,
Wisconsin, in July of 1962; Gluek Brewing Company of Minneapolis,
Minnesota, in December, 1964; Duluth Brewing & Malting Company of
Duluth, Minnesota, in July of 1966; Wiedemann Brewing Company of Newport,
Kentucky, in June, 1967; Oertel Brewing Company of Louisville,
Kentucky, in December, 1967; and the Associated Brewing Company in June,
1972, with plants in St. Paul, Minnesota, South Bend, Indiana (closed in
November, 1972), and Evansville, Indiana.
The brewery also acquired two brand names—Braumeister in 1963
and Blatz in September, 1969. Also acquired by Heileman’s were Machine
Products Company of La Crosse in September, 1967; Erickson Bakeries
Company of La Crosse in March, 1970; Holsum Bakeries of Eau Claire,
Wisconsin, in April, 1970; Federal Bakery of Winona, Minnesota, in
March, 1970; Gough Bakeries, Inc., of Rice Lake, Wisconsin, in April
1970; Nesco Sign Corporation of La Crosse in August, 1970; and Gardener
Baking Company of Madison, Wisconsin, and Colvin Baking Company in
Janesville, Wisconsin, both in September, 1971.
The company’s principal brands are Special Export, Old Style, and
Mickey’s Malt Liquor, (all premium brands), and Blatz, Braumeister,
Drewerys, Kingsbury, Pfieffer, Schmidt, Sterling, and Wiedemann.
In 1972, sales were made in forty states, but most sales were made
in Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Indiana, Kentucky, and
The company’s beer is sold to retailers primarily through the
one thousand active independent retailers who accounted for approximately
ninety-seven per cent of the 1972 beer sales. The remaining beer sales
were made directly through company branches.
The G. Heileman Brewing Company’s own malting facilities produce
approximately thirty-six per cent of its requirements. Other raw
materials and supplies, including barley, hops, rice , corn grits, cans,
cartons, kegs, crowns, and labels are purchased from various
In 1972, the company was ranked eleventh in sales based on the
National Beer Wholesalers Association reports, and accounted for approximately
three per cent of total industry sales. In recent days, however,
Heileman Brewing Company has moved into the top ten breweries
The Zeisler Brewery, 1867-1902.
George Zeisler was born in Bavaria in 1825. He came to America
in 1853 and settled in Monroe County, Pennsylvania. He lived there nearly
years before coming to La Crosse in 1855. Zeisler lived in the
stone house that stands today at the corner of Second and Ferry Streets.
It was built for him in 1855 by Shepard, a leading stone mason. For the
next five years, Zeisler worked for C. L. Colman, a prominent local
lumberman. In 1860, he ran a small distillery on the lot south of his
home, manufacturing malt whiskey. In 1866, he entered into partnership
with Leonard Frey and started a meat market on Main Street. Zeisler
stayed in this business for eighteen months.
In 1867, George Zeisler entered into partnership with Otto Nagle,
and they built a brewery on Third Street. The original building was completed
in the fall of 1867. It was built of stone and was forty feet long, seventeen
feet wide, and three stories high. It cost $25, 000 and had a capacity of
one thousand barrels per year. This brewery was officially opened on
December 14, 1867, under the name “Plank Road Brewery.” In 1869,
Nagle withdrew from the business, leaving Zeisler to run it alone.
Several additions were made to the brewery. On January 16, 1874,
the main building caught fire and was completely gutted. The fire was discovered
at 1:00 AM in the bar-room but within fifteen minutes, the entire
structure was in flames. According to an account of the fire in the
REPUBLICAN AND LEADER: “The main building was soon completely
gutted by fire, which also quickly got into the cellars and, burning the
casks, vats, and hogs-heads, caused the creamy lager to flow in unavailing
streams ... By 3:00 AM, pretty much all that was combustible was
in the cellar, a glowing, smoking mass of fire.” The LA CROSSE
.JYLIBERAL DEMOCRAT’s account of the fire told of several problems
by the Fire Department: “The alarm was sounded and the steamer
oon on the spot ... The steamer took water from the La Crosse River
consequence, some 15, 000 feet of hose had to be used to reach the
burning structure. In some way, the hose became kinked and the steamer
had to be stopped in order to remedy the laying of the hose, when it was
discovered the steamer had froze up and would not work. The old steamer
was then sent for and worked admirably, and saved the dwelling of Mr.
Zeisler and perhaps portions of the walls of the brewery.”
The main building was completely destroyed, along with 2,000
bushels of barley and a large quantity of malt, hops, and beer. The loss
amounted to $10,000. Zeisler was insured at the Theodore Rudolph agency
Rebuilding of the plant was begun in the spring of 1874. It was
hoped the building would be completed for the July 4th celebration, but the
brewery again caught fire and was badly damaged.
The present structure was completed later in the summer of 1875.
The building measured 90 by 40 feet, and was four stories high. It was
built of brick and stone, and cost $35, 000. The brewery was made up of
three rooms. First was the brewery room, where the ingredients were
prepared and the beer was brewed. This room contained mashing tubs,
which held ten barrels; a mill for grinding grain; soaking tubs for malt,
which held one hundred twenty barrels; hot water kettles; and a beer-boiling
cauldron, under which there was a furnace. This could be boiled off three
or four times a day, giving the brewery a daily capacity of eighty-eight
barrels. Next was the cooling room, where the beer was cooled in large,
shallow reservoirs. The beer was aged in the winter room. This room
contained two cellars. Each cellar measured 75 by 25 feet, was fifteen
feet high, and had a total capacity of six hundred barrels.
In 1897, Zeisler admitted his two sons, Leonard and George, Jr.,
into the business, calling it “Zeisler and Sons Brewery.” After his wife
died on September 20, 1900, George Zeisler retired from the brewery,
leaving the business under the management of his sons. Zeisler spent his
time at home, supervising the army of domestic servants he employed. He
died at his home on August 14, 1902.
Soon after the funeral, Zeisler’s brewery was bought by the John
Gund Brewing Company and closed. The building stands today at the north
end of Third Street, now bearing a “Pittsburgh Paint and Glass” sign.
The Voegele (North Side) Brewery, 1888-1900.
This brewery was built in 1888 by two brothers—George F. and
John Voegele. It was located on the north side of La Crosse at 210 Mill
(now Copeland Avenue), and was called the North Side Brewery. It
bought at a foreclosure sale in 1900 by Jacob Erickson, the son-in-law of
Voegele. John Voegele died in 1898. (See Monitor Brewery).
By 1890, La Crosse had changed from a settlement trading post to
city, and local industry was growing. This was the era of big business
and La Crosse was affected the same way as other cities—the smaller,
family-owned businesses and the sole-proprietorships faded out as corporations
and trusts developed and grew. The breweries were affected by this
the only plants to survive were those which adopted modern business
practices. An excellent example of this is illustrated above, by the
way in which the John Gund Brewing Company, the city’s largest pre –Prohibition
corporation, bought out and closed the Zeisler brewery, a small,
family operation. This development caused the emergence of those breweries
which dominated the industry in La Crosse.
The Berlin Weiss Brewery, 1897-1906.
This operation was run by George H. Warninger and August Houthmaker.
It was part of the La Crosse Bottling Works, located at 510-520
South Third Street. This plant manufactured weiss beer (a pale wheat beer),
spruce beer, mineral water, and tonic.
Monitor Brewery, 1900-1934.
On August 23, 1864, Jacob L. Erickson was born in La Crosse.
His father was a native of Norway, making Erickson the only Norwegian
brewer in the city. He worked for eighteen years at the John Paul Lumber
Yard as the cashier and pay-master. On September 27, 1887, he married
Mary Voegele, daughter of John Voegele, who was part-owner of the North
In 1900, Erickson bought the Voegeles’ North Side Brewery at a
foreclosure sale. It was opened under the new ownership on April 2, 1900.
George Neukomm, formerly head brewmaster at the Heileman brewery,
became brewmaster at Erickson’s Monitor brewery, which was located on
Copeland Avenue near the intersection of Monitor Street. Most of the beer
was sold locally. On August 7, 1900, Erickson announced plans to add a
department to his brewery. During Prohibition, the Monitor
Brewery made “wort beer.” This was a mixture to which yeast was added.
The mixture was non-alcoholic and could legally be sold. This didn’t succeed,
however, and the brewery went out of business in 1934. Jacob Erickson
died in 1932, but his son Walter ran the brewery until its end.
The Kohn Brewery, 1900 only.
This brewery was run by Emil Kohn and was located between Fourteenth
and Sixteenth Streets on Barlow Street, probably at Kohn’s home.
Only two batches of beer were brewed. The first was a success, but someone
put breadcrumbs in the second batch and spoiled it. In addition to this
venture, Kohn and a group of four other men ran the Onalaska Brewing
Company until 1902, when it was converted into a pickle factory.
The George Kunz Brewing Company, 1933-1937?
This brewery was started by George C. Kunz in the autumn of 1933.
Kunz was given permission to take over the old Bartl Brewery at Twelfth
and La Crosse Streets on October 22, 1933. On August 6, 1934, the brewery
was taken over by Theodore Molzahn, who was named president of the
new company. John Hellwig was treasurer and William Euler was secretary.
The brewery closed in the early 1940’s. It was operating in the
building of the Bartl Brewery even though the Franz Bartl Brewing Company
was listed in city directories during the same time.
The Heinrich Brewery, about 1940?
This brewery was started by a Mr. Heinrich sometime after Prohibition
was repealed, possibly between 1935 and 1948. After this brewery
closed, Heinrich left La Crosse and started another brewery in Hilisboro,
The Zeigler’s Old Fashioned Brewery of La Crosse, Inc., 1948-about 1950?
This brewery was founded in 1948. In early September, 1948, the
following officers of the company were appointed: George E. Schneeberger,
president; K.R. Young, secretary; L. H. Pralle, treasurer and general
manager; and Stephen A. Potzxnann, brewmaster. The brewery closed
sometime around 1950.
In addition, there was a corporation that failed to materialize.
The Brewery Corporation, 1900-1902.
On September 1, 1900, plans were announced to consolidate four of
the breweries in La Crosse into one gigantic brewery trust, called the “La
Crosse Brewing Company.” The breweries involved in the deal were the
C & J Michel Brewing Company, the G. Heileman Brewing Company, the
Franz Bartl Brewing Company, and the Zeisler and Sons Brewery. Plans
had been made for this consolidation since 1898, but these were not made
public until 1900.
The man behind this trust was Otto W. Heibig of Chicago. He was
an accountant by trade, but had been devoting most of his time to the perfection
of an economic brewing system. He became interested in uniting
the Crosse breweries when he came to La Crosse in 1898 to help
install new brewing systems in the John Gund Brewing Company.
A prospectus of the new company was drawn up on September 1,
The price to be paid for the four breweries was $930, 000, while
the value of the four breweries and all their assets was appraised by Barrow,
Wade, Guthrie and Company at $937,414.49.
Articles of incorporation for the new business were filed on September
12, 1900. The articles were signed by Joseph Boschert (Mayor of La
Crosse from 1901-1903), Frank W. Bartl, Emil T. Muellers, Carl Michel,
George Zeisler, Jr., and W. F. Wolfe, the attorney for the corporation.
The capital stock of the company was $700, 000, in addition to $500, 000 in
bonds. This brought the total capitalization to $1, 250, 000. On September
12th, the four breweries were bought by the corporation for $900, 000.
On September 23, it was announced that construction of the brewery
was to begin soon. Several sites were under consideration. La Crosse’s
side put in a bid to have the brewery located there, at the site of an
sawmill. It was decided, however, to locate the brewery on the south
t the site of the old John Paul sawmill.
The brewery was designed by one of the country’s foremost brewery
architects, Otto C. Wolfe of Philadelphia. The estimated cost of the
structure was $300,000, and its estimated capacity was 400,000 barrels
per year. At this time, the Gund Brewery (not included in this combination)
was producing only 300, 000 barrels per year. It was decided to
convert the Bartl Brewery into an ale brewery, the Heileman brewery into
a malting plant, and the Michel and Zeisler plants into storehouses. The
combined output of this new La Crosse Brewing Company and the Gund
Monitor Breweries would make La Crosse one of the most important brewing
centers in the country.
mber 30, it was announced that H. P. Richards of Cincinnati
had agreed to buy the equipment and machinery of the four breweries
deal. He was planning to use the machinery in his own brewery
in Clarksburg, West Virginia, and at his two branch breweries in Salem
and Weston, Alabama. He bought the-equipment on October 23, 1900.
On November 17, 1900, rumors were spreading that the trust had
fallen through. Heibig had gone east. It was thought that he had skipped
town, but he actually had gone to negotiate with eastern financiers.
Finally, on January 13, 1901, the La Crosse Brewing Company was
organized, thus dispelling rumors of its demise. The officers of the compn
were: Joseph Boschert, president; Charles Michel, vice-president;
Frank Bartl, secretary; E. T. Mueller, treasurer. The directors were
G. Zeisler, Jr., Carl Michel, and Charles Pashe, cashier of the Iowa National
On February 17, 1901, the directors of the company met in attorney
Wolfe’s office. The details of the meeting were not given out, but it was
thought that the meeting was to decide on a location for the brewery.
On March 6, 1901, attorney Wolfe and Frank Bartl went to Chicago.
Their business was in connection with the brewery, but the details were
not given out.
Nothing more was heard of the brewery corporation until March 2,
1902, when A. C. Wolfe, brother of the attorney for the corporation,
announced the trust had fallen through because of opposition from officials
of the Heileman Brewery.
The brewing industry in La Crosse has undergone many changes
since its beginning in the 1850’s. At that time, almost every brewery had
its own boarding house where the workers lived. The average working day
ranged form twelve to eighteen hours. All the work in the brewery was
done by hand, slowly and tediously. For example, every new, keg had to be
made water-tight by pouring hot pitch into it and then rolling it back and
forth. When the brewers began to manufacture bottled beer, a problem
developed: how to clean the bottles. Simply soaking each bottle would not
be sufficient. The problem was solved, however, by placing a small quantity
of lead shot in each bottle and then shaking it by hand. A newspaper article
of 1932 told of a revolutionary new device called a soaking machine which
cleaned bottles by “automatically passing them through a caustic solution
and then on to the automatic brushing machine.”
Prior to 1860, brewing beer all year round was unheard of. At
that time, beer was a perishable product and had to be kept cold or it would
spoil. In consequence, the beer was brewed only during the winter and then
hauled to the bluffs along Mormon Coulee Road via sleigh. Caves had been
dug in the cliff-side and the beer was pumped into large wooden tanks in
There the beer was stored and used as needed during the summer
months. There were many times when the sleds, carrying large quantities
of kegs up to the caves, overturned and sent the full keg rolling down
It was in the early 1860’s that the local concerns first began using
river ice for refrigeration. Storage houses were built by all the breweries
and the beer was kept in them. This was a great deal more convenient
than hauling it to hillside caves. The typical ice house was a stone building,
usually only one story high, with walls no less than six feet thick. The
rooms of the Zeisler ice house were so cold that, according to an 1873 newspaper
account, “ice would scarcely melt in them.”
The next development came in 1890 when Pasteur discovered a
process for keeping beer from spoiling. This, of course, was pasteurization.
This allowed the brewing of beer at any time in the year. Between 1890 and
1900, electrical (artificial) refrigeration was introduced. This revolutionized
the industry, making possible a more efficient cooling process and better
In 1919, Congress passed the Prohibition amendment, making illegal
the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating beverages.
This had obvious effects on the brewing industry. Many breweries throughout
the country closed down permanently. Locally, however, the breweries
were closed only until May, when a New York judge ruled that the manufacture
of near beer (with an alcoholic content between 2. 3 per cent and 4 per
on the grounds that it was not intoxicating. Many breweries
then began making near beer, then called “war beer.” This was halted in
October, however, when Congress outlawed the manufacture of any beverage
content. After this, the local plants either began manufacturing
and bottling soda drinks, or closed permanently.
Many people ignored and violated the new law. Federal agencies
admit that violations occurred on a colossal scale. Home brewing operations
flourished throughout the country. Many La Crosse residents made
beer illegally. Since the finished product was usually crude and unrefined,
problems arose, the major one being the possibility of adding too
much sugar to the brew. This caused a great deal of carbon dioxide to
form, which created a tremendous pressure inside each bottle or jar and
bottle of home brew into something of a bomb. It was not
uncommon in those days for a home-brewer to wake up in the middle of the
night and hear his bottles of beer exploding in the cellar. One area farmer
bottles fifty quarts of hyperactive home brew and set the bottles in his
basement to age. One by one, the bottles began exploding and the family
was afraid to even go near the basement. After many proddings by his
wife, the farmer sorrowfully descended into the cellar with his rifle and
put the remaining bottles out of their misery.
By 1933, it was obvious that Prohibition was not succeeding. It
had been established to do away with all the social ills caused by liquor,
but it had just the opposite effect. “Speakeasies” and bootleggers were
common, organized crime flourished, and the great Depression was just
In 1933, the Prohibition amendment was repealed by the Twenty-
First Ammendment. The “great experiment” was over. Obviously,
this had an immediate beneficial effect on the brewing industry. Unfortunately,
howver, only about one-third of the breweries in La Crosse
reopened. The owners of the other breweries either went into other businesses
or died during the thirteen-year period of Prohibition.
During the thirteen years that the brewing industry had been dormant,
other industries emerged to take its place. In the same way that the sawmills
of La Crosse were replaced by breweries, so the breweries were replaced in
importance by other industries.
There were, however, three breweries in La Crosse which were
started after Prohibition was repealed. These were all small, short-lived
were all located in the Bartl brewery building; the Kunz, Heinrich,
and Ziegler breweries, discussed earlier.
La Crosse Breweries
Founder Brewery Name Dates
Nicolai Nicolai Brewery 1854-1857
Gund Empire Brewery 1854-1938
John Gund Brewing Company
Defenthaler Bluff Brewery 1856-about 1870
Michel La Crosse Brewery 1857-1950
C & J Michel Brewing Company, ltd.
La Crosse Refining Company
Bartl Eagle Brewery 1857-1950
Franz Bartl Brewing Company
Gund and Heileman City Brewery 1858-1872
Heileman City Brewery 1858-present
G. Heileman Brewing Company
Zeisler Plank Road Brewery 1867-1902
Zeisler and Sons
Voegle North La Crosse Brewery 1888-1898
Waringer and Berlin Weiss Beer Brewery 1897-1906
Erickson Monitor Brewery 1900-1934
Kohn Kohn Brewery 1900 only?
Kunz George Kunz Brewing Company 1934—“early 40’s”
Heinrich Heinrich Brewery? 1940 about
Ziegler Ziegler’s Old Fashioned Brewery of La Crosse, Inc. 1948-about 1950?
“La Crosse Republican. and Leader”
“Daily Liberal Democrat”
“La Crosse Morning Chronicle”
“La Crosse Tribune and Leader-Press”
“La Crosse Tribune”
“Memoirs of La Crosse County”
“History of La Crosse County”
“Biographical History of La Crosse, Trempealeau, and Buffalo Counties”
“Pen and Sunlight Sketches of the Principal Cities in Wisconsin”
“La Crosse County Historical Sketches” (Series 4 and 5)
“Wisconsin Brewers and their Bottles”
Sanford’s “A History of La Crosse”
“La Crosse of Today”
“Bureau of Labor Statistics” (Annual report)
“Wisconsin Public Documents”
“Wisconsin and Minnesota Gazetteer”
Wisconsin State Directories
Lacrosse City Directories
Articles of Incorporation (County Court House)
G. Heileman Brewing Company records (Main Off