Gone....But Not Forgotten
The Peerless Beer Legacy
The story of the John Gund Brewery is a story of the American Dream. Many immigrants came to the US in search of a new and better life. John Gund accomplished this goal and became one of the forefathers of the modern beer industry.
John Gund was born in Schwetzingen, Germany in 1830. He was the second of eight children. After finishing this education at the common schools he began an apprenticeship working at a brewery in the winter.
John Gund arrived in New York on May 16, 1848. Shortly after arriving in New York the family moved to Freeport, Illinois. After his fathers and mothers death in 1850 of cholera, Gund married Louise Hottman and in1852 moved to Dubuque, Iowa. Gund added to his earlier knowledge by working at the brewery of Anton Heeb.
In 1854 Gund pack up and left the brewery and Iowa to move to LaCrosse, WI. John Gund’s first Brewery was a far cry from what was to come of this legend. His first brewery was in a log cabin he built at the corner of Front and Division Street. In just 4 years Gund sold the cabin and entered into a partnership with Gottlieb Heileman. These two men built and opened the City Brewery in 1854. (Reopened 1999)
In 1872, Gund sold his share of City Brewery to Heileman and began building the Empire Brewery on South Ave. When opened the brewery had 9 buildings: Main Building, Storage Cellars, Brew house, Icehouse, office, Malt House, Dry Kiln, Engine House, and across the street the Bottle House. Later, a second Bottle house was built. The total cost of the brewery was $250,000. Empire Brewery had a staff of 25 people and was able to produce 30 thousand barrels per year. Much of the beer was exported, but much was used to supply the city’s bars.
The John Gund Brewing Company opened May 1, 1880 with only $100,000 capital. John appointed his family member to officer positions. These included: John Gund- President, Henry (??)- Traveling Agent, George Gund (??)- Manager, and John Gund Jr.- Bookkeeper.
(Wife Died 1880 of severe cold.)
The John Gund Brewing Company was booming. The brewery covered 5 acres and produced 60 thousand barrels of beer in 1897. Many of the neighboring states benefited from this fine brew. Gund Beer was shipped all over Wisconsin, Dakota, Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, and Nebraska. Everything John Gund has built almost came crashing down the night of September 25, 1897. This night the city of LaCrosse witnessed a “one of the most destructive fires in the history of LaCrosse”(Baier, 1976). The fire was reported at 1:00am and was finally put out by noon the next day. The fire destroyed much of the Gund Brewery. The estimated damage of the fire totaled $200,000. Only the Engine house and cold storage could be saved. Insurance only covered $125,000. Fortunately enough beer was saved to allow for the brewery to fill orders and continue operation until the brewery was rebuilt. Clean up and rebuilding began the next day.
The new brewery was finished on April 16, 1898. The new brewery was larger, consisting of 8 buildings: Brew house, bottling house (now next to Brew house), mill house, dry house, hop storage, and malt house. It was also improved. New modern machinery and equipment was added. The new brewery even contained an elevator. Gund even prepared for another catastrophe by making the new brewery fireproof.
Business was again booming for the Gund Brewery. Capital stock for the company climbed to two million dollars. Unfortunately tragedy again strikes the Gund Brewery. This time the tragedy goes to the top. After fighting apoplexy for many months John Gund dies of the disease on May 7, 1901. In honor of a great man the brewery shut down for the day. Leadership of the John Gund Brewery now rests in the hands of Henry Gund and rumors spread like wildfire that the brewery would be moved to Omaha, Nebraska.
The John Gund Brewery survived and thrived after, yet another devastating disaster. By 1900 Gund Brewery became the “largest brewery in the old Northwest, outside of Milwaukee” (Baier, 1976). The World was beginning to take notice of Gund’s Peerless Beer. This became evident when in 1900 it won a metal at the Paris Exposition and in 1904 won the Gold metal at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (World Fair in 1904). The explosion in popularity caused for an increase in production. This need caused the increase of works to 450 in 1910. This year the brewery produced over 600,000 barrels of beer.
Soon the final blow would come to the brewery. In 1919 the 18th amendment was enacted. So began the years of Prohibition. The Brewery closed its doors. Luckily, on May 27th a law was passed making it legal to produce “war time” beer. Wartime beer was beer that was limited to 2.3%-4% alcohol content. The doors to the John Gund Brewery opened again to produce this beer. Still struggling, the brewery was it with another problem. The Brewery Workers Union in Lacrosse went on strike. The brewery was hit hard, offering jobs to men, woman, and children to help fill the void created by the strike.
The straw that finally breaks the John Gund Brewery’s back was the complete Prohibition. The Gund Brewery closed its doors for good later that year just as many other breweries throughout the US were doing.
The two brothers, Charles and John, founded the Michel’s Brewery. They were born in St. Goer Germany. Charles in 1826 and John in 1831. Charles came to America in 1847. He worked on a farm near Buffalo until the remainder of his family came to America in 1848. The entire family moved to Philadelphia.
Stories about wealth attract the young men out west. They returned after several year dispirited, California was not paved with gold. Soon stories of the Midwest attracted the young men and they packed up again and headed for St. Paul. The ice on the Mississippi River trapped the pair at Lake Pepin, so they returned to LaCrosse for the winter. They liked the area and set up a contracting business.
In 1856, they realized that LaCrosse was in need of a new brewery. John Gund’s “cabin” brewery was not able to handle the demand for beer. They built a brewery on the corner of Third and Division. Their first brew master was Gottleib Heileman, who later left to enter a partner ship with John Gund and the two founded the City Brewery. As production increased they expanded across the street. This brewery was named the LaCrosse Brewery.
In 1872, Charles Michel married Louise Gund, daughter of John Gund.
In 1882, the company was worth $150,000. They then changed its name to C & J Michel Brewing Company. At this point the brewery covered 5 acres and had 8 building: Brew house, malt house, ice house, bottle house, copper shop, engine house, stables, and later added a large ice making plant. By 1893 the company owned several refrigerators cars that transported the beer all over Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. At this time the brewery employed 60 men and a team of 15 horses used for in town deliveries.
The brewery moved in 1907 to the west side of Third Street. The brewery increased the production of over 100,000,000 barrels of beer per year. At this time their labels included “Elfenbrau,” Wisconsin Best,” and “Perfection.”
Carl Michel took over and Prohibition caused the brewery to change is name to LaCrosse Refining Company and to convert the plant to the manufacture of malt syrups for breakfast cereals and home brewing of beer.
The repeal of Prohibition breathed new live into the brewery. Many breweries did survive this troubled times, but Michel’s did. One of the breweries that did not was the John Gund Brewery and its world famous Peerless label. Michel bought the well-known label and began bottling it. The Michel’s bothers continued to bottle Wisconsin Best label still used. They also changed the name to LaCrosse Breweries Inc. Since reopening in 1933 LaCrosse breweries were plagued with problems. The company was forced into receivership. They hired brew master Paul Glomp who brought the products up to standard. Soon the company was able to post earning and came out of receivership. After Glomp’s departure in 1946 a new brew master was hired. He allowed for the beer to be contaminated and sales fell.
In 1950 the brewery had 88 employees and peaking at 150 employees. In 1956 the local union went on strike and the workers of the LaCrosse Breweries walked out and the brewery closed its doors.
In 1955 a decision was made to sell the brewery. Ads were placed in the Wall Street Journal, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland papers, but with no results.
1999 when my father and I started our collection I wanted to learn more about
the brewery, so I sent a letter to Ted Solie who responded with much
information. This section makes a
much better story as told by Ted Solie. Note:
I have edited some of the letter for space)
father in law, Carl Michel, in November so 1955, suggested that a man by the
name of Louis Greenberg [financial genius of Al Capone’s mod] might be
interested in buying Breweries. I
made a business trip to Chicago in the middle of November 1955 [and] made
a phone call to Mr. Greenberg at the Canadian Ace Brewing Co., which he owned.
The brewery originally was owned and operated by Al Capone’s henchmen.
Frank Nitti was a major stockholder in the brewery and also became leader
of Capone’s mod when Capone was imprisoned in the early 1930s for income tax
evasion. Frank Nitti committed suicide and at that time his stock was purchased
for the Nitti family by Louis Greenberg.
phone operator at the Canadian Ace Brewery told me that Mr. Greenberg was in
Miami, but he had a direct line and if I would hold for a minute she could make
the connection. Mr. Greenberg then
answered stating that he would be interested in discussing the proposal and
would see us in Chicago when he returned. On my return to LaCrosse, I met with
Willard Fantle and Jon Bunge giving them the information, stating Mr. Greenberg
will call on his return to Chicago.
days prior to thanks giving, 1955, Mr. Greenberg called and suggested the thee
of us come to Chicago, meeting him at the Seneca hotel. Mr. Greenberg owned the
arrived at the Seneca and met Mr. Greenberg in the lobby.
He was engage with friends in the restaurant of the hotel, telling us he
would me with us in our suite on the top floor of the Seneca.
He also had reservations for us in the dining room.
Greenberg then came to our suite, told us of his history, [editor side
note]. The following day we
accompanied Greenberg to the Canadian Ace Brewery where we discussed the sale.
I recalled Greenberg called his financial man into the meeting who gave
us a review of the financial condition of the Canadian Ace.
I recall it showed an excess of one million dollars in cash with no
liabilities. In retrospect, I felt
the statement indicated Canadian Ace was a funnel for illicit moneys derived
form gang related activity.
was planned Mr. Greenberg and his assistants would come to LaCrosse to look over
the Peerless Beer plant.
was agreed Mr. Fantle, Bunge, and Solie would meet Greenberg in Chicago within a
few days to finalize the sale. We then made the trip and it was agreed that the
sale would be made. Greenberg
wanted me to run the LaCrosse operation, reporting to him.
On the return trip to LaCrosse in the bar car of the Zephyr I stated I wanted no part in the deal as I could see nothing but horror deriving from such an association. [LaCrosse breweries used as money laundering operation for the mob]
must be recalled that the sale deal was verbally agreed upon by Mr. Fantle who
owned or controlled 85% of the brewery stock.
To legitimize the sale, however, it had to be approved by the Alcohol and
Tobacco Tax Department of the US Treasury.
I was to have met with Mr. Allen Schultz, an attorney, who was Mr.
Greenberg’s son in law, the following day in Chicago and then fly to
Washington, DC with him for signatures. When
I told Mr. Fantle I wanted out, he said, “ Well, what do you want to do?”
I responded, “I suggest we close the brewery operation and license the
Potosi Brewery of Potosi, Wisconsin to brew Peerless Beer, and sell much of our
inventory of kegs, bottles, cases, malt, hops, etc. to Potosi.”
Willard Fantle then said, “Okay, if that is what you want to do, go
ahead.” On arrival at the Zephyr
station in LaCrosse I phoned Adolph Schumacher, President of Potosi and related
what I had in mind. He said,
“meet me in Chicago in the office of his business advisor an LaSalle Street
must be borne in mind I was to meet Allen Schultz the next morning for a flight
to Washington. When I did not
appear, Mr. Greenberg called me wondering where I was.
I told him to call Mr. Fantle, who told Greenberg the deal was off as we
had changed our minds.
night, Mr. Greenberg was murdered at a restaurant near the Canadian Ace Brewery
where he and his wife had had dinner. That
night, radio station WGN Chicago, broadcast a twosome from LaCrosse, Wisconsin
were to be investigated. Mr.
Greenberg had our names and telephone numbers in his wallet.
in the summer of 1956, Mr. Fantle told me he had bought a store in the Miracle
Mile in Minneapolis and was moving to that city. I then suggested we make a deal whereby I would purchase his
stock in the brewery, which would involve accepting the liabilities of
approximately $250,000. We agreed
upon terms whereby Mr. Fantle severed himself from ownership and I proceeded to
liquidate the machinery and equipment then rehabilitate the real estate for
So ends the legacy of Peerless Beer. Potosi continued to bottle Peerless beer for a few years, but it eventually fizzled away. It should be noted that Ted Solie did make some attempts to bring it back. In 1991 he proposed a Brew Pub, which would continue producing Peerless Beer on a Microbrew scale. The idea was ahead of its time. Now just a few years later there are Brew Pubs everywhere. The Michel’s Building was torn down in 199. A great beer and legacy now ends.
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