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Potosi History

The California Mania in Wisconsin

Source: Carlisle Herald, 17 Apr 1850; transcribed by MCK

For the last two weeks, California teams, says the Potosi (Grant co.) Republican, have been constantly passing through our streets. The number of good, substantial men that are passing from our midst, will have its effects upon our country.

That Good Old Potosi

The Milwaukee Sentinel, 10 Apr 1955; transcribed by MCK

By David Lippert

Potosi, Wis.--The Steamboat Potosi was a welcome sight for thirsty Mississippi River fishermen back around 1900. After a hard day's work, there was nothing like a mug of "good old Potosi beer," and the Potosi supplied the brew.

Owned and operated by the Potosi Brewing Co., of Potosi, the 147-foot steamboard had room for 25 teams of horses with loads on the lower deck and 200 passengers on the upper. It would make two daily round trips from this southwestern Wisconsin village to the Dubuque market and also supplied transportation for local farmers and their produce.


The crew would heave the wooden barrels overboard near the many fishing camps which dotted the shoreline. The kegs floated in the water and the fishermen rowed out from shore to pick them up.

Such was life in southwestern Wisconsin in those days--an rea when the Mississippi still was the main traffic artery for the area and the chief weekend entertainment was to head for the river to fish or just sit and watch the riverboats go by.

Improved railroads and the development of cars made such riverboats as the Potosi obsolete. But the brewery lives on, proud of its colorful history and traditions.


The brewery is located on the edge of Wisconsin's lead and zinc mining district in a village that originally was a mining town.

The origin of the word "potosi" is unusual in itself. "Potosi" is Spanish for "lead." One version is that the village was named after a Missouri mining town of the same name. Another version is that the town is named after the city of Potosi, in Bolivia, which is located in an extinct volcano 13,000 feet above sea level.

The word has an Inca Indian background. It seems that in the Incas' phonetic language, "photojsi" (?) means "explosion."

The Wisconsin Potosi developed after lead was discovered in a cave there in 1832. By 1845, it was a boom town of 1,300 persons, including many immigrants from the Rhine valley in Germany. They brought with them the know-how of making good wine. By 1860 the community was as well known for its wine as for lead and was often called the American Rhineland.

The Mississippi River runs virtually from west to east in this area, and the bluffs provided sunny, southern slopes ideal for grape vines.


The wine industry, however, became a Prohibition casualty. The area long since has been mined out. So, for the past 35 years, the brewery has been the village's only industry and, incidentally, mainstay of the economy.

The brewery was founded in 1852 by Gabriel Hail, an Englishman. In 1886, the brewery was purchased by a German immigrant, Adam Schumacher, who had been engaged in similar work at nearby British Hollow.

Schumacher started making lager, the traditional German beer, and in a few years was joined by a brother, Nicholas. A third brother, Henry, came from Germany to be brewmaster, while a fourth, Conrad, in Germany, also had an interest. They and their descendants have operated the brewery every since.

The brewery's site was based on the discovery of a stream of ice cold spring water gushing from an opening in solid rock. The original rate of water flow of 200 gallons a minute continues undiminished after all these years. the site also was ideal because of the rock bluffs, excellent for carving out cool caverns where the beer was aged in cypress vats. Today modern glass lined metal vats are used, but three of the old cypress vats have been reconditioned and are still in use.


The brewery presently employs about 50 men, about one tenth of the 556 population. Annual production is 40,000 to 50,000 barrels, which is enough to take care of a five county market area in Wisconsin, besides northern Illinois and eastern Iowa. Virtually every tavern in Grant County seems to have the familiar brown and white sign with the slogan, "Good Old Potosi Beer."

It is the only surviving brewery of Grant County and successfully weathered the Prohibition era which brought an end to many small town breweries.


With the coming of the Volstead Act after World War I, the Schumachers obtained a "de-alcoholizer" and went into the production of near-beer. Throughout Prohibition, the company managed to keep 20 to 30 men on its payroll. This went a long way toward keeping the village financially solvent.

The four Schumachers who presently operate the brewery are cousins, all descendants of the four Schumacher brothers. They are Adolph, president and general manager; Walter, secretary; Adam, vice president and head brewmaster, and Rudolph, bottling house foreman.

Brewery Fate Awaits Study - Old La Crosse Firm

The Milwaukee Journal, 15 Mar 1956; transcribed by MCK

La Cross, Wis.--The fate of a century old brewery here should be decided within a few weeks.

Willard E. Fantle, sr., president of Peerless Beer, Inc., said Wednesday: "We just can't say right now what we're going to do." He added that a survey of the brewery is to be made by engineers and that their report on the condition of the machinery will have considerable effect on what course the company follows.

Brewing operations have been shut down. Potosi Brewing Co., Potosi, Wis., is brewing and packaging beer for Peerless under a temporary arrangement.

Until the name was changed recently, the firm was known as La Crosse Breweries, Inc. Fantle said the change was made to get the brand name into the title.

The other brewery in La Crosse, G. Heileman Brewing Co., has no connection with Peerless.

Like many other breweries, Peerless has been hit by declining sales. Production of 32,479 barrels during 1955 was off 21% from the 1955 output.

Fantle, previously a stockholder but not active in management, became president last November when Carl F. Michael, whose family had long operated the brewery, moved up to board chairman.

Potosi Brewery's Old Ads Becoming Collectors' Items

The Milwaukee Sentinel, 30 Apr 1962; transcribed by MCK

Potosi, Wis., April 29 (Special) Everyone knows that beer is a work of art, savored by artists and artisans alike. Now it appears the brewers also have created an art form in their advertising.

Potosi Brewing Co., 110 years of age, has created several beer ads which have been recognized by collectors of Americana.

One of them was selected for publication in the new book, "Brewed in America," a history of beer and ale in the United States by Stanley Baron.

When the Pilgrims landed in 1620, the good ship Mayflower was almost out of beer, according to Baron. In their haste to return to Britain and more beer, the ship's crew dumped the passengers ashore at Plymouth Rock instead of Manhattan.

Potosi's first beer was brewed more than 230 years later, also by an Englishman, Gabriel Hale.

But by then--1852--German immigrants were making a mark on brewing which still endures. Their lager beer replaced English ale, porter and stout in American tastes.

The Potosi brewery in Grant County was purchased in 1886 by a German, Adam Schumacher, who was joined by two brothers, Nicholas and Henry.


It is still run by the family. Adolph, son of Nicholas, is president. Walter, son of adam, is secretary; and Rudolph, son of Henry, is bottling superintendent.

A son-in-law, Edward Ragatz, is executive vice president; and Rudolph's son, Robert, represents the third Schumacher generation.

Potosi once had 2,500 people and a main street three miles long. Its prosperity came from lead mining and the river trade.

Now the population is under 600, and the brewery, employing 42, is the only industry. The oversized main street is still there and is long enough to give each resident 60 feet of frontage.


Spring water still gushes out of the river bluff to brew Potosi beer as it has for over a century. Gone from the hillsides are the grape vineyards which once gave Potosi the name of American Rhineland.

Prohibition ended winemaking here but did not end brewing. The Schumachers simply attached a de-alcoholizer to their cooker and produced near-beer.

The unit released excess alcohol into the air, where it was both odorless and useless. When beer returned, the unit was shut off and the brewery was back in business as before.

Business was so good that Potosi had no one on public relief during the Depression. The brewery now has a capacity of 65,000 barrels, but its production in 1961 was 43,381 barrels.

This is more than 17 million bottles, but the biggest breweries make that much beer in a week.

Prohibition put an end to a beer ferry which took aboard fully loaded horse-drawn wagons every day for delivery in Dubuque, Iowa, a dozen miles downriver.

The ferry later sank near St. Louis, but the Schumachers and their brewery are still bobbling merrily in a sea of beer.

Potosi Born On Spring, Icy Caverns

The Milwaukee Sentinel, 30 Apr 1969; transcribed by MCK

A beer break can be a holiday, according to A. W. Schumacher, president of the Potosi Brewing Co., Potosi, Wis.

The firm, founded in 1852, brews a premium beer labeled Holiday in addition to the widely popular Potosi beer, in a fortresslike structure carved into the lime rock of a Mississippi river hillside.

The building site was based on the discovery of a stream of ice cold spring water gushing from an opening in the rock, and the bluff facilitated the construction of underground cellars ideal for the aging of beer before artificial refrigeration became a brewing way of life, according to Schumacher.

Modern, glass lined, metal vats still are housed in the icy caverns, however, and the principle has not changed much in 117 years.

The Grant county area once was known as the American Rhineland and the thriving river port known as Snake Hollow in the middle of the 19th century attracted lead miners and sturdy Rhinelanders carried the secrets of winemaking into the community with them.

The miners moved west for the California gold rush but the winemakers didn't. In 1852, an Enlighs family named Hale established the brewery that was acquired in 1866 by Adam Schumacher, whose descendants have run the business to this day.

During Prohibition, the winemakers were forced out of business in the community, but the brewery decreased the alcoholic content of its product to less than half of 1% and turned out enough near beer to keep 20 to 30 villagers employed through the depression.

The business grew and the popularity of Potosi grew with it, into northern Illinois and Iowa. During the days when the Big River reached farther inland, the beer was shipped across to Dubuque, Iowa, aboard the brewery's own steamboat.

Potosi is proud of its river heritage. A painting which once appeared on a beer tray, "Camping on the Mississippi," showed fishing, ferrying and picnicking on the river, and plenty of Potosi clearly is visible in the scene. The painting now hangs in a Chicago museum and has been cited as an outstanding example of a particular form of Americana known as "beer art."

Last year, the company's 45 employees were responsible for the production of more than 64,000 barrels of beer and, in the process, earned a total of $266,966.70, according to Schumacher.

Potosi Brewery Plans to Close

The Milwaukee Journal, 25 Sep 1972; transcribed by MCK

Potosi, Wis.--AP--Distributors for the Potosi Brewing Co. have received letters from the firm telling them that the company will cease brewing operations in the near future.

However, the letters from the firm said two of the brands, Potosi and Holiday beer, would be brewed by the Joseph Huber Brewing Co. in Monroe.

The Potosi firm has been in existence for 120 years and at one time brewed 60,000 barrels a year and sold its products in Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota. About 50 persons in the town of 600 are employed at the brewery.

Once Roaring Heart of US Lead Mining, Potosi Now Leads Quietly Into Time Past

The Milwaukee Sentinel, 13 May 1977; transcribed by MCK

By MARTIN HINTZ (Special to The Sentinel)

Potosi, Wis.--Potosi dozes under the warm sun. It's a long, one street village hung on the edges of the Grant County bluffs in southwestern Wisconsin. The casual motorist would never know this tiny town was once the biggest community along this stretch of the mid-Mississippi. It ranked with Galena, Ill., in a fierce struggle for economic supremacy.

Traders from the river towns and posts clear up to Fort Snelling (now on the outskirts of Minneapolis), lumbermen from the Kickapoo and Wisconsin Rivers, the surveyors from Dubuque and Mineral Point and the hundreds of teamsters coming from Illinois with their 10 ox hitches, heading for the prairies of Iowa and further west--all provisioned here in this once bustling outpost.

But that was in 1845, when the "gold" of the district--tons of chalky lead ore--could be dug almost by hand from the same hills seen by today's visitor. The sucker pits, huge depressions dug by early miners, still pock this land. Yet, slowly, the scrub brush and pasture are reclaiming nature's own.

The town has dwindled to a population of 713, a far cry from the 9,000 or 10,000 who crowded the area before the Civil War. Potosi was more of a township then, a string of several communities along what is now Highway 133, the Great River Road.

If a traveler has an eye for history, he or she can spot the root cellars, the crumbled foundations, the shattered walls of the outlying neighborhoods: the French settled in Lafayette, the Dutch in Van Buren, the Spanish in Buena Vista, the ENglish in British Hollow, the Germans in Tennyson, the Irish in Snake Hollow (now Potosi) and an amalgamation of a hundred other nationalities in Rockville.

The road connecting these mini-nations wound some five miles through the bluffs, making it the longest one street town in the America of its day. Most of the residents were miners, either rugged immigrants or veterans from the southern Missouri and Illinois diggings.

The traveler can see the remains of their hotels, mess halls and smelting furnaces--tumbled ruins where cows graze now. Along British Hollow Rd., just off Highway 61 that connects with 133, stand the remains of one of the large furnaces where lead was melted down into ingots. The place has been undisturbed for more than 100 years. Only the entrance has been crumbled by tree roots and erosion. The inside is ready for firing again, it seems.

Though the mines played out in the 1870s and were shut down, Vern Ihm, 43, still remembers picking up chunks of lead from streambeds in the area after a heavy rain. He and his brothers would sell the lead to neighbors who still did some mining on their back acres.

"I remember walking home from school and putting the lead in my lunch bucket. I got interested in the history of our county then, as well as started studying rock formations and geology," says Ihm, who later moved to a Milwaukee suburb.

But Ihm came back to Potosi. He had the chance to purchase the St. John Mine, the original lode discovered by French explorer Nicolas Perrot in 1690. All those delights of the childhood days came rushing back, says Ihm when he heard that the mine was for sale. He got the place on a land contract in 1969 and has opened the site for tourists.

An amateur historian, Ihm can rattle off facts on the district like a chute full of ore trumbling down the bluff. His mine is high on a ridge above Potosi, directly across from St. Andrew's Catholic Church on the west side of town, right on Highway 133.

"The government didn't have enough lead for its military arms after the War of 1812," says Ihm, "so it instituted a federal subsidy of 30 cents per pound from 1827 to 1829.

"This brought on a 'lead rush' to the valley, although the place had been mined since shortly after it was discovered by Perrot."

The mine was purchased by early settler Willis St. John in 1827. St. John dug 250,000 pounds of the ore from the hill in his first year, netting $75,000. The next year, he mined 200,000, for another $60,000. The mine continued strong until the Gold Rush of 1849 decimated the town, as well as most of the territory around Potosi. Despite a surge in mining during the Civil War, when all the lead for the Union armies was supplied by a five county area around Potosi, the sites were abandoned shortly after the war as the huge deposits dwindled.

Admission to the St. John Mine is $2 for adults and $1 for children ages 6 to 11. The facility is open from Memorial Day to Labor Day. A maximum of eight persons at a time are escorted into the "drifts," tunnels that extend about 1,500 feet into the cliff. Everyone is given a hard hat for safety.

Touring Potosi: historic lead-mining town

The Milwaukee Sentinel, 20 Jun 1981; transcribed by MCK

The Potosi Township Historical society has put together a 12-mile, self-guided tour of this historic lead-mining area in southwestern Wisconsin.

Part of the tour is a surrey ride which begins at the St. John Mine, a national historic site in this Mississippi River town.

The surrey starts from the mine, across from the site of an old underground lead-smelting furnace. Also on the tour is the old Potosi brewery which closed in 1972.

The surrey goes to the banks of the Mississippi River, overlooking the old port of Potosi. This large shallow bay was once the largest river port on the upper Mississippi. It is now full of beaver houses.

The surrey ride is about one hour long. Tickets are $3 for adults, $1 for children ages 5 to 17, free for children under age 5, or $10 per family. A minimum of six persons is required for the tour.

Visitors to the area can also explore the St. John Mine, a natural cave set in a limestone bluff. Lead was discovered here by French explorer Nicholas Perrot in 1690.

Inside, the cave is covered with onyx, lead and zinc ore. Lead was called "gray gold" when the mine was operating.

Because it was a shallow mine, activity stopped in 1870.

The mine tours are $3.50 for persons age 12 and older and $1.50 for children age 5 to 11.

Camping facilities are located at the Grant River Recreation Area on the banks of the Mississippi River. The park, maintained by the US Army Corps of Engineers, has free camping.

Museum planned for what ales you

Reading Eagle, 10 Jul 2004; transcribed by MCK

The American Breweriana Association has passed over such well-known beer towns as Milwaukee, Chicago and St. Louis to locate its new National Brewery Museum in Potosi, Wis.

Potosi may be small--only 726 people in a village perched on the banks of the Mississippi River--but it knows its beer. In fact, it had its own: the Potosi Brewery pumped out Potosi beer from 1852 to 1972, distributing it throughout the Midwest and as far as California.

The new museum will be on the old brewery site.

Village President Frank Fiorenza noted that the town had already committed to restoring the brewery when residents heard the association was looking for a spot for the museum, which is slated to open in a few years. It will include items from association members' collections of beer cans, bottles, trays, glasses, ads, and other brewery memorabilia.

"There are still lots of people in Potosi who worked at the brewery," Fiorenza said. "It's a major part of the community."

Bottle collection may end up in beer museum

Bangor Daily News, 24 Dec 2004; transcribed by MCK

Danielle Arnet, The Smart Collector

Q. I inherited a collection of over 1,600 bottles of beer from my father. All are full, with intact labels. My family would love to give them to a beer museum or some place that would display them. Selling would be only a distant second choice. Any ideas?--Carol, Green Valley, Ariz.

A. Befitting the holiday, today's column has a "feel good" resolution. Here's one situation that could be a gift for all involved.

Briefly, the writer explained that the collection was amassed over 50 years of searching, plus visiting breweries. Built in Wisconsin--where beer really matters--the collection, arranged in alphabetical order, filled basement shelves. Visitors loved to challenge the owner with names of obscure brands, hoping he'd missed one. It rarely happened.

Currently in St. Louis (another beer capital), the collection is expensive to store, and, need we mention, heavy. Long-distance moving could be a problem. Considering the circumstances, a permanent home in or near the Midwest seemed ideal. Through a coup of timing and luck, that's exactly what happened.

Beer collecting of all sorts (ads, bottles, labels, sign, etc.) is a collecting category called breweriana. Collectors in that field are not only knowledgeable; they are collegial and well connected. To our delight, one contact led to another. Dave Herewig, archivist at Miller Brewing Co.--yes, they have an archivist--pointed us to a National Brewery Museum in Potosi, Wis.

Still in the planning stages, the museum will give the U.S. a much-needed major player in the smaller number of world museums devoted to beer. Already, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, Japan, and several European cities have brewery-museums of note.

A joint venture of the American Breweriana Association and the Potosi Brewery Foundation, the new museum meets needs for both partners. ABA previously considered St. Louis and Milwaukee, but those plans fell through. Potosi, about 20 miles northeast of Dubuque, Iowa, had already launched their plan, drafting a multimillion dollar plan to convert the old Potosi Brewery, in operation from 1852 until 1972, into a 30,000 square-foot facility incorporating exhibit space, a microbrewery, restaurant, beer garden, and a library. Once representatives from the ABA visited the site, the National Brewery Museum was in the works.

Raising money is a major focus (a $449,574 federal grant is guaranteed), as is gathering museum content. Recent donations include 49 different state mirrors in a collection of Stroh Brewery state mirrors [sic], an original 1878 IRS retail liquor license and boxes of breweriana publications.

Pending a family decision, the 1,600 bottles may well end up in the museum. Wouldn't that have pleased the collector who amassed the collection with such care and love? Stay tuned--we'll keep you posted.

FYI: The ABA site, with membership info, is Send contributions for the museum fund to ABA Museum Fund, P.O. Box 1645, Mabank, TX 75147. Suggestions for donation go to Tye Schwalbe.

State grant to aid restoration of brewery

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 6 Jun 2005; transcribed by MCK

Potosi--Restoration of the Potosi Brewery--which operated in this southwestern Wisconsin community for more than a century--has gotten a $400,000 boost from the state.

Gov. Jim Doyle announced the grant Wednesday for the Potosi Brewery Foundation, Inc., which is overseeing the $3.6 million project.

When completed, the restored brewery will house the National Brewery Museum, the Potosi Brewery Museum, the Great River Road Interpretive Center, a microbrewery and a restaurant.

About 40 to 50 people are expected to be employed at the complex.

The grant is from the Brownfields Program of the state Department of Commerce. The grants are used to foster the return to productive use of unused industrial or commercial properties that are contaminated or perceived as contaminated.