A drive through southwestern Wisconsin takes travelers over bluffs, past farms, and into villages that have maintained much of their character from the pre-bypass era. Even Highway 61 goes right through Lancaster, Boscobel, and Fennimore. The region was at the center of the lead rush of the 1820s and 1830s. But as the ore played out, farmers moved in, many of them German.
The rugged terrain made communication between cities difficult during the 19th century, which meant it was difficult to transport heavy goods such as kegs of beer. The claim “every little town had its own brewery” may be closest to true in southern Wisconsin. Wisconsin’s first two breweries were located in Mineral Point and Elk Grove, rather than in Milwaukee or somewhere else on the Lake Michigan shore. A brewery was often one of the largest businesses in town, and its tall plant and smokestack towered above the countryside. Wisconsin’s culture enabled small town breweries to survive in the face of competition from the giants better than any other state. The “heritage breweries” in Chippewa Falls, Stevens Point, and Monroe are living testimony to the state’s fierce devotion to its local products, but many other small breweries endured through the 1960s and 1970s. Rice Lake, Fountain City, and Mineral Point all kept their breweries alive longer than seemed possible or rational, as did Potosi.
The Village of Potosi lies just off Highway 61 in Grant County, near Platteville—about a five-hour drive from the Twin Cities. According to the most recent census, the village has 688 residents, and claims the title of having the longest Main Street in the world without a cross street. Among the properties on the National Register of Historic Places is the Potosi Brewing Company, which was established by German immigrant farmer Gabriel Hail. He began brewing on his farm in 1852 and started construction of his brewery two years later. Like many brewers, he located his brewery near some existing caves in the nearby bluffs to age his lager beer. Over the next two decades business went up and down, and the Hail family sold the brewery in the 1880s. Adam Schumacher, who had worked at the brewery during the last years of Hail ownership, returned to take over the brewery in 1886, and the Schumacher family would operate the brewery for the next eighty-six years.
The Schumacher brothers incorporated the Potosi Brewing Co. in 1906, and began a program of expansion and upgrades that many of their smaller rivals in the area were unable to match. They built a bottling house, an office, a tavern, stables, and the campus eventually included thirty-five structures. The brewery itself grew taller and bigger to accommodate a 100 bbl brew kettle and other equipment. While Prohibition hurt the beer business, the Schumachers’ company was diversified enough to survive the dry spell, and their near beer actually expanded their business into Minnesota and other states.
The Potosi Brewing Co. was selling beer a week after it was re-legalized in 1933, and joined the approximately 700 breweries that opened or reopened to slake the thirst of a parched nation. Many closed quickly due to financial problems or overwhelming competition, but Potosi was among the many that weathered the storms of World War II and the urbanization of America. The company had built a solid following in Wisconsin, Illinois, and southern Minnesota, and “Good Old Potosi” beer could be found in taverns and stores all over the region. As the industry changed, the Schumachers did their best to keep the plant up-to-date and efficient. Ironically, they were relatively late to sell beer in cans—taking almost fifteen years to adopt this package. Eventually the competition from national brewers and the aging of the Schumacher family took its toll, and the brewery closed in 1972, even though it was still turning a profit right up to the end.
Despite the usual plans and speculation for reuse, the brewery lay abandoned and decaying for more than twenty years. In 1995, Potosi resident Gary David purchased the old bottling house and began to restore it. He and others formed the Potosi Brewery Foundation in 2000 and acquired the brewery itself by donation and began raising funds to restore it. PBF found a partner in the American Breweriana Association, a group of collectors of everything from beer cans to old brewery equipment. The ABA was looking for a home for a museum, and the Potosi project seemed more manageable than restoring much larger breweries. In 2004, the partnership officially began the $7 million restoration project. Four years later, the National Brewery Museum and the Potosi Brewing Co. brewpub opened to the public.
The brewpub has expanded its original offerings to include several high-gravity styles and has an active barrel-aging program. The beer garden sits alongside the bluffs and the old brewery spring feeds a pool in the garden and runs underneath the brewpub floor. For several years, the bottled Potosi brews, including Snake Hollow IPA, were made and packaged at Stevens Point Brewery. However, a new production brewery and tasting room has been built and is scheduled to begin brewing early this year.
For history lovers, the museum is a must-see destination. The main gallery is mostly occupied by the Schuetz collection of Wisconsin breweriana (pronounced brewery-Anna), which contains spectacular signs, trays, lithographs and other items found nowhere else. The other galleries are devoted to rotating exhibits created by ABA members who generously enable the public to have a rare glimpse at the history of breweries as famous as Anheuser-Busch and as obscure as Hortonville Brewing Co. The old caves have been incorporated into the museum, and contain old brewery equipment. The museum also houses the ABA Library, which is open to researchers of beer and brewery history.
Across the street, the “World’s Largest Conetop” recalls the days after World War II when the Potosi Brewing Co. was the largest business in town and the company spread the name of the town far and wide. The restoration of the old brewery has provided a place for visitors to see the past and taste the present of Wisconsin’s brewing heritage.
While the Potosi brewery and museum are well worth the trip, several long-awaited brewery restoration projects have finally been realized in St. Paul. The Stahlmann/Schmidt brewery on West Seventh Street now houses the Schmidt Artist Lofts. The Hamm complex on Minnehaha Avenue East is home to Flat Earth Brewing Co., 11Wells Spirits, and other businesses. While these modern businesses in historic buildings are exciting, a true living museum of pioneer beer culture is in progress. The Stone Saloon, a recreation by Tom Schroeder of a Civil War-era lager beer saloon located in the Anthony Waldman House, will be the subject of a future article.
This article draws on research done for the author’s article “Brewing Returns to ‘Good Old Potosi’” published in Number 155 of Brewery History (2013). Tips of the hat to Otto Tiegs, Bob Pirie, Val Schute, Andy Hudzinski, Frank Fiorenza, John Dutcher, Susan Appel. The author is a member of the ABA.