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WisBiz In-Depth: Potosi Beer Museum could spark tourism

By Gregg Hoffmann

POTOSI – The remnants of a brewery that has not been open for more than three decades could turn out to be a boon for tourism and economic development in this Grant County community.

Potosi was selected as the site for a national beer museum earlier this year, beating out Milwaukee and St. Louis.

Some work has already started on renovation of the former brewery building. Epic Construction of Dubuque has started strengthening the walls and will eventually install a roof.

"To tell you the truth, I was very emotional when I came down here," Potosi village president Frank Fiorenza said recently. "When I came down here, after five years of the brewery foundation working on this, I almost got a lump in my throat when I saw the construction equipment working."

Fund raisers also are hard at work, using a variety of vehicles to obtain the money for the project. The community won over the American Breweriana Association because of its passion for beer, brewery history and beer-making culture, said Len Chylack, president of the collectors' group.

Plus, a group from the village of 720, at the confluence of the Grant River and the Mississippi, blew the collectors away with a "dynamic" presentation.

"The main reason for us going with them is it's such a dynamic devoted group out there," Chylack said at the time of the announcement. "They're going to get that project done."

That project includes the renovation of the former Potosi Brewing Company, which operated in town from 1852 to 1972, into the museum, a restaurant with an outdoor beer garden, a microbrewery and gift shop.

The facility will total 30,000-square-feet, with 7,000 square feet devoted to the brewery museum, at a cost of $3.4 million. The American Breweriana Association is donating $250,000. That money is funding the current work. Grants from the public and private sector are being sought.

Some funds also are being raised by selling Potosi Light beer. A series of collectibles – the first of which is a lighted billboard bank – also is being sold to the public. The bank sells for $40.

Brewery Foundation

Leading the renovation effort is The Potosi Brewery Foundation, headed by attorney Steve Vogelsberg. "The brewery was a cornerstone of the community for 120 years," Vogelsberg said. "Brewing beer was in the family for people in the town."

Vogelsberg said that Potosi Brewery collectibles bring top prices among collectors on the internet and at shows, so the museum seems to be a good fit.

Fiorenza also is a major booster of the project. "The plans we have for this area are going to have a dramatic impact. We like to say in southwest Wisconsin that the rest of the state thinks it drops off the face of the earth at Monroe. This area has so much to offer."

The museum could add $3-to-$4 million annually in tourism and other revenue to the area, and create 50 jobs. "That's almost like when the brewery was actually producing beer," Fiorenza said.

Fiorenza said he believes Potosi was picked for the national museum because its plans were developed beyond those of St. Louis and Milwaukee, and the small town could move "with much less complication."

"I think we offered the space, the freedom and flexibility to the group to put the kind of museum they were looking for," he said. "This facility will have a library, with books on brewing history, an area for restoration of artifacts and everything a national museum should have."

On Aug. 9 of this year, the Foundation board and ABA formally signed a 50-year agreement for the museum project.

Rich History

Potosi Brewery once rivaled any in the country. Founded by Gabriel Hall in 1852, the brewery first pumped out about 4,000 barrels in a year, but reached 75,000 barrels to become the fifth largest brewery in Wisconsin. The Potosi suds were marketed under a variety of labels throughout the Midwest and eventually all the way to the West Coast.

Those labels included Alpine Lager Beer, Potosi Pilsener, Good Old Potosi Beer, Kellers Holiday Beer, Augsburger, Bohemian Club, Garten Brau and others.

Hail and a partner, John Albrecht, started their brewery when lead mining was king in southwestern Wisconsin and northwestern Illinois. Miners guzzled the brew after a hard days work, and Potosi prospered, developing into a leading port of its day.

Then, the California Gold Rush struck, and thousands of miners headed further west to look for gold rather than lead. Depressed by the downturn in business and personal problems, Hail hung himself in the boiler room of the brewery in 1884.

The brewery remained idle for some time, until it was purchased by Adam Schumacher, who rebuilt the business. At one time, Schumacher owned a steamboat, named Potosi, which carried beer shipments to Dubuque.

During Prohibition, the brewery installed expensive de-alcoholizing equipment to produce a "Near Beer," which had an alcohol content of less than one percent. When Prohibition was repealed, trucks were lined up a half mile on Main Street in Potosi to load four percent beer again at midnight on April 14, 1933.

At its peak, Potosi Brewing employed more than 100 people and shipped its beer all over the country. In fact, Milwaukee was a prime market. During this period, the company included a farm and a brewery-owned tavern.

You can still hoist a Potosi Light at that former brewery tavern, which houses Raybe's Again Legion Bar.

Some of the renovation of the Potosi buildings could be done by later this fall. It's hoped the museum could be open in three to five years.

Potosi is situated in a very interesting part of the state, with Stonefield and other historic sites at Cassville, about 20 miles north along the Mississippi; Lancaster, the home of the first Wisconsin governor, Nelson Dewey, only about 15 miles north; and Galena, Illinois, a major tourist area, about 45 minutes to the south. The Grant River Recreation Area and St. John's Mine, which still holds regular tours, are additional attractions

The people behind the Potosi beer museum project feel it will add another major attraction to this list.

--NOTE: A version of this column ran as Gregg Hoffmann's Beyond Milwaukee column in OnMilwaukee.com.

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