Johanna Heileman's Shawl

Peggy Derrick

In 1852, a young German woman left her birthplace of Württemberg to travel by ship to New York City. Johanna Catherine Bantle was 21 years old and unmarried.

We don’t know specifically why she chose to emigrate, but she may have been seeking economic opportunities not then available in Germany or escaping retribution for participating in one of the German revolutions of 1848 and 1849. We know that Johanna was accompanied by one brother and she met up with another in New York, so perhaps they were the politically active ones.

After spending some time in New York, the Bantles moved to Milwaukee, where there was a growing German community. Johanna took a job as a house maid in the home of Capt. Frederick Pabst, a brewer with a large and successful business. It was while working there that she met and married Gottlieb Heileman in 1858.

Gottlieb and Johanna moved farther west, and they started their own brewery in La Crosse. There was great potential for growth because the city was growing rapidly as a center for the booming lumber industry. Gottlieb’s first brewery in La Crosse, the City Brewery, was started as a partnership with another German immigrant, John Gund. It was not long before they ended the partnership and each formed their own business.

As the Heileman brewery grew, so did their family. Johanna bore eight children, seven daughters and one son. They built the large brick house that still stands across the street from the brewery and serves today as its offices. Family lore says that Johanna and her daughters served midday dinner to those brewery workers who did not have wives at home to cook for them. Besides building company loyalty, it probably also served to help her find husbands for those daughters who would know the family business and be part of it.

Gottlieb died in 1878, and Johanna was named president of the brewery. She remained the company’s president until 1912, and she stayed active as a board member until her death in 1917, at the age of 85. She was one of the first female CEOs in Wisconsin history, and an upstanding figure in the La Crosse German community.

Under the leadership of Johanna Heileman, the G. Heileman Brewing Co. continued to grow, more than tripling its production from the time of its opening up to 1912. The brewery became a leader in the industry, providing La Crosse with a successful business that brought recognition, jobs and revenue to the city.

Johanna could count many successes in her long life in America, even though she had her share of grief. She lost her husband after only 20 years of marriage, and her 28-year-old son, Henry, to depression and suicide, in 1895.

Portraits show a heavy-set, stern older woman, often surrounded by her large family. Her grandchildren remember Johanna as a little intimidating; she spoke only German and did not often smile.

Family lore states that she wore this shawl on the journey by ship to New York. It is wool, done in a crochet stitch called Tunisian crochet that was popular at the time. That, along with its use of a feminine pink-lavender color, make it perfectly in keeping with what a young woman of that era would have worn.

The 20-year-old Johanna’s shawl helps us remember her not as the serious matriarch that she would become, but as the young, adventurous person she must have been, brave enough to cross the ocean on a small ship and make a new life in a strange new place.

This article was originally featured in the La Crosse Tribune.