Howard Nestingen's White Rabbit

Ivy King

Catalog Number: 1986.044.01


Howard Nestingen was a member of the Naval Reserves and commander of the Navy Reserve Officers School. In total, Nestingen was a naval officer for 38 years.

Nestingen was born in Westby in 1921, and he played an active role in the La Crosse area. He worked at Dairyland Power Cooperative, and he helped with the nuclear power plant near Genoa.

This stuffed rabbit was Nestingen’s as a child. He received the rabbit when he was about 10 years old, which dates the piece to the early 1930s. The rabbit is white plush, with a suit of colorful wool felt; he has a dark orange pair of trousers, with a lighter orange tuxedo-style jacket. He has white plastic eyes and long ears that are lined with pink velvet. The rabbit is stuffed with wood wool.

With the rabbit’s style of clothes, he appears to be dressed in the style of Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” In the book, the rabbit appears wearing a waistcoat similar to the one worn by Nestingen’s rabbit.

Carroll’s fantasy novel was published in 1865. It was immensely popular, and it changed children’s literature by adding nonsensical amusement to the genre. Carroll’s story is about a young girl named Alice who falls through a rabbit hole into a fantasy world. The White Rabbit is the first character Alice meets, and he leads her into Wonderland. The rabbit appears periodically throughout the novel and acts as a guide for Alice.

The book’s protagonist was based on a young girl named Alice, and it’s believed that Dean Liddell, Alice’s father, may have been the inspiration for the White Rabbit. Similar to the rabbit, Liddell notoriously ran late, specifically to church services.

In the 1930s, the story of Alice remained popular, which explains why Nestingen had his own version of the White Rabbit. “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” was republished a number of times during this era. A film titled “Alice in Wonderland” was released in 1933. The live-action, 77-minute film featured an all-star cast.

This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on October 14, 2017.

This object can be viewed in our online collections database by clicking here.


Elfenbrau Elf Statue

Amy Vach

Catalog Number: 2011.014.142


When Michel Brewery founders Charles and John Michel came to the United States from Germany in 1857, it’s doubtful that they could have imagined that the business they were to start would outlast Prohibition and continue for nearly a century.

In 1847, Charles came to America before the rest of his family, settled in New York and worked on a farm for a winter. The remaining members of the Michel family came to America the next spring.

The members of the Michel family settled in Philadelphia, where they started a contracting and building firm. Their venture did not endure, so they did what many others did — went west in 1849 to take part in the California Gold Rush. Later in life, Charles said, this was most prosperous time of his life.

The brothers briefly returned to Pennsylvania, but they were on the move again after two years, finally settling in La Crosse in 1856. The brothers initially set up a contracting firm like they had in Pennsylvania, but less than a year later, they decided La Crosse could support another brewery.

Charles and John started brewing beer in La Crosse in 1857. Gottlieb Heileman worked as brewmaster for C&J Michel Brewery before partnering with John Gund to form City Brewery. In 1872, Charles Michel married Louise Gund, the daughter of John Gund Brewing Co.’s founder. Although these breweries were competitors, they still were interconnected by family and business relationships.

Elfenbrau beer was the most popular variety brewed by the brothers prior to Prohibition. To keep the business afloat after the ratification of the 18th Amendment, the brothers changed their company’s name to La Crosse Refining Co. and began manufacturing malt and malt syrup.

After the ratification of the 21st Amendment, which ended Prohibition, the brothers again changed their company’s name to La Crosse Breweries Inc. Although the company survived Prohibition, Elfenbrau beer was no longer a hit with beer drinkers. Carl Michel, son of Charles and Louise, went to his uncle Henry Gund and purchased the Peerless brand of beer. Gund had sold off most of the business and their assets to other breweries in 1920 when the brewery closed, but he held onto the Peerless brand until 1937.

The company hit a rough patch in the 1930s and 1940s and accumulated an abundance of debt. The debt was repaid, but the company ceased production in 1955.

This plaster statue, from about 1910, is 20 inches tall and would have been used to promote Elfenbrau beer. The La Crosse Historical Society has a photo postcard of the interior of a bar that has two matching elves like this one sitting on the top shelf above the mirror.

Although these elves were mass produced, today they are rare. This artifact came to historical society as part of a collection of La Crosse breweriana donated by Tye Schwalbe in 2011.

This elf was the first artifact from the historical society’s collections that has been photographed and turned into a 3D model by collections intern Sofie Kinzer. The 3D model, which was made possible through a collaboration with David Anderson and the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Archaeology and Anthropology Department can be seen on the historical society’s website.

This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on October 7, 2017.

This object can be viewed in our online collections database by clicking here.

Things that matter: King Gambrinus

Michelle Kelly

Catalog Number: 2011.014.009

As the legendary patron saint and guardian of beer and brewing, King Gambrinus has been a staple in the La Crosse community since the first breweries in the mid-1800s.

The community first saw Gambrinus as the mascot of the John Gund Brewery and then again as the mascot for G. Heileman Brewing Co. Coincidentally, both breweries had their start at the same company: City Brewery.

City Brewery began in 1858 in La Crosse as a partnership between John Gund and Gottlieb Heileman, both German immigrants with a long history in brewing. In 1872, less than two decades into the partnership, Heileman bought Gund’s shares of the brewery after a falling-out. Gund left to found his own brewery, the John Gund Brewing Co., a rival to his old business, and Heileman renamed City Brewery the G. Heileman Brewing Co.

The John Gund Brewery was quick to adopt King Gambrinus as its mascot, printing his likeness on mugs, steins, glasses and serving trays. Serving trays were more for advertising than actual serving, and they were typically detailed advertisements for the beer brands or breweries they depicted. Early trays were often made of tin, with their design painted on. It was typical of Gund products to feature Gambrinus holding a footed pilsner glass of foaming beer and toasting from the center of an ornate G, such as in the one shown here.

After Prohibition, the John Gund Brewery went defunct, selling most of its brands and facilities to the C&J Michel Brewing Co., later renamed the LaCrosse Brewing Co. King Gambrinus was not seen in La Crosse again until G. Heileman Brewery took up the torch, or, more aptly, the staff, of King Gambrinus.

In 1939, the Heileman Brewery bought a statue of King Gambrinus from a New Orleans brewery that had, like Gund, gone defunct shortly after Prohibition. Heileman’s King stood at 15 feet, weighed 2,000 pounds and served as an imposing, but jolly, figure in front of the brewery’s main offices.

After a bout with vandalism, the king stands again at the location, now a part of City Brewery. Heileman had another King Gambrinus, a steel sculpture designed by Elmer Petersen, erected at 100 Harborview Plaza when the building opened as Heileman’s corporate headquarters. The Cleary family, which has a long history at Heileman Brewery, recently bronzed the steel Gambrinus and returned it to the corner of Front and State streets.

This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on September 30,  2017.

This object can be viewed in our online collections database by clicking here.