Prohibition shuts down the Gund Brewery

Robert Mullen

Catalog Number: 2011.014.014

Copyright La Crosse County Historical Society

Copyright La Crosse County Historical Society

This sign touts one of Gund Brewing Co.’s answers to Prohibition: a soft drink with the Peerless name.

When John Gund began brewing beer in La Crosse in 1854, he could hardly imagine the changes that would take place in the industry during the next 65 years. By 1858, he partnered with G. Heileman to found the City Brewery. In 1872, Gund left the partnership to start the Empire Brewing Co., later called the John Gund Brewing Co. The company’s best-selling beer, Peerless, propelled sales to 600,000 barrels in 1910. That was the year John Gund died, and his son Henry took over the operation.

But change was in the air. Temperance societies became strong political voices, and World War I created a good deal of anti-German sentiment, including bias against the mostly German brewing industry. In 1919, Congress passed the Volstead Act, popularly known as Prohibition, and as of January 1920, the sale and manufacture of alcoholic beverages was illegal in the U.S.

The Gund Brewing Co. saw the changes coming and tried to prepare for them by re-organizing its products to low-alcohol beer, soft drinks, and malt barley. One of the new products took on the name of their Peerless Beer brand: Gund’s Peerless Beverage, the Everyday Soft Drink. They advertised it throughout the Midwest in newspapers and periodicals in 1919 and 1920, and even received national recognition for their advertisements. The colorful metal sign shown here was a promotional piece produced for the advertising effort. It features a silhouette of the large Gund brewery with the Mississippi River, the old wagon bridge, and Minnesota bluffs in the background. The sign was donated to the La Crosse County Historical Society by Tye Schwalbe.

However, soft drinks and near beers could never replace the public’s thirst for refreshments with alcoholic content. The Gund Brewery was hit by a double setback in 1920: a prohibition of their primary product and then a strike by their employees. It could not survive both. The firm shuttered its doors that year. By the start of America’s Roaring ‘20s, the Gund Brewing Co. was a thing of the past.

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