Wagner's "The Mariner's Return"

Amy Vach

Catalog Numbers: 2011.014.111 & 2011.014.124

Copyright La Crosse County Historical Society

Copyright La Crosse County Historical Society

For more than 70 years, La Crosse’s Heileman Brewing Co. incorporated the painting “The Mariner’s Return” into advertising for its product, Old Style Lager, after acquiring the original painting.

The German artist Fritz Wagner (1896-1939) was known for his paintings of European tavern scenes depicting merry drinkers. “The Mariner’s Return” features three gentlemen in a tavern listening to a seafarer share his adventurous tales.

Over the years, Heileman Brewery used “The Mariner’s Return” on numerous advertising and promotional items.

As late as 1991, the company featured the modified print on Old Style Lager steins. The La Crosse County Historical Society artifact collection contains a few examples of Heileman Brewing Co. advertising using Wagner’s painting.

The first of the two shown here is a simple composite wooden tray with a print adhered to the surface from the 1940s. The second example is a calendar produced from 1942. If you look closely at the image on this calendar, you can see that the image has been modified to advertise Old Style Lager.

The stained-glass window in the top left corner has the Heileman Grenadier in the center. It also has a yellow shield-shaped Heileman’s Old Style Lager sign outside the tavern above the door. A ribbon below the print reads: “‘The Mariner’s Return’ painted by Fritz Wagner depicts a tavern of the 17th century. Relaxed and with rapt admiration, fellow townsmen listen to the tales of the daring voyager. Today America relaxes and finds companionship in a brew far more delicious than the most noted of that day.”

The brewery was inspired by Wagner’s artwork to create a hospitality room for distributors visiting the plant. The hospitality room was designed to embody the scene in the painting. They called this room the “Bier Stube,” or beer room. In addition to inspiring the Bier Stube, a large reproduction of Wagner’s painting was included in the room. The room was built and decorated by several local companies. According to the La Crosse Tribune, the brewery reproduced the scene to carry out “the traditional flavor of Heileman’s famous product known as the only beer with an old-world flavor made in America.”

This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on December 29, 2018.

These objects can be viewed in our online collections database by clicking here.

A Fishing Boat Built in La Crosse

Robert Mullen

Catalog Number: 2018.021.01

If you grew up in La Crosse, you probably went fishing on the Mississippi River at some point.


If you were fortunate, you went out on a boat and found a place where the fish were biting and ate some pan-fried sunfish, perch or maybe walleye that night. Fishing has always been considered a leisure activity that also brought food to the table. You could say that fishing is in the blood of many La Crosse families.

That was certainly true for Walter Kofta, a La Crosse native born in 1928. He grew up in La Crosse and married Agnes McCabe here. He worked at the Auto-Lite plant on the city’s north side. And Wally loved to go fishing on the river in his boat.

The boat in this picture was purchased by Wally in 1952. It is a flat-bottomed wooden boat, 16 feet long, and it carries an 18-horsepower Evinrude outboard motor. Wally’s boat was handmade in La Crosse from a popular boat pattern by his friend Frank Voigt. While Voigt was not in the business of making boats, he made four more of these boats for local fishermen.

Agnes didn’t like that the boat sat quite low in the water, but she still liked going on the river with her husband and cooking the fish they caught for supper.

A bit of a daredevil, Wally even took his boat out fishing when there was considerable ice in the river. He used two home-made eight-foot pikes to drag the boat through or over the ice to get to where he wanted to fish. He recalled that he once saved his friend Frank Voigt on a winter evening when Frank got trapped for three hours on an ice floe that broke away and floated downstream.

Wally moved to Waterloo, Iowa, to work at the John Deere plant after the La Crosse Auto-Lite plant closed, but he often came back with his boat to fish in his home territory on the Mississippi.

Walter Kofta died in 2017. His family donated the boat, motor, pikes and other related material to the La Crosse County Historical Society earlier this year.

This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on December 15, 2018.

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

Turkish Nook in the Hixon House

Peggy Derrick

Photo by Roger Grant-Copyright La Crosse County Historical Society

Photo by Roger Grant-Copyright La Crosse County Historical Society

One of the best parts of giving tours at Hixon House, La Crosse’s premiere historic house museum, is getting to show off the home’s Turkish Nook.

It always gets lots of “oohs and ahhs” from visitors who are enchanted by its beauty and amazed that it is such an old decorating scheme, going back to the late Victorians.

Eastern-themed rooms existed long before Pier-One Imports or the fad for draping Indian “bedspreads” about a room to give it an exotic look. In the latter half of the 19th century, travel to the Middle East became increasingly affordable and safe, and affluent Americans began making the trip in large numbers. Their travels and the souvenirs they brought home helped feed the American fascination with the “exotic east,” and the decorating trend that encouraged Oriental rooms and “nooks,” such as the one in Hixon House.

This historic photo includes, from left, May Crosby, Joseph Hixon, Ellen Hixon and an Egyptian guide.

This historic photo includes, from left, May Crosby, Joseph Hixon, Ellen Hixon and an Egyptian guide.

In 1898 and 1899, Ellen Hixon added Turkey and Egypt to the European Grand Tour she made with her niece Mary Crosby and son Joseph. A widow by then, with five grown sons, Ellen Hixon enjoyed travel and was lucky to be able to afford it. We have a photo of her and her companions atop camels by the Great Pyramids, and letters that describe shopping in the bazaars and purchasing some of the items that make up the décor of the Turkish Nook.

It’s a small room, added in 1900-01, that serves as an elegant pass-through to the dining room. The built-in bench is upholstered in antique Kilim woven carpets, with embroidered pillows. The walls and ceiling are gold (gold leaf, in the case of the ceiling), and decorated with antique Persian weaponry and period photos of the streets of Cairo. Stained glass windows let in light and help create an exotic atmosphere.

By far the most commented-on item is the standing wooden lattice screen to the right of the photo. “What is that?” people always ask, and telling them it’s a “harem screen” just adds to the confusion.

In fact, wooden lattice screens were common enclosures on Egyptian balconies and in courtyards; they allowed light and air to pass through while preserving the privacy of Muslim women who lived with strictures against being seen by strange men. The lattice screens allowed them to observe and participate in the life of the street and courtyard while maintaining their religious rules.

The screens themselves are intricate and beautiful, and to the curious Westerner, they symbolized the mysteries of a private world that was hidden from them but imagined to be quite exotic and titillating — hence the Western name, harem screen.

This fascination with the mysteries of the east had a bit of a risqué touch. One historian, Karina Corrigan, writes that the Victorian image of the Near East was one of “turbaned men smoking hashish in hookahs and their many wives lounging on divans, gazing longingly out of the latticed windows of harems.” Mrs. Hixon may well have been showing off her sophistication by having such a suggestive item in her “Oriental room.”

By the 1920s the fad for the Turkish style in home décor was fading. It became symbolic of heavy-handed Victorian excess, and Oriental rooms and cozy corners were replaced with more modern styles. The risqué Turkish Nook appeared old-fashioned, fussy and quaint. They began to disappear.

The Turkish Nook in the Hixon House is a rare, fragile survivor of what was once a very popular style of decorating. Since the 1960s, we have seen Near and Far Eastern textiles and décor come back into fashion, used is somewhat different ways than in the 1890s-1910s. But La Crosse’s Turkish Nook has survived long enough to be “cool” again.

This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on December 1, 2018.