In 1900, the little Mississippi port-town of La Crosse, Wisconsin was put on the map. At the World’s Fair in Paris, France,the John Gund Brewing Company, established by John Gund in 1880, put their best foot forward and presented their brand, Gund’s Peerless Beer, to the judges in a beer contest. They won the first-place medal. When Peerless won again at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, the home of Budweiser, the world took notice.
La Crosse was no longer a sleepy river town, but a thriving national brewing town. The Gund Brewing Company could no longer run on a small retinue of employees, so by 1910, their staff grew to nearly 500. Peerless was no longer just a regional and state brand, but had spread throughout the Midwest and surrounding areas. Production skyrocketed to over half a million barrels.
Sadly, Gund’s success was short lived. During Prohibition, the company could not sustain itself and went under. The Peerless brand, itself, disappeared for almost fifteen years.
During Gund’s wild success of the early 1900s and 1910s, the C. & J. Michel Brewing Company had been lying low. They had been producing regional and state brands such as “Elfenbrau” and “Wisconsin’s Best,” but they were not as well-known as their award-winning counterpart. However, when Prohibition hit in 1919, Charles and John Michel had the great business sense to be able to keep their brewery afloat. They changed the company name to the La Crosse Refining Company and moved production from beer to malt syrup. They were able to survive Prohibition.
Following the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the company changed their name again, to La Crosse Breweries Inc. and purchased the rights to the Peerless brand.
La Crosse Breweries Inc. was able to nationalize Peerless Beer, sending it as far east as the coast of the Atlantic Ocean.
Unfortunately, only a few years after Peerless was back on top, it fell. La Crosse Breweries Inc. lost their brewmaster and their sales decreased. Following a strike in 1956, the brewery finally closed their doors. Peerless was once again lost after being the driving brand for two important breweries of La Crosse.
This small folding knife, only 2.5 inches long, is an example of the type of promotional material La Crosse Breweries Inc. sent to bars who sold their products. This particular knife travelled from the La Crosse Breweries Inc. factory in La Crosse, Wisconsin to Gene’s Tavern in Garfield, New Jersey in the early 1940s and then back again in 2018.
We know this because in January of this year we received a thick envelope from a gentleman in Garfield with the knife carefully packed inside. His letter explained that it had belonged to his grandfather, who frequented Gene’s Tavern, and probably got the knife there. The donor said he thought it would be nice if the pocketknife came back home. We think so too!
This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on May 5, 2018.