Caroline C. Morris
La Crosse is a beer-lover’s paradise. In the nineteenth century, German immigrants like Gottlieb Heileman built ever-larger businesses that converted rich Midwestern grains into rivers of lager. G. Heileman Brewing Company, incorporated by Heileman’s widow Johanna in 1902, combined old-world techniques with new-world flavor in its signature brew: Old Style Lager. What would a dark winter night be without the warm, reassuring glow of an Old Style sign?
G. Heileman Brewing Company brought more than jobs and prestige to La Crosse; it also brought Oktoberfest. Roy Kumm, the Heileman Company CEO, was one of the four golf buddies who originally conceived the idea for Oktoberfest, and worked tirelessly to see the plan come to fruition in 1961. According to local historian Duane Moore, Kumm first used the word “gemutlichkeit” to describe the festival’s convivial atmosphere, and added Gambrinus to the Festmaster’s baton, which he carried himself when he served as Festmaster in 1964. Gambrinus, of course, was also the cheerful, bearded beer-drinker in advertisements for Heileman’s Old Style Lager.
G. Heileman Brewing Company also – literally – built Oktoberfest in the early 1960s. Before organizers secured a permanent Oktoberfest grounds, festival tents had to be set up and taken down every year. Heileman sent its employees, on the clock, to do the work.
Heileman remained a strong presence in La Crosse until the early 1990s, when the rapid consolidation of the beer industry finally overtook it. But the company’s legacy lives on at the Oktoberfest grounds.
This article was originally featured in the La Crosse Tribune.