History Comes Alive

(subtitle: Politicians Behaving Badly)

Reports of politicians behaving badly are as common as the common cold. Transgressions of politicians span the spectrum from minor (“Throw the bum out!” blogs a self-righteous observer) to egregious (“Today, so-and-so was sentenced to x years in federal prison…”).

There are many individual instances where a larger-than-average ego is a driving force that leads to unlawful behavior. Former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich is one such example. In 2010 and 2011, he was found guilty of and convicted on 18 federal extortion charges for famously attempting to “auction President-Elect Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate seat to the highest bidder,” – all the while proclaiming his innocence and insisting he would be vindicated.

On the other hand, some questionable actions often times merely reflect a subset of people in society at large. Take former Wisconsin State Representative Jeff Wood, for instance. In 2008, he was arrested (again) for drunk driving and possession of marijuana. Despite efforts by the state assembly to remove him from office, he refused to step down. When his term ended two years later, he chose not to run for re-election. It’s likely that his transgressions were newsworthy only because he was in the public eye. Had he been an ordinary citizen, we probably would never have heard about his troubles.

One of the saddest obituaries I’ve ever read appeared in the newspaper a couple of weeks ago. The text told of the man’s dying from congestive heart failure brought on by years of alcohol abuse. It’s quite unusual for an obituary to be so blunt about the deceased’s shortcomings. The family stated he was a good-hearted man but that he could also be ornery and difficult to deal with at times. But something changed in the last few months of this man’s life, the obituary said. His anger and bitterness faded and were replaced by kindness, sincerity and gratefulness. The family said they were able to spend quality time with him that they had spent a lifetime longing for and that he was a joy to be with.

Unlike Mr. Wood in the public sphere, were it not for the obituary, we would never have known of this man and the difficulties he faced in life because of alcohol. Some people who have difficulty with alcohol lead private lives and some lead public lives. There is a perception these days that the sins of politicians are more frequent than they used to be. Is this perception accurate? Likely not. I’ll introduce you to a Mr. Henry Ernst Nicholas Lexius, elected in 1893 to the La Crosse (Wis.) city council to represent the eighth ward.

I learned of Mr. Lexius in the course of my research to identify the mystery man from the brewery worker photo. Mr. Lexius’s name appears in La Crosse city directories in the 1880s and 1890s, including as an employee of the John Gund Brewing Company beginning with the 1891 directory. In the 1893 directory, he is listed for the first time as an alderman for the eighth ward:

Henry Lexius, La Crosse (Wis.) City Directory, 1893

Mr. Lexius was born January 25, 1855 in Denmark. He and his wife Katharine came to the United States in 1879, settling in La Crosse. He worked first at the C & J Michel Brewing Company, then for the U.S. Post Office, and later still at the John Gund Brewing Company. He was elected in 1893 as alderman to represent the eighth ward of La Crosse. Early into his term, he was portrayed in the local newspaper as a politician behaving badly. Like Mr. Wood and the deceased man described in the recent obituary, it seems Mr. Lexius may have had trouble handling his alcohol. The following account was published in the Daily Press on September 28, 1893:

The Time Had Down in the
Eighth Ward Last Night
Handed Around By Three Men and
Punched By Each – The Whole Neigh-
borhood was Out of Doors
to See the Sport
Talk about wild and wooly times! They had one last evening down towards the Green Bay depot, and half of the city is talking about it today. The principal actor in the affair is an alderman, and on that account the Press would fain suppress the facts; but, as above stated, half the people are talking about it already and it will do no harm to tell the balance.

The hero of the affair is Alderman Lexius, a representative of the John Gund Brewing company. He had been down town during the afternoon and is supposed to have fallen in with a number of friends; for, as he hailed Contractor A. Siebucht [sic], who was driving home, and asked for a ride, it was observed that he was enjoying an exhilarating state of spirits.

Mr. Siebrecht had two of his imployes in the seat with him and a carpenters chest behind; but he granted the alderman’s request and told him to seat himself on the chest. In that fashion they proceeded until Fifth and Cameron were reached; here the horse started forward suddenly and the alderman was as quickly unseated and deposited in the bottom of the wagon.

Finally Mr. Siebrecht and his guest arrived at the latter’s house and in attempting to alight the alderman stepped on a loose board in the wagon and was thrown to the ground. These series of uncomfortable happenings evidently aroused his ire, for he began to abuse his guest and threatened to whip him.

Mr. Siebrecht laughed at the threat and drove on; but the alderman followed him and, it is said, ended by calling Mr. Siebrecht a s– of a b–. Naturally, the sturdy house builder’s ire was aroused at this and he jumped out of the wagon; the alderman, nothing daunted, closed in and struck him a blow on the face.

Mr. Siebrecht then took a hand in the fun and gave the alderman several smart blows on the side of the face. He didn’t try to injure his opponent greatly, but he evidently convinced him on the question of who was the superior. The alderman then broke away and, like the man who kicked his enemy’s dog, ran across the street and attacked Mr. Siebrecht’s brother, who was shoveling dirt.

But he was no more fortunate here than he was in the altercation with the contractor, for the brother easily vanquished him and threw him out of the way. Then a fourth figure came upon the scene; it was that of one of the Darlings, who lives near by. It couldn’t be learned whether there was any bad blood between the alderman and himself, but there probably was.

“Here, you fellows,” he is said to have cried, “step out of the way while I take a turn at this fellow.” And he “took a turn.” The alderman was then taken home and it was thought the riot over, but from all accounts – though just what did happen couldn’t be found out – it was some time before the neighborhood was quieted down.

After supper Alderman Lexius went down town and attempted to have warrants issued for the arrest of Messrs. Siebrecht and Darling but was unsuccessful. By morning he had probably changed his mind, for a reportorial round of the justice offices today failed to find that any warrants had been issued.

The trouble, some believe, is a result of the election last spring, when Messrs. Lexius and Siebrecht were rival candidates for alderman. The ward was much excited at the time, it will be remembered, and the feeling engendered then has not yet subsided.”

What do you know about that – evidently, like politicians behaving badly, contentious election campaigns are not anything new either!

But there is more to Mr. Lexius’s story. The next day, the newspaper published a different account of what happened, according to a witness who wished to remain anonymous:

Second Chapter on the Scrap in the Eighth Ward
One of His Friends, an Eye-Witness, Tells
His Version of the Trouble – Mr. Sie-
brecht Endorses the Article of
Last Night in Detail.
The story of the altercation between Alderman Henry Lexius and several others as published in the Press of last evening, failed to meet the approval of that gentleman. He claims that he had not been drinking, as the article implied, that he did not use bad language and, instead of being the aggressor, was actually obliged to act on the defensive against the other three men at one time, only the timely assistance of a number of woman neighbors, he said, saved him from serious injury at their hands.

As it always does, the Press tried to get the truth of the story before writing it up and there are many reputable persons who will vouch for the truth of the story printed last night; however, Mr. Lexius is entitled to a defence, and we make room today for a version of the affairs as told by one of his friends, who was present at the time, but who would not allow the use of his name:

“Of course I do not know,” said the friend, “what transpired before the arrival of the party at Mr. Lexius’ home; but I do know that Mr. Lexius got off the wagon and started into his house when Mr. Siebrecht called to him. Lexius went back, asking, ‘What do you want?’ I will show you what I want,” answered Siebrecht and picked up a shovel which he held as if intending to strike Lexius. At that point Siebrecht’s brother walked over and took hold of Lexius by the throat. Lexius drew back as if to defend himself but didn’t strike a blow. Mrs. Boeck, a neighbor, then caught hold of the shovel which Siebrecht had, while others parted the other men. Lexius then started to walk away, but Darling followed him, using the most abusive kind of language. Lexius walked on without making reply and Darling was induced to go home by his wife. From first to last Lexius was the aggrieved party. He was sober, didn’t use bad language and didn’t follow anybody; Siebrecht, on the other hand, called Lexius a liar, s– of b–, etc.”

It is only simple justice to Mr. Siebrecht to say that he denies the accuracy of the above and endorses the article of last night in detail.

In support of Mr. Siebrecht, too, Mr. Joseph Riley a prominent resident of the locality and a reputable citizen, authorizes us to state that he was a witness of the trouble, that Alderman Lexius did follow Mr. Siebrecht, did call him bad names and did strike in – in fact, that every word of the article last night, so far as it related to the two men named, was absolutely true. He says, further, that the testimony of one who is afraid to give his name is not entitled to credence.

Alderman Lexius says he has no intention of causing the arrest of his opponents.

The account from Mr. Lexius’s friend causes one to wonder whether the truth lies somewhere inbetween.

Mr. Lexius’s troubles made the papers a few months later, as reported in the La Crosse Daily Press on December 30, 1893:

An Incident Without Parallel in
The City’s History
Mass Meeting of Voters Down
In the Eighth Ward
The Alderman Condemned By a Vote of
Twenty-Eight to Seventeen – The De-
fendant Makes Several Brief
Speeches, But Refuses
Flatly to Resign.
Probably never before in the history of La Crosse was there a parallel to the incident which transpired last night at the Saloon of John Strasser on Denton street between Thirteenth and Fourteenth, when, in answer to a call duly published on handbills, the citizens of the Eighth ward met to discuss the representative of that section in the council, Alderman Henry Lexius. The saloon where the meeting was held is not a large one, and when, at eight o’clock, the meeting was called to order, there was hardly a foot of available space left. Both sides of the case were represented, but it was an extremely orderly gathering.

Without loss of time, Mr. Fred Schnell was elected chairman and Mr. Mont Darling secretary. The first name stated the purpose of the meeting and called for remarks.

C. A. Bartlett said he was a Republican, while Ald. Lexius is a Democrat and he did not like to talk on the subject for fear his motives would be construed as purely political. He would say, however, that the recent conduct of Ald. Lexius had brought disgrace to the ward and to the voters who elected him.

Robert Stogdill was then called up, whereat he replied: “Please excuse me; I am prejudiced. [A voice, ‘We all are.’] I will only say that we have a crank for an alderman, and he belongs to the Prendergast stripe.”1

Mont Darling was called upon to tell what he knew about the matter. He said he knew all about it, but didn’t think it would do any good to tell what everybody else knows. “I think it a disgrace,” he said, “to be represented in the council by such an alderman as we have. I do not attack the voters who elected him, for I know we are all liable to make mistakes. And I do not know what we can do except to express our dislike of the alderman’s conduct; maybe, after he hears from us he will do better.”

Asked to Resign

At this point the voice of Joseph Heffner was heard: “I move that he be asked to resign,” he said. The motion was seconded by C. A. Bartlett, after which it was put and carried with only one dissenting vote.

Merss. [sic] Bartlett, Heffner and Gilles were appointed a committee to wait upon Mr. Lexius and request him to appear. They returned in a few minutes with the alderman, who requested to know what was wanted of him.

“It is to tell you, Alderman Lexius, that it is the sense of this meeting that you resign your seat in the council,” answered Chairman Schnell.

“Then allow me, Mr. Chairman, to ask you a few questions,” rejoined the alderman. “Gentlemen,” he continued, “Never anything so foolish ever passed upon my personality like that I see here tonight. I wish the chairman would give me the names of the men who printed that circular in my name.2 It is my right to know, and I shall know.”

The chairman: “I am one of them.”

Mr. Stogdill: “I wish I had been one of them, too.”

Ald. Lexius: “Now, what am I asked to resign for?”

Mr. Stogdill: “For getting drunk, carousing, etc.”

The Chairman: “It is the opinion of the people of the ward that you resign, or do better.”

He Refuses to Resign

Ald. Lexius: “Gentlemen, in electing me to the common council of this city you elected me to stay for four years and I am going to stay: I will never resign.”

Mr. Darling: “The people elected you, but there is such a thing as people getting sick of a bargain. I have known of such things in horse trades.”

A voice: “I move you, Mr. Chairman, that when Mr. Darling speaks again he get up on his hind legs, as he ought to.”

Ald. Lexius: “Gentlemen, I am one who takes pride in his friends and faces his enemies. If I have a friend I stick to him, and if I have an enemy I face him. I don’t believe the good, thoughtful people of the Eighth ward feel discouraged over me. There are 400 voters in this ward and there is a very small portion of that number here. This is all politics. I don’t think the people ask me to resign because I don’t know anything; the real reason is that they fear me, because they know I am honest, speak and vote heartly [sic] and stand like a man. The politics now being played in the Eighth ward is not Democratic politics. The free, thinking citizens of the ward voted for me; the Republicans voted for me. They voted for me because they feared me. Calling this meeting, gentlemen, is out of order; it is a scandal upon me and my family, than whom there are no better in the Eight [sic] ward. I ask you to give me and my family the respect due us. It is a shame the way I have been treated by some; but I have friends and they will stick by me.”

Mr. Lexius Suppressed

At this point he was interrupted by Mr. Stogdill: “I don’t think,” said that gentleman “that the alderman has any right to talk here. The meeting was not called for the purpose of listening to a speech from him. He has given us his answer, and the more he talks the deeper he gets in the muddle.”

The chairman sustained the point raised by Mr. Stogdill and told the alderman that they didn’t care to listen to him any longer. Ald. Lexius said that was all right, but he was elected to serve as alderman for four years and he was going to do it. “Moreover,” he concluded, “this is a public place and I can talk as long as I please.”

Mr. Stogdill then moved that the action of the meeting be laid before the council.

A motion was made to reconsider, another to lay on the table and still another to move to a more respectable place. All this time the bulk of the crowd had remained near the bar and refused to leave; so, some bright-minded fellow moved that the chairman move his position to that end of the room, which was done.

Martin Raibold moved that a ballot be taken on the proposition before the house and that it be an aye and noe a [sic] vote. He also moved that the lights be blown out in order that the voters might write their ballots as they pleased. The voters then filed by the table and deposited their ballots.

The Lines Drawn

When the ballots were counted, the chair announced that forty-five votes had been cast, of which twenty-eight were ayes and [seventeen] noes. A committee to lay the matter before the council, consisting of Chairman Schnell and Joseph Heffner, was appointed, immediately after which the meeting quietly adjourned. Ald. Lexius disappeared while he ballots were being counted, with a pleasant, “Good night, gentlemen,” to all.

1 Most likely a reference to Patrick Eugene Joseph (John?) Prendergast who, that very day just hours before, had been convicted of assassinating Chicago’s mayor, Carter Harrison, two months earlier. Prendergast was deemed a little nutty, though not so much so to keep him from being hanged seven months later for the murder.

2 Two days earlier on December 28, the Daily Press reported of a petition circulating in the eighth ward calling for Alderman Lexius’s impeachment.

The news account does not reveal what Mr. Lexius is alleged to have done, aside from being drunk and carousing. It’s kind of humourous, too, how everyone apparently knew what had happened but no one wanted to say it out loud. The petition to impeach Mr. Lexius – “not couched in polite language by any means; it is blunt, out-spoken to almost a cruel degree, and bears charges of a very serious nature” – charged him with “drunkenness, illiteracy, etc.” Again, the ‘etc.’ as though everyone knew what was going on. And illiteracy – really? I don’t understand how that could be construed to be a crime. Yet it strikes me that Mr. Lexius had a strong personality that served him well in standing up for himself.

Was Mr. Lexius impeached? Did he resign? Did he take Chairman Schnell’s advice to “do better”? On the third question I don’t have enough information to say. As to the first two, evidently not. Some ten years later, Mr. Lexius was killed in a freak accident when visiting Milwaukee. While driving a buggy, the horse became frightened at something and took off at great speed. Mr. Lexius tried to slow the horse’s pace by steering into a vacant lot. His buggy crashed into a tree, and Mr. Lexius was hurled over the dashboard, his neck broken upon crashing to the ground. The news article reporting his tragic death states that “he was elected alderman of the Eighth ward and served in that capacity for four years, being succeeded at the end of his term by the late John Falk.” No mention is made of the neighborhood meeting in 1893 or of the efforts to impeach him. Indeed, the article mentions that two years before his death, “he was again nominated on the democratic ticket and elected. He was active in all municipal campaigns and made campaign speeches in foreign languages throughout the county.”

Funeral Notice for Henry Lexius

The report a few days later of Mr. Lexius’s funeral was nothing but laudatory:

“The funeral of Alderman Henry E. Lexius yesterday afternoon was attended by several hundred friends of the deceased, and the line of carriages which followed the remains to their last resting place in Oak Grove cemetery was one of the longest seen in the city in years.

Short services were conducted at the home of the deceased on West avenue south by Rev. Andreas. Among those in attendance were nearly all of the aldermen, city officials and many business associates and old friends of the deceased. The floral tributes were numerous and included a beautiful bouquet from the common council….

Several hundred more people were gathered at the grave to do honor to the deceased alderman. Brief but impressive services were conducted by Rev. Andreas and then the remains were committed to their last resting place and the grave covered with flowers.”

Mr. Lexius and his wife Katharine had six children, five of whom were living at the time of Mr. Lexius’ death.

Probably the thing that fascinates me the most about these accounts is the way a heretofore inconsequential name printed in a city directory a century and a quarter ago emerged before my eyes into a living, breathing person. I found myself unexpectedly feeling an empathy toward this man I never knew.

Happy New Year

New Year’s Day is my favorite holiday and favorite day of the year. The appeal of the new year is the apparent opportunity to start fresh. I’m always reminded of the final Calvin and Hobbes cartoon published December 31, 1995 in which Calvin and Hobbes venture out into the new-fallen snow ready to go sledding. I cut out that last strip from the newspaper, laminated it and put it on my refrigerator where it has remained since.

Calvin and Hobbes are walking through the new-fallen snow, Hobbes carrying their sled. Calvin says: “Wow, it really snowed last night! Isn’t it wonderful?”
Hobbes: “Everything familiar has disappeared! The world looks brand-new!”
Calvin: “A new year…a fresh clean start!”
Hobbes: “It’s like having a big white sheet of paper to draw on!”
Calvin: “A day full of possibilities!”
They ready themselves on the sled, and Calvin says: “It’s a magical world, Hobbes, ol’ buddy…let’s go exploring!”
And they zip on down the hill, making a crisp trail through the deep snow.

Calvin and Hobbes Final Strip published December 31, 1995

Calvin and Hobbes Final Strip published December 31, 1995

Cliched though it may be, that’s how I feel about the new year. Certainly there is no discernable difference between January 1 of the new year and December 31 of the just-completed year. Yet that psychological break between the two is the equivalent of turning the page in a sketchbook. The new empty page offers the potential to come up with things new and exciting, to expand on and improve those which already exist, to bring to reality something that heretofore has been merely an idea or dream.

Polar Bear Plunge

Many cities sponsor a “Polar Bear Plunge,” in which brave people show off their mettle by jumping into very cold lakes/rivers/oceans in the middle of winter. Washington Island has had its own plunge for many years now. Even I ventured out into the water today, albeit for a different reason.

The local newspaper has featured the plunge in its paper for many years. The photos have typically been taken showing the participants running away from the camera towards the water. This year, the editor wanted to get photos of the participants as they ran towards the camera – meaning the photographer would take shots from the water. I thought about this for a while and decided to volunteer for the assignment. I spent a lot of time thinking about how to prepare such that my skin would remain dry. Stepping into cold water would be bearable as long as the cold water did not make contact with my skin.

The air temperature was about 19°F (-7°C) with a relatively light wind at noon when the plunge took place at Schoolhouse Beach. Stones near the water’s edge were coated with ice, making them quite treacherous, but the water itself was ice-free. All in all, conditions were about as good as they could be around here for a polar plunge.

I got a few good photos, though I was hoping for better. My camera is on the slow side, so it isn’t possible to take a rapid succession of pictures. This one is probably the best action shot:

Polar Bear Plunge 2013, Washington Island, Wisconsin

Al took pictures from the shore, including this group shot of participants coming out of the water (I’m the person with the red hood):

Polar Bear Plunge 2013, Washington Island, Wisconsin

Going in the water as well prepared as I was worked amazingly well. I’m quite certain I could never go in the water wearing just a swimming suit the way everyone else did for I’m sure I would experience cardiac arrest! Still, it was fun to “almost” take the plunge.

Happy 2013

Happy new year to you! I hope the new year presents you with exciting new experiences!

Bridge to Rock Island

I never expected to visit Rock Island in the winter, but today Al and I did just that. The state park, northeast of Washington Island, is open to the public year-round, but for all practical purposes is accessible only from May through October. Those are the months when the ferryboat operates, transporting day-trippers and serious campers alike between Jackson Harbor on Washington Island and Chester Thordarson’s magnificent boathouse on Rock Island.

Washington Island-Rock Island-Detroit Island-Plum Island

This fall, however, Rock Island has become accessible by foot thanks to a land bridge that has emerged between Washington Island and Rock Island as a result of ever falling levels of Lake Michigan.

Land Bridge Connecting Washington Island and Rock Island

A month or two ago, it was possible to walk this bridge without getting one’s feet wet. Today, it is wide enough to drive a couple of pick-up trucks across without fear of them colliding.

Land Bridge to Rock Island

Land Bridge to Rock Island

The path is sandy in spots, rocky in others, and consists of nothing but tiny seashells in still others that, when trod upon, sound like grinding glass. A good amount of ice makes the walk a bit treacherous at times, although one is treated to musical trickling and gurgling sounds that can be heard underneath the ice as lake water moves between stones. Being out in the open water, there is no protection from the wind, which was very cold and relentless both going and coming back. A one-way crossing probably takes 20 to 30 minutes; a precise time is impossible to state since there is no obvious edge of either island.

It was apparent from the numerous boot prints in the snow that a number of people have taken this unusual opportunity to visit Rock Island off season. When Al and I were at the boathouse, it appeared that we were the only ones on the island. On the way back, we passed a lone traveler on his way to Rock Island. His camera had frozen up due to the cold and persistent wind (I kept my camera inside my coat to prevent that from happening), but he wasn’t too bothered by that; he seemed to be enjoying the rare chance to walk to the island.

Chester Thordarson's Boat House, Rock Island (Wisc.)

Loading dock where visitors to Rock Island board ferry to return to Washington Island (seen in the distance)

Loading dock where visitors to Rock Island board ferry to return to Washington Island (seen in the distance)

Looking south from the southwest point of Rock Island (near beginning of land bridge connecting to Washington Island)

Looking south from the southwest point of Rock Island (near beginning of land bridge connecting to Washington Island)

I may have found another photo of the mystery man.

Visit to La Crosse

On Tuesday, I made a field trip to La Crosse to take photos of the site where the Gund brewery was located (more on that in a later blog) and to visit the Murphy Library at UW-La Crosse. The Area Research Center of the Murphy Library has collections of old photographs and maps, among other archival material. I asked to look at any photos they might have of the Gund brewery and also to look at Sanborn fire insurance maps of La Crosse for the years that I haven’t already seen (1894, 1898, 1921 and 1940), if the library’s collection contained any.

I had expected to spend most of my time examining the maps, but as it turned out, I never even got that far. The librarian brought out a box with brewery-related photos. My eyes about popped out of my head when I learned that inside that box were ten large envelopes labeled as John Gund Brewery photos, plus a couple of other large photos that were too large to fit inside the envelopes. The Gund brewery was clearly a significant business concern in its day.

The first few envelopes were labeled as exterior views of the brewery. To my amazement and delight, I saw photos of the brewery pre-fire, of the burned-out brewery immediately after the fire, and of the rebuilt brewery. I was floored by the number and variety of photographs. Unfortunately, most of the photos do not identify dates (aside from the ubiquitous ‘circa’) or names of people. Still, they offer a great deal more visual information than I previously had.

The next few envelopes were labeled as interior views of the brewery. This was brand new territory for me as I’d only seen to this point drawings and photos of the outsides of buildings. I briefly wondered whether the interior views would show and identify people. I repeatedly said to myself, “Wow!” at each new photo, drinking in and savoring every one of them.

The last two envelopes were labeled as people at the brewery. The excitement built as I slowly looked through the photos in the first envelope and then in the second. I took my time, examining and appreciating the details – clothing, hairstyles, equipment, surroundings – marveling at the reality of these people’s lives: ordinary workers making their way through life, trying to survive just like us today – and now long-since deceased and forgotten.

Another Photo

The very last photo in the first envelope left me transfixed. It was a photo I had not previously seen, yet I recognized immediately one of the men from the mystery man photo. Then I recognized another. Then another. I thought, “These are the same guys!” In all, I recognized ten faces that were common to the mystery man photo. I also recognized a man who, while not in the mystery man photo, appears in another photo of Gund brewery workers reportedly taken in 1899. He was the first clear link between the mystery man photo, dated circa 1890 and most likely taken pre-fire, and the 1899 photo taken in front of the rebuilt brewery.

I asked to get a digital scan of the photo, as large as possible, so that I could compare the faces of the men with the mystery man photo. On Wednesday, I began examining my digital copy of the photo. In addition to the ten men who are also clearly in the mystery man photo, I concluded there might be as many as six others who also appear in both photos – including the mystery man himself! I believe this gentleman is the mystery man:

Mystery Man?

His case is a little trickier to deduce than many of the other men because the mystery man in the first photo wears a cap Mystery Man while the man is hatless in this photo. Yet there is a resemblance in the facial features, including to a degree the wonderful moustache. Moreover, consider some other details: both men are seated prominently in the front row; both men wear very similar (identical?) black boots; both men wear a similar type of shirt that, while not the same, curiously isn’t apparent on any of the other men in either photo; the overall shape of the face, including the ears, on each man is similar; and the shape of the nose on each man seems to be identical. And did you notice that the man is holding a cap? Holding a Cap Wouldn’t that be something if it was the very cap worn by the man in the other photo!

Which Photo Came First?

Photo #1 - John Gund Brewery Workers circa 1890

Photo #1 – John Gund Brewery Workers circa 1890

Photo #2 - John Gund Brewery Workers circa 1890

Photo #2 – John Gund Brewery Workers circa 1890

Given that so many of the men present in both photos appear the same in their faces, I surmise the photos were taken close together, timewise. Two questions that I’d like to answer are (1) how much time elapsed between the two photos and (2) which was taken first?

It is exceedingly difficult to discern signs of aging in the men’s faces. That suggests that only a small amount of time separates the two photos. The man in the mystery man photo (to which I’ll now refer to as photo #1), third row from front, far right, is pictured in the other photo (to which I’ll now refer to as photo #2) in the third row from front, fourth from left. To me, that man looks younger (more kid-like, almost) in photo #2. By contrast, the man in photo #1, front row, second from left, who is in the very same location in photo #2, looks younger to me in photo #1.

I’ll offer two observations about the photos that, while I’m unable to prove conclusively, lead me to believe that photo #2 is the earlier of the two photos and that the photos were taken perhaps six months to one year apart:

1) A detail that I notice about both photos are the wonderful moustaches. Of the sixteen men who either certainly are present or are likely present in both photos, twelve sport moustaches in both photos. To a man, the moustaches of those twelve, if not the same in each photo, are larger, wider, fuller and in three cases, more horizontal, in photo #1 than in photo #2. This leads me to speculate that the fashion trend of the day had changed between the time that the two photos were taken. I’m guessing the trend was toward larger, more prominent moustaches as the ’90s progressed, which, if true, suggests that photo #2 was taken first.

2) One cannot grow a moustache overnight. Therefore, any changes to the moustache size of any of the men had to have taken some time. Further, the clothing the men are wearing in photo #1 appears to be slightly seasonally different than the clothing in photo #2. A number of the men in photo #1 seem to be wearing some type of sweater or are otherwise more layered than the men in photo #2. Though the season during which each photo was taken isn’t apparent, the somewhat seasonally different clothing suggests several months may have elapsed between the two photos. Both of these points lead me to guess that perhaps six months to maybe not quite a year separate the two photos.

To be continued…

Now that I know the mystery man was employed at the John Gund Brewing Company, I’ve begun looking for information about the brewery in an attempt to date the mystery man photo. According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, that photo is dated circa 1890. Is that date estimate reasonable? What range of years might ‘circa’ include? Finding the answers to those questions has proven to be a crucial step en route to identifying the mystery man.

Illustrations of John Gund’s Brewery

I’ve located a number of different drawings of John Gund’s brewery (breweries, actually) spanning more than forty years. A time capsule of such images provides valuable clues as to what the John Gund Brewing Company looked like and how it evolved from its humble beginnings. It becomes apparent when examining these images, however, that the limners often used artistic license generously when creating their works. For the “big picture,” such license might be inconsequential. The challenge in comparing one image to another comes when examining the small details.

According to Steven Baier’s research paper “History of the Brewing Industry in La Crosse,” [1976] John Gund was born in Germany in 1830 and, following his schooling, apprenticed for two years at a cooperage and a brewery. In 1848, he came to America, settling in Illinois. During the next six years, he worked at a couple of breweries in Illinois and Iowa before moving to and establishing his first brewery in La Crosse in 1854. This image of John Gund’s first brewing structure appears on page 106 of “Echoes of Our Past: Vignettes of Historic La Crosse” [1985] by Myer Katz:

John Gund’s brewery 1854

John Gund’s brewery 1854

In 1858, John Gund sold the log cabin to C. L. Colman, who used it for his lumber business. Gund then entered into partnership with Gottlieb Heileman and built the “City Brewery.” Gund sold his share of the business to Heileman in 1872 and began building the “Empire Brewery.”



Empire Brewery 1873, as seen from the southeast

Empire Brewery 1873, as seen from the southeast

source: Katz 1985

The buildings in the above illustration are as follows:
A – malt house
B – brew house, office
C – dry kiln
D – engine house
E – ice house [The ice house was where blocks of ice that had been cut from the river (or lakes) were stored, often with sawdust around the blocks for insulation. Sometimes a portion of the ice house, or a building separate and distinct from the ice house, was used for cold storage. The cold storage building was where the beer was stored with the ice in the summer to keep the beer cool while lagering. Before refrigeration, cold storage was accomplished by the judicious use of those blocks of ice to keep a storage box or container cold.]
F – reserve ice house
G – stables
H – dwelling (house); not sure if it belonged to Gund Brewery

The bottling house, not depicted in the above illustration, was across the street to the east (to the right).



Empire Brewery 1876, as seen from the southwest

Empire Brewery 1876, as seen from the southwest

source: Drawing of the city of La Crosse by C.J. Pauli, Wisconsin Historical Society

The buildings in the above illustration are as follows:
A – malt house
B – brew house, office
C – dry kiln
D – engine house
E – ice house
H – dwelling (house)

The reserve ice house and stables shown in the 1873 illustration are not depicted in the above illustration. They were located to the southwest (downward in the above illustration). The bottling house, also not depicted in the above illustration, is to the east (to the right), across the street in the fenced-in tree grove.

The freight depot is to the northeast (upward in the above illustration) of the brew house.

In 1879-1880, a second ice house was constructed on the north (and slightly to the west) side of first ice house.

In 1880, John Gund formally organized the “John Gund Brewing Company.” The original articles of incorporation, dated May 1 1880, consist of two pages of ruled paper measuring 11¾” x 7¼”, handwritten using a fountain pen in beautiful, flowing script on the front and back of each page.



John Gund Brewing Company 1881, as seen from the northeast

John Gund Brewing Company 1881, as seen from the northeast

source: Murphy Library, UW-La Crosse

The buildings in the above illustration are as follows:
A – malt house
B – brew house, office, sleeping rooms (2nd floor)
C – dry kiln
E1 – ice house no. 1
E2 – ice house no. 2 built 1879-1880 and containing a basement, cooling room, storage room and ice room
F – reserve ice houses
G – stables
H – bottling house

The engine house is not depicted in the above illustration but remained located behind the brew house and malt house.

The dwelling in the 1873 and 1876 illustrations is not depicted here but was located south (to the left in the above illustration) of the bottling house.



John Gund Brewing Company 1887, as seen from the northwest

John Gund Brewing Company 1887, as seen from the northwest

source: Drawing of the city of La Crosse by Henry Wellge, La Crosse Public Library

The buildings in the above illustration are as follows:
A – malt house
B – brew house, office, sleeping rooms
C – dry kiln
E1 – ice house no. 1
E2 – ice house no. 2
E3 – ice house no. 3
F – reserve ice houses
G – stables
H – bottling house (built since 1884)

The engine house is not depicted in this illustration but remained located between ice house no.1 and the dry kiln.

The building north of the stables (to the left in the above illustration) possibly started out as a reserve ice house but was later used as a wagon shed.

The building south of the malt house (to the right in the above illustration) was a shed.

The building southeast of the malt house (upward in the above illustration) is the dwelling that was depicted in the 1873 and 1876 illustrations.

The building to the north (downward in the above illustration) of the bottling house is the former bottling house, now used for storage.

The building to the east of the bottling house (next to the railroad tracks) is a shed, and the building south of that shed is a sawdust shed.

The partial building across the railroad tracks and to the left of the bottling house is the freight depot depicted in the 1881 illustration.

The elongated structure to the northeast of the brew house and across the street and railroad tracks is the passenger depot depicted in the 1881 illustration.



John Gund Brewing Company 1890, as seen from the northeast

John Gund Brewing Company 1890, as seen from the northeast

source: 1890 City Directory for La Crosse

The buildings in the above illustration are as follows:
A – malt house
B – brew house, office, sleeping rooms
C – dry kiln
E1 – ice house no. 1
E2 – ice house no. 2
E3 – ice house no. 3
F – reserve ice houses
G – stables
H – bottling house (built since 1884)
I – wagon house
J – office
K – grain storage

The building to the north of the two ice houses (to the right in the above illustration) is either the freight depot for the Chicago and Northwestern railroad or the car shed for the Green Bay, Winona and St. Paul railroad. (The placement of the buildings, street and rail lines are not depicted accurately in the above illustration, so it’s a little difficult to tell which railroad building it is supposed to be.)



John Gund Brewing Company 1892, as seen from the northeast

John Gund Brewing Company 1892, as seen from the northeast

source: 1891 Annual Report of the Board of Trade for the City of La Crosse, Murphy Library, UW-La Crosse

This illustration looks to be the same as the 1890 illustration from the city directory.


Identifying the various buildings in the different images proved to be a challenging exercise. Some of the artists took more liberties than others with respect to perspective, orientation and detail. In addition, new building construction over time occasionally tripped me up. For example, the bottling house in the 1881 illustration is oriented east-west and appears to be frame construction. By contrast, in the 1890 illustration, the bottling house is oriented north-south and appears to be brick or stone construction. Both images turn out to be correct (mostly). A new bottling house made from stone was built sometime after 1884, oriented nearly north-south. Meanwhile, the original frame-construction bottling house was retained and used for storage. Even so, the 1890 image lays out the buildings, road and rail lines in a neat grid, which wasn’t true to life. Based on textual descriptions of some of the buildings, and especially with the aid of Sanborn fire insurance maps, I was able ultimately to identify most of the buildings appearing in the various illustrations.

Employment at the Gund Brewery

Stephen Baier’s paper cites a figure of 25 employees at the brewery, ostensibly in the 1879-1880 timeframe. Biennial reports from the state commissioner of labor statistics Wisconsin Bureau of Labor Statistics First Biennial Report 1883-1884 show fairly steady, if not increasing, employment figures at the brewery over the next fifteen years, although who was counted as an employee is not explained. Further, the dates that the employee counts were tallied are not in the reports:

Report Years Male Employees Female Employees Total Employees
1885-1886 47 4 51
1887-1888 40 0 40
1889-1890 57 4 61
1891-1892 50 2 52
1893-1894 60 4 64
1895-1896 figures not reported

The photo with the mystery man includes 24 workers. If the photo date of circa 1890 is reasonable, it would seem that those men comprised from three-eighths to almost one-half of John Gund’s brewery workforce.

To be continued…

On Friday, I saw a sight in Madison that one never sees – a passenger train traveling through town.

The closest that Amtrak’s Empire Builder route comes to Madison is 25 miles to the northeast, stopping at a quaint old train station in Columbus. It’s a lovely vintage station, built shortly after the turn of the 20th century. As there is no public transportation between Madison and Columbus, for those who live in Madison, the train is an option for cross-country travel only to those with access to a car.

Two years ago, the state government had plans to construct a high-speed rail line between Milwaukee and Madison, the long-term plan being to connect Chicago with Minneapolis via the two Wisconsin cities. The federal government was poised to cover the estimated $810 million in construction costs. The state’s burden would be to pay the estimated $7.5 million in annual operating costs. It was those operating costs that the state’s then recently-elected-but-not-yet-in-office governor cited as the reason for rejecting the funding from the federal government to pursue this transportation option. At the time, the governor-elect frequently and repeatedly claimed that the state was broke. (Meanwhile, during the two years that said governor has been in office, the state has spent millions upon millions of dollars on road, highway and bridge construction.) The state has now spent far more than $7.5 million as a result of the decision to scrap the high-speed rail plans. Further, the state now faces a lawsuit for failing to pay a company with which the state had contracted to build train cars for Amtrak’s Hiawatha line connecting Milwaukee and Chicago.)

Around 3:40 in the afternoon on Friday, I was walking along University Avenue on my way to Union South. I could hear the long and frequent train whistles from the tracks that run near Johnson Street and could tell the train was getting closer. After rounding the corner at the section of Orchard Street that connects University and Johnson, the train came into view. Rather than seeing a freight train as expected, I saw going by a string of shiny silver, single-level train cars that looked unmistakably like passenger rail cars, complete with white curtains hanging on either side of the windows. As I continued to approach Johnson Street, I heard someone behind me confirm what I was seeing when he declared, “That’s a passenger train!”

Indeed, Amtrak’s Northeast Regional train was rolling by. That route runs between Virginia and Massachusetts,

Map of Amtrak's Northeast Regional Route

Map of Amtrak’s Northeast Regional Route

so one wonders how this particular train got so lost and found itself traveling through south central Wisconsin, headed west even further away from the East Coast. The rail line it was on roughly follows U.S. Highway 14 through Middleton, Cross Plains, Black Earth, Mazomanie, Arena, Spring Green and Lone Rock, at which point Highway 14 turns north and the rail line continues west through Avoca, Muscoda, Blue River, Boscobel and Wauzeka, eventually ending up in Prairie du Chien.

The train was a welcome and beautiful sight to see. It causes me wonder if plans to bring passenger rail to Madison are still in the works. What a tremendous benefit that would be!
Amtrak Northeast Regional

Mystery Man

In my previous blog about hats, I speculated about the mystery man with the cap and moustache in the display photo for the Wisconsin Historical Society’s exhibit on the history of the state’s brewing industry. Close-up of gentleman in exhibit photograph This man has continued to intrigue me, maybe to the point of obsession. I feel that I have to know who he was.

I stopped by the museum this past Wednesday in search of additional information about the photograph. A lady at the gift shop desk helped me locate the original photo on the historical society’s web site. It turns out that the image in the display window was cropped from a larger photo:

She mentioned the name of the exhibit’s curator, who evidently had just been at the museum five minutes earlier. So I e-mailed him to ask if he had any additional information about the photograph that was not posted on the web site. He said that it was possible that there was more information that did not make it into the online record and referred me to the historical society’s reference service. I sent a message to the e-mail address he gave me and received a reply rather quickly from a reference archivist who said that the historical society tries to include all available information in their image records. He said he looked at the print copy of the photograph that they have but that unfortunately there was no additional information about the image. He surmised that they copied the photograph from an individual or another repository and speculated that, given the information they have on it that it came from the Louis Schreiber family, who passed along the information they had about it. (Note that the on-line record states Louis Schreiber is depicted in the original photograph.) The reference archivist suggested that the La Crosse County Historical Society could have more information. Accordingly, I sent an e-mail to that historical society. So far, there has been no reply.

Meanwhile, the title of the photograph, “Michel’s Brewery Workers,” gave me a starting point to start digging around the internet. I quickly located a research paper written in 1976 by Steven Baier, a student at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, on the history of the brewing industry in LaCrosse. Mr. Baier’s paper provided terrific detail on fifteen different breweries that had operated in the city, including Michel’s Brewery. It was fascinating to read, although I noticed a discrepancy in one detail between Mr. Baier’s paper and the historical society’s web site. The information from the historical society stated that Michel’s Brewery closed sometime after 1920 over a strike. However, according to Mr. Baier, with the beginning of Prohibition, the brewery changed its name to the “La Crosse Refining Company” and continued to operate by manufacturing malt and malt syrup. Upon the repeal of Prohibition, the brewery resumed making beer, in addition to malt syrup, and changed its name to “La Crosse Breweries, Inc.,” and the brewery remained in operation until 1965. Mr. Baier’s paper made no mention of a strike at Michel’s Brewery.

Another source that was referenced on the internet was a book called “American Breweries II” by Dale Van Wieren (1995). That book appears to cite 1956 as the closing date of the La Crosse Breweries (Michel’s), so there is another discrepancy to resolve. I’ll check out that book from the library to find out exactly what it says about the brewery.

I decided it was important to know the approximate date of the photograph as U.S. census records could potentially help identify the mystery man. Based on the general appearance of the photograph and the little information available, my guess was that it was from the 1880s or 1890s. It could not have been before 1879 since Louis Schreiber, born in 1861, immigrated to Wisconsin at the age of 18. And it could not have been after 1923, which is the year he died. It’s often difficult to discern ages in photographs, especially from earlier time periods, but in this photograph, Louis Schreiber looks to me to be on the young side, particularly in comparison to his contemporaries. He strikes me as being in his 20s or possibly 30s, which would date the photograph to the 1880s or 1890s. I asked Brian, a historian friend, to estimate the date of the photo, and his guess, based on the clothing worn by the workers, was 1900 to 1910. While Brian is very knowledgeable about history, I’m skeptical of that estimate because that would mean Louis Schreiber was aged 39 to 49 in the photograph, and he doesn’t look that old to me.

Another curious item I found was a newspaper clipping from the Prescott (Ariz.) Evening Courier dated July 21, 1903:

LATE NEWS – At La Crosse, Wis., Louis Schreiber, an employee of the Gund brewery, was struck by lightning last night. His right ear was torn clean from his head and his right side was terribly burned. For nine hours he was unable to speak. He will recover.

Gruesome though this account is, it provides two important details. If the article is about the same Louis Schreiber depicted in the photograph, it means the date of the photo is no later than 1903 as Louis Schreiber’s right ear appears to be intact in the photo. Also, he was employed by the (John) Gund brewery. Does this mean by 1903, Louis Schreiber was a former employee of Michel’s Brewery?

A break-through in my search came when I happened across a digitization of LaCrosse city directories from 1880, 1885, 1890, 1895, 1900 and 1905. These directories contain an amazing wealth of detail about the city’s residents – or at least about the adult males and, if working outside the home or widowed, adult females – including name, occupation, employer and residence. I realized that dating the photograph was no longer merely important but was now crucial as it would be possible to compile a list of individuals who were employed at Michel’s Brewery around the time of the photograph – concrete information that could potentially lead to the identity of the mystery man in the photograph!

For example, Louis Schreiber’s name appears in the directories from 1885 onward. In 1885, he is listed on page 291, noting his occupation as a butcher, working at Frank and August Semsch’s meat market:

At the time, Louis Schreiber was boarding at Frank Semsch’s home.

In the 1890 directory, Louis Schreiber is listed on page 227, now as an employee at the John Gund Brewing Company:

In the 1895 directory, Louis Schreiber was listed at yet a different employer, C.L. Colman Manufacturing:

Then he was back at the John Gund brewery in 1900…

and was still there in 1905:

I had expected to see at least one listing that identified Louis Schreiber as an employee at Michel’s Brewery. Certainly he could have worked there in any of the intervening years, but it was disappointing not to find a direct link between Louis Schreiber and Michel’s Brewery.

While discussing with my partner what I had found, he made a comment about this Louis Schreiber moving around a lot from one employer to another. Indeed, three different employers within ten years seemed like a lot. And considering there was a fourth – Michel’s – that hadn’t yet appeared in any directory listing —

Then Bam! It hit me – what if Louis Schreiber had not, in fact, moved from Gund to Michel or vice versa? What if he never worked at Michel’s Brewery at all – and the attribution in the historical society record was in error?

Immediately that possibility began to explain a couple of things, one of which was the lack of a directory listing identifying him as a Michel’s employee. Of course, without directories for any of the years inbetween, such a lack is inconclusive. Certainly Louis Schreiber was at Gund in one of those inbetween years, namely 1903 when he was struck by lightning. But there isn’t enough information about the other inbetween years to say definitively. Still, it raises the possibility.

The second thing an attribution error could explain is the discrepancy between the historical society’s notation that Michel’s Brewery closed sometime after 1920 over a strike and Steven Baier’s account of the brewery remaining in business until 1965. Mr. Baier’s paper also gives the history of the John Gund Brewing Company, and according to the paper:

In 1920, the Brewery Worker’s Union in La Crosse went on strike to outlaw open shops (businesses in which both union and non-union men could work). Being the largest employer, Gund’s was the hardest hit. Notices were run daily, advertising jobs for men, women, and children….

Later in 1920, complete Prohibition closed the John Gund Brewing Company once again*. This, along with the strike, proved to be too much for the Gund family. They packed up and moved East. The city of La Crosse thereby lost one of the most important businesses it ever had.

* The Gund Brewing company had closed briefly in 1919 when Prohibition was initially implemented

So now, in addition to identifying the mystery man in the photograph, I had another problem to solve. How could I confirm that the photograph was of workers at the John Gund Brewery and not Michel’s Brewery? This was a critical question to answer because if I am to rely on information in the LaCrosse city directories to compile a list of brewery employees, I need to be certain I’m looking for the correct subset of names.

I recalled seeing in the original photograph a man in the center, standing and appearing to be pouring a bottle of beer into a mug. I had not previously noticed him in the window display cropped photo and wondered why, since the man is so obvious in the original photograph. In any case, I wondered if the bottle could provide a clue as it should belong to the brewery that made the beer. In searching the internet for information on Michel’s Brewery, I had seen images of bottles from the various breweries. Not knowing if the shapes/styles of the bottles were unique to the brewery, it seemed like a potential identification tool.

So I headed back downtown to have another look at the display window photograph. I saw that indeed, the man standing and pouring the bottle is there but is partially obscured by large poster lettering over his some of his face and upper body, which is why I hadn’t noticed him earlier. However, much of the bottle, including all of the neck, is visible, which made me more optimistic about identifying the brewery.

And then I looked carefully around the rest of the display window photograph and discovered the answer staring me in the face. The tapped barrel on its side between the mystery man on the left and the other hatted man on the right has lettering around the top rim, and one can barely make out the letters “JOHN GUND B…” Further, the barrel standing upright on the ground between the two men’s feet has very clear lettering that reads “J. Gund B…”

Closeup of barrel in display photograph showing lettering spelling JOHN GUND B…

Closeup of barrel in display photograph showing lettering spelling J. GUND B…

There was the convincing evidence I needed, right in the photograph itself! This was indeed a photograph of workers at the John Gund Brewery and not Michel’s Brewery.

I contacted the archivist at the historical society again and asked about estimating the date of the photograph based on clothing or other objects depicted in the photo. I also told him I was fairly certain the title of the photograph was in error and that it actually depicted workers at the John Gund Brewery. The archivist examined a high-resolution version of the photo and, noticing the lettering on the barrels as well, concluded that the scene was at the John Gund bottling department. He also consulted with the historical society’s textile curator, who frequently dates photographs for them based on clothing and hairstyles. The archivist speculated that estimating the date could be tricky because the men in the photo were dressed in work clothes, and those fashions didn’t change as frequently. The textile curator estimated the date to be c. 1890 based on jackets two of the men were wearing. Of course, I liked that estimate more than Brian’s because my own feeling is that the photo is from the 1880s or 1890s. The archivist updated the on-line record to reflect this new information:

This history detective work has been quite fun and most interesting, although I still don’t know who the mystery man is. But I’ll keep searching, and if I’m eventually successful in identifying him, I’ll post an update to this blog.

To be continued, maybe…