Site icon Brookston Beer Bulletin

Historic Beer Birthday: John Gund

Today is the birthday of John Gund (October 3, 1830-May 7, 1910). Gund co-founded what would become the The G. Heileman Brewing Company with Gottlieb Heileman. They formed a partnership in November 1858 to operate the City Brewery in La Crosse, but “after nearly fifteen years in business together, Heileman and Gund dissolved their partnership in 1872.” After leaving City Brewing, Gund immediately “established a new brewery on the southern edge of La Crosse that he named the Empire Brewery, and which was incorporated in 1880 as the John Gund Brewing Company.” Gund employed all three of his sons in his new venture, and eventually his son Henry became president of the brewery after his father’s death in 1910.

Here’s a short biography from Find-a-Grave:

Came to America in 1848 and settled in LaCrosse in 1854. He began his own brewery until in 1858 he and Gottlieb Heileman formed the City Brewery. John later left and founded the Empire Brewery in 1872 but — due to the fact there were 14 breweries in LaCrosse at the time — his business failed.

And here’s a lengthy history of the brewery from The Peerless Beer Legacy:

The John Gund Brewery (1854-1920)

The story of the John Gund Brewery is a story of the American Dream. Many immigrants came to the US in search of a new and better life. John Gund accomplished this goal and became one of the forefathers of the modern beer industry.

John Gund was born in Schwetzingen, Germany in 1830. He was the second of eight children. After finishing this education at the common schools he began an apprenticeship working at a brewery in the winter.

John Gund arrived in New York on May 16, 1848. Shortly after arriving in New York the family moved to Freeport, Illinois. After his fathers and mothers death in 1850 of cholera, Gund married Louise Hottman and in1852 moved to Dubuque, Iowa. Gund added to his earlier knowledge by working at the brewery of Anton Heeb.

In 1854 Gund pack up and left the brewery and Iowa to move to LaCrosse, WI. John Gund’s first Brewery was a far cry from what was to come of this legend. His first brewery was in a log cabin he built at the corner of Front and Division Street. In just 4 years Gund sold the cabin and entered into a partnership with Gottlieb Heileman. These two men built and opened the City Brewery in 1854.

In 1872, Gund sold his share of City Brewery to Heileman and began building the Empire Brewery on South Ave. When opened the brewery had 9 buildings: Main Building, Storage Cellars, Brew house, Icehouse, office, Malt House, Dry Kiln, Engine House, and across the street the Bottle House. Later, a second Bottle house was built. The total cost of the brewery was $250,000. Empire Brewery had a staff of 25 people and was able to produce 30 thousand barrels per year. Much of the beer was exported, but much was used to supply the city’s bars.

The John Gund Brewing Company opened May 1, 1880 with only $100,000 capital. John appointed his family member to officer positions. These included: John Gund- President, Henry – Traveling Agent, George Gund – Manager, and John Gund Jr.- Bookkeeper. (Wife Died 1880 of severe cold.)

The John Gund Brewing Company was booming. The brewery covered 5 acres and produced 60 thousand barrels of beer in 1897. Many of the neighboring states benefited from this fine brew. Gund Beer was shipped all over Wisconsin, Dakota, Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, and Nebraska. Everything John Gund has built almost came crashing down the night of September 25, 1897. This night the city of LaCrosse witnessed a “one of the most destructive fires in the history of LaCrosse”(Baier, 1976). The fire was reported at 1:00am and was finally put out by noon the next day. The fire destroyed much of the Gund Brewery. The estimated damage of the fire totaled $200,000. Only the Engine house and cold storage could be saved. Insurance only covered $125,000. Fortunately enough beer was saved to allow for the brewery to fill orders and continue operation until the brewery was rebuilt. Clean up and rebuilding began the next day.

The new brewery was finished on April 16, 1898. The new brewery was larger, consisting of 8 buildings: Brew house, bottling house (now next to Brew house), mill house, dry house, hop storage, and malt house. It was also improved. New modern machinery and equipment was added. The new brewery even contained an elevator. Gund even prepared for another catastrophe by making the new brewery fireproof.

Business was again booming for the Gund Brewery. Capital stock for the company climbed to two million dollars. Unfortunately tragedy again strikes the Gund Brewery. This time the tragedy goes to the top. After fighting apoplexy for many months John Gund dies of the disease on May 7, 1901. In honor of a great man the brewery shut down for the day. Leadership of the John Gund Brewery now rests in the hands of Henry Gund and rumors spread like wildfire that the brewery would be moved to Omaha, Nebraska.

The John Gund Brewery survived and thrived after, yet another devastating disaster. By 1900 Gund Brewery became the “largest brewery in the old Northwest, outside of Milwaukee” (Baier, 1976). The World was beginning to take notice of Gund’s Peerless Beer. This became evident when in 1900 it won a metal at the Paris Exposition and in 1904 won the Gold metal at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (World Fair in 1904). The explosion in popularity caused for an increase in production. This need caused the increase of works to 450 in 1910. This year the brewery produced over 600,000 barrels of beer.

Soon the final blow would come to the brewery. In 1919 the 18th amendment was enacted. So began the years of Prohibition. The Brewery closed its doors. Luckily, on May 27th a law was passed making it legal to produce “war time” beer. Wartime beer was beer that was limited to 2.3%-4% alcohol content. The doors to the John Gund Brewery opened again to produce this beer. Still struggling, the brewery was it with another problem. The Brewery Workers Union in Lacrosse went on strike. The brewery was hit hard, offering jobs to men, woman, and children to help fill the void created by the strike.

The straw that finally breaks the John Gund Brewery’s back was the complete Prohibition. The Gund Brewery closed its doors for good later that year just as many other breweries throughout the US were doing.

Immigrant Entrepreneurship, under German-American Business Biographies, has a lengthy tale of both John Gund and Gottlieb Heileman I pulled out the passages about Gund:

John Gund (born October 3, 1830, in Schwetzingen, Grand Duchy of Baden; died May 7, 1910, in La Crosse, Wisconsin), the firm’s co-founder, eventually decided that Heileman’s business practices were too restrictive and ended the partnership in 1872 in order to build a new brewery in La Crosse that could compete with cross-state rivals such as Pabst, Schlitz, and Miller. The G. Heileman Brewing Company and the John Gund Brewing Company continued to pursue separate business strategies until national Prohibition was implemented fully in 1920. Gund’s large brewery collapsed, whereas Heileman’s smaller firm subsisted by producing non-alcoholic beer and malt products until the Twenty-First Amendment was passed in 1933.

John Gund, on the other hand, was born approximately seventy-five miles northwest of Kirchheim in the community of Schwetzingen in the Grand Duchy of Baden on October 3, 1830. Schwetzingen lay in the rich, alluvial farmland between the Rhine and Neckar Rivers approximately six miles southwest of Heidelberg. Gund was the second of eight children born to Georg Michael and Sophia Elizabeth Gund (née Eder or Edes).

John Gund found employment sixty miles to the west in Dubuque, Iowa, a commercial center situated on the west bank of the Mississippi River. He worked in a brewery operated by a German named Anton Heeb for two years. In June 1850, he relocated to nearby Galena, Illinois, to operate a brewery with a German named Witzel, possibly twenty-year-old Sebastian Witzel, who may have been an old friend. John Gund’s parents died of cholera the following month. After less than a year, he sold his share in the Galena brewery operation and rented another brewery in the community, known as the Cedar Brewery. About this time, he married fellow German immigrant Louise Hottman, a resident of Galena, with whom he eventually had five children. Two years after renting the Cedar Brewery, Gund decided to relocate to a larger and more prosperous community that would provide a better market for his beer. He and his wife moved approximately 180 miles northwest to the Mississippi River settlement of La Crosse, Wisconsin.

La Crosse had a population of approximately 2,000 residents in the mid-1850s. Situated on the east bank of the Mississippi River, the community had experienced rapid growth during the 1850s as settlers arrived to take advantage of the surrounding farmland and forests. The lumber industry flourished, facilitated by the community’s access to steamboats that plied the Mississippi River from St. Paul down to St. Louis and New Orleans. The city was incorporated in 1856 and benefitted further when a cross-state railroad connection was completed between La Crosse and Milwaukee in 1858.

John Gund founded a brewery in La Crosse in August 1854. The small operation was located in a log cabin near the community’s waterfront. A number of other German immigrants founded breweries in the city in the months and years that followed. Gustavus Nicolai and Jacob Franz founded the Nicolai Brewery shortly after Gund founded his brewery. Due to production problems with Gund’s initial batch of beer, Nicolai and Franz were first to bring their beer to market. Charles and John Michel founded the La Crosse Brewery in 1857 after a failed attempt to strike it rich in the California gold fields in the early 1850s. After returning from the West Coast, they attempted to settle in Chicago but soon grew to dislike the community and made their way north to St. Paul. Ice on the Mississippi delayed their river journey and they eventually settled in La Crosse instead. After noting that existing breweries in the community could not meet local demand, they founded their own brewery.

After nearly fifteen years in business together, Heileman and Gund dissolved their partnership in 1872. Heileman seems to have been content brewing beer primarily for the local market and this was reflected in the brewery’s modest output of approximately 3,000 barrels per year by the 1870s. By comparison, Eberhardt Anheuser and Adolphus Busch’s Bavarian Brewery in St. Louis produced approximately 100,000 barrels of beer per year during the same decade and the Pabst Brewery in Milwaukee produced 121,000 barrels annually.[10] John Gund was far more ambitious than his partner and wished to establish La Crosse as a major center of brewing that would rival Milwaukee and St. Louis. Supposedly, the partners flipped a coin to determine which partner would receive the brewery and which would receive the International Hotel. Heileman won the City Brewery and Gund gained control of the hotel.

Gund immediately established a new brewery on the southern edge of La Crosse that he named the Empire Brewery, and which was incorporated in 1880 as the John Gund Brewing Company. A bottling house was included in the new brewery, which indicated that Gund intended to distribute the beer regionally. At the time, federal law required that excise taxes be paid on kegged beer. Only after the tax stamp had been applied to the keg could brewers then bottle the beer for sale. Bottling beer was also labor intensive since employees had to fill and cork individual bottles by hand during this era and then pasteurize each lot. Consequently, bottling beer was more time consuming and expensive than distributing it in kegs. Bottled beer’s key advantage lay in the fact that it could be shipped more easily and thus could reach more distant markets than kegged beer.

Gund’s decision to end his partnership with Heileman in 1872 may had been attributable, at least in small part, to the 1871 conflagration in Chicago. The Great Chicago Fire destroyed the city’s nascent brewing industry and opened the door to brewers in nearby cities with railroad connections to Chicago. Gund along with brewers from Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Cincinnati began shipping beer to Chicago and established a presence in the taverns and other drinking establishments of the city.

Gund and his three sons, George, Henry, and John Jr., continued to expand their brewery’s operations during the 1870s and 1880s. After John Gund incorporated the brewery in May 1880, he assumed the title of brewery president and his sons took other positions in the firm. The firm was capitalized at $100,000 (approximately $2.3 million dollars in 2011$) with the stock remaining in family hands. By 1887, the facility covered five acres and produced 45,000 barrels of beer annually. While this output still lagged behind the volume produced by major shipping breweries of the era such as Pabst, Schlitz, and Anheuser-Busch, when combined with the other breweries of La Crosse, the city’s beer production briefly surpassed the quantity produced by any other city in Wisconsin, including Milwaukee, in 1884. Given that La Crosse’s population was ten percent of Milwaukee’s population during this decade, such an output is impressive to say the least. Gund took advantage of La Crosse’s rail and river connection to the Upper Midwest and the Chicagoland area to distribute beer to the Dakotas, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, and Illinois. Henry Gund served as a traveling agent for the firm and established a distribution center in Minneapolis in 1882.

A major fire at the Gund brewery in 1897 destroyed the original 1872 structure but also enabled Gund to reconstruct the brewery with expanded capacity the following year. The new facility was designed by prominent Chicago architect Louis William Lehle, a German immigrant University of Stuttgart graduate who was responsible for designing breweries throughout the United States for a number of major firms including Blatz, Grain Belt, and Dixie. Gund’s focus on bottled beer was reflected in the new design of the brewery. The bottling plant was relocated from a building across the street from the brewing complex to a new building next to the brew house. This arrangement allowed beer to be pumped directly from holding tanks to the bottling line. Improvements in bottling technology, such as the development of crown caps in 1892, made the production process less labor intensive. Gund’s bottling line was capable of producing twenty-five million bottles per year.[ By 1900, production at the new brewery grew to 200,000 barrels per year and tripled to 600,000 a decade later. Nevertheless, the Gund Brewing Company was still a middle-tier producer in comparison to other major regional breweries such as Pabst or Schlitz, whose output exceeded one million and one-and-a-half million barrels, respectively, during the same period.

In conjunction with its focus on bottled beer production, the firm began to develop a specific branded beer, which it called Peerless. The brewery invested great effort into promoting the brand and entered Peerless into a variety of international competitions including the 1900 Paris Exposition and the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. Peerless won a medal at both expositions and the Gund Brewery used the publicity generated by the beer’s performance in its advertising.

Generational transition in brewery management took place gradually from the 1880s through the first decade of the twentieth century. Gund’s three sons served in various roles at the brewery. George Gund worked as brewery manager. Henry served as a traveling agent for the firm and later as bookkeeper after his younger brother, John Jr., left the firm in 1887 to pursue other interests. His elder brother also left the firm in the 1890s and established a brewery in Seattle and later purchased an existing brewery in Cleveland. With the departure of his brothers, Henry gradually assumed greater responsibilities at the brewery despite health problems. By the early 1900s, he was in his forties and was well respected within the local and regional brewing communities. He was elected vice president of Wisconsin’s Brewer’s Association in 1901 and by 1904 had assumed the position of vice president and treasurer of the John Gund Brewing Company. In May 1910, John Gund passed away a few months shy of his eightieth birthday.

Politically, John Gund’s party affiliation reflected broader shifts in German immigrant political participation during the second half of the nineteenth century. He supported the Whig ticket shortly after his arrival in the United States and voted Republican in the 1860s and 1870s, but his allegiance shifted to the Democratic Party in his later years. This may have been linked to the Democrats’ opposition to the growing prohibitionist movement in the United States and the support they enjoyed from populist, agrarian elements in Midwestern states like Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa.

Exit mobile version