JEFFERSON — A community that once had boasted five German-style breweries operating simultaneously, Jefferson was hit hard by Prohibition.
In the wake of the 1920 government ban on alcohol, the city’s remaining breweries had to change over to creating other, legal foods or drinks, while the multitude of bars operating in the town had to switch over to serving soda or ice cream — at least officially.
On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the start of Prohibition Jan. 17th, the Jefferson Historical Museum, in the lower level of city hall, has a special exhibit on business during Prohibition, from the legal fronts to the illegal stills.
The pictorial display touches upon the community’s brewing history and features a number of local businesses that either had to change their mode of operation or close entirely with the passage of Prohibition.
However, to really understand the
impact of Prohibition on Jefferson, you have to go back further in history, to the 1870s, when the community was a hub for German-style brewing.
At that time, Jefferson produced some 2,000 barrels of beer a year.
Local historian and brewery enthusiast Wayne Kroll noted in a 2017 Daily Union interview that this production level came out to 31 gallons of beer per year for every man, woman and child in the city.
Of course, much of it was shipped out to the surrounding area, but most stayed within the general region, as transportation options were limited in those days.
Kroll, the author of three books on Wisconsin breweries and historic beer bottles, has a special interest in Jefferson, where he taught and coached for many years.
According to Kroll’s research, the Jefferson beer-brewing tradition started in 1854 when Stephen Neuer and his wife, Victoria, set up a brewery on the eastern edge of town along East Racine Street.
Across from the Neuer brewery, German immigrant John Kemmeter set up another brewery. It was not as successful as many others — there’s some indication that the owner drank up a lot of the profit, Kroll said — but ironically, this is the only actual historic brewery building still standing. Now renovated into apartments, it still stands at 448 E. Racine St.
One of the biggest local breweries, established in 1855, was established by Jacob A. Breunig. It stood on the property that now houses the Fort Community Credit Union on the corner of Main and East Racine streets.
By 1870, this was the largest brewery in Jefferson. While Breunig’s sons did not want the business and it closed, the plant reopened in the late 1890s under new ownership as the Jefferson Brewing and Malting Company.
It continued to operate at this location until Prohibition, when the building was transformed into the Heileman Ice Cream Company, which became a big name in the area for the next several decades.
A portion of that property stands today as the Fort Community Credit Union at 100 N. Main St., although the main building was destroyed in a fire.
Kroll said that the most successful brewery in the area was Rudolph Heger’s City Brewery.
It was started by different owners in 1857. Heger, with a partner, took over in 1873.
The Heger Brewery was located on Center Street behind and to the north of Immanuel United Methodist Church, where an apartment building now stands.
The only portion of that business now standing is the bottling works across the street, restored in recent years by artist Terrence Coffman.
Heger also owned a bar on Main Street that still stands under its current name of The Landmark Saloon, located at 138 S. Main St.
In 1908, the Heger brewery was incorporated into the R. Heger Malt and Brewing Company, earning national renown by receiving an award at the 1904 World’s Fair.
The Heger beer slogan referred to the Jefferson-made beer as “The Beer That Made Milwaukee Jealous.”
Despite its prior success, though, the Heger brewery could not withstand Prohibition and it closed its doors in 1920.
For a time, it housed the Wisconsin Food Products plant, but Kroll said the building mostly sat idle until being reopened in 1939 as the Perplies Brewing Co., with Prohibition having been repealed in 1933.
Clearly, Prohibition forever changed the Jefferson brewing scene. Meanwhile, all of the little bars in the area struggled to find a new role, while black market dealers rose up to meet the area’s still-substantial appetite for alcohol.
The Jefferson Historical Museum Prohibition display features details on several of the local bars which became restaurants, soda bars or ice cream parlors after Prohibition. Among these was Gill’s Saloon, owned by Carrie Gill, which became Gill’s Soft Drink Parlor after 1920.
Meanwhile, Gill put the Elite Restaurant, which she also owned, up for rent at the same time. She finally sold all of her buildings on Main Street to Standard Oil to make way for a new gas station.
A former saloon on the northeast corner of Main and Racine Streets was remodeled in 1925 by former Sheriff T.F. Denny Smith, who opened an “ice cream and soft drink parlor” there.
However, a year later, he was charged with illegally selling alcohol and subsequently sentenced to eight months in jail and a $200 fine.
The charges came about following a visit to the establishment by a federal Prohibition agent in August of 1926, who testified that he bought glasses of alcohol at the “soft drink parlor” for 25 cents each, and a pint of moonshine for $2.
One of the historic bars in downtown Jefferson, The Imperial, was purchased by Fredrick Schweinler in 1919. Just a year later, Prohibition forced Schweinler to turn his bar into a soft drink parlor and restaurant.
Once owned by Heger as mentioned previously, this property eventually became today’s Landmark Saloon.
The Langer Saloon, located on the west side of Jefferson just over the Milwaukee Street bridge, reportedly made the transition successfully from saloon to ice cream parlor.
When Frank Langer died in 1930, a decade after Prohibition’s start, his wife took over the ice cream parlor and the business continued to thrive.
The building still stands today and now houses The Heron’s Landing, which, of course, serves drinks. It is located at 200 W. Milwaukee St.
One business that came about as a result of Prohibition was “Dick’s” soft drinks ,which in 1923 moved into the old Charles Leutz cigar factory on Main Street. Dick’s specialized in “Health-Way Malted Milk.”
As in other area communities, Jefferson saw its share of raids during the Prohibition era.
The historical society notes that W.J. Liebel of the Commercial Hotel Bar was cited for non-compliance with Prohibition laws.
Other area businesspeople facing similar citations included Winfield Puerner, who was fined for selling alcohol out of his soft drink parlor; Anton Beischel, also fined for selling alcohol at a soft drink parlor; and Grace Haller, who reportedly sold alcohol at the Haller Inn.
Meanwhile, the Maxmillian Hotel in nearby Jefferson Junction was raided and found to contain a large quantity of wine. This violation resulted in prosecution for the proprietor of the business, Max Blank.
Located between Jefferson and Fort Atkinson on the banks of the Rock River, the Edgewater Road House — now the Edgewater Supper Club — is linked to several Prohibition-era tales.
It got its start in the early 1900s. When the building was moved to its current riverside site, it opened as a beer bar serving food.
Paul Knilans owned the property during Prohibition, and the historical society display indicated that Knilans made moonshine nearby, shipping it down the Rock River.
The historical society display cites a book by Ron Faiola as saying that the Edgewater became “a popular spot for Chicago mobsters, including Al Capone’s gang.”
In the early 1930s, Joe Nevin was hired to run the slot machines at the Edgewater, and he took over the tavern in 1936.
It remains in operation today. The restaurant, which of course serves alcohol, was listed among Wisconsin’s top “supper clubs” in recent years.
Out in the surrounding countryside, business was booming for some folks who ran illegal stills.
The Jefferson Historical Society notes that after the end of Prohibition, in December of 1933, the largest still ever found in Jefferson County was uncovered on a farm near Helenville.
The still made 160-proof booze, and had a 600-gallon-per-day capacity.