Wisconsin antique bottle and advertising club

Blossom's Badger Ale

It feels like I've been chasing him my whole life. The first one turned up in 1963 in the wall of an early house in Milwaukee. A friend named Don knew the contractor who found it and quickly acquired it. Don collected early Milwaukee items of all kinds – tools, paper, furniture, you name it. He was a veritable encyclopedia of knowledge of early Milwaukee history. He bought, disassembled and moved an early Milwaukee frame house and then reassembled it in a historic town west of Milwaukee. I can think of no better place for the bottle than Don’s collection, and it’s been there ever since. For the next twenty years not so much as a fragment of a bottle from this brewery would turn up.

It was a crude black glass half pint ale heavily embossed BLOSSOM’S / BADGER ALE / MILWAUKEE (Figure 1). It had a domed kick up with an iron pontil mark and was in sparkling mint condition. Don had noticed something else interesting about it. There was a faintly embossed mirrored 200 on the bottom (Figure 1b). McKearin & Wilson attributed two historical flasks with similar base markings to the Lancaster Glass Works in New York. The GV-2 Railroad flask has a 4 x 4 and reversed 200 on the bottom. The GIX-20 scroll flask has a reversed 4 x 4. Lancaster Glass started in August, 1849 which fits the time frame for the Badger Ale. However, Blossom advertised bottled ale as early as 1847 which means he also ordered bottles from a different glass factory before Lancaster opened.

I started collecting bottles in 1971, eventually focusing on pre-1885 Wisconsin bottles. By then Wayne Kroll had published a book Badger Breweries Past and Present with historical sketches of pre-prohibition breweries and related bottle rubbings. He included the Badger Ale bottle and a brief history of Blossom’s Eagle Brewery in the book. The Blossom’s Badger Ale was already a Wisconsin bottle collecting icon and has topped my want list ever since. For me and for many other local collectors the Badger Ale was the holy grail of Wisconsin bottles. It was Wisconsin’s oldest embossed bottle and the only Wisconsin pontil marked ale. Even by national standards, it’s an outstanding example of an early American ale.

The Brewery
The Eagle Brewery was established on the northwest side of town at 8th & Chestnut Streets and was the third brewery in Milwaukee. the Eagle Brewery was built by Robert Baker in 1841 and completed in 1942. William Miller acquired the brewery later that year. Miller formed a partnership with William Pawlett in 1843 under the firm name “Miller & Pawlett”.

Levi Blossom was a wealthy businessman and money lender. He ownership of the Eagle Brewery by foreclosure. On November 8, 1845 he ran an ad in the Daily Sentinel announcing to vendors and the public that he now owned the Eagle Brewery:

"Notice - All persons are hereby forbid delivering to William Miller, William Anson, or William Knight, or to the firm of Miller & Anson, or Miller and Knight, or any other person, except me, any casks or other property in any way belonging to the Eagle Brewery - as the same belong to me. Said establishment will hereafter be continued on my own account, and I hope to merit the patronage of the public. Milwaukie, Oct 11, '45. L. BLOSSOM."

J. P. B. McCabe's 1847 Milwaukee city directory told of Blossom's Eagle Brewery having "10 acres on a hill commanding a view of the whole city, bay and river", and declared that Blossom planned "to ornament the grounds with a handsome public garden and vineyard, fountains and jets to add to the natural beauty." (Figure 2)

Levi, who was 34 at the time put his 28 year old brother Alonzo in charge of managing the brewery (Figure 12). An advertisement in an 1847 Emigrant's Guide names three brands - Milwaukee Ale, Scotch Ale and Eagle Ale in casks or bottles by the hundred or thousand. A similar ad ran in the 1848-49 Milwaukee City Directory (Figure 7). No bottles embossed with any of these brands have been found yet but it’s very possible that they were made.

In the late 40's Levi advertised frequently in the daily Sentinel buying and selling barley and hops, buying barrel staves, hiring a cooper, looking for horses and dray, promoting Eagle Ale, etc. The first ad specifically mentioning of the Badger Ale brand was in the 1851/52 city directory (Figure 4). It implies that Badger Ale was similar to a Scotch ale which was very popular at the time. The Eagle Brewery appeared to be doing a brisk business.

On November 8, 1852 the main building at the Eagle Brewery was destroyed by a fire that started at midnight (figure 14). The large brick building contained 2,000 bushels of malt, 500 barrels of beer and perhaps thousands of bottles and was considered to be a total loss. The brewery was reported to be doing a large home and export business at the time. Evidence of incendiaries were found, calling into question the cause of the fire. Was it Karma that the business taken by foreclosure was lost to arson? Or was it insurance fraud? The Sentinel suggested it was the former reporting that the $10,000 loss was insured for only $8,000. Perhaps the arsonist was a former owner or another whose life savings were lost to one of Levi's other foreclosures. The Eagle Brewery was rebuilt after the fire and was sold two years later.

A New Discovery
The next time the Badger popped up again was twenty years later in 1983. I heard secondhand that two diggers had found Blossoms fragments in a pile of dirt dumped by a city truck at the 76th & Rawson landfill. An entrepreneur was building a ski hill there and he was accepting truckloads of fill from anywhere he could get them. It was frequented by diggers because the owner didn’t mind bottle hunters and some of the trucks came from downtown Milwaukee sites. By the time I got there the next day prepared to dig the owner told me he had already dozed the pile but he showed me exactly where it was. It was a distinctive grey clay that was unlike the surrounding soils. It was almost devoid of any debris except for a very small number of glass shards hidden in the clay. All of them were pontil era. A shovel was almost useless because the clay adhered and could not be shaken off. I resorted to Swiss cheesing the clay with a probe every couple of inches. Any click was glass. I spent hours there and was rewarded with several pieces of glass - two pontil marked bases, a blob and a couple pieces with Badger Ale letters. My embossed shards matched Don’s variety. The next day I went back with my friend Henry Hecker who found a shard with parts of just two letters evidencing a new variety (Figure 5).

I attempted to track down the origin of the load of dirt brought in by the city truck to no avail but I did find the diggers. A friend named Bob knew them. Bob said that one of them had an assortment of shards. He wouldn’t sell them and said that if he ever did they would go to Bob who didn’t really even want them.

Eventually Bob did get the shards and let me photograph and study them. They provided some very interesting information. One was a much larger size, possibly a pint and very different in style. It did not have the reversed numerals on the bottom like Don’s. It is possible that it pre-dates Lancaster Glass. This mold together with Henry’s amounted to three different molds. Since Wisconsin became a state in 1848 it is even possible that this is a territory piece. There were several shards that were embossed like Don’s except in amber and green (Figure 6). The variety of molds and colors suggests multiple batches ordered at different times.

I spoke to the second digger by phone. He claimed to have a Badger Ale with the top missing. He also said he had a rare Ch. Munzinger, Milwaukee amber hutch soda that he dug at another site using a butter knife. Neither was for sale and he declined to even let me see them. At first I called him every couple of months. Each time he said they were not for sale but to try back in a few months. This went on for a couple of years. He must have tired of my stalking because eventually he said he would probably never sell them. On my next call he told me never to call him again. I waited several months and called him anyway. This time he said that he sold them. To me that meant one of two things – either he still had them and just wanted to get rid of me or more likely that they never existed. A few years later his phone was disconnected and I was unable to find him again.

A Long Wait
The badger must have seen his shadow because he would not emerge again for 30 more years. That happened late in 2013. My phone rang and the caller asked if I still collected bottles. He said I would remember him because he was the guy with the Munzinger. This meant nothing to me because there are more than a dozen Munzinger varieties and some are not rare. I finally connected the dots when he said he said he also had a topless Blossom’s.

When I got to his home I understood why he finally called me after all these years. His health was failing and he wouldn’t live much longer. He had a table full of bottles with my holy grail recklessly wedged amongst crown sodas and hutches. It was still dirty and had decades old duct tape covering the broken neck. To my amazement the embossing was different than Don’s. It seemed nearly identical to Don’s in color and size but the embossing was different. The glass surface had a wonderful patina with just a slightly dull finish. The bottom showed parts of the mirrored 4 x 4 characteristic of Lancaster Glass. When I got it home I realized it matched Henry’s tiny shard (Figure 8 & 8a).

The Repair
My initial plan was to have it professionally restored. To do that, I needed either a similar blob or at least a mold impression of the original. No suitable blobs were found in ’83 and the chances of finding another were remote so I had to go the mold route. I researched materials, made many trial molds using my own bottles then created tops from the molds to be sure the molds were good. The mold making process had to be risk free to the original. I also wanted to create the complete blob and neck in one piece. I had experimented with bottle repairing in the 70’s but found that the materials available today are vastly better. The test blobs I was making were incredibly accurate. The copies had all of the striations, undulations and even the surface patina of the originals. Eventfully I got the mold making process fine tuned to the point where I was confident that I could get it done safely and accurately.

I got permission to take the impression from Don’s Blossom. The side-by-side comparison revealed that the bodies and necks were nearly identical in size, as if the mold maker used the same master core for both molds. The mold making process went as planned. I was excited to make a neck and blob top from the mold to be sure the mold was free of flaws. To my relief the first test revealed no defects. The nice thing is that this mold can be used repeatedly and lasts indefinitely.

Now I just needed to find someone to do the repair. My main requirement was that the bottle could not be altered in any way and any repair needed to be reversible. Attaching a top to a jagged break would not be easy but cutting the break off or even tumbling the bottle were not options. In coming centuries the restorations to this bottle will probably be removed and redone multiple times as technologies and materials improve.

Unfortunately I could not find anyone to do the restoration so I decided to attempt it myself. I threw irrational amounts of time at it. It was a labor of love. Making an acceptable blob and neck was not difficult. Transitioning the blob to the bottle was challenging but eventually I managed it – not perfect but it looks good to me on my shelf. (Figure 9) If I find a real Blossom blob someday I’ll swap it in.

Given the large number of Blossom's bottles produced, where are they today? Many may have been lost in the fire, and any left at the time of the brewery’s closing were probably sold to a glass company as cullet. Those still in circulation probably ended up in the ground. The heart of Milwaukee originally had quite a bit of marsh land. The marshes areas were filled in early and were a perfect place to discard trash. Today's new downtown buildings are often built from street level up on pilings instead of first excavating for basements or underground parking. Many Badger Ales and other early Milwaukee bottles are probably trapped indefinitely underground.

Despite the fact that my bottle is broken I consider it my most exciting find in 40+ years of collecting. With three varieties and evidence of a large number of bottles produced there is still that chance that an intact one or another variety will be found one day so I’m still on the hunt. A mint one in green with an embossed picture of a badger would be nice. And as long as I’m fantasizing I’ll throw in a WT. If you find one please contact me at pmaas@att.net.

Author: Peter Maas
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