There once was a time when a town of any size in Wisconsin had a few things: a couple of taverns, a church or two (but never more than the number of bars), a cheese factory, and a brewery. Taverns and churches were institutions that attended to people's souls, while cheese factories served as a big consumer of milk produced on surrounding dairy farms, and breweries supplied the taverns and their customers who preferred to pray at home. The whole system was good for the economy, for salvation, and for local flavor.
But you can't always predict the effect of seemingly distant technological breakthroughs. What spelled doom for local cheese factories and small breweries was widespread refrigeration on trucks and in homes. The result was mass produced products that could win market share with economies of scale and advertising reach. The literal taste of the local countryside gave way to Bud Light and Velveeta, the taste of the big corporation. The culture was not improved.
But small breweries and cheese factories are popping up again all over Wisconsin thanks to a developing taste among consumers for things that are locally produced, genuine and interesting. You can get a big dose of that with a short drive to the village of Potosi, located on the Mississippi River in the far southwest corner of the state.
The community of only 711 citizens hosts almost 70,000 visitors a year who come to see the National Brewing Museum, which is housed in the refurbished Potosi Brewing Company complex. The historic brewery was brought back to life by Gary David, a local craftsman who owns a woodworking studio (some nice stuff there) right across the street. The beautiful old building, built on top of a fresh water spring used for beer, was abandoned when the brewery shut down in 1972, before it was later gutted by a fire.
David was bringing the structure back to life when Potosi landed the brewery museum in 2004, beating out Milwaukee and St. Louis. Village president Frank Fiorenza explained to me and a group of friends who visited one Saturday afternoon how the little community grabbed the spotlight from the big guys.
The search committee for the museum added Potosi to the list at the village's request pretty much just out of courtesy. But when the committee visited, they met in the village's spanking new municipal hall and fire station. The committee members looked around and asked about that building, not the old brewery. Frank explained that the building and the equipment it housed were all paid for. At the end of the day, the committee told him that Potosi was selected because they concluded that any community that had the spunk and commitment to get that municipal building done could probably swing above its weight on what turned out to be a $9 million museum project.
"So the municipal building led to the museum, which in turn spurred a small conference center across the street, followed by a new winery, a new hotel and other projects on the way," said Frank.
It's an inspiring story about how the will to get a civic project done can spur positive developments that benefit the community and the region.
"We're just trying to survive," Frank explained.
I'd say they're doing better than just that. Go see for yourself.