Sometimes when researching a story it strays a bit, it going off in a direction you were not expecting. The story of Mathias Johannes, pioneer soda bottler of Eau Claire Wisconsin, galloped off in an especially peculiar fashion. Explosions. Arson. And some remarkably helpful details on the bottles used in the 19th century pop business.
A while back I briefly discussed Schofield, Garon and Hebert, first soda bottlers in Chippewa Falls. When considering whether they would have gone to the expense of embossing their name onto the bottles, the issue of whether they had local competitors was raised. I was aware of one, albeit in the next town over. This would be the firm of Massolt and Johannes in Eau Claire Wisconsin.
Massolt and Johannes got at least a one year head start in the local market. The following entry from the West Eau Claire Argus of May 1867 could be interpreted as being the start of the enterprise, or simply the start of the soda pop season with warmer weather.*
"Pop! Pop! Massolt and Johonnas (sic) have their machine in good running order for the manufacture of pop beer, or mineral water. They have already put up about a thousand bottles, which are rceiving a very rapid sale. This mineral water is a very pleasant summer drink, and will meet with ready sale at all the restaurants in town, and costing but a trifle when purchased by the box, private families will find it a delightful beverage to keep in the cellar. Massolt and Johonnas are the only firm in the Chippewa Valley that manufactures this article of drink, and will undoubtedly receive extensive patronage from the neighboring towns."
Ads from this time period describe their product as "CELEBRATED MINERAL WATER or POP BEER", and mention that it was for sale at saloons, restaurants, and groceries, also that it could be purchased "wholesale at Milwaukee prices".
The Massolt and Johannes partnership was dissolved in October of 1867, Massolt moved to Minneapolis and became the premier soda bottler in that town. Johannes carried on the venture in Eau Claire.
He also ran a saloon. This made sense as soda pop was a somewhat seasonal business, and in any event it was another outlet for selling his product. The exact nature of the "Johannes Saloon" can be glimpsed in old newspapers.
He had a lawyer, H.L. Stiles, leasing an office upstairs. Perhaps that came in handy, one news item from 1869 mentions casually that a young man refused to pay for his drinks and tried to high tail it out of the bar. Johannes pursued, firing three shots at the cheapskate! This attracted the attention of the constable who arrested not the barkeep with the pistol but the fleeing deadbeat. If you tried this sort of thing in modern times the outcome would be otherwise.
Johannes was successful in the soda pop business. His 1903 obituary mournfully describes the passing of a pioneer and claims that "..for 15 years or more he made all the pop used at Eau Claire, Chippewa Falls and perhaps several other places, and made a good deal of money in the business." This seems to be approximately correct if one discounts minor players such as his brief Chippewa Falls competitor.
But what kind of person was Mathias Johannes? What was the soda business like in the mid to late 1800s?
I think it is fair to say that he was not a vigilant "helicopter parent". A hair raising tale from the local paper in 1875:
"Johanne's boy came near getting drowned in the Chippewa near the bridge this morning. He tried riding a log, which rolled over, upsetting him, and nearly reversing his position, so that only his feet were visible, sticking up on one side, while the log floated over him...." Fortunately a bystander noticed and "...pulled him out not at all too soon for safety, as very little more would have settled his terrestrial hash".
One thinks of the soda pop business as being a simple and happy one. Or maybe not, its not as if Coke and Pepsi get along. But Matt Johannes had enough bad luck that some began to murmur a bit....
In March of 1885 it was noted that Johannes had taken delivery of a car load of bottles from a manufacturer in Jersey City. Johannes had built a new bottling plant on Madison street and now purchased no fewer than 144,000 "self sealing bottles". Quite a few of these were stored elsewhere, and in November of the same year a fire at his warehouse destroyed "his entire stock of bottles for winter use". There were suspicions of arson as the site was "..visited by fire about a year ago under much the same circumstances. Someone surely must have a grudge against either Johannes or Moldenhaur and Damm" The latter were the wagon manufacturers who shared the space.
Johannes clearly went through a lot of bottles. Not only did some fall victim to arson, it seems they occasionally just blew up. But that is a story for next time.
* Massolt had been in Eau Claire since 1864, and Johannes since 1860. Their business could have been in operation for several years in the mid 1860s.