1979 Photo Narrative ~
A Tourist’s Guide To The Giant Things And Mattie Gunterman Historical Sites Of La Crosse, Wisconsin
6) Six Pack
In June of 1978, I took to the streets of La Crosse, Wisconsin, with my camera and recorded my impressions of what had become of Mattie Gunterman's old home town after a hundred years.
When I started out on my walk I was looking for a couple of places Mattie had once lived. Not only did I locate these two sites, but in the process of my wanderings, discovered much to my delight, five Giant Things. These were; the Giant Hiawatha, the Giant Bull, the Giant Ego Golf Trophy Shrine, the Giant Pizza Chef and the World’s Largest Six Pack. It seemed as if La Crosse had more Giant Things per square foot than any other city in the world! Now here was an attraction the Chamber of Commerce had somehow overlooked.
So here is a brief account of my meanderings through La Crosse, Wisconsin, complete with photographs numbered thusly- (1), (2), etc., for easy reference to the text.
Wanting to acquaint myself with the general layout of the city, I began my tour by climbing to the top of Grandad’s Bluff (1). The view accorded from this precipice was altogether splendid. Below me La Crosse’s tree lined streets fanned out under the expansive white of the Midwestern sky and off in the distance the lazy Mississippi River delineated the city’s western boundary. After a few minutes of meditation on the scenery, I headed back down the bluff and walked all the way through town until I reached the bank of the Mississippi River.
I hiked along the waterfront until I came to Riverside Park and there, to my amazement, stood the Giant Hiawatha (2). The Giant Hiawatha had been erected in 1962 by La Crosse artist Anthony D. Zimmerhackel, with the assistance of his sons Don, David and Stephan, as a tribute to La Crosse’s earliest inhabitants, the Winnebago. This was a rather vacant tribute, however, as the Winnebago had been bought out and moved off their land to central Minnesota in the mid 19th century. This had been done to make way for the white settlers who swarmed into the area, divided the place up into lots and began building La Crosse up out of the Mississippi mud. As I stared up at the silent giant I thought it paradoxical that Hiawatha, an Onondaga chief who had lived in what is now the middle of New York state, had been chosen to symbolize the Winnebago. Equally ridiculous was the fact that no one knows what Hiawatha looked like, as he was kicking around back in the 15th century.
After spitting in the Mississippi for good luck, I began hiking into town to look up some of the places Mattie had lived. My mind was occupied by thoughts of the early settlers when all of a sudden I came across the Giant Bull atop Hoeschler’s Realty office (3). Under the Giant Bull was sign that read, “Hoeschler’s are Bullish on La Crosse.” Here was a monument to the “Bullish,” the people who had become financially successful in La Crosse. Back in Mattie’s time the Bullish had been involved in logging or saw milling or boat building, not because they were interested in such things in themselves, but because they were hung up on making money. With their bucks the Bullish built tremendous houses for themselves, the kind that now days are a real nose bleed to maintain. The Bullish were so busy chopping down the trees that by the turn of the century there was no more forest. The Bullish then became car dealers or real estate developers who built shopping centers and hung around golf courses making business deals.
I continued my stroll through downtown La Crosse, whose urban landscape seemed a curious mixture of 20th century corporate franchise and late 19th century Huckleberry Finn. On State Street I passed the shrine of the Giant Ego, which consisted of a row of ten golf trophies, all swinging in unison (4). Dirt on the glass made it look like one of the trophies had just whacked a divot. Although only the backsides of the statuettes were visible through the window, the shrine had a definite Bullish feeling to it. Perhaps each trophy was an award for a successful business deal transacted at the country club. Who knows?
I was now getting close to 512 Pine Street, the place Mattie had lived as a teenager back in the 1880’s. When I finally got to the spot I found it presently occupied by the La Crosse County Sheriff's Office and the rest of the block was covered by the sprawling La Crosse County Administrative Offices. It was hard to get a feeling for Mattie in this place and as my eyes surveyed the panorama of what had once been her neighborhood they came to rest across the street on the Montgomery Ward Shopping Center parking lot. I walked over to the empty lot and proclaimed, “From this day henceforth, this sacred piece of pavement shall be known as the Mattie Gunterman Memorial Parking Lot.” To validate the christening I put a Canadian nickel into one of the parking meters.
Feeling that I had to get away from this asphalt wasteland, I headed off in search of yet another place Mattie had lived. I was however pulled slightly off course by my Giant Things homing instinct which lead me straight to the Pizza Towne Giant Pizza Chef (5). The Giant Pizza Chef had red light bulbs in his eyes, button holes and cuff links. At night the red lights blinked on and off , attracting hungry customers and moths to Pizza Towne’s convenient location on Route 35.
After snapping a picture of Pizza Towne, I was back on course again, making my way for the intersection of 7th and La Crosse Streets. According to the 1880 U.S. census, Mattie had lived here on the northwest corner when she was eight years old. I was pleasantly surprised to find the houses on this historic site still inhabited, although it was impossible to know exactly which one Mattie might have lived in. Perhaps a plaque could be imbeded in the sidewalk saying, “This is where the famous camp cook and photographer Mattie Gunterman lived when she was just a kid.”
My search for Mattie Gunterman Historical Sites was now completed. I began walking back to my hotel feeling a real sense of accomplishment. As I was passing a rack of post cards in front of a gift boutique, I spotted one card that made my eyes pop out! It was a picture of the world's largest six pack, located right there in beautiful La Crosse, Wisconsin (6). This was the pièce de résistance of Giant Things, at least as far as La Crosse was concerned. My heart began pounding as I frantically leafed through the nearest phone book for the address of Heileman’s brewery. My eyes darted across the page, “There it is, 800 block of 3rd Street,” I cried out loud. Like a flash I was on my way. My feet hardly touched the ground as I hurried along the ten blocks or more. As I got closer, the excitement became unbearable. My pace quickened to a spasmodic jog. Then, up ahead, there it was! Looming 40 feet above the ground, in all its glory, the world’s largest Giant Six Pack! This was no phoney. The “cans” actually had beer in them, 22,200 barrels of suds!
While I stood there catching my breath and admiring the Giant Six Pack, I reflected upon how unbelievably fortunate I had been- imagine, finding five Giant Things and two Mattie Gunterman Historical Sites all in one day! There seemed to be no explanation for this bountiful bonanza, but then as I turned to leave I spotted a sign on the brewery that might have held the answer- it read, “Heileman's beer is pure brewed in God’s Country.”
Publication 1995 ~ A Tourist's Guide To The Giant Things And Mattie Gunterman Historical Sites Of La Crosse, Wisconsin
©2019 Henri Robideau