Thanks for Asking | June 14, 2012

our local Jack-of-all-Facts tells you how it is

Frank Smoot

I own Eau Claire’s newest winery and only distillery. We’re about to debut our vodka and my question is: Has there ever been another distillery in Eau Claire?

Thanks for asking! As far as I know, yours will be Eau Claire’s first vodka. But not its first distillery. Whiskey was made here forever ago. In 1859, a 23-year-old brewer and distiller named E. Robert Hantzsch had a saloon on the northeast corner of Eau Claire and Farwell Streets. The next year, he built a “batch rectifier” near the Gray Street steamboat landing and offered “rectified whisky” wholesale as well as retail: “Saloons and Hotels Supplied at Chicago Prices.”

Hantzsch paid no taxes, had no license, and soon got rich. (After all, rye whiskey was 25¢ a gallon.) In 1870, one of Eau Claire’s many fires destroyed the distillery. Still, in 1871, Hantzsch had enough resources to build a two-story brick building on Barstow. Downstairs was the saloon and upstairs was a 2,000 square-foot hall with a 16x26 stage. Sometime around 1876, he moved to Minneapolis. He died there in 1882 at 46 years old. 

Who was Hobart Street named after? Could it be Colonel Harrison C. Hobart, commander of the 21st Wisconsin Infantry during the Civil War, state legislator, and unsuccessful candidate for governor? He became nationally famous for leading a daring escape from Libby Prison in 1864. My ancestor served under Hobart in the 21st.

Can’t be dead-certain, but I think H.C. Hobart is a terrific guess.

Hobart Street runs through “Huyssen-Marfield-Galloway-Meredith’s Addition,” officially “recorded” March 1, 1858. Of course that’s before the Civil War — so we’d have to count him out if the 21st Wisconsin and the Libby Prison escape were Hobart’s only claims to fame. But, no!

Wisconsinites rejected a constitution in 1846. A bunch of folks took the process back to the drawing boards, Hobart active among them. Second time was the charm, and we became a state in 1848. This gave Hobart name recognition in a run for governor in 1859 against Alexander Randall (namesake of Camp Randall Stadium). Hobart’s campaign would fall apart, but that wasn’t known the year before, when he stood among Wisconsin’s most prominent Democrats ... and when the street was named.

The “North Side Flats” — the area Hobart Street runs through — ran deeply Democratic at that time. (This was back when the Democrats were the conservatives and the Republicans were the liberals: you know, the party of Lincoln.) If the developers and denizens of the Flats were going to name a street after a Wisconsin politician, they’d rally for Hobart. He ran for governor again in 1865 — and lost again, this time to Lucius Fairchild. So that’s how you get to be a street and not a village or a football stadium.

Last summer, I gave a eulogy for my uncle-in-law Myron Pete Edward Sabin. He grew up on Garden Street on the northwest side of Eau Claire in the 1920s. I said he learned to swim at Breezy Point on the Chippewa River and fish on Half Moon Lake. My source was my uncle’s sister who did not know where Breezy Point was. Do you know?

Just north of the very end of Old Wells Road, an inlet or backwash cuts the west bank of the Chippewa. That inlet and the river form a point of land on the upstream side. I’ve heard that this was “Breezy Point” back in the teens and twenties, when lots of locals used to camp along Old Wells in the summertime. So many Eau Clairians squatted up there (this was NSP land), in their spanking-new, white-canvas tents, that the whole area got the nickname White City.

Got a local question? Send it (17 S. Barstow St.) or email it (mail@volumeone.org) and Frank will answer it! Frank has lived in Eau Claire for most of the past 43 years. He is an editor and researcher at the Chippewa Valley Museum, which is open all year just beyond the Paul Bunyan Camp Museum in beautiful Carson Park. You should go there.

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