Shooting the (Lake) Breeze – Beers to you: Early years of beer can collecting craze ran through Lake Geneva, Walworth County | Local News

Amanda Gerla

“Simon took the sack out and dumped at least twenty cans on the grass — half of them cone-tops! They could have been diamonds, they were so beautiful … As far as I could tell, the conies were all from Minnesota. Four or five of them were Grain Belt. There was a Royal Bohemian, a Regal and the rest were Rex. I knew the books listed them all at around 20-to-1. Pure gold. They’d gotten some rusty old pop-tops, too, worth something, but nothing like those cone-tops.”“Harvey, the Beer Can King”, Jamie Marie Gilson, 1978.

Like many American Gen-X tweens and teens of the 1970s and early 1980s, I was among those caught up in the fad hobby of beer can collecting, my childhood bedroom resembling a corner tavern with its décor of steel and aluminum beer cans in all their colorful, lithographed glory.

All I needed for the perfect kid cave was a red, white and blue neon Pabst Blue Ribbon sign for my bedroom window, providing a colorful, patriotic glow of cheer for the neighbors and serving as a beacon of hope for any passing seamen in distress. Sadly, but perhaps in the interest of good taste and keeping on good terms with the neighbors, my holy grail PBR neon remained a childhood fantasy. Any wayward sailors passing through the subdivision would be on their own.

People are also reading…

Like many kids my age, a favorite juvenile read was award-winning Wilmette, Ill. children’s book author Jamie Gilson’s Archway paperback “Harvey, the Beer Can King,” feted by School Library Journal as a “funny, fast-paced yarn” filled with “witty dialogue” and “memorable characters.”

“This is your lucky day. You give me that Pike’s Peak Ale and I’ll trade you a Schlitz Malt, a Lone Star and a seven-ounce Rolling Rock. OK?”

In those days, who didn’t want to be Harvey, the Beer Can King?” Or maybe Eric, the Beer Can King? We all wanted be king of our personal beer can kingdoms.

If Gilson’s book struck a chord with my generation, it may well be because it accurately mirrored our experiences.

Once reflecting on her literary success, Gilson, who passed in 2020, called simple observation the key to her 21-book career.

“I watch what kids are doing and write stores based on what I see,” she explained.

And in the 1970s, millions of us, myself included, were swept up in the beer can collecting craze.

Comedian Jeff Foxworthy once noted that, “You might be a redneck if your beer can collection is considered a tourist attraction in your hometown.”

And a lot of our collections were tourist attractions, at least in our teen and tween friend circles.

“I wrote about beer cans specifically because a lot of the neighborhood children around me were collecting beer cans and, in fact, three of them had what appeared to me a vast collection, nearly a thousand cans,” Gilson told Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, historian, actor and broadcaster Louis

“Studs” Terkel in a May 1978 interview on Chicago’s WFMT-FM. “They would stack them up in vast pyramids in their rooms and they’re really marvelous to look at … I called them over and said I was thinking about writing a book about a beer can collector and so I was Studs Terkel there. I got out my tape recorder and asked them questions.”

Admittedly, by the time I headed off to Marquette University, I was more interested in the 12 fluid ounce of contents in the can than the can itself, though I still retain a few favorites that give me a Marie Kondo “spark joy” reminder of those heady childhood days collecting beer cans.

I took a retro-nostalgic road trip back to the 1970s recently when I ventured north to Delafield Brewhaus in Waukesha County for the golden anniversary spring beer and brewery advertising show of the 100-member Badger Bunch, founded in 1972 as the pioneering charter club of the fledgling Beer Can Collectors of America (BCCA), today’s Brewery Collectibles Club of America.

The convivial gemutlichkeit and the familiar clinking of metal beer cans brought back fond memories of the old days swapping cans with my peers more than four decades ago.

BCCA traces its beginnings to an Oct. 20, 1969 article in the daily St. Louis Globe-Democrat showcasing the then-novelty beer can collection of Denver Wright, Jr., who soon heard from a handful of passionate, like-minded collectors. Subsequently touring each other’s beer can collections, the six collectors formed the ambitiously-named Beer Can Collectors of America at Denver’s home on April 15, 1970.

A familiar sight today, home beer consumption was exclusively the dominion of bottles until American Can Company’s revolutionary creation of its “keglined” steel beer can, rolled out in January 1935 by Newark, N.J.-based regional beer maker Gottfried Krueger Brewing Co,, and nationally in June 1935 by Milwaukee-based Pabst Brewing Co. By the end of the year, 36 U.S. breweries were canning beer in cans made by three different can companies — American, National and Continental – including Milwaukee’s Schlitz in September, La Crosse’s Heileman in October and Milwaukee’s Blatz in November. By 1959, when Colorado’s Coors rolled out the first beer in aluminum cans, canned beer outsold bottled beer.

Adding to the collectability of beer cans by the 1970s, the number of U.S. brewers had dwindled sharply, creating a sense of urgency for preserving American brewing history. Of the 750 breweries that reopened after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, only 250 remained in business by 1960. That number was down to a low of just 89 by the late 1970s, with the demise of such well known Wisconsin breweries as Gettelman, Potosi, Chief Oshkosh and Waukesha’s Fox Head, among others.

The first CANvention of the fledgling BCCA, today described as “the Comic-Con of beer can collecting,” was held in St. Louis at the Holiday Inn South in 1971, attracting 232 beer can collecting enthusiasts.

Fenton, Mo.-based BCCA held the first of three national CANventions in brewing hotbed Wisconsin the following year at the Playboy Club Hotel in Lake Geneva, with attendance more than doubling to 528 beer can enthusiasts.

A silent color film of action at BCCA’s 1972 national CANvention No. 2 at the Playboy Club Hotel is posted online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-j7HBWOQVA, the Kodacolor 8 millimeter home movie stuff of Tyrolean hats, long sideburns, white patent leather belts, bad Herb Tarlek plaid, go-go boots, faux skimmer hats, the occasional Bavarian dirndl, and gazillions of empty beer cans for sale in once-ubiquitous Schlitz and Falstaff boxes.

The Lake Geneva Regional News reported on Oct. 26, 1972 that local convention bureau head Jurgen Moritz had “worked directly” with BCCA to bring the “prime convention” to the Playboy Club Hotel.

Among the four founding charter members of the Badger Bunch in 1972 was Craig Baumann, a resident of Colgate in Waukesha County.

“I was in high school when I started collecting,” Baumann recalled. “I started because I came from a good German family. I was at a car race in Elkhart Lake and they built this huge pyramid of beer cans. I went back the next day because I wanted to see how many cans it took to built this thing. I realized how many different brands there were I had never heard of, never thought of. That was the day I grabbed a plastic bag and started my collection. I filled up a big plastic bag of beer cans from all across the Midwest. All the people that were there to watch car races had brought their beer from home. Eventually, I had over 5,000 different U.S. cans. The hobby’s had its ups and downs but I’ve stayed with it. It’s always been fun. I’m not much of a can collector anymore, but I come to see some of my friends that I’ve had for more than 50 years. That’s more of it than anything else — the people.”

Baumann, a retired dentist, is one of the hobby’s stalwart purists, still trading cans like he did as a teen in the hobby’s fledgling years. He eschews buying.

“It was a lot different in those days — a lot of trading,” he said. “I always trade, I don’t buy. As a high schooler, I didn’t have $5 for a beer can. I’d rather have $5 to take a girl out.”

Baumann, who was studying at UW-Madison, borrowed a car and was among the attendees at the second BCCA CANvention at the Playboy Club Hotel in Lake Geneva.

“A lot of local people who heard about it went because it was close, it was ‘hometown’ collector-wise,“ he recalled.

For a lot of beer can collectors attending the Badger Bunch show, the childhood hobby stuck.

“Back then you had baseball cards and comic books,” recalled 47-year BCCA member and 2022 BBCA president Don Hardy, of Westmont, Ill. “Beer cans was a new, interesting thing to get into and it just took off like crazy. Grade schools used to have after-school beer can clubs. The kids would come in with the empty cans and trade. It was a huge fad. In the early days, money was not involved. Everything had to be traded, If you had a flat top, you traded for another flat top. If you had a flat top and the guy didn’t have a flat top, he had to give you two pull-tabs. We had a code, a scale, you had to go by. You had to have two flat-tops for a cone top or four pull-tabs for a cone top. It wasn’t until later when money started getting involved and now it’s just crazy. Once money got involved we lost the kids. They couldn’t afford stuff.”

Unlike a lot of flash-in-the-pan fads, beer can collecting endures.

“Camaraderie is a very big part of it,” Hardy said. “And the cans are colorful, nice to display, It’s the man cave theory. Guys like to have the basement with some lights and their beer cans, man kind of stuff, and get together with their buddies, have a big cold one and show off their latest can.”

While far removed from its heady halcyon days in the mid-1970s, when the BBCA rostered 20,000 active members, many of them kids, the hobby still remains popular today, with Wisconsin home to three BCCA chapters — Badger Bunch (1972, Milwaukee), Packer (1975, Green Bay), and Port of Potosi (2011, Potosi).

“Like you see here, a lot of people just come out, have fun, and enjoy looking at cans,” said Badger Bunch president Mike Scheffler, of Waterford in Racine County, who started collecting in 1969 when he was six. “Back then it was mostly beer cans, but nowadays it’s so many other things. The guy right here is mostly just Waukesha stuff. I get into the cabottles, which are the aluminum bottles. There’s guys that collect the sets — this guy over here just collects the Schmidt stuff. There’s advertising. Everybody’s got a niche.”

As the old saying goes, you learn something new every day. And Lake Geneva, I learned, carved out its own unique niche in the early history of beer can collecting.

The discovery of that historical nugget at the Badger Bunch show was worth at least a Milwaukee Gettelman cone-top and a Burlington Paul Bunyan flat-top.

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