The sign welcoming you to Potosi says “World’s Longest Main Street.” Maybe I’m over-thinking this, but I haven’t been able to figure out what this claim actually means. Robert Ripley (Ripley’s Believe It or Not) once said that Potosi “was the smallest town with the longest street without an intersection.” (I noticed a lot of intersections when I drove Main Street.) Locals say the proper definition is “the longest Main Street in the world that is not interrupted by a stop sign”—it’s three miles long. Or maybe it’s “the world’s longest Main Street that is not intersected by a through street,” except that Main Street is intersected by East Street, which is definitely not a dead-end. I just don’t get it. I guess “World’s Longest Main Street” wasn’t catchy enough, though, because Potosi also calls itself the Catfish Capital of the World. That’s two long nicknames for one small town. Regardless, there’s quite of bit happening in Potosi these days, so you can call it whatever you want, just stick around for a while.
Direct your questions to the Potosi-Tennyson Chamber of Commerce (608.763.2121/608.763.2261).
Potosi was the prototypical lead mining community. Early settlers arrived in the 1820s, before the Black Hawk War, and scoured the hollows and ravines for signs of lead. While it was known as early as 1829 that lead sulfide deposits were abundant, little mining occurred because conditions were not stable and, well, technically, Americans had no legal title to the land until after the Black Hawk War. In 1832, Willis St. John and Isaac Whitaker moved in. St. John founded a mine and got rich very quickly. He found a cave rife with lead and also with snakes, which is why the area around his cave became known as Snake Hollow. He died in 1853 a pauper, however, after losing all his money in a bank crisis. Mining took off full bore around 1835, and Snake Hollow boomed.
Separate communities grew up in different sections of the hollow. Lafayette was south of Snake Hollow on the bank of the Grant River in Grant Slough; that town was laid out in 1837. Van Buren was located in the lower portion of the hollow (near the Potosi Brewery); settlers began arriving in 1837 and the town was laid out in 1839. Van Buren had the first post office but Lafayette had the steamboat landing (the “Port of Potosi”) and ferry service to Iowa.
In 1839, these disparate communities consolidated into a single town called Potosi; businesses quickly moved toward the new center and out of Lafayette and Van Buren. By the time Potosi incorporated in 1841, the town claimed 1,300 residents and within a few years it had an economy nearly as large as Galena’s. The bulk of the town was concentrated along a three-mile hollow pierced with a single road. Rain often turned the road into a dangerous creek (it can still happen after torrential rain).
Like Galena, the decline of lead mining had a dramatic impact on the town’s economy. Between 1849 and 1852, scores of miners abandoned Potosi for the California gold rush, leaving in two waves. Potosi weathered the first wave, but the second one, fueled in part by a cholera epidemic in 1852, devastated the town. At the peak of the exodus, ferries were so busy that emigrating miners had to wait up to five days to cross the Mississippi. Another factor in Potosi’s decline was the fact that Grant Slough, the area that had the steamboat port, filled with silt because of deforestation, making steamboat landings impossible. Unable to dock at Potosi, river commerce shifted south to Dunleith (East Dubuque) and north to Cassville.
The town emptied out so quickly that incorporation was repealed in 1854. Even the town clerk’s books vanished, taking with it all official record of village life before 1854. The Chicago, Burlington, and Northern railroad reached Potosi in 1884, injecting new life back in the village. Potosi reincorporated in 1887 but by 1895 the town’s population had fallen to 454 or roughly one-quarter of what it was at its peak.
Potosi has never again experienced the economic prosperity it knew during the lead mining years, but it settled into the life of a small town with a farm-centered economy. Today, many of its residents commute to jobs in other towns, although tourism is becoming a more important part of the local economy.
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The Passage Through Time Museum (104 Main St.; 608.763.2745) has modest but informative collection of local history memorabilia (such as displays about barn design, barbed wire, and the Potosi Brewery), as well as Native American artifacts from a local collector.
The St. John Lead Mine closed a few years ago but you can still hike the Badger Hut Trail across the road and search for relics of the lead mining days, like the ruins of the badger huts and the Old Irish Cemetery.
The Great River Road Museum of Contemporary Art (101 Main St.; 608.763.2468), the latest star attraction in Potosi, showcases impressive art from regional and international artists in an elegantly restored 19th century commercial building. The collection includes rotating exhibits, like the recent show featuring the tromp d’oeil art of Michael James Reddit, as well as several pieces that are part of the permanent collection, including the stunning sculptures of Boban Ilic.
The unassuming St. Thomas Catholic Church (124 S. Main St.; 608.763.2671) was completed in 1847. The legendary Father Samuel Mazzuchelli built a frame church here in 1838, and some believe he also designed this brick church.
The hottest attraction in town is one of the oldest: the Potosi Brewery (209 S. Main St.; 608.763.4002). The Potosi Brewery was founded in 1852 by Germans Gabriel Hail and John Alrecht. Albrecht later sold his share, and Gabriel ran it until his death in 1878. John Hail, Gabriel’s brother, ran the brewery for a few years until he killed himself in 1881. The brewery struggled for a few years, even closing at one point, until Adam Schumacher purchased it in 1886. Three generations of Schumachers operated the Potosi Brewery until it closed in 1972. The building sat empty for three decades until a massive restoration effort spearheaded by several members of the local community was finished in 2008. They formed a non-profit corporation (all of the profits are funneled back to support the business or donated for other local projects) and completed a restoration that includes a brewpub (see below) and two museums. The National Brewery Museum fills several rooms with beer industry memorabilia like neon signs, advertising posters, glasses, and mugs. Also on site is the Potosi Brewing Company Transportation Museum, which highlights ways that the old brewery distributed its product around the area. Don’t forget to visit the gift shop and the Great River Road information center.
If wine is more to your liking than beer, step across the street from the brewery to the Whispering Bluffs Winery (196 S. Main St.; 608.763.2468), where you can choose from an impressive selection of red and white wines. Here’s a hint: many pair quite nicely with the gourmet chocolates they carry, too.
Next door to the winery, woodworker extraordinaire Gary David maintains a showroom where you can buy his artfully crafted furniture; David was also one of the people responsible for bringing the Potosi Brewery back to life.
The Potosi Recreation Area (866.472.6894/608.822.3501), also known as Potosi Point, is a little strip of land that juts far into the Mississippi River. The views are magnificent, especially in spring and fall when migrating birds are passing by. In summer, water lilies carpet the shallow stretches near shore. The Point, a popular spot to fish, is south of town near the spot where State Highway 133 turns sharply to the west; go forward instead of turning north, go under the railroad trestle, and follow the road for ½ mile until it ends.
Entertainment and Events
The event of the social season is the Potosi-Tennyson Catfish Festival (608.763.2261) usually held the second week of August.
Eating and Drinking
The Roadhouse Tavern (310 Roadhouse St.; 608.763.2208) has been exactly what it sounds like since the 1920s. You can snack on burgers, sandwiches, and soup, but you’ll probably be more interested in the cheap drinks, darts, and company.
The Potosi Brewery (209 S. Main St.; 608.763.4002) is a high quality brewpub that has become very popular very quickly (reservations are recommended for dinner on weekends). The lunch menu is mostly sandwiches, wraps and salads; try the sweet potato fries. Dinner entrées include root beer marinated pork loin, steaks, and cedar smoked salmon. And don’t forget to sample the beer brewed on-site. The Snake Hollow IPA is my personal favorite.
The Grant River Recreation Area (River Lane Rd.; 309.794.4527; open early April to October 31) is a compact site wedged between railroad tracks and the river. The full-service campground has 73 sites, most of which have electric . The Old Osceola Indian Burial Grounds, known to archeologists as the Old Copper Culture Find, was located nearby. Relics from the site were washed into view during a flood in 1945. An extensive excavation of the site in 1947 unearthed thousands of artifacts, revealing that native hunters and gatherers lived at this site for at least 2000 years beginning around 2170 BCE. Most of the haul is on display at the Milwaukee Public Museum, but Potosi’s Passage Through Time Museum (see above) has items unearthed by private collectors.
The Potosi Inn (102 N. Main St.; 608.763.2269) rents two spacious, beautiful suite-size units with kitchenettes with a third unit on the way in 2009; they are a great bargain.
Pine Point Lodge (219 S. Main St.; 608.763.2158/608.763.2767; WiFi in the big cabin) has four fully-stocked cabins in a quiet setting on the edge of town; small cabins sleep four, while the large cabin can sleep 12.
Post Office: 101 East St.; 608.763.2202.
Potosi Branch Library: 103 N. Main St.; 608.763.2115.
Heading upriver? Check out Cassville.
Heading downriver? Check out Tennyson.
© Dean Klinkenberg, 2009,2014