Memories Brewin’: Tomahawk’s floating Hamm’s bear rekindles recollections of a Northwoods family man and friend
By Dan Flannery
Associate Editor, Our Wisconsin Magazine
From late spring to early fall, David Weizenicker drives past the shores of Sawdy Pond and sees memories of his dad.
You might be reminded of something entirely different.
In those waters north of Tomahawk on old Highway 51, there floats a fiberglass replica of the Hamm’s Beer bear, lounging on an inner tube, fishing pole in one hand, can of Hamm’s in the other.
Leon Weizenicker died in 1999 at age 85; David was there when his dad and the bear became somewhat synonymous. It was around 1957 when Leon ran Lake Ice Co., a business that catered to tourists with boat rentals, bait, beer, snacks and friendship.
You might remember the advertising jingle: “Hamm’s, the beer refreshing…Hamm’s”. The cartoon bear that went with it was a popular part of the brewery’s legendary ad campaigns until the early 1980s. Placed in humorous situations, the bear became as well known as many human celebrities in the Upper Midwest.
Leon sold that Minnesota-brewed beverage at Lake Ice, which he owned and operated for 35 years. At brother George’s suggestion, he put the Hamm’s bear in the water to promote his business to thousands of motorists headed north for lodging, lakes and loons.
Fishing Bear’s Still There
Since 2019, a fiberglass replica of the bear has floated in the same spot each summer, thanks to the board of directors of the Tomahawk Area Historical Society, the city of Tomahawk and Aquatic Arts & Wildlife Taxidermy.
“It’s certainly stood the test of time,” says David, 82, Leon’s oldest son. He and wife Joyce alerted us to this story last summer. It’s more than a cute memory of clever advertising. For David and Joyce, and the whole family, it’s a loving memory of a wonderful father.
Leon sold the business in 1974, but the original bear—acquired from a Hamm’s distributor—floated every year in May until 1979.
Over the decades, the bear was owned by local newspaper publisher Larry Tobin, who gifted it to the Tomahawk Area Historical Society, which fiberglassed the original and had a duplicate made by Aquatic Arts & Wildlife Taxidermy. The bear appeared on parade floats, and the local Fishing Unlimited chapter used it as a mascot.
The original was plastic, David says, and about the size of a year-old cub. The impact was bigger for his dad’s business.
The name “Lake Ice Co.” described the enterprise’s original purpose—harvesting ice from Half Moon Lake for use in iceboxes of the early to middle 20th century. After buying the business around 1940, Leon made a cool buck or two doing that, eventually employing three trucks and drivers.
But he saw the future.
Changed with the Times
“He knew iceboxes weren’t going to stay in vogue,” David recalls, “so he picked up a Cities Service franchise, installed a gas pump and developed a fishing and boat rental service. He had a marina on the pond where the bear now sits. It was the only place on the river where people could motor up with their boats and not have to lug gas tanks back and forth. He had three cabins for rent.”
While Leon was a good businessman, he was an even better man and father, according to David.
“He never got rich, but he sent four kids through college,” David says. “He was very busy, very gregarious, very helpful and people liked him.”
Today, a bench and a plaque sit on the roadside overlooking the bear. The children of Leon and Florence—she died in 2015 at age 99—donated the bench, the historical society donated the plaque, the city built a railing and moves the bear in and out of the water.
It draws attention from passersby, notes Dixie Zastrow, president of the historical society.
“It’s an absolute icon,” she says. “This little plastic bear is so popular!”
The original bear is on exhibit at the historical society, which also sells “Lake Ice Co.” caps to raise funds for the organization…and to remember Leon, who warmly welcomed so many back to visit Tomahawk, Wisconsin’s own land of sky-blue waters.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was previously published in the April-May 2022 issue of Our Wisconsin Magazine.