Friday, August 24, 2012

Forgotten Brewery Caves-Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin

(We all have things we look for on road trips...mine are probably just a bit odder than yours...)

When brewing reached Wisconsin in the 1840s and 50s it was concurrent with a significant change in technology.  And taste.  Lager beer was becoming popular, replacing the ales and assorted birch and ginger beers that had previously held sway.  Lager beer requires considerable time to age, and has to do so at cool temperatures.  In a day before mechanical refrigeration this meant you had to store it in a cave.*

Most early breweries had such storage caves.  A few such as Miller Caves have persisted and even become attractions.  But most of the small breweries died off, and the few that survived went over to refrigeration units long ago.

So, mostly because they fascinate me, I will be taking the occasional peek into forgotten brewery caves from the 19th century.

First up is Chippewa Falls.  Go to Irvine Park and look for this sign:


Follow a footpath along a pleasant creek and you come to this sight:


This is a cave used for storage of beer by a certain F.X. Schmidmeyer.  He seems to have started his brewery in 1866**, preceding the better known and still extant Leinenkugels brewery by a year.  He purchased the site in 1871 and hauled his barrels clear across town and out into the woods to use this cave.  It was a natural cavern with a gently flowing spring.  He enlarged it and added a shaft to lower kegs down from above.  Also an iron gate to prevent any unauthorized withdrawals!


This is a view from inside looking out.  The cement pad is a later addition.


The shaft for lowering kegs is still visible.  I should think there was some sort of crane or windlass up above, but no trace of it can be seen.


The walls are a pleasing mix of hues, with modern graffiti and cutting marks from the original excavation.  There is the gentle sound of running water, and on a warm August day it was quite nice inside.  A large frog guarded the entrance and took a hop into a shallow pool.  In this drought year it was almost the first one I had seen.

There is a story that later on the cave was used to house bears, as Irvine Park has long had a little municipal zoo.  It seems pretty dark and gloomy, not so great for visitors to see the critters.  So I suspect this tale is a tall one.  I see no traces of bars anywhere, and the modern concrete is probably from later use by Leinenkugels who seem to have had some arrangement to use it after Schmidmeyer went out of business.

For sure a more modern, but already abandoned, bear cage sits right next door to the cave;


 The line of grass looks to be where the bars used to stand.  The sidewalk in front was for spectators.  The poor bears did not have a lot of space.  But there was a small enclosure, perhaps for cubs?


And a little bath tub for cooling off, now full of sticks and twigs.


It is a very pleasant site, with a picturesque creek running in front and with the smell of hops and malt from the nearby Leinenkugels brewery.  So don't feel too badly for the confined bruins of yesteryear.  Besides, some years back they moved to more spacious quarters elsewhere in the park.
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*Not 100% true, if you had a local lake to harvest in winter you could have an ice house above ground.
** Actually Schmidmayer got started circa 1857.  I revisit him in several later posts.

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