Monday, August 26, 2013

Forgotten Brewery Caves - Back to Stillwater

It is not really fair to call the Wolf caves in Stillwater, Minnesota forgotten.  They are in active use, and have been since the 1860s. With one or two little rough patches.

The first caves on the site, on the south end of downtown Stillwater, were supposedly excavated by a Jules St. Pierre in 1836.  He noted an excellent spring in a small natural cavern and expanded it to serve as part of his trading post.

A fellow named Martin Wolf took over the site - I have seen 1855 and 1868 quoted as dates - and expanded the caves for his small brewery.  Or did he start from scratch?  Evidently M. Wolf had a series of three or four caves stacked one atop another in what is said to be a structurally dubious arrangement.  His engineering skills and business acumen were both shaky.  Some claim that his association with alcohol veered from professional interest to personal enthusiasm.

In any event by 1871 he sold the place to his brother Joseph Wolf who had the misfortune to have it burn down a year later.  The insurance was insufficient but somehow capital was obtained and a fine new brewery complex was put up on the site.  It is standing strong to this day.

A new series of caves was excavated, in an extended dig lasting 8 years.  Since breweries need ageing caves I presume some other arrangement's were made in the transition, perhaps the earlier caves were pressed into service, perhaps one of the several other caves in downtown Stillwater was leased.

With the caves being finished circa 1880 they were not actually in service that long before mechanical refrigeration became practical.  But they seem to have been actively used by the Wolf brewery, both for ageing beer and for storing their other product lines which were varied and alcoholic.

Prohibition had its usual doleful effect, and the Joseph Wolf brewery went bankrupt in 1925.  The conversion to soft drinks just was not profitable.  Of course there were persistent rumors of bootleg operations back in the caves....

For two decades the history of the caves is obscure, until the brewery building was purchased in 1946 by a certain Thomas Curtis.  Curtis owned several businesses including a DeSoto dealership. Implausibly he tried to use the caves as a storage facility for cars, forgetting the constant humidity back there and its predictable effects on metal!

But Curtis was quite the entrepreneur, and came up with a new plan.  After a long slumber Stillwater was beginning to become a tourist destination.  So what better than a cave tour!

Curtis had the caves flooded and rather dimly lit.  By carefully maneuvering the boats around he gave the impression of a vast cavern network, filled with wonders.  The tour cost five cents.  Kids could fish for free.  If they caught one of the stocked trout they had to keep it.  That cost them a dollar.  One assumes Curtis kept those trout hungry.

Thomas "Cave Man" Curtis had a showman's flair.  He told tales of leprechauns and bottomless pits, he showed people a standard ventilation shaft and said it was used by Native Americans to send smoke signals.

Eventually health matters forced him into retirement and the brewery, with its caves, was purchased in 1971 by a man named Vittorio Gozzi.  To him the caves were reminiscent of grottoes on the Isle of Capri, so he had a window installed in the back of his restaurant space and had the still flooded caves outfitted with gondola style boats!  The table with the gondola view was always in high demand.

Various other restaurateurs have been there since.  The current establishment is called Luna Rossa.  I had a very nice lunch there. And although the cave tour does cost $7, you can deduct it from your tab, making it in effect a dessert to your meal.

I have given the history of the caves first, it makes it easier to show the images in something like historical order....


The first room you see on the tour contains water from the spring.  Presumably the original trading post was near this point, but much alteration has made it impossible to pick out this earliest phase.  I guess there are still fish in here.


A section of the 1870's caves.  The little square of light at the far end is Vittorio's window from the restaurant.  The wide benches are an interesting feature of these caves.



There is a lot of historical stuff sitting around.  Some of it is period appropriate, some is not. This is the ruins of one of the wagons for moving the beer barrels around.  It could be true, the floor has some deeply worn ruts that are about this wheel gauge.


Our tour guide was pretty good, although he insisted on performing juggling tricks.  Here he stands in front of a passage that connects the Joseph Wolf caves with the earlier Martin Wolf caves from the 1860s (or 50's?).  Supposedly when the brewery burned in 1871 a worker was in this cave.  A boiler exploded and the cave collapsed.  Everyone assumes he is still interred back there.


By their nature caves are an interesting, enclosed ecosystem.  This place has had electric lighting for a very long time.  Far back in the cave we find a spot with enough light for green moss to photosynthesize.  All other walls still retain the original white paint applied to maximize ambient lighting.


A better view of the window from the restaurant.


One of "Cave Man" Curtis' boats?  Or just his life preserver and a later "gondola".  Curtis must have known that the water was only a foot deep, pretty hard to go down with the ship!


A cave entrance from the tourist boat era.  Now you exit here and enter via the Luna Rossa which is just to the right of this spot.

Overall a nice way to spend a half hour on a hot summer day.  Our guide - he insisted at the end of the tour that his name was "Tip" - knew his stuff.  But there is a piece of this cave complex that he did not know about, and that does not fit into this chronology very well at all.

Come back next time for a few more pictures and a mystery ending at a blank wall.....

2 comments:

martha-in-awe said...

Boy, it would be great to have a house that fronts one of these suckers! Though I suppose a sound and sturdy barrier door would be a necessity.

I can only assume you and Laura have held your most recent posts in stock and auto dated them. Either that or you are both truly super-human. Ordinary mortals have neither the energy or organizational skills to host the best wedding in 25 years, and, when the ink is barely dry on the certificate of bonding, post pieces of such enlightenment.

Tacitus2 said...

Heavens no, autodating for sure.
Glad you enjoyed, and thanks to you folks for yeoman service in some challenging logistics.
T