Driving through Brownsville Minnesota on a sunny day in August it looked like just another sleepy town on the Mississippi. But my peripheral vision is pretty well tuned, so when I spotted what appeared to be a brewery cave it was time to pull over.
But this proved to be a most atypical site. There were caves everywhere, too many for your usual small town brewery.
This last one was especially interesting, it looked as if somebody had started excavating a cave and just gave up on the project.
With seven or eight caves in a single long cliff face we have some explaining to do. Only one was was slightly open for investigation.
This certainly looks like a brewery cave. Note the trough down the middle. This is a tip off that there was ice stacked in there, the slot in the floor was for melting water to run off without getting the stored goods too soggy. There is also a suggestion of a vent hole in the ceiling. The walls of course show the usual tool marks and algae growth.
So, what was really going on here?
There has been a brewery in Brownsville for a very long time. The first was called the Brownsville Knoblack Brewery and was started in the early 1850's. A second brewery called the Brownsville Bluff Brewery was built in 1871. The image below could be either brewery, evidently under new management in this early 1870's image:
The sharp eyed will notice that the Schwarzhoff Brewery is not set into the face of the cliffs seen in earlier images.
Brownsville was a very early community. A fellow named Job Brown settled there in 1848. It seemed an up and coming place, as it had a good landing for riverboats. The Mississippi was the sole effective transportation system at that time. People and goods upstream, wheat going back down.
Brownsville prospered early. The bank coming up from the river was steep, so in general the early buildings were two story affairs. The second story backed up against Wild Cat Bluff, and cellars were excavated into it. In effect what we are seeing is the remains of the main street of Brownsville, circa 1850-1870. In 1870 there were about 50 business establishments in the town. Any number of them could have found use for cellars.
There were saloons, grocers, wholesale liquor dealers. There was F. Brehme, Barber, Confectionary and Toys. There were three substantial hotels called respectively the Gluck, Roster and Minnesota Houses. There were several meat markets.
By the 1880's the boom had gone bust. Brownsville is a fine place for river transportation but once the railroads got fully established post Civil War they became the main transportation system. Rivers flood and freeze. Rivers go where they feel like going.
So Brownsville declined. There seems to have been a brewery still in business there until 1905. A fire destroyed much of the old community. Expansion of Highway 26 in the 1920's finished it off. It now runs directly over the remains of the old town.
So what is left? The current town is newer, built up around the corner from the early settlement. One of the early brewery sites is said to be within this area...recall that breweries were often set up on the outskirts of things. This one was at 7th and Clay Street. The other brewery site was west of the current town somewhere out on County Road 3. A local source says that nothing from the brewery buildings remains at either site.
It is certainly possible that one or more of the caves I saw were used for beer. An arrangement with one of the saloons or with what seems to have been a local ice company could surely be worked out. And as noted, the one cave you can see into sure looks like the right sort. Or, just maybe there are some more mysteries to be found out on the periphery of the semi-ghost town of Brownsville Minnesota.