Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Forgotten Brewery Caves - An Iowa Ghost Town

Ignatz Bilger figured he knew the next big thing.  He had after all seen a lot of the world for a man his age.  Born in Baden Germany in 1828 he emigrated to Rochester New York twenty years later.  He barely had time to unpack before heading overland to the California Gold Rush in 1849.  After a few years of presumably unprofitable effort he came back east in 1852. Arriving by ship in New Orleans he took a river boat upstream to St. Louis where he spent a couple of years learning the brewing trade.

Records are a little sketchy but he became a naturalized citizen and moved around a bit. Milwaukee, Dubuque, Ft. Atkinson Iowa, all pursuing the brewing trade.  Then in 1859 he relocated to a place called Auburn on the Little Turkey river.

In the decade before the Civil War nobody really knew which communities would thrive and which would not.  They all started with great hopes, certain that they would be the next Chicago.  But often as not the railroad took a different route or the ore ran out or it was just a lousy place to put a town in the first place.

Auburn got off to a good start.  The first mill went up in 1849, not long after the area had been ceded by the Winnebago Indian tribe.  In short order it accumulated the essential components of a bustling frontier town.  A cabinet shop, a hotel, a drug store, even a plow factory, a pottery and a machine shop.

Bilger's Brewery started off slowly, tax records show him only making 10 1/4 barrels of beer in 1862. One wonders if it was at this point only an oversized home brewery.  But by the late 1860s he was up to 1,500 barrels a year, and had expanded his facility into an impressive brick and stone structure.

Bilger died young, only 50 years old when he passed in 1878.  His brewery was carried on for a while by his widow but was squeezed out of business by the state wide Prohibition laws of the 1880s.

Auburn never amounted to much.  Today it is a church and a couple of houses.  It even lost its name, and now a town in the western part of the state goes by that moniker.  There is a grave yard.  If you can find the spot I understand the pottery site has a marvelous hillside of shards. And of course there is the ghost of the Ignatz Bilger brewery...


The brew master's house.  Probably a little later than the heyday of the brewery but still very old. Now also in ruins but it seems to have been occupied not so very many years ago.


Behind the house is junk.  An old camper, two wrecked snowmobiles.  This is a derelict boat. Beyond you can see walls and a cellar.  It is full of old tin cans and trash.


One section of the brewery wall still stands tall and proud.


The entrance to the cave.  Not very big now, it seems to have been silted in over time and I suspect partially collapsed.


Here the cave snugs up against the ruins of the brewery walls.


Old stones.  Laid most likely during the Civil War.  Perhaps only 20 years or so of use.  Then 130 more of slow decay.  Ignatz Bilger built well.  He just was wrong about where the next Chicago was going to be.

If you were interested in visiting the site, it is rather out of the way.  Take highway 150 north out of West Union.  About four miles or so from town there is a road designated B44.  Turn left. In another few miles you come to a bridge over the Little Turkey River.  On the left you will see a small landing for canoeists.  Park there.  The brewery site is just over the dirt road (marked as Nest Road).  If the foliage is not too dense you should be able to see the red brewmaster's house from the landing.

When I visited in August there was not a soul around.  I walked down Nest Road a hundred paces before seeing what proved to be part of the site.  After crashing around in chest high weeds and oppressive heat I walked back out, actually coming out right near the B44-Nest Road junction.  As I left I did see a No Trespassing sign mostly covered with weeds.
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Update, November 2014.  I love genealogists.  They are the BEST researchers.  I recently ran across THIS site with a lot of additional information.  If you lack the time to peruse it let me give a few summary notes.

-Dates for the Bilger brewery were "late 1850s" to 1884.  After Ignatz died a man named Ostenberger ran it for Mrs. Bilger.
-The red brick building that I described as the brewmaster's house is also described as a beer hall.  It appears to have served both functions.
-The Bilger brewery employed 5 or 6 workers.
-Bilger used the byproducts of brewing, spent grains, to feed livestock.  He would buy "work oxen" that he would fatten up for later sale.  Some of his tax records also speak of "hogs". I assumed this referred to "hogsheads" of beer, but the meaning could just as easily be literal.  This is still common practice for brewers by the way.
-In 1929 much of the brewery was knocked down so that the stone could be reused for building.

Most interesting to me was a description of the beer cellar.  It is said to have been 12 feet wide, 30 feet long and 8 feet high.  This would make it at present about half way silted in.  It was kept cool in part by cold spring water that came from a source further up the hill.  This was piped into the brewery and house, where it no doubt came in handy for brewing and domestic uses.  It also ran through the beer cellar.  This would be a fairly efficient way to keep a steady temperature.

This got me to wondering about the drainage troughs that are a common feature in brewery caves, and to thinking on caves I know of with significant water flow through them.  But best of all, the description of how cellars like this were built suggests a whole new avenue of discussion.  Look in the future for a post called Forgotten Brewery Caves...and Vaults and Cellars...

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