Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Cooking the Turkey. So that was 1000 degrees for 15 minutes, right?

In my post several years ago describing the pyrotechnic demise of Big Tom, the world's largest turkey I neglected to mention that when we visited the scene of the poultry apocalypse I picked up a small charred remnant of the Big Guy.

So for all of you responsible for creating a memorable Thanksgiving feast.  Let's be careful.  Not too memorable!

Monday, November 20, 2017

Forgotten Brewery Caves - Under The Oaks

Sometimes when researching a story you come across what looks like a dead end....but something just does not feel right.  Perhaps when the topic is Forgotten Brewery Caves one should always expect there to be interesting things in hiding.

My first visit to Minnesota City was brief.  I was on my way to Winona but had read that a brewery once existed in this nearby small town (population 204).  I located the site, took a good look at the structure there, and came away puzzled.  The building was in the right place.  It was of a size befitting an early brewery.  But it was under so many layers of renovation that my impression that it was just not old enough was tentative.  I did a bit more research and made a second visit. This unobtrusive marker on a back wall sums things up nicely:

Otto Vill came to Minnesota Territory in 1857 and settled in the frontier community of New Ulm.  Vill served in the militia that helped defend the town during the Sioux Uprising of 1862. His obituary in 1914 mentions that two of his children died during the conflict, but whether they were casualties or died of natural causes is not specified.

After the war Otto moved to Minnesota City, a small but promising community just north of Winona.  The first thing an aspiring brewer needed to do back then was excavate storage space, which he is reported to have done in the summer of 1868.  Actual brewing probably started the next year.

The Vill brewery enjoyed a fair bit of success despite vigorous local competition.  On the death of its founder, his son Oswald took over.

With the arrival of Prohibition a different business model was needed.  The brewery was converted into a hotel and "soft drink parlor".  Given the surprisingly active resistance to Prohibition in the Winona area the quotation marks are probably justified.  It was also rumored to be a stopping off place for mobsters who were commuting between those two great centers of flexible law enforcement; Chicago and St. Paul. 

The Oaks Nite Club opened in 1930.  Upstairs: dining and dancing.  Downstairs: slot machines and a roulette wheel.  A prominent chef from Minneapolis was hired, and the business was a great success for a time.  As the sign says above, it suffered through two serious fires and was rebuilt.  Probably only the foundations survive from its brewery days.

The chef, a certain Walt Kelly, eventually bought the establishment and after its 1948 rebuild it had a dining room that could seat 600, an 84 foot long bar, and a stage big enough for a 16 piece orchestra.  Notables of the time including Lawrence Welk, Sammy Kaye and the Three Stooges appeared there.

But of course times change.  Kelly died in 1957.  By then its popularity was slipping.  Perhaps it was television, or maybe the rise of suburbia made this supper club in the middle of nowhere just seem like an illogical destination.

There were attempts to keep it going, new ownership, new strategies.  It was a dinner theater for a while.  Then a church.  More recently it has been a machine shop.  

Ah, but the topic of this post is supposed to be the caves.

A news article at the time of the 1946 fire mentions that the stock of "rare old wines and liquors" were stored in the old brewery caves and so survived the blaze.

Walt Kelly's son in an interview said that the stories of gangsters fleeing the G-men through tunnels leading out to the nearby creek were just that, stories.  But he did confirm that there are, or at least a few years ago, were, narrow passageways underneath from the days when beer was stored there.

One of the later owners of the establishment was the colorfully named Carl Gegenfurtner, who said the following in a 1960 newspaper article.

"I'd like to get down and explore these underground caves, the old brewery caves under The Oaks.  But so far I've been too busy upstairs.  We're all working hard hoping to have our big opening with all the fancy new equipment running full blast around April 15th."

And one final crumb of information on the caves.  With due respect to Kelly Jr., who would be in a position to know things, it appears that the caves actually did extend quite some distance towards the creek.  A short news story in 1956, with a very grainy photo, shows a truck on the shoulder of the existing road, its rear wheel sunk deep into a cave in from the underlying brewery cave!

Yep, right about here.

Very little of the old night club decor survives.  These groovy 1960's era lights are just about all you can see from the outside.

Odd little additions and brick structures.  About what you'd expect in a building that has been so many things over its long life....

Friday, November 17, 2017

Schells brings back Cave Lagering

Last week I mentioned that the Potosi Brewery was putting out a "Cave Ale" as more or less a homage to the old ways of brewing.  Not that the cave was actually involved in the process.

Well, another brewery did it one better.

In 2015 the Schell's Brewery in New Ulm, Minnesota announced that they would be producing a "Cave Lager" actually aged in the 1860's brewery caves under their plant. It is a dark lager, in keeping with the prevalent style of that era.

The August Schell Brewery goes back quite a ways by Midwest standards.  It was founded in 1860, two years after Minnesota became a state.  Schell set up his brewery outside of New Ulm but, supposedly due to his generosity to the Native Americans, it was unscathed when New Ulm was besieged during the Sioux Uprising (alt title, The Dakota War) of 1862.  Remarkably the brewery is still family owned, the second largest of such still remaining in the U.S.

I remember it falling on some difficult times in the 1970's...their signature "Deer Beer" was not highly esteemed.

But in the happier times that are our current Better Beer Renaissance Schells has done well.  It is a respected local business that turns out good product.  And they have been innovative in recent times.

One of their experiments has been ageing beer in the original Civil War era caves.

It was a bit of an experiment and is not currently under production.  So I can't give it my personal taste test but others have pronounced it delicious.

A few pictures of the caves.  

An article that came out around the time of Cave Lager's introduction mentions that these are only remnant caves, two in number, each 8 feet tall and going 20 to 30 feet into the hill.  There were more extensive caves but they were filled in so as to improve the structural stability of the brewery overhead.  

This makes sense and was probably a fairly common practice.  I wonder if that explains the little dead end cave at the Bloomer Brewery?

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Tree Shaped Tombstones - Some Fine Details

On a fall road trip I found a number of tree shaped tombstones on a day when the conditions for photos were rather good.  It had been raining, and details always show a bit better when the limestone is damp.  It was still cloudy but the light was decent, so less of the washed out/shadowed effect that comes with bright sunshine.

Here are a couple of tombstones from Portage Wisconsin.

Elegant work here.  The bark looks coarse and rough.  If you ran your fingers over it blindfolded you would believe it to be the real thing.  The linked chain...such delicate work with hammer and chisel.  It would not pass the "touch" test but certainly looks like beaten metal.

Another example, with the "Book of Life" weathered blank as usual.

Look at the detail on the broken limb.  To be able to carve this image of wood under strain you must have understood both the stonemason's trade and that of the carpenter.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Small Broken Robot Parts

Machines Behaving Badly, 2017.

Aftermath of a particularly frisky match.  The big metal bar is actually a scythe blade, one of the drop down hazards that nail robots from above.

One of the matches featured a single three pound robot taking on a multibot, that is to say,  a team that put out two 1.5 pound robots.  I just turned around for a moment to help a kid with a repair question and one of the little robots went into the Chains of Doom. Now, there may be a reason why cardboard has not caught on as a robot building staple.  I had to ask, "Where did the other robot go?"  It was disintegrated.  His team mate fought on gamely, taking his own share of damage but almost pulling off the win.  We awarded them the Monty Python inspired "Black Knight Award"...

In some of the later rounds on the "playback" side of the brackets we tossed four robots in and had the top two finishers move on.  It saves a little time.  The robot with the rapidly whirling weapon got in a few good licks, but this sort of machine usually ends up tearing itself apart from the combination of too much impact and not enough structural integrity.

The little girl here is wearing the official Machines Behaving Badly shirt.  No, she is not actually one of the folks running the event.  She did drive one of the "volunteer bots" we use to fill spots in the brackets.  But she got scared and couldn't finish the match.  So I gave her a shirt.  Soon she was trying her hand at driving the big FIRST robotics machine!

FIRST roboteers for future teams....

And we finish up with a big melee.  As many robots as we can fit in the arena at once just randoming smashing each other up for a few minutes.  Then the event is in the can until next year.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Robots on Veteran's Day

Somehow, implausibly, we pulled it off again.  A full double elimination combat robot event for 20 teams in exactly four hours.  Full report tomorrow.  But a couple of images for a Monday morning.

Singing the National anthem before the event began.  Nobody needed to be told...they stood. The hats came off.  You will note no protests.

And what the heck is this?  Our first ever robot that actually fired projectiles!  Oh, its nothing exotic, it was based on some kind of spring loaded confetti launcher with a geared down motor to turn the firing crank.  Oh, and it was filled not with confetti but with either pennies or nuts and bolts.  Sort of a little robot shotgun.

It even had a laser beam for aim and a little ramp on the front to raise and lower the elevation of the muzzle.  Of course it was very low powered and did not actually do any damage.

But it did win the Best Design award.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Machines Behaving Badly - 2017 Edition

On the eve of the 17th Annual Machines Behaving Badly robot event it seems appropriate to muse on where we've been, are, and are heading.

The popularity of the class remains high.  Kids of this age will probably always be enthused about building small combat robots.  But other things have changed.

The level of familiarity with the most basic tools and the simplest construction methods continues to decline.  It has been a full generation now that I have been doing this class.  Time enough for those magnificent Depression/WWII era multi-talented grandfathers (and some Rosie the Riveter grannies) to pass from the scene. Their tools? Sold off cheaply at garage sales.  Their expertise?  Only fragments were passed down to the Baby Boomers who have now become grandparents. And less still to the new generation of parents.  

Now we have an entire new generation of young people whose contact with the world is literally superficial....the interface being the tips of their fingers on the screens of their phones.  Tech savvy?  In a way.  Mechanically ignorant?  Oh, yes.

It is pointless to opine on whether this is good or bad, it simply is the case.  In a practical sense it has been a significant factor in my reluctance to advance the rather basic technology level in the class.  2017 kids struggle with things that a decade ago were accomplished with ease.

And the kids are different in other ways.  Like everywhere else our community is changing.  More fractured households, more chaos.  And all the little stuff.  Food allergies, medications to be aware of.  It seems to be more complicated being a kid in 2017.

But the work goes on.  If this sort of class is "lighting a candle against the darkness" then the fact that it is getting darker makes it more important.  And all the other stuff?  Blustery winds that make the light flicker but not so far falter.

A few pictures on the eve of the mini robot apocalypse.  Not surprisingly a bit of an off year for both creative and efficient machines.

One of our later build sessions happened to be on Halloween.  Kids of course were in costume.  A storm trooper and his robot.

We may not have the most creative robots this year, but darned if we don't have some really big ones.  Of course several are drifting just a bit above that three pound weight limit.  I have become less strict about it in recent years. When one student had drilled five or six holes in something trying to trim off several ounces I just told him "five down, another couple hundred to go...".

Sometimes an impractical design just lingers on until the last minute, only to be replaced by something simpler.  One student had this elaborate plan to build a four wheel drive, low speed, high torque pushing robot with sloped lexan armor.  Making the lexan pieces fit did not work so he just subbed in a cardboard box swathed in duct tape and with bits of aluminum and lexan randomly slapped on.  It even seems to work pretty well.

I really like the name, Boxer's Rebellion Gone Mad.  Although I have to say neither spelling nor any understanding of what the original Boxer Rebellion was all about appears to be a priority for the kid!

Ah well.  The event should be fun as always.  If the robots are having an off year there is always this:  New T-shirts!