Wednesday, July 18, 2018

In Darkest Footsteps

I had to delay this post a while.  Because there are some bad people in the world.

I think I met one of the lesser ones during my dig at Hill 80.  It was lunch break and I strolled over to the fence.  A shifty looking guy with long grey hair stood there.  He had lots of questions.  Where were the German trenches?  Were we finding casualties?  German or British?

I assumed he was a "night hawk" one of those horrid people who sneak into archeological sites in search of things they can add to their collections or to sell on the black market.  They literally rob the dead, thinking nothing of disturbing graves for trinkets.  (Note: there was both video and human on site security)  

I gestured vaguely towards a section of the site that was under three feet of water and told him nothing specific.

The Hill 80 dig is complete now, so the tempting, vulnerable target of mass graves being excavated is now secured.  That makes it safe to discuss a sensitive matter.  Because at one time true evil walked here.

In the confused fighting of 1914 the Bavarian 6th Reserve Division featured prominently.  Many of the dead we could identify as their uniforms had buttons with the Bavarian Lion.  

One of those Bavarians was Adolf Hitler.

Did Hitler walk across the field I worked on?  Plausibly.  Details of the confused 1914 fighting are incomplete but it appears he was at a location called "Bayernwald" about a mile north, then was treated for wounds in the cellar of the church at Mesen, about a mile south of the site.  Hill 80 is on a straight line between them and along what at that point would have been still intact roads.

Perhaps the ultimate Alternate History scenario is that of a Time Traveler killing Hitler.  Looking at his fallen Bavarian comrades you realize that a time machine would not even have been necessary.  

Skeletons laid out in rows.  No longer in militant straight lines, time has caused them to lean and shift into ragged formations that would make their sergeants livid were they not likely lying with them in the same shallow grave.  Buttons once polished bright for uncompromising inspection are now green with tarnish and lie scattered up and down stark spinal columns.  Sightless eyes stare at a blue sky for the first time in a century.

Did any of them know this peculiar Austrian who ranted so much?  Perhaps.  The more corpses you uncover the more likely you are to find the remains of a man who shared a fox hole or a cigarette or a joke with Adolf Hitler.  

If only, if only.  Would the world be a less dark place if just a few less British shells were the inert duds we walked over daily?  Did any of the fallen Bavarians dislike Hitler enough to aim a rifle at his back during an intense bombardment, only to be thwarted when death came to them instead?

You don't know and you can't know.  The path Hitler walked, the dark path that ends in Auschwitz and in the ruins of Berlin, had many twists and turns, many troubled places other than Hill 80.  

And what of all those others whose paths did end here?  Especially in the 1914 fighting you had Europe's best and brightest, the most passionate, those most ardent to change the world.  Could one of those stark corpses staring at the sky have become a German Churchill?  A French Mussolini?  Or even a British Lenin?

Idle, idle questions, asked by the living who will never know; asked of the dead who will never answer....

Monday, July 16, 2018

Digging Hill 80 - It's a Wrap

The Hill 80 project was a rescue dig.  This means they had a limited time window to study the site and preserve what they could before it was developed for housing. Time ran out last Friday.

After this point there will of course still be some attention paid but the opportunity to properly study anything that comes up during construction will be gone.

But the project went well, in fact it seems to have far surpassed the expectations of its organizers.

Here's a well done BBC spot on the project.  The site looks much changed since my stint there but many of the faces are the same.

Friday, July 13, 2018

The Michels Brewery Cave - Part Three....How did they build that???

The owners of the Michels brewery cave invited me to come down and take a look based on my apparent obsessive interest in the topic and alleged expertise.  The latter is debateable I suppose, but having studied caves for years now I have seen enough of them to have opinions.  And to be able to recognize anomalies.

The Michels cave is set into a cliff face that rises quickly to a sizable elevation.  Perhaps because of this there is only one vent hole.  Most caves 85 feet in length would have several.

When I got a good look at it I immediately noticed that it was square.  Odd.  Almost all cave vents are round and I have found evidence that strongly suggests they were drilled up from below with a sort of auger.  Otherwise it would not be likely that they would consistently be in the exact center of the cave.  


A closer look shows something even odder.  It has a square brick lining.  I have never seen anything like it.

OK, so how was this built?  We can assume the Michels brothers to have had above average abilities, there is mention of them doing mechanical work and specifically brick work when they were out west during the Gold Rush.  The distance from cave roof to surface is not immense, perhaps 15 feet or so.  I suppose you could drill a smaller round hole from below, then from above drill a larger hole, then lower a prebuilt brick "chimney" in with a winch.  And then what, purposely make the lower hole square?  I can't imagine anybody wanting to be held by the ankles and doing the bricks one at a time.......

Oh, here's the top part.  The pipe looks to be a modernish replacement.  Probably a little structure with a cover once sat here.

As I go here and there I have encountered two previous square vent holes.  One is in an "unspecified location" site that had a very short distance to the surface.  So apparently there is some way to cut square holes from below.

The other is a very anomalous cave, the Diefenthaler site.  This has apparent vent holes that are not only square but in the sides of the chamber.  Interestingly this is only a few miles from the Michels cave.....

In addition to wondering how the Michels brothers built the odd vent in their cave I am now wondering if they perhaps built the Fritz Diefenthaler cave.  It is an attractive theory.  Obviously the locations are close.  The Diefenthaler cave was build in "the late 1850's" when C. and J. Michels were new to town and looking to put their building skills to work.  Who knows, perhaps working on this project was what gave them the idea to enter the brewing trade.  They were certainly a lot more successful at it than Fritz Diefenthaler proved to be.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Michels Brewery Cave - Part Two, Modifications

Welcome back to the Michels Brewery cave.  Lets have a look at some of the later modifications.

From 1864 to some time in the 1880s, it was used to age beer.  Its use is unclear then until a reported stint as a cave for growing mushrooms, celery and cabbage beginning in 1908.  As we saw last time, it was used to store illicit hootch during Prohibition.

At some point after that it was leased by a floral company and used to "force" bulbs to start in the winter months.  They built a modern building that now covers the entrance to the cave.  It has in recent years been used for storage, or not used at all.

Lets have a look at a few Post Beer Cave modifications....

It has electric light.  When I visited that was light, singular!  I was able to get some decent flash photos of details but dim light and a surprising mist that formed from our breath made distance shots spooky.  Note the series of wooden shelves left over from the floral business days.

Its hard to say exactly when electric lights were added.  I have seen evidence of a system in a cave that I can confirm was put out of commision in the mid 1880s when the associated brewery burned down.  But I think the wiring I saw in place here was newer, probably from a 1940's refurb.

I have always wondered what brewery caves did for light before or instead of electricity.  Probably they had lanterns.  This neat little feature is a chiseled niche with soot rising up from it.  But not from an early use of the cave.  This is from a candle that was part of a "spook house" use associated with one of LaCrosse's early Oktober Fests!

Here you can see the carved wall of the cave, the original front of stone, and the back wall of the modern building.  I think that when the modern building was attached that a front "ante chamber" was destroyed.  It was pretty common for both security and temperature control reasons to have a front room to a cave. You sure did not want to have torrid mid summer hot air streaming into your cave every time you opened the door.  A picture I saw that showed the construction of the modern building had a large pile of rubble and what I think are the remains of side walls projecting out from the cliff face.

Said to be the original creosote coated timber over the door way.  But perhaps from more recent work.  The insulators for the wiring are probably 1950s or even later.

Another addition associated with later use.  A water faucet.  Overall this cave was surprisingly dry despite the unusual feature of a floor that slopes downwards from the front of the cave to the back.  The temperature is said to hold in the low 50's year round.  One wonders if this cave used ice at all?  If it did, how did the melted water get out?  The floor is now gravel so there might be a drain system buried under it.

There was one other feature of this cave that was so peculiar I decided it warrented its own post.  Come back Friday and help me figure it out!

Monday, July 9, 2018

The Michels Brewery Cave - Part One, History

The Michels brothers, Charles and John, ended up running one of the biggest breweries in LaCrosse Wisconsin a city they ended up in by accident.

Originally from Germantown Pennsylvania the adventurous brothers headed for the California gold fields in 1849.  Their route there went across the isthmus of Panama where John nearly died of fever.

They eventually made it to San Francisco but instead of the hit and miss of gold mining they decided to make their money...and a lot of working as mechanics and builders.

After a few years they returned to the East to help their aging parents, but eventually headed off again, this time with a mind to set themselves up in business in the new city of St. Paul, Minnesota Territory.

They got as far as Lacrosse in the spring of 1857.  But passage up the Mississippi was delayed due to late ice out, and they decided they liked what they saw in LaCrosse.

It is not exactly clear how they went from being builders to being brewers, but it happened.  Like most breweries in LaCrosse they were near the river.  It is unclear what they did for beer storage in their early days but in 1864 they leased a site on the edge of town and excavated a cave that would serve them well for the next twenty years.

Apparently John and Charles helped excavate the cave, faint graffitti that looks very much like their signatures appears next to this rather prominent date marking.

It is an interesting cave, and I was privileged to have an opportunity to examine it in detail.  In fact some features of it warrant an extra post or two.

LaCrosse was a major brewing city.  Not quite a rival to Milwaukee but by any other standard a beer mecca.  The Michels brewery was one of the biggest ones...but is largely forgotten.  They were not the first.  They did not hang on to attain a measure of modern success as did their rival J. Heilemann.  Little remarkable happened in the corporate history.  The Brothers Michel passed away in the early years of the 20th century leaving the next generation to deal with the disaster of Prohibition.  By 1907 they had a big modern brewery and cave storage was a distant memory.

But the cave was put to other uses.

Local papers can't be entirely trusted, prone as they are to a degree of "boosterism", but circa 1908 - perhaps in conjunction with the new brewery being built? - the cave was handed over to a new project.  It was leased by a company that proposed using it to grow celery, cabbages and mushrooms.

A worthy use of the old cave, and one we have encountered elsewhere in our subterranean journeys.  But Prohibition stepped in and changed things here as well.

In 1923 a series of newspaper articles describe the Feds raiding the cave and arresting a certain Frank Kratzer.  Found in the cave were twenty half barrels of low alcohol "near beer" that Kratzer had purchased and then - by methods not described and probably better not imagined - "worked up" to increase the alcohol content.

Kratzer was quickly tried and found guilty, paying a fine and court costs of just under $400.  The beer was publically dumped into the Mississippi river to the delight of the press and likely the discomfort of the local fish population.  The farmer who had leased the cave to Kratzer had also been charged but basically said "How was I supposed to know what he was up to?  He just slid the rent money under my kitchen door every month!".  In Wisconsin Prohibition was never very seriously enforced and this explanation sufficed for an acquital. 

The beer is shown not in the cave but, and this is a nice touch, in a jail cell at the courthouse awaiting disposal.

The Michels cave is in excellent condition.  It is about 85 feet in length.  It is on private land and not accessable for uninvited visitors.

More to follow....

Friday, July 6, 2018

Road Side Friends - Summer of 2018

Continuing a week of Travel Americana.  Here are a few roadside critters I met in southern Wisconsin.  

An obese carnivorous mouse.  

A toothy bull dog with cataracts.  Yes, I am attempting to imitate the facial expressions in all of these.

And finally "Pinky" an elephant who has faithfully shilled for his little gas station since the 1960s!

Pinky is an old campaigner.  He hails from Sparta Wisconsin, mecca of big fiberglass animals.  Inside his right front leg he still has his original ID tag!

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Caffeine and Justice in Durham N.C.

My travels take me to some strange places.  Not always geographically strange, sometimes culturally so.

Durham North Carolina is an unusual place politically.  It is in the middle of a conservative, Old South state but is an island of progressive politics and culture.  Like minded young people including friends of ours move there for this reason.  Oh, probably the milder winters help too.

So one morning I found myself at a coffee tasting session at a conspicuously progressive coffee roasting company.  Quite the crowd had gathered.  Many of the men had those odd little "man bun" hair styles.  Mine was the only un-ironic beard in the place.

This is the master flavor chart.  It seemed pretty elaborate for plain old coffee.

North Carolina had previously been the center of a very odd political controversy regarding bathroom use.  I won't try to explain it to my non US readers.  But of course we find this:

But you know what?  The coffee was tasty.  We had a nice tour of the roasting area where the employees were all serious about coffee and pleasant to chat with.  There was an American flag hanging over head and I think it was also non - ironic.

Grey of beard as I am I feel I can offer the occasional comment on the frivolity of modern America.  Sometimes it is not just young people but our rather young culture that seems a bit silly at times.  But on the important matters of the day we can still agree.  A cup of good coffee and the American flag displayed in a respectful but not intrusive fashion.  Durham may be an unusual part of America but American it is.