Friday, September 24, 2021

Brewery Ghost Eau Claire

Like pretty much any city in Wisconsin Eau Claire had an active brewing industry in the 19th century.  There were four good sized breweries and a number of smaller players.  Surprisingly, given the substantial nature of brewery buildings, there are virtually no physical remains in 2021.  In fact, until recently I'd have said none.  But then some stucco started peeling off a non descript building at the corner of Elm and Hobart....

Like the old song says, "there's something happenin' here".

This was a rough stone foundation, presumably once supporting something much bigger.  Whatever it was it had a "window".  I wonder what else is hiding under the remaining hideous modern camo.

The location has a long and shall we say heated history.  To attempt to piece it together you need to see the modern alignment of the building and compare it to 19th century images.  Just how far back was it set?  And just how accurate are these early maps and drawings?

Most of what I know about the site comes from Doug Hoverson's "The Drink that Made Wisconsin Famous".  I'll take his narrative and combine it with such images as can be found in the State Historical Society map collection.

Things on the edge of town don't always show on early maps, so the earliest depiction of the place in 1872 just shows trees.  Is this accurate?  Probably.  It was not until 1874 that a certain Michael Welter, or Wettner left the nearby Mattias Leinenkugel (Eagle) Brewery and went into business on his own.  Oddly he had Henry Leinenkugel as a partner.   Our next peek at the location dates to 1875:

This shows a building of not at all the correct dimensions, but correct in that there is no set back from either Elm or Hobart.   Interestingly there was a "Garden" one block north.  This the Olinger Garden run by a local farmer of that name since the mid 1860's.  It was practically speaking a beer garden, which may not have had a direct link to any of the various breweries operating in this neighborhood.   

The brewery then went through events common to such ventures, ownership changes and fires.  Henry Sommermeyer took over the venture in 1878.  A rather nice Birds Eye View from 1880 shows us much.

There now seems to be a large setback from Hobart street...unless the latter was widened at some point.  There is as expected a slope just as today, but that would be the case in any event.  We also start to see intriguing clues such as doors and windows.  Is this our brewery ghost building?

Hard to say, as Sommermeyer's brewery was destroyed by fire in November 1880, probably after this drawing was made.  It was rebuilt, sold to Frank Huebner who was a Sommermeyer employee, then it burned down again in 1883.

An 1888 map shows this:

Probably the same building, and with street dimensions looking pretty well defined it is hard to buy the widening of Hobart theory.  I will say that I don't trust any map of this era implicitly, well other than Sanborn Fire Maps.  Notice that the setback from Elm looks to be much bigger now.

The place burned again in 1892, although it is mentioned that it was just the wooden portions that went up.  A foundation still in situ from earlier is quite plausible. 

By this point the brewery was owned by John Walter.  He bought it in 1889 and remarkably it remained The Walter Brewery until 1985!  Now the 1897 Sanborn map comes to the rescue...

This is certainly what we are looking at, but with some real puzzlers.  The "window" seen above would seem to be looking right into the malt kiln!  It describes four floors, malting floors in basement and 1st story, grain storage second and third.  What we are seeing what would be considered the basement.  Photos of the Walter Brewery are always taken from the east corner to show the main brew house, but the malting facility with the needed vent stack can be seen clearly in this 1895 view.

There is very little written on the brewery remains.  There is a brief mention in the Eau Claire Landmark Commission website that says the foundation we are discussing is from the 1890 post fire rebuild.  That would seem to make the most sense.  But I am still just a bit suspicious that it might be all or in part from an earlier rebuild in the 1880s.  It was mentioned for instance that the 1890 fire only burned the wooden portion of the structure.  Was the foundation damaged enough that it had to be demolished and rebuilt as well?  Then there is that darned window into the malt kiln.  Was this bashed out later?   Was it not a window but some kind of flue for that big stack at about that location on the building?  If so the stack would have blocked the sidewalk!  Maybe there was a hatch in the basement level for ash pull out from the kiln on the first floor?  As I finish up these musings I note something very much like it at the base of the tower in the 1880 view of the Sommermeyer Brewery.....

Clearly I have to go take an inside look.   I figure I'll wait until the Covid situation improves a bit but certainly there will be an update and "inside information" when that happens.

Footnote.  When the John Walters Brewery finally went under in 1985 there was a brief revival under the name Hibernia Brewery.  Name aside they made mostly German brews.  They also revived the Olinger Garden one block to the north as their beer garden!  I've been there, it was nice.  Alas the obsolete physical plant was too heavy a burden and Hibernia did not survive to what might have been the better days of craft brewing.  Other than a 1913 vintage bottling house and the foundation we've explored today there is nothing left of note on the site.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Enigma Two. Ciphers and Barbarians

 Week two.  Time to get trickier....

Enigma Lesson Two 


Well now, that was not a very nice thing for Julius Caesar to say about the Barbarians!  Although it was of course quite true.  Perhaps that is why he wrote it in a special letter code.  This "Julian Cipher" was one of the earliest such codes and would serve to make written messages unreadably to casual observers.  You of course are considerably smarter than a batch of 1st century BC Barbarians, so it won’t take you long to figure this out.

 We will talk today about the easiest ways to break this kind of code, then the trickier ways it usually has to be done. 

Paper, pen, blackboard…..of course after a while people got even smarter and started to create machines to help encode and decode.  Some of these are simple and fairly well known.  Once upon a time special “Secret Agent Encoder Rings” came in boxes of cereal.  We will work with some home made versions of this device to send and receive messages to each other. 

Like everything else in the modern era these code machines kept getting trickier and more effective.  Until the code breaking machines caught up. 

Ever wonder why this course is called Enigma?  Go.


The first cipher they worked on was the famous "Julian" or "Caesar" cipher.  It is a simple 3 space rotation cipher where V becomes Y, L becomes O.  The initial message read "YOU GUYS SMELL BAD".

This led to a brief etymologic side trip into why Caesar Salad is called that and to how what was basically a nickname evolved into a title that has been in continuous use until fairly recently.  (Czar, Kaiser, etc).

All rotational ciphers can be solved pretty simply.  I taught them the Brute Force method and they were able to easily take on another cipher called Rot-13.  This cipher is still in fairly common use.  The geocaching website uses it to encrypt hints.

A bit harder challenge next, a random cipher.  I told them I'd make it a bit easier by giving them lots to work with and breaking it down into words instead of standard five letter sets.

For this they had to look at frequency analysis, which is basically how frequent certain letters are in the English language, with considerable help from the small number of one, two and three letter words that are in common use.  The message was not that important, it said something along the lines of "I will make this easier by giving you lots to work with and breaking out the words".  Which is almost a direct quote.  But, it gave them the key to use on the next cipher which was in the same code.

The answer was:  BILBOBAGGINSLASTRIDDLE.  Shockingly none of them had read the Hobbit.  My work to repair the shortcomings of modern education is far from done.  But I allow limited use of the internet and soon they were asking me:  "What do you have in your pocket?"

The combination, obviously.  Or is it?  I was mildly disappointed that none asked in a Gollum voice, but you can't have everything.  

For those coming in late, the code unlocks a treasure chest with some better grade snacks.  The kids were able to get all this done in one hour, which I think is pretty good especially considering that this is an after school class and their brains have been numbed since about 8am.

A smart and fun group.  Next week I'll challenge them a bit more......

Monday, September 20, 2021

Wrong about the Trousers

When I puzzle over words I mostly limit myself to languages with which I have some familiarity.  English of course.  German.  Latin and by extension, Italian.  Sometimes Spanish is on the periphery.  But French is just beyond my range.  Sure it is an offshoot in some ways of Latin, but its quirky.

Many years ago I ran across the word "Trou" in association with a discussion of underground fortifications.  As it was a pet name for the Maginot Line I guessed that it meant, approximately, "trench".  Close, but no cigar.

Trou translates best to "hole".   

OK then, clearly trousers comes from this word.  You put them on one leg at at time, putting said leg effectively into a hole.  Wrong again.

Trousers is actually an old Irish word.  It goes back to "Tribhas", a word of uncertain origins.  It went through a few changes in the 1500's resulting in its first known written appearance. 

 "A jellous wife was like an Irish trouze, alwayes close to a mans tayle" [1630]. 

Not exactly politically correct by current standards.  The addition of an r near the end was in line with similar sorts of words such as "drawers".

Well don't I feel a bit dim in this matter.  Although not in comparison to an Academy Award winning character who was even more confused about trousers back in 1993.  Thanks Wallace, for many happy viewings with my then young children.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Busy Week

In retirement it is easy to get lulled by the quiet stretch, the times when nothing of major import is happening.  Oh, they are still good times, it's fine to simply enjoy the small things in life.  But then seasons change and things start happening.  


Up north getting some things ready for fall hunting.  The trail cams are starting to show interesting data:


In addition to the Enigma class I reported on last time I gave a program for the local Learning in Retirement folks.  Tree Shaped Tombstones.  Well attended, and with a brief cemetery walk afterwards.  It was good to be back in the real world, Zoom presentations were never satisfying.


The FIRST robotics team and associated side programs has grown to the point that it is a lot of work keeping it pointed in the right direction.  New home, team increased in size by a third, lots of new members to train in.  And to top it off we were asked to be available for an Open House the school was running in association with Homecoming.  As this was only a couple of weeks into the school year we were not able to promise anything more than a "working session" with a bit of driving demo.  

We can do that.

Lots going on.  Software development, robot driving, fabrication, guided tours, video being taken, snacks consumed and probably more things that I was too busy to notice.  All the other things going on around us were distracting....there were drones flying through the building for goodness sake, but overall a strong team that should do well if they get a chance to keep working.

If.  Covid has become an issue again.  Stay tuned.  

Next week might be a lot less busy.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Enigma One

So begins the experiment with middle school students as cryptographer puzzle solvers.....

We started with some basic, common sense ground rules.  When we go about the building searching for physical clues we will travel together.  Nothing will be hidden in teacher's desks, bathrooms, basically any personal space in the building.  As the middle school has just been remodeled there are a great many places to hide things.

We also talked about the reason for the class.  Not to make them into sneaky persons out to fool others, but to help them figure out the peculiar codes and puzzles of the world.


The week one problem:

Enigma Lesson One:  Interstellar

You wouldn’t know this, it is a secret after all, but Area 51 has nothing to do with flying saucers.  On this site in 1947 something very unusual was found in a desert cave.  Two things actually.  One appears to be a portal, a window to an alien world. Nothing comes through it and the only things that can be seen are patterns that continually repeat.  First a series of 18 red dots.


 Next comes six blue dots.


 Finally there is a very long string of 1’s and 0’s

111011101101110111010010101001010010010011101101110010010010001001010010 010010001001010010 010010001101010010

The other thing found in the cave is a container.  It is made of an unknown material and remarkably has a lock with English letters on it. 

Nobody has ever been able to decode the message or open the box.  Perhaps today will be the day.

But first let’s think.  Given the available information what do the aliens appear to know about us?  When was this mystery placed?  And for practice, let’s try our hand at composing a simple message to send back to them if we could.  We’ll attempt a simple picture.  What information will you make your top priority? 

Assume our ability to transmit over unknown distances is limited, so no YouTube videos!



It went pretty well.  I started by asking them for alternate ways to either open the box or figure out what was in it.  Of course an assortment of, er, direct methods were proposed and ruled out.  One clever girl said that she suspected the combination was written on the chest in Invisible Ink.  But, she said "we'd need an ultraviolet light to see it".

"Would you like one?"

"You mean you HAVE one???"

Of course I did, and let them study the treasure box to no effect for a while.  

Their take on what we knew about the Aliens was reasonable.  They can perceive color, they understand patterns, they know about English and perhaps some other languages.  

The pictures they designed to transmit back included an American Flag, stick figures, the Earth, and curiously, a bird.  None had particular artistic excellence.

I did have to prompt them a bit to figure out the challenge.  When they got distracted by things I asked them if they actually thought I was the kind of person who would intentionally throw in false leads.  They said I was.  I agreed.  Eventually they worked it out.  Here is the message decoded.

The treasure chest contained salty snacks and this follow up message.  Sort of "Galaxy Quest".

They were ready for more so a small secondary challenge regarding a spy named Anna and some random scrabble tiles was put forward and solved in short order.  Anna will be making future appearances........

There was even time, while they were snacking, for a brief discussion of the history of digital communication.  I say it goes all the way back to the Cave Peeps, who had Arms Up in the Air means Danger and Arms Not Up means no danger.  With more bits of information, say using more than two arms, you can communicate more things.  8 arms, or bits, can be used to communicate almost anything.  That would be a byte.  I threw in a bit on Logic Gates as well.  Why not.

A lot to take on in one hour.  They asked for more.  They asked specifically for algebra based problems.  I don't know about that.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Cocktail Civics

Sobering times on many levels.  9/11 anniversary, resurgent Covid, a darkening of days as fall sets in.   Some people have lost their optimism, others maintain it with greater difficulty.  I'm in the latter category.

For me the lasting image of the Covid Times will be the side yard cocktail circle.  As the world faltered, shut down and then fitfully reopened it was a constant.  A circle of lawn chairs set six feet apart, being moved here and there as the seasons changed and the angle of sun at 5pm Friday changed.  In all weather conditions short of the genuinely vile you'd find us gathered there, generally excepting November through February.

Beverages are mixed and distributed.  The circle expands and contracts with attendance, sometimes impromptu additions being waved over from the nearby sidewalk.

The usual membership is older, mid 50's and up.  But otherwise quite varied.  Male and female, married and otherwise, people from the East and West and assorted points in between.  We talk about our kids, who are spread out even further.  Africa, Sweden, the wilds of L.A.

Politics comes up as it will.  I'm no fan of the current administration.  Most of the rest of the Cocktail Circlers were, to put it very mildly, no fans of the previous one.  And oddly this seems to color the optimism/pessimism scale.  Perhaps if your base faith is in Progress you can never be entirely happy, because to strive ever forward means you are never allowed to stand still.  Naturally having fallible humans in charge of the Arc of History can only be a source of frustration.

As the lone admitted Conservative I have a different perspective.  The world generally has a lot of problems but these are outstanding times to be alive.  And while I am not prepared to vouch for other places - still thinkin' bout that kid in L.A. - the community we live in is doing alright.  I expressed this opinion at the tail end of our most recent session.  One of the folks with a different world view expressed doubt, but also sincere hope that I was right.

I should have explained in greater detail, but it was time to go in for dinner.

As I see it we have a great deal more that unites us than divides us.  If there were a problem on the other side of the street each and every one of us would be willing to go over and help.  A kid sitting on the curb looking distressed.  And old person who appeared lost.  A minor fender bender.  No matter, everyone would pitch in and help.

We don't live in an exclusive, gated community.  A few hundred yards away there are people with a great deal less economic security.  They'd help too.  

It helps to have known the neighbors for a long time, although newcomers and the occasional peripheral walk on are equally welcomed.  But mostly I think it helps to be in person.  On the internet it is easy to believe that villainy is the default mode and snark the appropriate riposte.  In person, not so much.  When nonsense is spoken it is gently called out.  And when things are unspoken, mostly problems with our extended families, they are supported by a group of friends who have in most cases been there too.

So in days that are getting shorter - and is that not true for us all in the end? - I highly encourage you to rake the leaves, set up the circle of chairs and raise a glass together.  There is a lot of good in my community, and I'm confident there is much in yours as well.