Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Cave of the Mad Poetess

I'm going to be a little vague on the location of this "forgotten brewery cave".  It is in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, but in a location that is just a bit challenging to get to.   More on this in a bit.

This cave was created, or more likely expanded, by a certain E.R. Hantzsch.  A native of Germany, Hantzch turned up in Eau Claire in 1858.  He built a saloon "At the Sign of the Two Barrels" in that town full of thirsty lumberjacks.

Business was good, and he began to diversify.  By 1870 he was advertising as a manufacturer of XXX Cream Ale and of Pop Beer.  Of course a cave was needed to age the beer, so one was excavated into a hillside.  The entrance to the cave being then and now inconvenient, there was a pipe running down from above that allowed him to fill kegs from the back of a wagon.  Personally I think this is a rather foolish way to do things.  Unless you sanitized a rather long section of pipe you were running the risk of bacterial contamination and "skunk beer".

Maybe that's what happened, as Hantzsch went out of business and moved away. 

The next use of the cave was by a hardware company that stored dynamite in it!  It would have been quite the detonation had it gone off.  Still later it was used as a changing room for swimmers when the section of river below was dammed up creating a pool.

But the most unusual use of the cave came in the winter of 1917-1918.

A certain Mrs. Maude Phillips-also known by her a pen name of Violet Leigh-was a colorful resident of Eau Claire at that time.  She was a poet, a non conformist, and a suffragette.  She was married to a music teacher named Wilbur, a long suffering sort who seems to have tolerated her frequent affairs, public letter writing feuds and occasional stays in the State Asylum in Mendota.  Through a variety of circumstances which you can read about here, the family was evicted in the summer of 1917. 

A newspaper account of their lodgings appeared in August of that year describes the improvements Maude had made.  A flagpole out front with "Old Glory".  Carpeting, chairs, beds, an oil stove and a curtain dividing the space into two rooms.  In prominent place was a table heaped with books, a dictionary occupying a prime spot.  Presumably she continued to write as she lived "homeless" with Wilbur, their children and her mother.

But when winter set in the local authorities began to worry about the extended Phillips family, and at a sanity hearing she was a little too frank for the attitudes of that time.  She glibly spoke about having affairs with several prominent citizens and indicated that "It is a woman's birthright to love.  If she cannot love her husband, she must love some other man".

That did not go over well in court, she was judged insane and committed again to the state institution in Mendota.  The family later relocated to Madison where Maude continued to occasionally publish poetry in the local newspapers until her death in 1930.  She seems to have stayed out of further legal trouble...perhaps even then the mores of "Mad City" were a bit more flexible!

The cave where Maude lived and wrote is still extant.  It seems to be one of those places that "does not want to be found"; it took me several hours to pin it down despite having been there once 18 years ago.  After clambering up and down some treacherous river bank slopes I finally ran across a debris field of old Mason jars, bricks and broken china.  Peering up I spotted the entrance to the cave.  Of course, once you have finally found an elusive site it becomes easy.  I had been looking for the road by which E.R. Hantzsch transported his beer.  But the road in the interval had become this:

A gentle path through a riverbank wood, a few foundations covered by brush on either side.  Really a rather obvious path once you know where to look.  But on my initial reconnaissance trip I did not see it.  Why?  Because it runs through the back yard of the new County Social Services building.  Maybe they are keeping a close eye to make sure Maude and her tribe do not sneak back in.  For a later story of a cave inhabitant much in need of Social Services see my post on Mrs. Julius Anklum!

Photos of the Cave of the Mad Poetess tomorrow!

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