Saturday, September 14, 2013

Forgotten Brewery Caves - A Cautionary Tale

As I wander here and there peeking at the ruins of 19th century breweries I try very hard to not point people towards places they should not go near.  Many of these caves, especially those associated with larger urban breweries, are not safe places.  These I will not publicize, and if you are doing your own research don't be stupid.

Even the smaller cave systems associated with now rural sites can be hazardous.  Many of them were excavated by brewery workers in a rather casual fashion.  Some of them were nothing more than brick lined tunnels in loose dirt or gravel.  None of them have had any maintenance work in the last century.

I ran across a sad story involving one such cave.

Northfield Minnesota is a pretty little place.  Mostly known now for its two very fine colleges it had a brief moment of 19th century fame when the local citizens took up arms and chased Jesse James and his gang out of town when their effort to rob the local bank failed.

But it is also sitting in the middle of some excellent agricultural land and so had all the necessary requirements for 19th century brewing.  A partnership of Moes and Grafmuller was in business by 1875, with Grafmuller later becoming the sole proprietor.

In what I assume was an expansion of the business or perhaps a rebuild after a fire, Grafmuller purchased land next to the campus of St. Olaf College in 1885.  He erected a brewery, ice house and wagon shed.  He also excavated two caves into what became known as Brewery Hill.

This of course was a temptation to the nearby students who were forbidden to visit the place. Addition of a beer garden later on probably just rubbed it in.  So naturally there were clandestine expeditions on a regular basis.

The brewery was later acquired by a man named Wenner who ran it until Prohibition.  A 1920s owner named Beyer switched over to soft drinks and did rather well.  Indeed, the location was renamed Pop Hill.  But eventually that venture moved elsewhere and St. Olaf acquired the land.

So what would a college do with a brewery cave?

It was used to store vegetables and such.  Gym classes would go spelunking there.  A few theatrical productions are said to have been staged there.  No doubt the secret visits continued. There is something primal in our affection for caves.  They provided our grandsires great-to-the-nth-power with shelter from a harsh Paleolithic world.  And if you were a modern day collegian what better site for a candlelit rendezvous where a Big Man on Campus and a Co-Ed could snuggle up and pretend that he was protecting her from the sabertooths...

In 1961 a metal door was placed across the entrance, and in 1978 the entryway was collapsed to prevent entry.  This worked about as well as one might expect.

Back in the beer garden days students were said to have lowered themselves down vent shafts to get into the caves and be able to grab a quick tipple without being seen approaching the den of iniquity. The air shafts remained as did some sort of collective memory of the technique.  So students would still lower themselves down into the now neglected and officially non existent caves.

Tragedy struck in in 1986.  "On or around Halloween" a small party of adventurers lowered themselves into the caves.  They seem to have been in increasing disrepair so the kids did a little excavating to gain access to a wider area.  A section of roof collapsed crushing 20 year old Thomas E. Johnson, an English major and member of the school hockey team.

I am usually skeptical regards reports that a cave complex has ever really been destroyed, but the grief associated with this event prompted a resolute effort with dynamite, sealing them forever.

The cave was said to be in the side of what is now, in at least its third naming, Thorson's Hill. Here a new generation of care free youth frolic about the site of this tragedy.

It is a time of year when we send our young folks out into the world.  We know they will do a few foolish things, ever has it been thus.  But we hope they have the sense not to take some risks.  Not to put themselves into some dangers.

Keep this in mind, please.

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