Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Forgotten Brewery Caves - Alma, Wisconsin

Alma Wisconsin is a pretty little spot on the Mississippi river.  It is by the way, pronounced "Al-Ma" not "All-Ma" by the locals.  Perhaps this linguistic twist dates all the way back to the predominantly Swiss origins of the early settlers.

The Swiss of course enjoy a glass of beer now and then, so Alma's first manufacturing venture was a brewery.

John Hemrich was actually German, not Swiss.  He emigrated in 1848 settling first in Rochester New York then Keokuk Iowa.  He worked in a brewery in each place, starting one of his own in Keokuk. But Iowa kept passing pesky Prohibition Laws making it a difficult place to be a brewer.  So in 1855 Hemrich headed up river and established a brewery in Alma.

He chose a location just south of town, on Main Street between Iron and Bluff Streets.  His first brewery was made of logs.  Additions to his family and to the brewery followed on a regular basis.

In 1876 he put up a brick malting house.  In 1880 he built a stone ice house to store beer above ground.  Having the Mississippi right in front of him made ice easy to come by.  In 1884 John Hemrich leased the brewery to his son William as he prepared to move to the West Coast where other branches of the Hemrich family had established successful brewing ventures.  William continued to make improvements, replacing the log building with a framed version in 1887.  The Alma brewery was eventually sold to other parties and William went west to work in the now very successful family business.  The brewery continued in local production until it was closed by Prohibition.

So what remains of the Alma brewery?

Here we are in Alma.  South Main Street in front of me, Mississippi River behind me.  I think the street location is unchanged but it has probably been raised up a bit.  The house on the left looks to be built into the foundations of the old brewery.  The arch way into the storage cellars probably was for loading onto wagons.  I assume the brewery proper was on the higher, less prone to flooding area that makes up the back yard.  Nobody was home to ask, so I tiptoed up for a closer look....

You can see the top of an arched entrance, mostly buried under rubble.  I was surprised to find evidence of a cave system at this depth.  What did they do during the predictable spring floods?

Nice stone work.  The area has lots of limestone to work with.  That little dark niche in the stones...when you get up close you have a peek into the cave behind.  And there is light coming in from the right side.  So, around the corner we go.

If you refer back to the first photo, this is the back yard of the brown house.  It has a mix of old foundations and new landscaping stonework.  This second, smaller entrance to the cellars is nicely incorporated into their design.

I think they even added some modern brick when the original entrance had some erosion issues.

So how to interpret.  Well first, tip of the cap to the current occupants.  I have never seen brewery ruins incorporated into landscaping this nicely.  It was common in Victorian times to build fake ruins and grottoes into gardens, especially in England.  Here they were presented with a perfect set up and they have done well with it.  I also should think that their kids had some great adventures and sleep overs down there.

These caves no doubt date from the original 1855 brewery and became obsolete when the above ground ice house was added in 1880.  At that point the lower level was probably just allowed to silt in. Most likely when they built the original facility they underestimated the water problems. As to size, who knows.  Circa 1880 the brewery was making 4,000 barrels per year so I assume the caves were substantial.  Probably they go back under the bluff behind the brewery, or did at one point do so.

UPDATE: 1 December, 2016.  Apparently the two breweries in Alma each catered to a specific clientele.  Although Hemrich was in fact German his brewery was favored by the Swiss population.  The Germans were partial to the product of the "other" brewery in town which I also discuss HERE.


Blue Door Inn said...

From "Alma On The Mississippi", Page 6: 1855 ... the first industry was established this year--the brewery of John Hemrich which was located on South Main between present day Iron and Bluff Streets.

Anonymous said...

my husbands granpa stored potatoes in the cave from the side my father in law told stories to the kids never to go thru the part which lead under the house but you could get out to the river from the inside of this cave also

Tacitus2 said...

A lot of brewery caves were later used to store produce or to grow mushrooms. I would not have thought this cave went to the river but the "other" one in Alma had a later tunnel for hauling up ice blocks.


Anonymous said...

This cave does have a tunnel to the river now blocked off. I used to own this house and there is another cave directly behind the house also half blocked off. The cave is on 2 separate lots.Really interesting.

Tacitus2 said...

Makes sense for a brewery whose early transportation may have been as much river as road. I do wonder about flooding issues.

Probably a good time to say, as I often do, that unauthorized and/or unsafe cave exploring is NOT ok.


Anonymous said...

There is another one next to the Alma Bank. Ask for Curt Loewenhagen at the garage adjacent to the bank. The entrance is not visible. Curt can show you.