Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Forgotten Brewery Caves - Onalaska Wisconsin

Today a special treat for Brewery Cave fans.  We have a site where we not only know a bit about its active use but also about its post brewery history and even a few details about its construction.

Onalaska Wisconsin is a small community just north of LaCrosse.  LaCrosse of course is and was a major brewing center, home of such giants as Heileman and John Gund.  But even the latter day mega breweries started out as small cottage industries and the few miles between the towns were a formidable barrier to travel in the pre-Civil war era.

So Onalaksa had its own brewery, one started by a man named A. Knecht in the late 1850s.  It was a small enterprise, suitable only for local demand.  When Mr. Knecht died the management of the business was taken over by his wife Amelia and son Adolf.  Mrs. Knecht eventually married the manager of the brewery, a certain M.G. Moore, and the business was carried on under his name subsequently.  This pattern, a brewery widow marrying the manager, recurs often enough that it must reflect some underlying tradition in German brewing or perhaps a quirk in 19th century estate law.  Or maybe women were just not supposed to be directly in charge of any alcohol related business.

The business did well for a while, a bar, restaurant and hotel were added.  It sounds sort of like a 19th century brew pub/B&B.

Contemporary accounts give credit to son Adolf for the construction of the brewery cave in nearby Sand Lake Coulee.  It is said that after work and on days off he and the brewery workers would trek over and excavate with pick, shovel and blasting powder.  There was skepticism at the time, locals felt it would likely cave in before completion.  But this amateur crew pulled it off.  Indeed as we shall see it is a very nicely done cave.

I get the impression that the cave was excavated late, circa 1880.  By this time the changes in the brewing business were picking up steam and small operations were not able to make a go of it.  The Knecht/Moore brewery went out of business in the early 1890s.  Briefly an attempt to revive it was made under the name Onalaska Brewing Company.  But the parties involved were seemingly inept fellows whose prior venture had gone belly up after just two batches of beer, the second of which had been sabotaged by somebody who had added a bunch of bread crumbs to the tanks.

By 1896 the cave's history with respect to brewing was over.

Later (I see 1940s quoted but suspect earlier) a local CCC camp used the cave to store "roots and herbs".  I have seen a photo from this era, it had a handsome set of wooden doors that look original. Later still in the 1970s there were rumors about town that the cave was the site of unspecified Satanic rituals.  Implausible but this sort of nonsense was in wide circulation back then.

The cave today:

When you have enough history it is fun to try and match the stories with the structure.

The cave was said to be big enough that a brewery wagon could back into it and unload.  The beer was supposed to be aged there for a year, with the barrels stacked up on each other.  This looks spot on.

The pile of loose dirt is wash down from a vent hole above.

I looked about for evidence of use as a root and herb storage cave, but what exactly would that entail? As to it being a center for Satanic Cult activity, well, lets see...

Graffiti, some of it referencing Motley Crue.  Their breakthrough album "Shout at the Devil" did cause a stir among fundamentalist groups, in part from their use of a pentagram logo. But that was 1983, not the 1970s.  Their subsequent antics were partly contrived publicity stunts but mostly the usual drug abuse and bad haircuts.

A bag of M & Ms and a slightly risque Sports Illustrated magazine!  Interestingly the tag at the top "Winter 2013" piqued my interest.  Zooming in really tight on the mailing address reveals that this was stolen from the Winona Public Library.

I don't know.  As evidence of Satanic activity junk food, poor musical taste, library pilferage and a mildly naughty magazine do not strike me as compelling.  In these modern times the presumably young male visitors could step outside the cave and call up much worse stuff on their phones.  Perhaps the cave is an oasis of innocence?

This is a fairly easy site to find.  It overlooks Highway 53 as it passes through Onalaska.  It is on the east side of the road more or less across from the sign you see for the Main Street exit as you drive south.  I got off at Main street and just hiked along a small frontage road going back north.  There is a fence between you and the cliff face but after about half mile you reach the end of it. There is a faintly visible remnant of a road that switches back and goes up the hill.  No doubt the beer wagons once labored up it.  I did not see any No Trespassing signs but at one point there was a sign indicating that tampering with public water facilities was a Federal Offense.


Joe said...

Could you share your sources for the historical information about this cave in Onalaska? Also, how did you hear about the cave and then know how/where exactly to find it?

Dave said...

It looks like a source the blog post's author used may be the local history book "From Sawmills to Sunfish: A History of Onalaska, Wisconsin" (1985) by John and Joan Dolbier. Page 120 has an entry about this brewery and beer cave.

Sources the Dolbiers cite at the end of the entry are "Old Newspaper Clippings from Ernie Otto's Scrapbook"; the 1881 "History of La Crosse County, Wisconsin," compiled by C.W. Butterfield and published by Western Historical Co.; and the 1907 "Memoirs of La Crosse County," edited by Benjamin F. Bryant, published by Western Historical Association.

Tacitus2 said...


Correct. There is also some info in a hard to locate book by Wayne Kroll. As to location of the cave it was mentioned in a Lacrosse newspaper article.
Sorry for the slow reply but I did send Joe a separate email.