Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Forgotten Brewery Caves - Fountain City Wisconsin

Fountain City Wisconsin is a very pretty little place.  It is on a bend in the Mississippi River and is wedged tightly between the river and a steep bluff.  It was settled early - 1839 - and served as a refueling stop for steamboats.

Perhaps because of its constraining geography Fountain City grew early to just under 1000 citizens....and has stayed at that number ever since.  But in the thirsty state of Wisconsin that is plenty of population base to support several breweries.

The published histories are a little confusing but there seem to have been four breweries established in Fountain City.  Two faded out quickly, the other two went through the usual cycle of ownership changes and catastrophic fires but managed to survive into the post Prohibition era.

The first brewery in Fountain City was established in 1855 by a man named Alois, last name unclear. This was so early that the current configuration of streets and railroad tracks likely did not exist so the location quoted is simply "on the site of the plow factory and machine shop of Mr. John Clark".  This business was founded in 1866 so the brewery was probably already gone by then.  The location remains obscure but I hold out faint hopes for finding remains of the brewery. Floods, flood control measures and a post Civil War railroad going through likely make this brewery a lost one.

The second and third breweries were both established in 1857.  One was the City Brewery run by a J.G. Ziegenfuss.  Like the 1855 venture it did not last many years.  Its location is unclear.

The other 1857 brewery was the Eagle Brewery.  It was set up on the north end of town, right along the main street.  The list of proprietors over the years reflects the customary instability of the brewing industry, after being established by Richeter and Eder* it was acquired in succession by Xavier Eberhardt, Ewe and Krueger, Mrs. Pistorius and John Koschitz.  (this list is up to the 1888: source, History of Buffalo County Wisconsin.)

Some online sources claim that the building shown here was in fact the Eagle Brewery.

This claim might technically be true but is stretching things quite a bit.  This appears to be an 1870s building that served as a saloon and hall.

While it certainly was owned by the Eagle Brewery and bears their sign it probably was not where the beer was actually made. For one thing a brewery would generally have a bigger chimney to go with a boiler and brewing vats.  The brewery proper should have been to the right in the above picture and was described circa 1910 as being a building of three or more stories. At that point the business may not have been a vibrant as in the boom times, it had only two employees.  If you take a peek into the yard where the brewery once sat you will see this:

Tucked into the cliff face is a cave entrance, probably it once exited out the back of the brewery building.  I am told that it is mostly silted in.  I am content with a sidewalk view.

The other 19th century brewery in town was a "late" entrant.  The Lion Brewery was built on the south side of town.  Since sites for breweries always had the same requirements it is possible that the City Brewery existed here earlier.  The Lion Brewery was established circa 1868 or 69 by a partnership of Fiedler, Bedmer and Lenhardt.  An ad in 1876 identifies Henry Fiedler as the principal figure in the enterprise.  At some point in the early 1880s the brewery burned down and was replaced in 1885 by a large five story brewery under the name Fountain City Brewing Company.  Circa 1910 it was the larger of the two surviving breweries in town having 6 employees including one who worked exclusively at its bottling works.

Here is the site of the Lion/Fountain City brewery in 2014:

Apartment buildings, they seem oriented towards seniors.  Great view of the river out the front.  And out the back windows you would see this:

Gee, a tunnel going back into the bluff.  Who would have predicted that?

It is a mess of cement, metal, plywood.  Note the old hinge on the door.  The cave is crudely but quite effectively blocked off.  Not that a camera can't be deployed for an "inside shot".

Sorry for the photo quality, I had to really tweak the contrast and light/dark settings to show the brickwork that exists about ten feet in.  And if anyone can explain the mysterious round spots that show up on flash pictures taken this way I'd be obliged.

A few parting thoughts on this cave.  First of all - Off Limits.  There is a crumpled No Trespassing sign on the floor of the cave but just plain common sense says messing around where you are not invited is a bad idea in any case and a really bad one when your activities are presumably under the watchful eyes of several Oldsters who would find them far more interesting than watching the usual squirrels raiding the bird feeder.

I was surprised by the solid looking cement leading into the cave.  This suggests that when the "new" brewery was built in 1885 the cave was still in use.  In fact I am pretty sure the entrance to this cave was maintained well into the modern era.  Why?  My theory is that while big breweries quickly found that the economics of mechanical refrigeration made sense as soon as it was available in the 1880s, smaller ones may have kept using caves for decades after that.

Despite their mystique ageing caves really are not that great an idea once you have an alternative. Hauling kegs and perhaps ice in and out of a limestone tunnel is not efficient.  And no matter how well you keep things clean parking beer in a damp, mildewed environment will have effects on the stuff.  Some small breweries, especially in Belgium, make this work to their advantage.  Many of the exotic treats from such places owe their distinctive charms to local micro flora.  But when you are a small brewery that is competing with the big boys from Milwaukee and LaCrosse you are on a very narrow margin for profitability.  How many skunked batches would it take for your loyal local market to decide that "It's Miller Time"?

UPDATE: 1 December, 2016.  The new looking cement in the above photos now has a partial explanation.  As late as 1975 this cave was still in use, being leased out as a mushroom growing operation.
*For those interested in small details, the Eagle Brewery was started by Frederick Richter and Valentine Eder.  Richter was a native of Germany who worked in the brewing trade up and down the Mississippi river valley - Freeport IL, Stillwater MN, Dubuque IA before settling in Fountain City in 1856.  Valentine Eder was his brother in law.  Richter left the business in 1861 due to health reasons. He was it seems having trouble with his eyes.  Circa 1870 he started a new brewery, probably the Lion with Phillip Eder.  Phillip was another early settler of Fountain City and was brother to Valentine.  Phillip was a veteran of the Iron Brigade.  I suspect Valentine died in the Civil War, Anyway, Phillip ends up marrying his widow in one of those convoluted business-romantic alliances that typify 19th century brewing.

Depending on how you piece some of the information together, there may have been another short lived brewery between 1868 and 1870. Given the frequency with which these buildings go up in smoke it would not surprise me.


votefordavid said...

If your cave is one with a wet, drippy sort of roof the bright spots are probably drops of water reflecting your camera's flash as they fall. Taking flash pictures outside, at night, in the rain, will show this effect more strongly.

Or they could be reflective bits of whatnot on the floor. Either way, since your eyes probably don't give as bright a light as your camera's flash, it should be no surprise that you "don't see" the bright spots in person.

Tacitus2 said...

Plausible. Thanks. Tacitus