Monday, October 5, 2015

Forgotten Brewery Caves - Johnny Walnutseed !

The Klein Brewery in Decorah Iowa is one of those places whose later history is a bit more interesting than its fairly brief run as a functioning brewery. Here is the site when we visited in August of 2015.  It is about as easy to find as you can get, right there on "Ice Cave Road" near the entrance to Dunning Springs Park.

The photo is a bit washed out by the dazzling sunshine but you can see a smaller, open cellar door on the left, a larger entrance in the middle, and up above just a hint of a red brick house.  This belonged to the brew master and it is said that the larger door leads to a 100 foot long tunnel with a branch extending to the basement of the house.  So much for the current overview, here is an image from 1875.

You can see a small cave entrance to the left of the brewery.  This could either be the similar structure you see today, or perhaps a less accurate rendering of the larger cave.  In this view the brew master's house is not present and is presumably a later addition.

Before we discuss the history of the site further, a couple more pictures.

Here is the exterior of the main cave.  Note the curved stonework.  I think this is different enough from the 1875 view that it makes an entrance arising from inside the brewery to be most likely. There was a random scattering of brick and stone going off to the right that represents the ruins of the structure.  The smaller cave, which is standing open, has its side wall on the left of this picture.  Here is a shot of the entrance to it.

Old wood always photographs well.  And peeking inside you see, in miniature, a nice little storage cave complete with a small vent hole in its brick arched roof.

The pairing of a small cave next to a much larger one is an enigma.  In theory the former could have been an earlier cave from a smaller establishment but I think it more likely that this had a purpose other than ageing beer.  It would have been difficult to keep the temperature low enough on a consistent basis.  So perhaps storage for hops?  Or as a convenient temporary storage cave for beer that was ready to be loaded for delivery?  Another possibility is that this was where they stored beer prior to bottling.

The history of Iowa breweries in general is a challenge.  They were constantly under the threat of closure by narrow minded Legislatures.  In particular the Decorah area was heavily Scandinavian, so the usual base of community acceptance you find in German towns was not there.  So what there is out there for information is skimpy.

Decorah had two breweries, this one and one started by a man named Addicken in the pre-Civil War era.  One source I read felt the Klein brewery was a continuation of Addicken's venture but that is a bit of an puzzler. Tax records show the two existing contemporaneously into the 1880s.  An 1882 county history says that Addicken built a new brewery in 1865 but in a location that may or may not fit that of the Klein establishment.  It also notes that Addicken died in a riding accident in 1875 and that the business was being carried on by his  daughter and "competent assistants"  In the brewing industry we find many examples of brew master's widows remarrying to carry on the enterprise, was this a similar situation?

In any case the Klein brewery quite likely goes back further than the first tax records in 1874 (when Addicken was still safely on his horse), and the illustrated view from one year later shows a well established business.

Alas for the fortunes of an Iowa brewer.* State wide Prohibition hindered the business the whole way and finally got Klein out of brewing altogether, probably in the late 1880s.  The building was later used as a creamery, this being a common metamorphosis in a state where milk enjoyed more official approval than lager. A mention of The Farmers Ice Cave Creamery in 1918 gives us a later business name.

Of the later uses for the Klein brewery cave we know nothing for many years.  Mechanical refrigeration made cold storage available in more convenient locations so I suspect it sat idle for many years.

But in the 1960s we find the cave being used by a marvelous character named Robert W. Daubendiek, or more familiarly as "Johnny Walnut Seed".

Born in 1918 Daubendiek's family was in the telephone business but also owned 60,000 acres of timber land in Mexico until it was confiscated by the government.  Trained in forestry he "retired" from the utility business in 1949, a few years after his military service in the Signal Corps.  He purchased some farm land in north eastern Iowa and began growing walnut trees. After a while he worked out a way to grow them on a large scale basis.  It worked something like this.  He hired kids to collect walnuts, something on the order of 5,000 bushels a year.  He planted them temporarily to get them to germinate.  The walnuts were then floated in water to separate out the viable from the dubious.  The latter were placed out as a huge squirrel offering so as to keep them away from the nursery plants!  That must have been a sight to see.  The seedlings were then planted in long trenches. The seedlings could grow to a certain size in this fashion but needed a climate controlled place to ride out the winter season.  The brewery cave in Dubuque was perfect for this, so beginning in 1960 he used to annually to store hundreds of thousands of young walnut trees.  In the spring they were hardy and ready to be sold.  Some went to nurseries, others to private growers.  Daubendiek had a crew of 11 men working to plant them every spring.

By the early 1970s he was something of an apostle of walnut cultivation, selling a million seedlings a year.  He claimed that this was more than the number sold by all other walnut nurseries in the world...combined.  He would even custom plant small acreages with walnuts, selling them later to investors as a combination hunting and recreation land that just happened to have a valuable timber crop growing.

Daubendiek died in 1975.  His tombstone reads: "Iowa's Johnny Walnut Seed. He who plants a tree plants hope."  He seems to have been a pretty good guy.  I find passing mention of him being severely wounded in France during the war.  And poiginantly his walnut growing plantation and summer home near Harpers Ferry Iowa was called Andy Mountain Camp after his only son, who died young.

Remarkably his widow, Mae, lived to the age of 96 and passed away only a few months ago. She was a former telephone operator - must have married the boss's son! - and has written a number of books including an account of her husband's work with black walnut trees.

*Times are sure better now.  In fact a very fine microbrewery Toppling Goliath is just up the road from the Klein Brewery ruins.  Alas, when on a road trip tippling is not an option but their products come very well recommended.  Joseph Klein smiles somewhere off in the malt scented Great Beyond.

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