Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Forgotten Brewery Caves - Prairie du Chien Wisconsin

For a town in Wisconsin, or for that matter, anywhere in America, Prairie du Chien is pretty darned old.  The first French explorers arrived there in 1673, and a presence there of fur traders began almost immediately.  The place has a long history indeed, and was actually the site of a battle during the War of 1812.

Soldiers and beer going together so naturally there must have been small scale brewing there quite early, but beer manufacturing on a commercial scale did not materialize until the mid 19th century.

Records are sketchy but two brewing concerns began around 1850.  Georgii and Company and one run by a man named Schibb.  The former became more prominent.

The storage cave of the Georgii Brewery, later Georgii and Schuman pops up here and there in later newspaper accounts.  In 1934 I found a reference that suggested it was being used by a beer distributor who installed steel doors and was planning to store their inventory down there. It is mentioned that the cave was excavated in 1858 and that an early newspaper described it as being "big enough to float a packet".  (A packet was a small steam boat btw). It was said to be capable of storing 15 car loads of beer.  Presumably this would be rail cars full.

In 1942 the cave gets another brief mention.  Three brothers, Don, Elmer and Virgil White, had taken over the site and started an apiary.  20 bee hives were set up outside and the plan was to winter the bees over in the controlled climate of the cave.  The brothers "hope to harvest a crop of honey to alleviate the sugar shortage".  This of course was a significant consideration during the War Years.

Finally in 1949 we get an in depth look.  A company called Badger Wholesale took it over and used it for cold storage of fruits and vegetables.  Helpfully the article gave a good fix on its location, on the edge of town and running under Highway 27.  The cave was described as being 78 feet long, 18 feet wide and 18 feet tall.  A very blurry photo shows white wooden (?) doors, apparently in a structure built onto the cave face.  One of the owners of the company is standing at the entrance.  It seems as if he is on a step down.

Here is the site today, right where it had to be based on the description.

This cave is quite odd.  Note the steeply sloping roof.  It dives down to a dirt floor.  Clearly the cave has been filled in, but what was its original form?

I can certainly imagine steps going down into a deeper space, but the angle is so steep.  And wouldn't this make use as a later storage facility a real pain?  Yet this is certainly the location given for the cave and the poor quality newspaper photo has enough similarity that I don't question the call here.

Could the slanting roof be part of the later sealing up procedure?  I doubt it as the stone work looks old and that would seem a very peculiar way to go about such a task in  the 1950s.  Or perhaps later.

No, this cave dives deep.  The entrance is certainly smaller than the main cavern, but what you can see for an opening here is maybe five feet tall, with some of the doorway now below ground level. An 18 foot ceiling from a cave that went straight in would just be a big hole in Highway 27.

 I wonder if later users of the cave installed some kind of ramps or rails?

This cave is on the north side of the road.  On the south side and a little closer to town I was surprised to find this: 

Another cave, with the brick work much newer than the stone.  Given the location, running into a cliff face and just outside the city limits, it is probably another brewery cave.  Perhaps from the Schibb brewery?   Records on the early breweries of Prairie du Chien have to date proven maddeningly incomplete!

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