Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Forgotten Brewery Caves - Lake Delton, Wisconsin.

Today a 19th century cave whose history is so forgotten that it is unclear if it actually was intended to be a beer storage cave.

Delton, to call it by its original name, was a community that blossomed in the 1860s, then went into a long decline.  Built near Dell Creek, a tributary of the Wisconsin River, it had the usual agricultural roots as well as an early manufacturing base.

I have seen both 1857 and 1860 cited as dates for the first dam across Dell Creek, creating a body of water first called LeBars Pond, later, and more poetically, Mirror Lake.  A lumber mill was established then a grist mill.

Near the mill was a man made cave.  The origins of this are obscure but whatever its original purpose it later became a saloon.

Long known as "The Grotto" it is shown here in what I think may have been its Prohibition phase. An enlarged view shows ads for cigars and for "Altpeter's Root Beer".  The Altpeter bottling company was in nearby Baraboo.

In later years the establishment was known as "The Dam Site Tavern" and was run by a certain "Bunny" Page.  It was a rather sketchy establishment lacking running water or rest rooms.  Sometimes the flimsy wooden front of the bar would fall down.  Patrons would just prop it back up and continue their fun.  It was closed down in 1966.

The site today:

The bridge going up and over the cave is South Burritt Avenue.  As I am standing Dell Creek is right behind me.  Water is still going over the dam at a good clip.  There is a nice parking spot that I assume is mostly used by fishermen.  None were on hand when I visited.  There are no nearby facilities so one can only imagine what patrons of "The Grotto" did to answer the call of nature.  I hope not too many of them fell into the creek.

I can't say I have ever visited a more colorful cave. An original feature of the excavation was this interesting curved bench.  It had a presumably later coat of plaster or cement put over the rock.  A similar floor can be seen in places.  I did not see any drainage channels.

In trying to figure out whether a cave was used for beer storage it is helpful to find vent holes.  Not an absolute but a good clue.  They pretty much mean that something temperature sensitive was stored there.  I did find this odd feature - which is being lit up by my flashlight - but it is narrower than any vent I have seen.  I think it was a chimney.

That would fit it in with this nearby feature which looks original.  The more recent charcoal notwithstanding I suspect this was a niche for a stove.

For a small cave it has a lot of graffiti.  Flags from Russia, Mexico, Kazakhstan!  I doubt this little town has that many foreign exchange students.  The nearby Wisconsin Dells is a major entertainment complex and hires seasonal workers from all over the world.

It is an enigma.  I don't buy the theory that it was built as a saloon.  It is sitting on a narrow ledge just above a creek.  The town was small in the 1860s and in any event was nearly a mile away.  If you are going to build a saloon you make it out of wood.  Wood is cheap.  In fact, if you own a sawmill, wood is effectively free.

The ledge looks more like what I have seen in hotel storage caves.  Perhaps there was a boarding house associated with the mill?  As to it being a brewery cave I must reluctantly say, probably not. Oh, it would be a good location for one.  A ready supply of ice and a nice bit of flat ground up above for a brewery.  It is too small for one thing. The furthest I might go is to say that perhaps somebody tried to build a beer storage cave but ran into or out of something.  Into a hard, unworkable layer of stone.  Or out of money to start a brewery.  I could imagine somebody taking a partially finished cave and adding a few features such as the stove niche at a date early enough that they look to be original.

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