Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Forgotten Brewery Caves - Cassville Wisconsin

This post is about the process of hunting down a brewery cave.  

You have to start somewhere.  Various lists have been compiled, mostly from tax records, that can tell you which towns large and small had breweries in the 19th century.  Old Breweries is an aptly named source and while a bit clunky to navigate does have good information.

Once you have a location that intrigues you a visit to your state historical society's web site will often yield more info.  In the case of Cassville Wisconsin it turned up this photo:

A nice early brewery set back into a bluff.  A little stream runs in front. I wonder what that shed by the bridge was for? A bit more research can roughly frame the dates.

Cassville Wisconsin is in an out of the way corner of the state, right on the Mississippi river down in the extreme southwest.  The brewery is known to have survived Prohibition, not going under until 1938.  The beginning of the enterprise is a little harder to nail down.  It should be early.  This is the Lead Mining region an area that boomed in the 1840s, dipped a bit in the 50's when many of the miners went off to the Gold Rush, then had a modest resurgence during the Civil War, when demand for lead obviously rose.  After 1865 this became a backwater and starting a new brewery would be unlikely.

The earliest reference I have found is in an 1881 county history. It relates that a William Schmitz came to Cassville in 1855.  He was in the hardware business for an unspecified length of time before building the brewery.  He sold it to a Hugo Grimm in 1880.

The earliest evidence on a map comes from an 1868 version found again in the online archives of the Wisconsin State Historical Society.

Sometimes, and this is the case here, you get a map with some perspective issues.  The brewery is near the corner of Bluff and Du Chien, on the "town side" of the creek that is not shown.  Ignore that big lake up above, the Cassville map is simply a little insert on the edge of a larger county map.

Sanborn maps are another valuable research tool.  They were put together by a fire insurance company and give great detail on 19th and early 20th century cities and towns.  Houses, barns, sheds, they are all shown in great detail.  Non flammable things like caves are hit and miss.  Usually a big manufacturing establishment such as a brewery would have its own detail drawing.  Such is the case with the Cassville brewery.  Oddly, the earlier versions don't show as much as the 1912 map.  Take a look:

My apologies, the screen cap came out quite blurry but does it show the buildings as seen in the roughly contemporary photo.  But what's that set of dotted lines going to the left and back into the hillside?  

This sounds rather odd.  "Fermenting Chips"?  It must be a typo for Caves. It makes perfect sense to have a 200 foot long cave going back into the rock face of the bluff.  And I'm guessing it had been there since the brewery was founded but just had not been included on the earlier Sanborn maps.  After all, they were mostly worried about flammable things and a tunnel going back into the hillside kinda isn't.

So, I was expecting to see brewery ruins and a sealed off tunnel entrance.  C'mon, lets have a look.

The little stream is called Furnace Branch.  There was once a smelting furnace nearby; you can see it on the 1868 map. The road is of course called Brewery Hollow Road.  The earlier brewery was on the right bank.  The later one sprawled out along the left bank.  A very new foundation can be seen in the foreground.

Of course there was, as expected, a modern cement cap laid into some older structures.  As I said, they tended to seal caves off in breweries that kept running long into the refrigeration era.

Down in one corner there was a little open niche.  Too small to have been made by and for foolish teenage vandals, I suspect that water erosion and/or critters made this hole.

Just big enough to reach in and snap a blind photo....

This is rather odd.  I had expected to be seeing the floor of the tunnel but instead the bottom of the modern slab is at about the roof level of what looks to be a mostly filled in tunnel.  But it clearly is the tunnel shown on the map and it has all the hall marks of a brewery cave.

Now I should not have to say this but will.  Don't mess with sites like this.  There is nothing to be learned by digging in.  Sure, the roof is probably pretty solid but this is exactly the kind of place where foolhardy visitors sometimes come to grief from bad air and other assorted hazards.  Be content with this safe photo.


jon spencer said...

Be a good spot for a camera toting robot.

Tim Wolter said...

I've actually designed one, but actual occasions to use one being rare, have not built it yet.