Monday, January 31, 2022

FIRST Robotics Report 4.1 - Half Way To Somewhere

In the admittedly unusual world of FIRST robotics there are different sorts of teams.  Some have been around a long time, have a hundred student members, a couple of dozen engineers as coaches and enough money to go to multiple tournaments in places where it involves air travel.  We've run across teams from Hawaii, China, Norway....

There are also teams that are new, or have fallen on hard times, or just come from a poor community.  A handful of students, a couple of adult coaches, a bare bones robot because they can't afford more.  

This situation mirrors the real world in which there are Haves and Have Nots.  In FIRST the vocabulary is a bit more genteel, the term being Low Resource Team.  So, is that what we are?

Depends on how you view things.  We have at the moment "sufficient" funds.  We could almost stretch it to a two tournament campaign if we were ready in other ways.  With 25 current students and a decidedly young demographic we expect to grow to around 30, which is an average team size.  One thing holding us back is availability of coaches.  Often parents of team members, they understandably step back in most cases when their kid graduates.  We are at present running with roughly 8 who are there often enough for a degree of continuity.  Most of them know their stuff better than I do.

At the half way mark of build season we started the long Saturday session with a drive base, an elevator that worked better after its third rebuild, a promising "trolley" with a pneumatic kicker...and a number of systems that upon attempted construction turned out to not quite fit.  So....lets get things done.  Please!

Well, we have some bumper numbers on!  Fussy work done properly.

Here is the work board at the start of the Saturday session.

Taking things in order.

Electronics board came off pronto.  It is always easier to dismantle than to build.  We transferred the elevator to the competition frame.  And it is a good thing we made this move early as there was an unexpected space conflict.  This throws everything out the window.  Our intake system was totally scrapped, again, and we are going with something even simpler. 

Once we have the ball it goes here.

It rides up the elevator and is "spanked" out by a powerful little pneumatic cylinder.

The pit structure got mostly built but I did not get any pictures.  The climbing frame, a fairly impressive bit of fold up structure, here has the robot sitting inside ready to test the pneumatics.  The pneumatics will be ready in a few days.

So it goes at the half way mark of build season.  Our weight is at 80 pounds, well short of the 125 maximum.  Our complicated climber is "getting there".  The unexpected need to shift the entire elevator system forward a half inch has radically changed the intake mechanism and front of the robot, but the ideas and materials are sufficient to do something that should work.  We hope to have a full week in late February to actually practice driving the beast.

Musing on the things I opened with I'd say we actually are not a Low Resource team.  We have Reserves we can draw on.  Last week we had a soon to retire Engineering Director stop by to advise on elevator matters.  He'll bring us some tools and parts next week and seems susceptible to possible recruitment in the future.  We have a very supportive parent network.  We've gotten better coordination with the school of late. My son who got me starting in robotics decades ago and therefore is responsible for all of this has pitched in.  

We will at deadline have a robot that runs.  Given the limitations we are working with - this is after all a rebuild season and we are settling in to our new home - it won't be a marvel of technology but I can honestly say it is what we can build with what we have.

This is a great bunch of students.  Several have stepped up and provided the best team leadership we've ever had.  Our various glitches and sideways moves are teaching the students a lot.  I'm usually able to "see" a final robot, and with a bunch more work and, with much more suffering on my part, we will have one running a month from now.  Seeing how the students turn out is not as easy.  People are more complicated than robots.  But I see some of them destined for great things and all of them benefitting in ways large and small.  

As FIRST says, we are building more than robots.  By that standard we are doing well.

Friday, January 28, 2022

FIRST Robotics Report 3.2 - A Good Run

The usual pattern during build season is one good session alternating with a less good one.  In this critical week three can we string together a batch of good ones?

Monday was good.  Smaller crew on hand again, it was an "in service day" so no school and the kids had to make a special trip in.  But we continue to make critical frame elements, to adapt designs as necessary, and the team came up with a very clever solution to getting the "game ball" to fly those few extra inches it needs to involves a small pneumatic cylinder "kicking" it when it is lined up.  Roughly 6 pounds of force delivered briskly and pushing the ball 3 inches straight forward should suffice.

Software did have an off night.  Something "crashed" and took a bunch of data down with it.

Starting to ponder one of the bigger decisions of mid build....when do you move the mechanisms onto the competition frame?  It is necessary but takes the robot out of the hands of the programmers for several sessions.  And from that point onward you must share.

Tuesday.  Well, lets do this one in pictures.

It is starting to show what it will look like in final form.  Here the front of the "elevator" is being roughed in.  That older gent in the picture is one of the two Grandpas volunteering to help the team.  He's working shoulder to shoulder with his grandson.

3D printers can be useful.  Need a spool for your winch?  Design and print.

Up til now the robots have been living in a display case.  It has been a tight fit.  Tuesday we got the OK to park them in a seldom used conference room between build sessions.  That is the software test robot on the right, the competition drive base in the middle, and the "skeleton" frame with mechanisms in the back.

Oh and regards weight.  Given the gravity of the question I was not willing to accept the happy number that our scale gave us a few days before.  I brought in a second scale, as it happens the seldom used one from our bathroom.  Piling up known weights (robot batteries at 12 pounds each) we compared the two scales.  There was a difference....with the bathroom scale weighing light.

I told the kids that it was my job to teach them about the ways of the world.  One such harsh reality is that any maker of bathroom scales that ever, EVER, had one weigh heavy would be out of business in short order.  So we believe the heavier, but still on track for our goal number.

Naturally we'll check again as final decisions are made.

Thursday.  Well all streaks end and this was an off night.  When we went to assemble the combined elevator/intake system we discovered that some things did not fit.  Sigh.  Another redesign of the intake and another (partial) dismantle of the elevator.  

At competition I'm sure the judges will ask about all those extra holes.  I guess there are a few possible answers.  Ummmm....we had to trim weight?  Or the better and truer one.  We had things to learn.

Wednesday, January 26, 2022


To be clear, posts about word origins are just me being curious.  Don't infer anything about current mood.  Especially as I often work considerably in advance of deadline.

I am not for instance disgruntled today.  The definition of the word means "thrown into a state of sulky disaffection".

Most words that start with the prefix "dis-" reverse the meaning of what follows.  Nobody would be confused about the meaning of disenchanted, disabled, disuse and so forth.  In some cases there has been a bit of contraction going on.  Discord for instance means you are no longer harmonious, or "in accord".

But in one odd case "dis-" seems to have the opposite effect....making something not opposite but more so.

Consider the word disgruntled.  

"Dis" is from Latin albeit with murky earlier roots.  It generally means some variation of "lack of, opposite from, apart from".  Gruntle is a variation of grunt, a word still used today although it also is Latin in its origins as "grunnire".  We've run across that name fairly recently as the scientific name of the freshwater drum, sometimes known as "Grunter" for the peculiar noise they make when grasped by fishermen.

I've scoured my own vocabulary and consulted lists but have to date not found any other use of the prefix "dis-" to indicate emphasis rather than opposite.  Certainly we think of a disgruntled person as being quite unhappy.

But ah, words are like fish.  Such slippery critters and you can't always see just what they are up to.  I have on occasion found myself in company that is not, shall we say, scintillating in their conversation.  We tend to think of grunts and the possibly related word grumble as meaning a person is unhappy.  But in these less eloquent circles maybe a grunt can mean acknowledgment or agreement instead of crankiness.  If a grunt means, sort of, yes then a "disgrunt" would be the equivalent of disagree or disapprove.  Disgruntled as a synonym for disapproving is not quite the modern context but you can get there from here.

Monday, January 24, 2022

FIRST Robotics Report - 3.1 Atoms and Systems*

So I had a birthday recently.  One of my grandkids drew this picture:

That's me on the left.  Boy, that's spot on.  And the squiggly, untidy object on the right?  I'm told that is a robot.  Will it turn out to be equally accurate?

If you were so inclined there are lots of things on the internet you could look at to see how other FIRST robotics teams are doing.  I try not to do so.  The teams that put stuff out there are the best organized, funded, supported ones.  Everyone who is struggling or doing sort of OK but has no energy available for more than finishing the darn robot is not putting up videos and glowing reports.  So you get discouraged and right quick if you pay attention to such material.

Monday robot posts essentially reflect just what we got done on Saturday.  It is a longer session and one where the kids show up rested.  

We now have all the parts we expect to need, and can throw them onto the scale.  That goal of staying under 120 is important.  There are plenty of unknowns and our allowance for extra structural strengthening elements is probably light, but this pile is most of what goes into the final machine. 

The weight tote board for 22 January shows 77 pounds.  That is so good I'm going to want to double check with another scale.  Keep in mind that we have to lift this beast with pneumatics.

Presently it exists in various subsystems.  The intake system is dismantled at the moment.  In testing we reprised a trick from earlier robots.  This little figure 8 of surgical tubing radically improves the grabbing ability of the rollers and makes minor issues like ball under inflation less of a problem.

An elevator is not exactly the ideal solution for this problem.  It is a system that made properly can lift a whole lot more than the giant tennis ball it has to handle in our design.  But we had the kit, we had limited time, and it is a very good learning experience.  There are some tight tolerances here and essentially the whole thing had to be built, dismantled and built again.  It now works pretty well, but we have improvements in mind for it.

We have had the drive base together for about a week.  Today was the first time software had the controls all active.  They are also teaching it to "hunt" those tennis balls in autonomous mode.  This is pretty important, the last robot we built had such a touchy drive system that practice opportunities were limited.  Now we drive every session.

The drive base is one half of the robot.  The other half, the manipulators, are being assembled on what we call "the skeleton", a bare partial drive frame of the same dimensions.  It lets software, drivers in training and the mechanical team all more or less have something to work on with minimal interruption.  Green taped parts are, we hope, final components.  In a week or so we will begin to unite the yin and yang of this robot, but we have numerous mechanical systems to tweak and more structure to add on in the week ahead.  Oh, and one important mechanism that is in the "we'll figure something out" category.

So at the moment we are doing "OK".  At worst - thinking epidemic + blizzard scenario - we should have something that can pick up a ball, do the lower end game "monkey bar" and not fall apart.  In previous seasons we've been in better shape with about a month to go.  We've been in worse shape too.
* title post is a tip of the hat to Alexander Pope.  Not sure where that came from.

Friday, January 21, 2022

FIRST Robotics Report 2.2 - Limping Forward

The  good news is that we are still able to meet.  The less good is that we constantly have key student and adult members out for assorted health reasons, and that the improvised work space we are dealing with is making it hard to progress.  So we had a sit down meeting with the big CAD projector and decided to Simplify.  A less complex machine that we have time to program and drive will do better than something nice and tricksy that never quite works.  We've been down that road before.....

The new design should be quicker to build, easier to repair and far more satisfying.  And this was done through actual Engineering, with the various build sub teams and a software rep all sitting down to look at the CAD and make suggestions.

Although we are still not to a full design in CAD then build status we are part way there.  The drive base and major components are being fitted together.  This helps us figure out where structural support and assorted mountings need to go.

Back in the real world we struggle with measurements off by just a smidge here and there.  I'm way over on the "let the kids do it" side of things, but while this is the better path it is not ideal.

Pretty simple elevator device, but it is giving the kids fits getting it to run smoothly.

Well, this is pretty cool, a power rivet gun.  Helps when they end up having to redo things.

The numbers are starting to work against us.  We are approaching the 1/3 mark of the build season and so far progress has been slow.  The other number we watch closely is weight.  We have a limit.  So...everything that goes into the robot goes onto the scale.

We are at 64 pounds with a reasonable estimate of what we'll need for additional structure.  That sounds OK until you consider we still have 12 pounds of pneumatic cylinders to add.  And there are always those little things that add up.  Wire is heavy.  Nuts and bolts are not light.  I figure to make this thing lift we have to keep it under 120, with 115 being better.  

Well, we limp along.  Historically our weekend meetings have been pretty productive, perhaps we will get caught up again.  

Our mantra in this rebuilding year is:  Make it Hard to Break, Easy to repair and with Parts we Have.  

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Covid 2022 - A Look at the Stats while we still can.

Stuff you read on the internet should always be checked, especially things that seem remarkable.  So when I heard that hospitals would no longer be required to report Covid 19 deaths I was pretty skeptical.  But I did find the source, a very dense document from January 9th of this year advising hospitals that as of February 2nd the Department of Health and Human Services would no longer be requiring them to report Previous Day's Deaths from Covid 19.  

There are several possible interpretations of this.  On the one hand it is pretty clear that deaths "from" and "with" Covid have been so blended together that the statistic is not that helpful.  Or if you are of a more cynical point of view the acknowledgment that Covid has not been eradicated is "not that helpful" to the political fortunes of the current beleaguered Administration.  Of course we will still get daily rations of Scary News regards record "cases" and increases in subcategories such as pediatric cases.

Soon we'll be consuming a steady diet of frightening anecdotes. So, while we still have the numbers lets have a look at incidence and fatality.  In most northern states the omicron variant has resulted in record numbers of cases, most of whom - allowing for a whole lot more testing - are younger than in prior waves and are not getting particularly ill.  Deaths are also up but far from earlier peaks.  The demographics of fatalities in places that actually report useful data are worth a look.  Here's my home state of Minnesota.  It's a bit hard to make out, but all those lines near the bottom indicate a very low death rate in people under 60.  Under 20 does not even register.

Digging deeper into their stats you find that the average "case" is 36 years old, the average ICU hospitalized patient is 63 and the average age of those dying from Covid is 80.  That stat caught my eye.  To have an average age of 80 there must be some real oldsters in the sample set.  Indeed, deaths were recorded in patients ranging from age 1 to age 109.  As an aside I can say that other information mined from the Minnesota data indicates that virtually all recent deaths under 30 have significant co-morbid conditions or are just fanciful.  Several were fentanyl overdoses with an incidental positive Covid test noted.

Northern states are always disease ridden in the Winter months.  That's why people move to, oh I don't know, Florida maybe?  And Florida might, hopefully, be showing us the future.  There have been some bad stretches down in the Sunshine State.  All of them gleefully reported.  But through some combination of weather, prior disease, immunization and who knows what else, Florida has massive numbers of positive tests and, well, have a look.

Cases:  Averaging 61,500 a day.  Pretty bad....

And deaths.  While acknowledging that each death is tragic to the families involved, a rolling seven day average of 9 deaths a day suggests to me that barring some new, horrid variant, Covid is nearly over.  I don't have age breakdown for Florida cases by week, but their overall stats since the beginning of this horror mirror those of Minnesota closely.

Sorry to bring up a subject that everyone is tired of and that makes a lot of people uncomfortable.  But if even imperfect statistics are soon going to be discarded, 'cause Science or something, this is our last chance to see beyond the Scary News.


Monday, January 17, 2022

FIRST Robotics Report 2.1 - Bounce Back

An apt title as this year's game features balls that are very bouncy.  Watching robots crash into things and each other trying to corral them should be quite entertaining.

We have long sessions on Saturdays and on days when there is no school due to in services and other non educational stuff.  Historically we get about half our work for the week done at these.  The kids are not tired from a long day, we get more of our adult helpers able to show up, etc.

Kickoff does not count, so this was our first Saturday.

Every session starts with a work board and a toes to the robot meeting.

Drive train and frame are done.  Software is dropping a temporary control board on it.  We would have been driving had we not had the great wifi outage on Thursday.  Note that the wooden part of the bumpers are already complete.  This is something that really struggling teams end up doing Late and Badly.

Another thing we don't have in our new home is a reliable scale.  With a 125 pound weight limit you have to watch everything.  I always ask at this point....think we'll have trouble staying under 125?  They always say no.  And they are always wrong!

We have a workable intake system in mock up stage but it is a bit ugly.  Here's a nice, idealized CAD design instead!

Although I am admittedly, not competent to actually supervise the building of a high tech robot I  retain some value as Archive of Ancient Wisdom.  Here our test bed robot, which as you can see has been crashed and damaged again, is having a few holes drilled out to mount mechanism prototypes.  This one already has the electronics on it.  A bit of Ancient Wisdom here:  Cover your electronics when drilling metal.  A teensy shard in the wrong spot can lead to "Fry and Die" of some expensive gadget.

It was a long session.  No radical breakthroughs but one needed design change and steady progress on all fronts.  The kids were lagging after 5 hours of this so we had an impromptu "Drive Around".  Everyone got the controls for a few minutes and we pushed things around the shop area, did the "Robot Spin" to send the bouncy balls flying, etc.  Some of the software and Media/PR staff were particularly entertaining.  I was not asked to drive which is probably good for humans and robots generally.

Friday, January 14, 2022

FIRST Robotics Report 1.2 - Viribus in Adversis

At meal time on Tuesday one of the kids said I looked stressed.  Plausible, there's a lot of things to keep track of and the clock is ticking.  But I handle stress fairly well.  Boredom not well at all.  I won't be bored during Build Season.

With a final roster of 25 we are averaging 18 per session.  I think this is going to be how it is.  There are always kids who need a break to study for a test, there are a few with recurring job conflicts, and we will always have a few out sick.  Adversity will give us Strength.  When the two kids who know CAD design are gone two more for whom it is not their main job step to whiteboard and keyboard.  Will the climber geometry work?  Despite the various attempts to make math "new" or "equitable" Euclid never compromises.

More on the great Monkey Bar Swinger as it evolves.  The rest of the game centers on these things:

Note the hand in the picture for scale.  This is a giant tennis ball, the sort you'd throw for Clifford the Big Red Dog.  Interestingly software had, at the three day mark, already trained our test bed machine to recognize the color and distance, and start to follow it.  I exist for comic relief mostly, perhaps I'll suggest this be called Clifford Mode.

We have a little group of kids whose main efforts have been prototyping mechanisms.  They like to sit on the floor while working.  On the one hand they have yet to produce what I'd call a Version 1.0 of either the necessary intake or conveyor for these things.  On the other hand, they have found assorted things in our inventory that work for these tasks and this shows that it Can be Done.

Yep, these work.  I sometimes tweak color in my photos to compensate for the lurid overhead lights.  Here I had to dial it down to avoid retinal damage.

These on the other hand did not work at all.

I see a gap between playing with gizmos and having something in a state that we can call a first draft.  But then I remind myself that this is a very young team.  Most of the kids working on mechanisms are 8th graders.  What were you and I doing in 8th grade?

All else being equal the two biggest things you can accomplish early that help later are closely related.  Get a robust drive train done and test the bejeebs out of it.  And driving practice, practice, practice.  Those Clifford Orbs are very bouncy which is bad for grabbing them but helpful when playing defense.  Here's the base of the competition machine as we approach the end of Week One (of Six).

It was a week of ups and downs.  3D printers were not working so we can't make parts and can't take our designs forward.  The school wifi was not working so software could not update programs.  The relatively easy stuff like building the drive base is nearly done, but it has not been smooth.  Five weeks to go.  

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Extremely Unctuous

Sometimes when I start comparing two words and wondering about an etymological connection I don't actually need to hear either of them.  In this case I was simply looking at a picture of the White House Press Secretary.

I would not want this job.  You have to stand up in front of a bunch of reporters and, well, shade the truth to make your boss look good.  In a Republican administration most of the press corps will be your antagonists.  Challenging but straightforward.  In the current administration you expect them to be your friends and when the relationship is not one of happy, mutual back scratchery things devolve quickly to Mean Girl Middle School levels.  Hey, its the job and it ain't no easy one.    

You can't really do it unless you are a bit unctuous.  The primary meaning of this is "excessive flattery", but a secondary meaning is oily as in slippery and evasive.

The counter phrase that got me thinking was the Roman Catholic ceremony of Extreme Unction, the last minute confession and absolution in which one assumes a very high degree of candor would be in order.  A Press Sec given to same would have a short career.  So how do these disparate concepts link together?

Back we go to Latin where "unctus" was the act of anointing, such as in a coronation.  This was done with fancy, expensive oils.  Elected officials and their lackeys often feel as if they are the anointed ones of the modern age.  From there it is just a couple of linguistic hops and skips to a new definition as "oily" or "greasy".  The Catholic church preserves much of the Latin world for us and Extreme Unction is a call back to the ceremonial anointing.  It is actually supposed to be done on a non-emergent basis in which case a special oleum infirmum or "oil of the sick" is employed.  This is only one of the elements of what is referred to as Last Rites, and to discourage its use as literally a last gasp measure it was rebranded in 1972 as Anointing of the Sick.

There. It's never a good day unless you learn something new.  And your odds of that are greater at Detritus of Empire than at your average White House Press Conference.

Monday, January 10, 2022

FIRST Robotics Report 1.1 - Monkey Bars

Special robotics team meeting on Saturday.  And not just because we had to coexist with a couple of hundred middle school girls basketball players milling about.  I put up a sign at the door to help people steer to the proper location:

The day was significant because it was the world wide announcement of the FIRST "game" for the year.  Oddly it involves something rather like basketballs.  Here, take a look.

Hmmm.  I have to confess the Mock Challenge I made up for the team last month did not look much like this.  In fact, this year's game has a considerable resemblance to the 2020 game.  This is probably intentional.  Only about half the teams got to "play" in 2020 and nobody could in 2021.  This looks like way to help teams utilize some of the time and effort that went to waste as Covid descended on the land.   

Watching the reveal in our Build HQ.  We had a quick lunch then broke the team up into three groups each tasked with evaluating the scoring events for priority level then moving on to what drive train and manipulators might be needed.  This part went faster than expected.

One thing we have taken to doing in this situation is trying to establish a team consensus....then convening The Council of Heretics.  Pick, or get volunteers, the four most contrary kids on the team.  Kids who come up with goofy ideas that are 90% nonsense (and 10% gold). The Heretics met and were supposed to come back and tell us how we were Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!  But instead they admitted that our basic approach seemed valid.

We went home tired but ready to ponder the question further until Monday night session.  Then it will likely be full speed ahead on building the beast.  A robot that can shoot basketballs and swing from bar to bar like a monkey.  Well that should be fun.

Special thanks to The Heretics.  We need them around to keep us from getting complacent.

Saturday, January 8, 2022

Robot versus Robot

Special Saturday post.

Today we find out the nature of this year's FIRST robotics "game".  What combination of driving, grabbing, launching, lifting, climbing will be required?

So this will be a long day of studying the reveal video and associated rules set.  And to decide between the various options for the most basic of components, the drive train.

We have existing test beds for a standard six wheel tank steer and for a fancy four wheeled omnidirectional swerve drive.  On Thursday we had drive practice and let the kids mix it up a bit.  Hey, they have to be ready to play defense or to be defended against....

Mission accomplished, they did bend one of the box intake arms.  Of course this is just an opportunity for the future pit crews to fix things, for the prototypers to ponder making the arm stronger, and for the drivers to get better.

Friday, January 7, 2022

Robot Winter Begins

Here we go.  At the end of a week that has seen snow, sub zero temps and all sorts of pessimistic Covid news we launch the 2022 FIRST Robotics build season.  Tomorrow we'll get the team together, watch the big reveal video, and like thousands of other teams around the planet finally know exactly what sort of devilishly complicated machine we will have to build in the weeks ahead.  And not very many weeks.  The team opted to go for the earliest possible competition date, so realistically we have five weeks to make it all happen then one week to fine tune.  The reasons for their majestic and hopefully not foolish confidence are I suspect varied.  There is a case to be made for getting this "done and dusted" in time to enjoy a nice spring of goofing around in decent weather.  The team chemistry seems good, and they think they can actually pull it off.  Everyone else attending this tournament will have the same logistical challenges, and as a team that has generally had their act together we'll be relatively stronger than had we waited another month and seen what can be done on a schedule not actually set by lunatics.

And of course some of the kids have known me for 6 or 7 years.  They have come to enjoy seeing me suffer.

Well I'm an old hand by now.  This is just taking the organizing challenge of Machines Behaving Badly over the past 20 years and dialing it up to 11.  I enjoy this stuff.

In theory we have about 30 build sessions.  We will lose some to bad weather.  People will get sick with run of the mill winter crud and other stuff that involves quarantine.  A few will have to take a little time out of the schedule to keep their grades up.  That's all baked into the master plan.  

Of course there is also the disaster scenario.  What If in the critical early phase of build season we had to go virtual for a week or two?  This is happening in various locations including per yesterday's news, Chicago.  Hmmm....I guess I reactivate my Zoom account, we hold long virtual design sessions, I shuttle various parts off to individual households so that gearboxes, intake mechanisms, wiring can be worked on by bored kids......

Hey, that actually sounds like fun!


Thanks.  I needed that.

Not everyone finds robotics posts interesting.  Apologies in advance, I expect it to be about 2/3 of my material over the next couple of months.  It's just that I won't have time for much else.  

Standing on the brink of madness and grinning widely.


Wednesday, January 5, 2022

A Forgotten Wine Cave?

Last spring, on a bright early spring day across the river from Prairie du Sac Wisconsin I stopped in for a visit to a place that really does not fit the Forgotten Brewery cave template well at all.  I mean, it is a cave.  But its history has been well preserved.  And it appears to have been used primarily for wine production.  Welcome to the Wollersheim Winery.

The cave is on the grounds of the winery and evidently it is a place you can just stroll into when Covid restrictions are not in force.  Or you can take a tour of the entire estate and visit the cave that way.  I suspect there'd be a glass or two of wine involved.  I think it is also available as a private rental in less constrained times.

I had to content myself with outside pictures on this occasion, but there are plenty of inside photos around.

There is an outer portion dug into the hillside in the classic tunnel and arched roof fashion.

This leads back to a smaller cave cut directly into the bedrock.  Assorted winery memorabilia is parked here as d├ęcor.

The history of the cave is said to be as follows. 

The vineyard was established in the 1840's - pretty darn early for anything in Wisconsin - by a Hungarian nobleman named Agoston Haraszthy.  Agoston was a restless soul and lit out for the California gold fields in '49.  The establishment was taken over by a German immigrant named Peter Kehl.  A couple of generations made wine and brandy on the site until the turn of the 20th century.  When Prohibition came along in 1919 the last of the stock was sold off and the barrels mostly burned for firewood.

In 1972 a couple named Wollersheim purchased the property from Kehl's great grandson and with considerable effort put it back into operation as a winery.  

The existing stone buildings were built in stages by the Kehl family from the late 1850s into the post Civil war era.  Dates for the cave are a bit harder to nail down.  Supposedly Haraszthy dug some of it before he went west.  More definitively the Kehl family lived in an expanded section they excavated circa 1850 while their house was being constructed.  The cave was reopened to considerable fanfare in 2013.

I know of no other historic wine caves in my part of the world.  Given the specific conditions needed to grow decent grapes, the long term investment needed to do so, and the preponderance of thirsty Germans in the market place it is not a venture that many would attempt.  If I get around to a visit that involves passing the locked gate it would be interesting to see how it differs from a classic brewery cave.  Wine benefits from constant temperatures and I think I am seeing a couple of vents that would help with that.  But it should not need ice, so drainage channels and elaborate ante chambers to keep things cold  are probably not necessary.   

Monday, January 3, 2022

Exploring a flooded Brewery Cave. Safely even.

I've gotten to know some interesting people over the years.  One of them, Gabe, has similar interests in history, caves, gadgets.  Here's some of his recent work exploring the North Star Brewery Cave in Saint Paul with a home made underwater ROV!  

Some good stuff there.  I will say that looking over Youtube there are other videos of people exploring brewery caves.  Almost all of them are feature people taking legal and bodily risks that I do not endorse.  Gabe has it right.