Beer cellars lie under Janesville hillside

Robert Bier, an amateur historian and Janesville native, gives a tour of two beer cellars he discovered under the ground near the Janesville Ice Arena. It's the site of several breweries that were built on the site, going back to 1856.

JANESVILLE — City workers recently sealed holes leading to old beer cellars along Beloit Avenue in Janesville, but a history fan hopes to reopen one of them someday.

Janesville native and amateur beer historian Rob Bier gave the Gazette a tour of two dank, dirty cellars.

The city work included filling one cellar with concrete to protect a fiber-optic cable that runs through it, but one cellar still lies hidden in the ground.

The two arched vaults, 30 feet long and 15 feet wide, maintained a temperature of 55 degrees year-round, making them a good place to store barrels of beer in pre-refrigeration days, Bier said.

Bier, with the help and guidance of former city parks director Tom Presny and former leisure services director Mike Williams, had opened a narrow hole into one of the cellars, and they found a second cellar connected to it.

The floors in both cellars sloped because of sandy soil that had been poured or eroded into the spaces over more than a century.

Bier and his helpers found whiskey bottles, the remains of a kerosene tin and a Big Mac container, clues they think point to kids hanging out in the cellars with kerosene lamps in the 1970s.

They dug down to the floor and measured the height of the ceiling at 9 feet, 2 inches. Bits of wood suggest racks used to store barrels.

Water dripped into the cellars, and a ceiling in the second cellar was buckling.

“It’s really not safe at all,” Bier said.

On the hunt

Bier, who now lives in Maryland, has dedicated himself in recent years to uncovering his hometown’s brewing history. He can rattle off facts and stories he has gathered from old newspapers, land records and interviews with relatives of the old brewmasters.

He shares what he knows on the Janesville Breweries Facebook page.

Bier has cataloged 16 former Janesville breweries and two major sites — the north-side site where ruins are still visible near the Kiwanis Trail and Mercyhealth Hospital and Trauma Center, and the south-side site — where the cellars are located.

The south-side site once adjoined Buob’s Pond, one of the city’s beer gardens. The pond area later became Electric Park, Janesville’s first park with electric lighting.

The pond and park — located where the National Guard armory sit — are long gone, as are the breweries.

A long history

Bier figures the cellars were sealed off by 1917, but the brewery building — at one point used as a mechanic’s shop — stood until the city bought the land and demolished it in 1952.

The only above-ground remnant of the south-side site is the building that houses Globe Sheet Metal Works, just across Beloit Avenue from the hillside where the cellars have been hidden for decades.

The surviving building was a bottling plant. Federal law once required bottling facilities to be separate from breweries, which made it easier for tax inspectors to keep track of the beer. Brewers in those days were likely to evade taxes if they could, Bier said.

Bier said the bottling plant produced 30,000 bottles a day in the 1880s, filling beer bellies in Wisconsin, Illinois and likely Iowa and Minnesota, as well.

Cellars became obsolete as refrigeration took over in the early 1900s, so they were either blocked off or used for storage, Bier said.

Bier knows of one other cellar nearby and suspects there are more.

He hopes to raise money to restore this and the north-side site. He sees potential for historic brewery tours.

Thanks for city

At the north-side site, ground-penetrating radar has shown evidence of two much larger beer cellars, he said.

An 1873 story in the Gazette describes the north-side cellars under the brewery along the Rock River as cut into the sandstone, extending 250 feet, “running westward and southward.”

Bier complimented city officials for cooperating with his investigations. He said whatever preservation effort comes about, he wants to “do it right.”

“I’d like to find a way to preserve these,” he said, “because once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

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