Time Machine

Iowa's beer caves were home to the state's first breweries

They once provided Iowa brewers a cool place to store and age beer

The $1.4 million Fish and Wildlife Visitors Center on Highway 18, between McGregor and Marquette, is shown in July 1986 when it opened on the site that once held the Hagensick Brewery. The four caves on the property, where Hagensick once stored and aged beer, were blocked, although the stone arches forming the cave entrances were still visible. (Gazette archives)
The $1.4 million Fish and Wildlife Visitors Center on Highway 18, between McGregor and Marquette, is shown in July 1986 when it opened on the site that once held the Hagensick Brewery. The four caves on the property, where Hagensick once stored and aged beer, were blocked, although the stone arches forming the cave entrances were still visible. (Gazette archives)
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Craft brewers and microbreweries have been trending for the past decade, but small breweries have been around for more than a century in Iowa.

Wherever German immigrants settled, a brewery usually followed, and northeast Iowa was a popular destination.

McGregor had two independent breweries — Michael Burnatz opened one in 1857 and John L. Hagensick opened one in 1865. Both produced 1,000 barrels of lager a day with an alcohol content of 7 percent to 8 percent. Kegs were stored and aged in the caves cut into the hard, white sand cliffs in and near McGregor.

As the sand was excavated, by hand, it was shipped to St. Louis to make glass.

Two years later, Michael Klein and John Van Staden bought Burnatz’s West McGregor Brewery, supplying local taverns, including the White Springs right next door. The pair ran the brewery for 20 years, when Klein became the sole owner.

The brewery closed, probably in the 1880s when Iowa banned alcohol sales.

In 1936, Archie Fritz bought the property and began building a tavern and dance hall on part of the brewery foundation next to the cliff caves. He strung lights in the caves and named the tavern White Springs, the same name used 77 years earlier..

In 1949, Ethel Mann took over the White Springs Supper Club, running it until she died in 2004. She cut back on public dances and focused on the restaurant. The building still stands, vacant and for sale, next to the home where brewmaster Michael Klein once lived.

Prohibition

Excavation of the caves for Hagensick’s McGregor Brewery began in 1865 between McGregor and Marquette.

Hagensick, born in Bavaria in 1831, built a three-story brick building next to a McGregor bluff. He dug an immense cellar beneath the bluff, accessed by arched tunnels, for storage of his brewery’s beer. It was one of the largest and best known beer caves in Iowa.

In 1881, 4,313 dealers held beer licenses in Iowa.

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In 1882, Hagensick began selling customers cases of bottled beer. That also was the year Iowa lawmakers passed a Prohibition law that said only pharmacists could sell alcohol for “medicinal purposes.”

Hagensick tried to continue selling his product as “malt and hop extract.” He was arrested in July 1884, a story that was national news. His case was settled when he paid court costs and agreed not to produce any more beer.

He shut down the brewery, scrubbing the vats and stacking the surplus kegs in neat rows.

The building sat empty until Fred G. Bell & Co. opened a feed and grain business in the old brewery in September 1927. When it was torn down three years later, the rows of kegs were still there.

By 1933, both the Hagensick and Burnatz/Klein breweries had been demolished, and the caves closed off.

Government Offices

In 1936, the Soil Conservation Service decided the Hagensick brewery caves were ideal for storage.

“The cold, even temperature of the cave makes it ideal for keeping seedlings through the winter,” H.F. Eisele of the McGregor office said.

Willow, black locust, ash, black walnut, burr and white oak, grape, mulberry and some elms were stored in the beer cave.

During World War II, McGregor residents suggested the caves could be used as bomb shelters, should the enemy ever bomb Iowa.

After the war, nothing remained of the Hagensick brewery on the north edge of McGregor on Highway 18 but crumbling walls and the sand caves.

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In 1986, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service built a small office and a self-serve Mississippi River information center on the property. Two cave entrances were behind the building but were sealed off for safety reasons. One of the caves was partially reopened in 1986 and fitted with steel bars to allow bats access to the caves.

The office closed in 2016 and moved across the river to Prairie du Chien, Wis., though the sealed-off beer caves remain.

How they once made beer

John Snyder of McGregor was 80 years old in 1933 when he told The Gazette how cave-refrigerated lager beer was made at the Klein and Hagensick breweries, where he’d worked as a young man.

“It was lager beer — 7 and 8 percent alcohol,” he said. “All beer was lager in those days. It had to be to keep.

“It was all made in the winter. Breweries didn’t run much in the summer. Most every town in this part of Iowa had a brewery. The beer wagons went around every day delivering to customers in town. They had a slanted trough on each side to hold the kegs.

“Breweries had to be kept very clean. If a speck of dirt got into the mash tub or kettle, the beer wouldn’t ferment. The men who cleaned and scrubbed the tubs wore wooden shoes.

“We had no machinery. Everything had to be done by hand. It was a long, slow business, and greatest care had to be taken.

“First thing, the barley — only the best was used — was put in the steep tubs with water and let stand 24 hours. The water was run off and the barley spread on the floor to sprout. It was turned every day.

“When it sprouted about an inch, we put it over fires to dry, then ran it through a fanning mill, and after that through a roller to crack it.

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“This malt then was turned to mash by a succession of soakings, boiling it over open fires and pounding it with wooden paddles. Yeast was added, and fermentation started.

“While fermentation was going on, there was the settling and skimming to be done. This we kept up until the beer was clear as water.

“Before it was run into the big casks, maple and basswood shavings were laid in the bottoms to catch any dirt which might have collected. After about six months had passed, the beer was considered aged enough to use. It was then ‘racked’ from the casks into kegs, and the kegs were rolled out of the caves and loaded on wagons for delivery.”

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