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Beer cellars lie under Janesville hillside

Robert Bier, an amateur historian and Janesville native, gives a tour on May 20 of two beer cellars he discovered underground near the Janesville Ice Arena. The site was once home to several breweries built starting in 1856. The breweries are long gone, but Bier, with the help of some former city of Janesville employees, has managed to find some of the old cellars. (Anthony Wahl/The Janesville Gazette via AP)

Robert Bier, an amateur historian and Janesville native, gives a tour on May 20 of two beer cellars he discovered underground near the Janesville Ice Arena. The site was once home to several breweries built starting in 1856. The breweries are long gone, but Bier, with the help of some former city of Janesville employees, has managed to find some of the old cellars. (Anthony Wahl/The Janesville Gazette via AP)

By FRANK SCHULTZ
The Janesville Gazette

JANESVILLE, Wis. (AP) — Janesville workers recently sealed holes leading to old beer cellars along the city’s Beloit Avenue, but a history fan hopes to reopen one of them someday.

Rob Bier, a Janesville native and amateur beer historian, recently gave The Gazette a tour of two of the dank, dirty cellars. The city’s work included filling one cellar with concrete to protect a fiber-optic cable. Even so, at least one cellar still lies hidden in the ground.

Inside its two arched vaults, measuring 30 feet long and 15 feet wide, temperatures were kept at 55 degrees year-round, making them a good place to store barrels of beer in the days before refrigeration, Bier said.

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

The floors in both cellars were on a slope, the result of sandy soil either pouring or eroding into the space over the course of a century or longer.

Bier and his helpers found whiskey bottles, the remains of a kerosene tin and a Big Mac container, clues suggesting kids had loitered with kerosene lamps in the cellars in the 1970s.

After digging down to the floor, they were able to measure the height of the ceiling at 9 feet, 2 inches. The bits of wood they found suggested racks were once used to store barrels down there.

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

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

Bier, who now lives in Maryland, has set himself the task in recent years of 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 old brewmasters.

He takes what’s he’s learned and writes about it on the Janesville Breweries Facebook page .

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

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 — which are found at the same site where the National Guard armory sits — are long gone, as are the breweries.

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

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

The surviving building was a bottling plant. Federal law once required bottling operations to be kept 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. As refrigeration came along in the 20th Century, cellars became obsolete. Many were then either blocked off or used for storage, Bier said.

Bier said he knows of one other cellar nearby and suspects there are more. He hopes to raise money to restore this and the north-side site and hopes someday to use both in historic brewery tours.

At the north-side site, ground-penetrating radar has uncovered evidence suggesting there may be two much larger beer cellars, he said. A story from 1873 in The Gazette describes the north-side cellars under the brewery along the Rock River as being cut into the sandstone, extending 250 feet, “running westward and southward.”

Bier praised city officials for helping him with his investigations. He said whatever preservation work results, 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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