Opening up a city's brewing heritage

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Margaret Plevak | June 21, 2017

JANESVILLE -- Growing up east of Janesville's Traxler Park, Rob Bier, 51, explored the city by bike, stopping to hike along the banks of the Rock River downtown where the foundations of a brick building stood, or trek wooded lots dotted with old bottles behind Mercy Hospital or the ice arena.

Years later, as he learned more about the city's past, he realized his childhood adventures shared a common denominator.

“Every place I hung out as a kid, there was a brewery nearby,” he said.

His memories of those old sites followed him even as he moved with his family to Milwaukee when he was about 15, through his 21-year career in the Air Force, to a job with the Department of Homeland Security and his current life with a wife and two adult sons in Waldorf, Maryland -- about 20 miles south of Washington, D.C.

Curious, he started researching his hometown breweries, and soon he was collecting old photos, newspaper stories and more.

Though he's not much of a beer drinker, Bier's name turned out to be a portent for a hobby that's become more of a mission: chronicling Janesville's brewing history.

During a trip back to Wisconsin last month, when he gave a presentation on what he calls the Janesville Brewery Research Project, Bier sported a shirt with that name embroidered on it.

“I got to the point where I decided I'm doing this thing, so what do I call it? I needed something pithy,” he said. “My dad actually got these shirts made up for it, so I look somewhat official.”

Bier joined the Wisconsin Advertising & Antique Club and has information on its website about his project, including photos of older local breweries, bottles and brewery ephemera.

Bier owns some items, but calls himself a researcher rather than a collector.

He hopes to have a Janesville Brewery Research Project website of his own online in the near future.

The project feeds his curiosity as an avowed history buff, but it also provides an accessible resource for others to learn about a chapter of what Bier calls Janesville's hidden history.

Through research at the Rock County Historical Society and the Hedberg Public Library -- where he's perused maps, newspapers and photographs -- as well as personal interviews with city residents, former brewery employees and brewery family members, he's uncovered the histories of 16 Janesville breweries that operated between the mid-1840s and 1940 that helped shape the city's economic and social fabric.

Brewers included William Hodson, an English immigrant who built Janesville's first brewery; John G. Todd, whose “celebrated ale” helped make his business the state's most successful ale brewery; and William Hemming, who at one time ran a brewery inside his saloon.

“I was surprised at how much a part of the community the brewers were,” Bier said. “Frank Croak lived on Washington Street, and he was instrumental in getting Washington Park established. He raised a lot of money for World War I veterans. He really was a pillar of the community.”

Before automation gradually made the work easier, brewing was a labor-intensive process, from harvesting blocks of ice from local waterways in winter to keep the beer cool before the days of refrigeration, to delivering glass bottles of beer in horse-drawn wagons over bumpy, rocky roads.

No local brewers continued after World War II because Prohibition struck a blow, Bier said. Big breweries were able to move quickly into production once alcohol was legal again, but by the time smaller breweries had geared up to roll out their product, it was too late -- eager customers were already drinking Pabst and Schlitz beer.

“The problem was, they couldn't compete with the distribution and lower costs of the big breweries,” Bier said.

Most of the small local breweries had a dozen or fewer employees, Bier said. He's wondered what drew them to the area, where they lived and what happened to their families -- questions that led him to interview the descendants of local brewery owners and workers, hoping to provide another side of Janesville's brewing history.

“Research is like a string, the further you pull at it, the more you find,” he said.

He's also gotten stories and more from others who've heard of his project, thanks in part to presentations he makes when he visits Wisconsin about twice a year to do research. After a talk at the Janesville Senior Center last month, Bier made arrangements to meet with a man in the audience the next day to photograph an older beer bottle in the man's collection.

“One man was walking along the Rock River and he found the metal plate that was affixed to the bottle washing machine at Croak's Brewery, so we were able to find out what the bottle washing machine looked like,” Bier said. “Little by little people just keep saying, 'Hey, I've got something' or 'I know something,' and they keep building the picture of what Janesville's breweries looked like.

“I don't make any money off this. The intent is to share this information. If I'm in town and someone wants me to give a presentation, I'll do it for free. All I hope for is to get some information back.”

Bier also has found support from the Rock County Chapter of the Ice Age Trail. Group members have put in hours clearing up trash, brush and overgrowth at the site of what once was the home to the Knipp and later the Croak breweries, located at the foot of Mineral Point Avenue, overlooking the Rock River.

Local IAT volunteers hope to make the land part of the Ice Age Trail that runs nearby, and recognize its significance with a historical marker.

“It used to be an eyesore that people would avoid,” Bier said of the former brewery site. “Now when I'm in town down here taking photos, people will come up to me, asking questions and even telling me stories about the place.”

Visible footprints of the breweries remain, including brick walls and concrete posts. With copies of fire insurance maps he obtained from the Wisconsin Historical Society that meticulously detail local buildings annually, Bier can point out where on the site features like a malt kiln for roasting grains, bottling rooms or the loading docks once stood.

If local groups like the Rock County Chapter of the Ice Age Trail can preserve the site, Bier easily can envision self-guided walking tours there one day. Visitors would stop at the library or historical society and pick up guidebooks filled with photos and maps that would talk about the breweries and point out their locations.

Bier is hopeful that his work will spur exploration of other parts of Janesville's history -- from dairies to railroads -- in similar ways.

“Sometimes you take your local history for granted,” he said. “I remember listening to my grandfather, when we lived with him for a while, talking about what it was like to live through the Depression. I've always liked hearing those stories. I'd like to share stories like that.”

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