Ruins of 1950 brewery spark curiosity in Minnesota town
History is a huge part of the identity of the Dodge County seat of Mantorville, but even long-time locals are intrigued by the hidden past just off Main Street.
MANTORVILLE, Minn. — Even lifelong residents were surprised at news of the extensive ruins. Those new to this southeast community didn’t know they existed.
In its heyday, The Mantorville Brewery once was hailed as the biggest employer of Dodge County. In 1874, a writer for the local paper called the imposing four-story limestone structure a “magnificent stone building.” History buffs say the brewery was once a Mantorville social hub, where beer flowed at city dances and political conventions.
Decades after being hailed by the media, it began a slow demise.
After an 82-year run, the brewery closed in 1939, the victim of hard times, bad business and back taxes. During World War II, it was scavenged for copper and other precious metals. A wrecking ball partially demolished it.
Then it all but disappeared, the building’s ruins swallowed up by cottonwoods and foliage. As time marched on, except for a part of the wall that peaked out of the trees, memories of what once was the state’s oldest small brewery faded.
Though they never completely disappeared.
Digging up the past
Now, more than 80 years after the doors closed, the old brewery is being rediscovered, a reclamation of history driven by community members.
The effort is creating a buzz in this 950-person community. For the last six months, a group of long-time Mantorville residents led by John Olive, a retired land developer and historical preservationist, have conducted a kind of phased excavation of the site.
What has emerged is an extensive set of ruins — partially standing walls, darkened limestone rooms, and large storage caves.
“This is Mantorville’s Roman Colosseum,” said Olive, standing in a cavernous storage room whose curved ceiling is covered in hand-laid limestone.
"Look at the ceiling," he said. "Somebody in the 1850s put that together. It's unbelievably cool.”
The ruins give off a haunted air — an invitation to fling one’s mind back and imagine the life that once existed in these broken walls and empty stone passageways.
A hidden treasure
What’s particularly striking is that the building’s rediscovery is happening near the epicenter of downtown Mantorville, a block and half east of the famed Hubbell House that was built around the same time as the brewery. The brewery was always there, smack-dab in the middle of town.
And it is filling in details and illuminating Mantorville's history.
"It is making visible this portion of history that was Mantorville," said Rich Olive, John Olive's cousin and a project volunteer. "It's an addition to the whole complete story of Mantorville."
The ruins' emergence has prompted questions from out-of-towners and residents alike. Lynette Nash, owner of Chocolate Shoppe, a confectionery that sits across the street from the Hubbell House, said so many customers began making queries about the ruins she decided to publish a short history of the brewery to hand out.
“I got hit with COVID, so I was stuck at home. And I’m like, ‘Well, I’m gonna just create a brochure,’” she said.
The ruins, even when shrouded in trees, have not been entirely unknown to the community. Generations of children have roamed its passageways to cover it in graffiti.
Nash said she has known about the brewery for “years and years and years.” When Mantorville conducts its annual fall wagon ride, she tells ghost stories about Mantorville buildings based on tales told to her by other community members. But though aware of the brewery’s one-time existence, she was not aware of how much the brewery building remained.
“I had no idea until John (Olive) took it on: ‘We have to save this. We have to expose this and open it up for the public to see it and save the structure, what’s left of it,'” she said.
The beer hall
In the above-mentioned newspaper article, written 150 years ago, the writer gave a detailed sketch of the brewery in rhapsodizing tones about the maze-like structure, all with precise dimensions of its many rooms and cellars.
The brewery had a capacity of storing 7,000 barrels of beer. There was an immense kettle to make beer, the writer noted, made of copper and iron and weighing 500 pounds. It had the capacity to fill 25 barrels of beer.
The business ran solely on steam power. “All the pumping, boiling, hoisting and wood-sawing is done by steam.” Ice-cold water from a nearby spring up the hill was piped in and used to make the brew.
The rear of the building was divided into four floors. The ground floor stored the empty kegs and casks. The second floor was for sprouting barley. The third floor stored finished malt. And the “entire 4th floor was used to store 5,000 bushels of barley.”
The limestone used to build the brewery came straight out of the bluff into which the brewery was built. That meant, the author enthused, none of the stone used in the construction was carried more than 10 feet after it was quarried out of the hill and “carried onto the walls as they progressed.”
The brewery over the decades was run by nine different owners and went by an assortment of names: Mantorville Brewery, Dodge County Brewery, Zumbro Spring Bottling, Otto’s Brewery Inc. When Prohibition passed, the business switched to making soda pop.
Renewing what was lost
Olive said the restoration project has received dollars from the Mantorville Restoration Association, of which he is a member and his wife president, as well as the city’s Economic Development Association. He declined to say how much.
Mantorville has long maintained a deep reverence for its history. A Mantorville historic district was created in 1976. A walking tour offered to visitors spotlights its older buildings. Some homeowners still maintain hitching posts in front of their properties.
Olive has led other restoration projects, including a cooper log house and normal school for women teachers. And in those cases, the association owned the buildings before they sought to restore and rebuild them. But currently, the land on which the old brewery is situated is in private hands, owned by Brad Lohrbach.
Lohrbach eventually gave his blessing to the project.
“We tried to have him donate it to us, and then we tried to buy it,” Olive said. So Olive took a phased approach to excavating and stabilizing the structure as a way to build confidence in the project.
“Well, let me do this phase one. And then I’ll do phase two. Actually, that worked out,” Olive said.
Lohrbach did not respond to calls and an email.
There is more work to be done, and the project is ongoing.
"I know that that they have found that there is more than they can expose and open up for people to see," Nash said.
In addition to the excavation work, volunteers there have painted walls to cover the extensive graffiti. Heavy gates have been installed in an effort to keep intruders out. And portions of the structure have been stabilized, “though they aren’t going to be able to stabilize it completely,” Nash said.
It is creating wonder in Mantorville, said Rich Olive.
“We’ve got people who lived here their whole life in Mantorville,” he said. “And they are saying, ‘What is that building?’”