Eastern Iowa and Johnson County are blessed with rich history and natural beauty. They are a product of the fearless explorers whose grit and rigor imbrues their spirit. Iowa City’s adventurous late 19th century brewers epitomize this as does Big Grove Brewery’s commitment to the stewardship and championing of the county’s natural, historic, and cultural resources.
Long before Iowa City was founded there existed a steep sided valley formed by glacial outflows. At its bottom was a clear and rock bottomed river spreading between high bluffs and dotted with islands. The valley was at first forested with post-glacial spruce trees that were once browsed by late Pleistocene hunters, and Paleo-Indians over 10,000 years ago.
Gradually hardwood forests and prairies began their succession upon the level uplands. While climate slowly changed the valley, it was never empty. The Archaic-Period Indian hunter-gatherers were followed by the constructions of the mound builders, whose lives included far-reaching trade and art.
In the first two decades of the 19th century northern Iowa and the Mississippi River was explored and mapped by famous explorer Zebulon Pike. In the south the Half Breed Tract was established at the southern tip of the state, as well as Ft. Madison (1808–1813), which was abandoned after suffering Indian attacks in the War of 1812. In the north the two diagonal divisions of the Neutral Ground became the home of the Hochunk, and were designed to separate the warring Sioux and Mesquakie.
This new territory was administered first by the Territory of Michigan (1834–1836), then by Territory of Wisconsin (1836–1838). Iowa achieved independent territorial status in 1838 and the Burlington was the territorial capitol of the First Black Hawk Purchase. As a result of the Second Black Hawk Purchase of 1837 Johnson County became part of the Territory of Iowa. Tribal lands were under pressure as pioneer settlers walked, rode, wagon-trained, and boated down the Ohio and up the Mississippi Rivers to reach them.
With the series of cessions of the Indian lands to the government, displaced tribal groups were forced to move out of the ceded territories. It was due to these land cessions that Iowa City was founded in 1839 and the native tribes were forced to move further westward and the area was opened to settlement. Prior to that time the site of Iowa City was native land and Meskwaki chiefs Poweshiek and Wapashashiek had their “Indian Town” villages atop the sand hills three miles south of the capitol building just east of Gilbert’s trading post at Napoleon, along the Iowa River.
From this combination of native villages, trading posts, land purchases and formative trails the idea of a capitol city on the edge of the wilderness became a reality. The Military Road built from Iowa City the inland transportation center point of the state and formed the nascent city into what it is today.
Iowa City’s early origins can be envisioned as a result of its geography, prehistoric and colonial history, and Indian land cessions. The product of early 19th century society and politics led it to become a formative territorial capitol. The removal of the native cultures enabled American progress in civilizing and taming the western frontier–when Iowa City was that frontier.
In late 1838 Chauncy Swan was sent from Burlington, the first Territorial Capitol of Iowa, to locate the second Territorial Capitol at Iowa City early in 1839. Iowa City became one of only two capitols to be platted in the United States before they were settled. The other is Washington, D.C. In 1842 building began on the Territorial Capitol building, which became Iowa’s first State Capitol in 1846. It remained so until the capitol was moved to Des Moines in 1858 and University of Iowa established in the building in 1857. The Old Capitol is now a National Historic Landmark.
To the north a few miles: The “Big Grove” was an expansive hardwood timber stand covering nearly 30 square miles that ran along the Iowa River. When pioneer setters first arrived in what would become Johnson County, the extensively wooded land to the east of the Iowa River became known as Big Grove, leading to the naming of the township of Big Grove in 1845. Until 1839 Big Grove Township was still tribal land and the Western Frontier. Following the construction in 1839 of the Old Military Road from Dubuque, towns, such as Solon were established along the road. Solon was named for Solon Langworthy, whose father financed the road’s construction. The original Solon was the last of the ancient Greek Tyrants.
With the influx of immigrants in the 1840s, especially Germans, Irish, Italians, and Czechoslovakians, newly open lands were transformed. Aspects of this cultural infusion included the introduction of Old World brewing that first began in the early Mississippi River towns, and by the early 1850s diffused inland. The Englert family founded the Iowa City Brewery as early as 1853. Two other breweries quickly followed in 1855. These were the Union Brewery, founded by Anton Geiger who later partnered with Simon Hotz, produced about 1,000 barrels per year. The Graf Brothers took over later. John Dostal’s Great Western Brewery became The Iowa Brewery around 1900, and originator of Erlanger Beer. A brewery complex took about two years to complete.
All three were once in close proximity to each other near the intersection of Linn and Market Streets in Iowa City’s Northside. Only the Union Brewery, a.k.a. Brewery Square, remains today.
Starting in 1853 the three breweries were constructed in a cut-and-cover operation where the tunnel trenches were excavated deep into the bedrock and the excavated stone was used to build the foundation walls and some of the brewery caves. The deeper caves, up to 30 feet below ground, were built of brick that had been fired in the brick yard next to Happy Hollow Park, which was the clay pit for the brick factory. The brick brewery caves were designed by Germans brew masters and built by German stone masons.
Nineteenth century breweries ran on a gravity system. The grain and malt were kept in the upper level. Beneath were the kettles for the mash. When the wort was ready it was drained through a series of pipes into large open topped cylindrical vats in the underground aging caves, which were always at 55⁰ F. These eight by five foot vats lined the walls and were made of cedar. From the vats the aged beer was let out into the kegs for distribution.
The largest brewery (Dostal’s) employed twenty two workers at its height but only six or seven worked inside. The brewery’s lot was enclosed and included the owner’s houses, worker’s houses, stables, barrel storage, smithies, ice houses, wood shops, an engine house, and wagon sheds.
Iowa City’s brewers cooperated and held great political and social influence due to their wealth and the number of people they employed. In addition, most were staunch Catholics and their churches represented the German, Czechoslovakian, and Irish communities. These groups regarded beer as a family beverage and important to their cultural and social lifeways in the community. A large beer hall was once located in Upper City Park across from the old pioneer cabins.
All Iowa City beer was for local consumption and was distributed only a few miles from town. All three breweries had their own taverns either within the brewery proper or located nearby. Since beer was expensive the bars provided free food to their customers, which was of variable quality but kept patrons in the premises. The city had an ordinance stating the women were not allowed and that there were to be no tables or chairs. These were referred to as “stand up” bars since you had to leave if you could no longer stand up.
Temperance has always been an issue in Iowa and the state enacted three alcohol prohibition statutes of its own prior to the federal prohibition (1920–1933). Prior to 1900 Iowa, Kansas, and Maine were the states with the strictest alcohol laws. The first state prohibition was from 1855–1857, the second from 1882–1883, and the third from 1884–1894. Many of the state’s river towns ignored the bans but in Iowa City things rose to a head on the summer night of August 4, 1884, when beer riots flared.
Internal issues between the brewery owners and local civic prohibitionists resulted in serious conflict. The house of a Justice of the Peace, located just out of the East Lucas township, was surrounded and the inhabitants intimidated. Two visiting lawyers were tarred, a county sheriff assaulted, and the angry pro-brewery mob took over the streets of Iowa City where attempted lynchings and beatings occurred.
The brewery owners, one of which was a city council member, were heavily fined and sued by their beating victim, but all chipped in to cover the costs. In the end the state prohibition law was repealed in 1894 and the business of brewing beer went back to normal for the next 26 years. Eventually most of the breweries turned to bottling soda and retooled for the ice business. In a trick of fate the soda businesses failed because it kept getting contaminated by brewer’s yeast and started to ferment anyway.
At present two of the three original Iowa City brewery buildings are gone but their underground caves still exist under parking lots along the 400 block of Market Street. The Union Brewery building survives as commercial space and its brewery caves are still present, but safely locked away by the owners. The large houses of the brewers and their descendants are also still standing in the Northside Neighborhood. Late at night one can sometimes see the ghosts of the old buildings and envision the sights, sounds, and smells of a bygone era when brewing ruled the city.
Iowa City’s formal brewing history dates to the mid-1850s when German immigrants opened large commercial breweries to slake Iowa’s first State Capitol’s thirst for beer. Beer in and around Iowa City has always available since Colonial times. It was made in taverns, roadhouses, inns, farm cellars, and wherever the ingredients could be obtained. The colonists made beer and the natives drank it. Now Big Grove Brewery begins a new era.
Today, Big Grove Brewery seeks to carry on the proud tradition of brewing beer in the Old Capitol City. The Iowa City brew house and taproom is an adaptive reuse of an original Iowa Lumber Company warehouse and the lumberyard has been transformed into a creek-side beer garden: a place for community gatherings and celebrations. The brewery owners, all native Iowans, care deeply about the region’s natural history and local heritage and have adapted the historic Iowa motto into “Our Craft We Prize & Our Roots We Will Maintain” to signal their steadfast commitment to producing a product that all Iowan’s will be proud to call their own.
Produced by Marlin R. Ingalls
Marlin R. Ingalls is an archaeology, history, and architectural history adjunct research specialist and consultant working within the Office of the State Archaeologist for the last 28 years. Investigations into the archaeology, social, political and cultural history of brewery owners and their buildings is an ongoing specialty.