Bones in the Brewery

A Paleontologist's Rendezvous with History and Prehistory in St. Louis

Extinct Peccaries

Extinct Peccaries (Platygonus compressus) of the type that once roamed the pre-St. Louis countryside.

A restoration by Charles R. Knight AMNH Painting and Photo

Alexander De Menil, son of Nicholas, lived in the house throughout his long life. By the time he died, Arsenal Hill was no longer a swanky residential district but had been overgrown with smoky factories and surrounded by slums. His heirs chose not to live there, and the property finally passed out of the family when they sold it to Mr. Hess, almost a century after the family acquired it. Like his father, Alexander was a physician, but he was also interested in literature and became a poet of local renown. Among his voluminous productions is a rather quaint but forceful defense of his great-great-grandmother, the famous Madame Chouteau. (She left her husband in New Orleans because of his cruelty to her and formed an irregular union with Laclede, who became the founder of St. Louis; her solution of a marital problem when divorce was impossible was approved by her contemporaries, but became a worry to some of her descendants.)

We often thought of these vanished occupants as we roamed through the house or rested on its spacious balconies and watched spring come to the garden. If, however, the ghosts of the Chouteaus and the De Menils roamed through the house at night, we never knew it, for we slept soundly after our hours of bone-digging. Ghosts still more exotic might conceivably have troubled our slumbers. The fascinating hodge-podge accumulated by Mr. Hess with a view to future exhibition included a reconstruction of a Damascus palace with its furnishings. After display at the St. Louis fair in 1904, these oriental trappings had been crated and stored until recently when our host acquired them and piled them into the De Menil house. Thus it happened that our library included an Arabic Bible, along with Hedin’s My Life as an Explorer, the Catholic Directory, Boccaccio’s Decameron, and How to Develop a Winning Personality. Pending the availability of more space and the sorting of all these treasures, our quarters were furnished in a medley of styles in charming confusion. Tubular metal modernistic chairs jostled a mid-nineteenth century chaise longue, over which was thrown a vivid Mexican serape and beside which was an old Turkish tabouret of ebony inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The introduction of our prehistoric peccaries struck no jarring note but seemed only to complete this remarkable mixture.

History and pre-history

It was, after all, the prehistoric peccaries that had called us here and that claimed most of our attention, but even these brought us into contact with history as well as with pre-history. Unrest in the Rhineland well over a century ago was one of the influences that led to our journey to St. Louis last March and to the exhuming of these ancient remains. It was in the 1820’s that one Gottfried Duden came to the Mississippi Valley to spy out the land for his German neighbors. Here in St. Louis he found several caves in the limestone underlying the city and he reported that the site was propitious for breweries. Before the coming of artificial refrigeration, successful brewing on a large scale required natural repositories where the temperature was constant and low throughout the year. These caves, which retain a temperature near 55° regardless of the weather outside, were ideal for the purpose. Rhineland brewers migrated to St. Louis and converted the caves into storerooms for their lager. It was one of these immigrants, Adam Lemp, who cleared out the cave at 13th and Cherokee and built his brewery above it.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, air-conditioned storehouses made the caves unnecessary, and they were abandoned by the brewers. One or two were converted into underground beer parlors and places of amusement: Uhrig’s Cave was such an establishment in the gay 90’s and is nostalgically remembered by St. Louisians. But the cool, dark dampness of the caves, so suitable for beer before it is drunk, seemed to depress the customers after they drank the beer. “Uhrig’s Cave” became an open air theater above the actual cave. The cave itself enjoyed only one more brief flare of fame when a large distillery was discovered in it during prohibition. The other caves were closed, their entrances walled up or blocked with debris, and eventually they became vague memories. The Lemp Brewery went out of business during prohibition, its buildings were sold to the International Shoe Company, and its cave, the Cherokee Cave, was forgotten until Lee Hess recently conceived the idea of reopening it as a site of historical and geological interest.

When we arrived, we took only a quick glance at the noble De Menil mansion (“our puptent,” George called it), and then hurried down into the cave. A circular, bric-lined shaft about 85 feet deep had been reopened and a spiral iron staircase installed. At the foot it opens into a long series of storage rooms, once full of lager beer but now dismally empty. The rooms were formed simply by clearing out a natural cave, a former underground river channel within the solid limestone, and by dividing it by masonry walls. The first room at the bottom of the shaft still bears traces of its use for private theatricals and parties by a gay blade of the Lemp family who took it over when the beer was moved out. Across one end he constructed artificial scenery made of wire screen and plaster. The scenery represents a fair imitation of the wall of a cave; this hiding of a real cave wall behind an artificial cave wall is one of the touches that made us feel at times as if we had stepped into Alice’s Wonderland. There are still remains of the crude but serviceable floodlights used to illumine this scene.

The cave extends in an easterly direction for some 200 feet beyond this “theater.” There it is joined by another channel, coming from under the former brewery to the south, also cleared and converted into storage rooms. At the intersection is a concrete-lined pool, presumably used as a reservoir in the old brewing days and reputedly used as a swimming pool in the later (but now also old) days of theatricals and parties, although we thought that a party would have to be very stimulating, indeed, to tempt us to plunge into those Stygian waters!

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