John Olive, who doesn't drink beer, has been busy trying to save what's left of the old Mantorville Brewery.
"Gravity is about the only thing holding it up," said Olive, 78, a retired land developer who's spent his life on the South Branch Middle Fork Zumbro River, about 75 miles south of Minneapolis. He once worked as Mantorville's public works director, sanding icy intersections and maintaining everything from sewers to parks in the city of about 1,000 residents.
"Lots of people today didn't even know the old brewery was still there," Olive said. "But years ago, everyone hung out there, lighting bonfires and spraying the walls with graffiti."
Originally called the Dodge County Brewery, it became one of Minnesota's first beer producers, although it opened in 1857, a year before statehood. The brewery had nine owners over its 82 years. The four-story brewing castle, crafted of limestone quarried from the bluff it was built on, is dated mostly from 1874.
The brewery featured magnificent arched ceilings, cavernous rooms, storage caves and a 500-pound copper and iron kettle that could yield 25 barrels of beer daily. It included a dance hall, had its own railroad spur and once employed more workers than anyone else in Dodge County.
The brewery went up just a couple blocks from Mantorville's renowned Hubbell House, which is faced with the same hand-laid limestone. It had enough storage space to stash 7,000 barrels of beer, made from recipes that used water piped from a nearby hillside spring. The third floor held the finished malt and the top floor was used to store 5,000 bushels of barley. Steam power fueled the pumps and boilers.
When Prohibition banned beer sales in the 1920s, the brewery turned to soda pop. It reopened as Otto's Brewery with the repeal of Prohibition but shut down for good in 1939. Three years later the brew kettle was scrapped for war purposes and a wrecking ball partially razed the place.
Today, a jagged two-story limestone wall encasing large windows juts from the tree-dotted hillside. Gated entrances and a large open cellar still stand.
"It's an amazing structure and it's so sad the community let it go to ruins," said Jane Olive, president of the Mantorville Restoration Association and John's wife of 26 years.
John, his cousin Richard Olive and a team of volunteers worked with a private property owner to secure funding from the Restoration Association and Mantorville's city government to cut down cottonwood trees, pull stumps and clear foliage that all but obscured the brewery ruins. Local metal worker Louis Vangness helped surround the brewery ruins with a gate to keep intruders out, and Olive's team set up solar lights to illuminate the site.
"It's kind of spooky," said Jane, who used to lead ghost tours in town. "This is Mantorville's Roman Colosseum," John told the Rochester Post-Bulletin in 2022.
If you're an aficionado of historical preservation, Mantorville is worth a visit. The city's 12-block core landed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, and the Restoration Association owns six historical properties, including the 1918 Opera House and the 1911 Normal School that includes a cornerstone from the 1896 school and a bell cast in 1860. (https://www.mantorvillerestoration.com/historic-properties/)
The Olives provide the one-two punch behind Mantorville's ongoing preservation efforts. Jane, a former transplant nurse at the University of Minnesota, became involved with preservation in 2005 when she helped renovate the Opera House. By then, local history buffs had already been hard at work, saving the city's past the previous four decades.
"Some women in town started our Restoration Association in 1963," Jane said. "So we're not exactly a fly-by-night organization."
Around 1980, John Olive was tasked with demolishing an old shack in Mantorville. As he peeled off layers of fake siding, he discovered log walls on an original foundation. The Log House is now one of the Restoration Association's six preserved structures.
"There's a huge fireplace and chimney," John said. "That's because the barrel-making cooper who lived there needed to bend the staves for the beer barrels used at the brewery. All this stuff is connected."
John Olive has two sons and 10 grandchildren and his family in Mantorville goes six generations deep. His quest to preserve history includes a personal project: He's carved his own tombstone from the old Mantorville limestone quarry that sits today on property he owns. "Mantorville's limestone came out in soft layers that you could chisel before it hardened up in the elements," John said.
"I'm not ready to go," he added, "but when I do, I'll leave Mantorville some history of my own."
Jane shrugged. "That was John's idea," she said. "Creating tombstones is not my idea of fun."
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear every other Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.