By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published May 14, 2024 at 9:02 AM

Urban Spelunking is brought to you by Nicolet Law

Up on Mequon Road, there’s a restored set of 1850s brewery lagering cellars beneath Foxtown Brewing that are not only evocative to visit, but are also being used again for their original purpose.

Cellar entrance
Two views of the cellar entrance.

But these are not Mequon’s only surviving lagering cellars. Just a mile up the road, in the backyard of a pretty typical suburban home, there’s another one, much smaller and more rustic.

This appears to be the sole surviving remnant of the farmstead brewery of Leonhard Bodendorfer (aka Leonard Bodendoerfer).

With all the brewery and farm buildings long gone, the cellar sits – a curiosity and a hidden remnant of one of many Wisconsin farm breweries – in the backyard of Joe Gooding and Monica Leis, who are passionate about their cellar and its long history.

(NOTE: Charles Engels and Jacob Harz also had breweries in the Mequon-Thiensville area in the 19th century.)

A few months ago, they invited a bunch of us – me, beer historian Dave Olson, architect Eric Nesseth, brewer Andrew Gierczak and Nick Impellitteri, who sells yeast to brewers through his company The Yeast Bay – to visit.


Three of our group (not me, of course) are microbiologists and two of them busied themselves swabbing the cellar for potential brewing yeasts that may have survived the decades. One of them, Gierczak – a co-owner of MobCraft and a brewer at Pilot Project – has done this before, collecting yeast at the former Falk Brewery on Milwaukee’s South Side and brewing a beer with it.

Because much of the cave was covered with a spray-on concrete product, they had to find deep recesses untouched by that spray and areas where the coating had flaked off in the effort to find dormant yeast.

The spray-on concrete covers much of the cellar interior.
flaked off
A spot where the concrete spray has flaked off.

While the yeasts were doing their thing in Petri dishes back in the lab, my task was to uncover more about Bodendorfer, and I don’t know how challenging the yeast portion of this project has been (although I have an idea), but learning more about the elusive farm brewer was anything but easy.

Here’s what we knew at the start...

Historian Wayne Kroll estimates that there were more than 100 frontier farm breweries operating in Wisconsin from the 1840s until the 1870s. These were operations that had to be nearly self-sufficient, if not entirely so.

“What really made these frontier farm breweries different was their isolation from the establish grain and hops markets,” Kroll wrote in his self-published book, “Wisconsin’s Frontier Farm Breweries 1830s-1880s.” “As a result, they had to produce, on their farms, all the ingredients necessary for making beer. Fortunately, Wisconsin’s climate was very good for raising barley and hops.

“It must be understood that farming appeared to be most important and brewing was done mainly as a side venture during the winter months. Only in a few cases did farm brewers become large enough to make it their major source of income.”

Bodendorfer's land on an 1873 map. (PHOTO: American Geographical Society Library at UWM)

Bodendorfer’s name is included in Kroll’s list of state farm breweries, and in “The Drink That Made Wisconsin Famous,” author Doug Hoverson adds, “It is known that Bodendorfer was brewing at his farm/brewery by 1857, but exactly when this brewery started and closed is unknown. ... It is very likely that these cellars were used by other brewers long after the Bodendorfer Brewery closed. ... More information needed.”

It was also known that Bodendorfer appeared to be working at what is now Foxtown around 1870, when it was operated by Adolph Zimmermann (whose story is told, in part, here).

In addition, an article published in the Ozaukee News Graphic in 2000 noted that Bodendorfer’s name appears in faded account registers from a Mequon grocery store and saloon, suggesting that he sometimes paid his bills with beer.

This, for the most part, appears to have been the breadth of our knowledge of Bodendorfer. While I was able to find a bit more about this German immigrant brewer and his family, I’ll reiterate what Hoverson said: still more information needed.

Here's what I found.

Leonard Bodendorfer Jr. was born Feb. 24, 1833 in Mettelaurach Bavaria, Germany.

He arrived, age 20, at New York’s Castle Garden immigration station on Aug. 29, 1853. Bodendorfer departed from Bremen on the Sophie and was described on the ship’s manifest as a farmer.

Interestingly, listed alongside him on the manifest was a 19-year-old farmer named Friedrich Best, though it’s unclear if this he was related to the Best family that founded what later became Pabst Brewing.

Andrew Gierczak swabbing for yeast.

It would seem that Bodendorfer was headed to the Milwaukee area as just a few years later, on May 18, 1856, he married Bavarian immigrant Barbara Goes in Mequon. Interestingly, the marriage was performed by Town of Mequon magistrate – and brewer – Adolph Zimmermann.

(NOTE: It should be noted that another Bodendorfer family already lived nearby and while it’s important not to confuse Leonhard with an older Leonhard who was the patriarch of that other family, which operated a mill – that building survives just outside downtown Cedarburg – it is also possible that the families were related and that our Bodendorfer’s presence in Mequon is due to the presence of this other Bodendorfer family.)

By early 1860, Bodendorfer – who then already had three sons with his wife, colloquially called “Babetta” – owned 40 acres of land north of Mequon Road and east of Swan Road that was valued at $2,200 and had a personal estate worth another $400.

As Hoverson notes, it seems likely that Bodendorfer was already brewing on his farm at this point. The earliest Bodendorfer account I found in the account books for Charles Wagner's general store and saloon – held in the Mequon-Thiensville Historical Society collection – dates to Feb. 14, 1857.

Wagner ledger
An 1857 Wagner ledger entry. (PHOTO: Courtesy of Mequon-Thiensville Historical Society)

Dropping $1.15, the Bodendorfers spent nearly half that on some black velvet and also bought two brooms, some herring and beer, which would imply that their own brew was not yet flowing. They bought more beer on account on March 23 and April 6.

However, on April 2, Bodendorfer purchased two whiskey barrels for $1.50, which could mark the start of when beer began lagering in the cellar. A month later, Bodendorfer paid off his $100 debt to Wagner in full with beer.

(NOTE: Here I should explain that the Wagner collection of account books may not be complete, the ink is often faded and the handwriting at times barely legible, so I cannot be 100 percent sure that Bodendorfer was not already brewing at this point.)

While Bodendorfer was still farming in 1870, things get a bit murkier here.

Yeast swabbing
In search of yeast.

According to the 1870 agricultural census, Bodendorfer’s farm included three acres of improved land (the farmhouse, etc.) and an acre of woodland. The value of the farm at that point ws $1,800 and he owned $40 worth of farm machinery.

His two milk cows, two sheep and two pigs were valued at $100 and he must have had farm hands, as he paid out $20 in wages.

In addition to earning $10 from orchard produce and $12 in goods manufactured in the home, Bodendorfer brought in $130 from animals sold for slaughter.

Interestingly, there is no mention of brewing or beer. If the home manufacturing included brewing, very little beer was produced that year on the farm, where the crops included 160 bushels of spring wheat, 50 bushels of Indian corn, eight pounds of wool, 120 bushels of Irish potatoes, four tons of hay, 180 pounds of dairy products and 100 bushels of barley.

Maybe, as was the case at the general store, Bodendorfer was bartering some or most of his beer for other goods and services.

Bodendorfer was selling his barley, at least in part, to Zimmermann, where it would seem that Bodendorfer had signed on as a brewery worker.

In an occurrence I can’t say I’ve ever previously seen, Bodendorfer appears to be listed twice in the 1870 census.

He was, according to one entry, age 35, born in Bavaria, and living with his family on the farm, where he and Babette now had six children.

But, a census worker also stopped at the brewery and took down Bodendorfer’s information as if he lived there, too.

Science in the name of beer.

(NOTE: While I might be tempted to think these are not the same Leonard Bodendorfers, both list this Bodendorfer as being born in Bavaria and they list his age as 35 on one sheet and 38 on the other. While neither was actually correct, they’re both close and if Bodendorfer’s boss or co-worker named him, it’s possible they did not know his exact age. While the other Bodendorfer family up in Cedarburg had two Leonards, one would have been 79 in 1870 and the other 15.)

What appears to be the end of Bodendorfer’s farm brewery squares with Kroll’s research.

“By the end of the 1870s almost all farm breweries had gone out of business,” he wrote in his book. “This was caused by several significant factors that these small brewers could not control. Without a doubt, the most important cause had to do with the dramatic increase in the size and number of city breweries. These large operations were able to take advantage of a much improved transportation system, especially the railroads.

“Most rural communities that had been formerly isolated could now be reached and easily serviced by the bigger city producers. The life blood of the small rural brewers had always been the business conducted with rural and small town saloons. This penetration of the big brewers into the rural areas very quickly ended any possible chance of the farm brewers to succeed.”

In the 1880 census, Bodendorfer appears just once, as a 47-year-old farmer, with seven kids and his mother-in-law living at home.

As was the case for decades, the Bodendorfers generally flew under the radar as far as newspapers were concerned, but that would change in early 1891 due to a pair of tragedies.

In January, the Bodendorfer’s 24-year-old son William, who worked as a butcher, was hit by a Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad train at the Brown Deer station in Granville and killed in an incident that an inquest deemed accidental.

Rather remarkably, less than two months later, the same engineer driving the same locomotive struck and killed William’s older brother Edward, 28, at Schwartzburg.

“It developed during the inquest that Edward’s brother William, who was also killed on the St. Paul, on Jan. 30, last, was run over by the same engine, No. 11, on train 4, the engineer on both occasions being Richard Ainsworth,” the Milwaukee Journal noted somberly.

“Bodendorfer’s body was sent to Mequon and John A. Hinsey, of the St. Paul, will pay the funeral expenses on behalf of the company, and furnish transportation to those who attend the funeral. Bodendorfer was killed while trying to jump across the track.”

While a newspaper noted upon William’s death that the inquest investigators, “presented to the management of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad a request for aid for the aged parents of the deceased, as they are nearly helpless and in poor circumstances,” an 1892 plat map of Mequon shows the Bodendorfers still owned their 40-acre farm.

1892 map
1892 Mequon map. (PHOTO: American Geographical Society Library at UWM)

The last of our confusing mysteries surrounds the date of Bodendorfer’s passing.

Bodendorfer’s grave marker at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Cemetery in Mequon lists the date of death as March 21, 1898. Easy, right?

(PHOTO: Find a Grave)

But, consider this death notice in the Milwaukee Journal and remember that such notices would typically come from public records or from funeral directors.

“March 21, 1900, Leonard Bodendoerfer, of Mequon, of heart failure, aged 66 years. He leaves a wife and nine children, Mrs. J. Brewery, Mrs. J. Koernder, Mrs. W. Krokusky, Mrs. M Schwalbach, Mrs. A. Schwartz, John Bodendoerfer, Henry Bodendoerfer, Albert Bodendoerfer, Clara Bodendoerfer.”

Personally, I’m inclined to believe the newspaper. It seems unlikely it sat on a death notice for two years. But then why the incorrect headstone?

Well, first of all, the marker doesn’t appear to be as weathered as one might expect for a stone that’s been through more than 100 Wisconsin winters. It also misspells Bodendorfer’s first name.

I suspect the stone replaced an earlier one or was added at a later date and the year of death, like the spelling of “Leonhard,” was just plain wrong. But perhaps there's another explanation.

Though memory of Bodendorfer and his brewery had faded into the recesses of the past, Gooding and Leis’ invitation to come see what remains maybe revive it a bit now.

When I first checked with Gierczak, he was hopeful with what he was seeing in the lab.

“I plated the enriched samples and will be looking at them under a microscope,” he told me. “I know Nick said he got some yeast from his samples so next step is to isolate and purify any yeasts we do find and run some baseline trial fermentation to determine whether or not they are suitable for brewing."

After that we might have gotten to taste something that approximated the beer that Bodendorfer made and lagered in the cellar that survives today.

We went over to the lab and tasted a few wort samples that used some of the yeast strains, none of which seemed suited to brewing. But Gierczak still had a few more to try.

But it was not to be.

"All of the yeast strains I ended up isolating failed the trial fermentation section of the experiment," Gierczak said lter, holding out a glimmer of hope for one strain. "There was one yeast, however, that outperformed the others, even if it wasn't exactly on par with most cerevisae yeasts in use, and the flavor profile it provided was neutral-positive.

"I'll be doing some additional work with that yeast over the summer."

Impellitteri is also still working on a few samples.

In the meantime, a Wisconsin Department of Transportation project to do road work will take some of the owners’ land, but a statement from DOT said, “there are no expected impacts to the underground cellar as part of the WIS 167 resurfacing project in Mequon. WisDOT staff will continue to coordinate with the property owner during the real estate process and keep them involved throughout the project.”

Some in our group have also been talking about trying to find someone with expertise and equipment to do some geophysical scanning of the site around the cellar in an attempt to determine if there was a larger cave complex that may have been destroyed over time.

brick archX

A partially covered interior brick arch could have led to a now-lost recessed area or even to another cellar.

Leis and Gooding would like to put the currently empty cellar to use.

“We're trying to figure it out,” Gooding says. “Obviously, it's very damp down there. So it is basically cold storage right now. I’ll trench a line up there and restore power and water back up there. It’s just going to be a cool hang out, I guess. I don’t really know what else to do with it.

“It would be cool to be to make beer down there.”

Miller can
Perhaps the last beer to have been in the cave.

At the moment, there are no plans to brew beer in the cellars, but if Gierczak is able to brew using that final strain of yeast captured there, maybe it can be lagered – and enjoyed – in the Bodendorfer cellar.

“Having a piece of history in our backyard is an amazing part of living here," says Leis. "It’s definitely a centerpiece for all that visit and we love it!

"Learning about lagering and brewing history, really brings you back to place where you can envision what must have gone on here. Can’t wait to see what the future holds.”

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.