Mississippi ruins rarely tell happy tales. At least, I haven’t heard one yet. On the wide bends of the river, missing walls hide history and shallow caves conceal stories.
Reed’s Town was the name in the beginning.
Let’s say 1850, if only to give this simple settlement a simple time. It was when a place got its name because people chose to call it such, not because of a green ‘Welcome to…’ sign on the side of a two-lane road. There, a few families of mixed French and French Canadian affiliation lived on the river, making a living by the trade routes their forbearers founded among the local Native American population.
Nowadays the town is mostly white and English-speaking, and life does not seem so simple. It has a different name, too, Trempealeau, complete with a sign, albeit a small one.
What changed the course of history? Steamboats.
At Reed’s, the river was a little wider—the shore was pitched just so. This was a natural location for a steamboat landing. A place to stretch one’s legs between St. Louis, Missouri and St. Paul, Minnesota, which became a popular thing to do in the mid-1850s.
Then a weird thing happened. People got off the boat, stretched their legs, and stayed.
Not far from the steamboat landing were three small caves in a row, a valuable asset before refrigeration because the caves could keep perishables cool year-round. Some histories talk about the spot as if there was always a house next to the cave, but the first recorded dwelling there was the Pierce House.
We do not know when the Pierce House was built (the early 1850s would be my guess), but we know Pierce himself was the first farmer in the area and he likely used the caves as a root cellar and for dairy storage.
By 1861, Pierce had gone, and records show a man by the name of Melchior had taken up the property. Jacob Melchior and his wife built their house on the same spot as Pierce had, adjacent to the caves.
Unlike his predecessor, however, Jacob took the caves and began expanding them.
He carved connecting tunnels between the two larger holes and vents in the back, and there were rumors that he was digging below the house as well. In the mid-1920s it was suggested the caves he had built under his home rivaled the size of those in the hill. Unfortunately, if there were such cavers below the foundations, they have been lost.
Melchior brewed lager beer, a style that requires aging in cool environments—these caves were perfect. As the area around the house grew, so did his brewing business. By 1870, there was a road that followed the shoreline with new business up on it to take advantage of the increasing steamboat traffic.
Hotels, warehouses, and bars gradually displaced the French speakers and Native Americans, who were driven away from the shore and farther south, to settlements like Prairie du Chien. The Melchiors turned their house into a small hotel and a stone addition was added for the brewery.
Today all that remain are two brewery walls and the three original caves.