Stalking Throckmorton is a work in progress centered around the tunnels and brewing caverns beneath the site of an old brewery
Brewing cavern under the Brewery
Friends of Chris Throckmorton described him as an easygoing guy, but today he drummed his fingers on the checkout counter of Rockburg’s drug store. For a transplant from the Twin Cities, life in the rural Wisconsin village flowed like the meandering La Crosse River below it. Today it seemed motionless. Debbie, the cashier, fussed with something behind the counter a few feet from him. He couldn’t tell whether she was engrossed in her work or ignoring him.
Throckmorton made a point of being civil to everyone. What he saw as simple good manners, his ex-wife Jen had seen as weakness and called him a spineless milquetoast for it. That made waiting at the counter a frustrating lose/lose situation. If he said nothing, he’d hear Jen’s voice questioning his manhood. If he barked at Debbie, he’d feel like a heel. He set a bottle of aspirin on the counter with a clatter, cleared his throat, coughed, and waited. He wasn’t in a rush, but it was a beautiful mid-October day, and damn it, there were limits. “Debbie . . . Debbie!”
“Chris,” said a familiar voice, and he felt a tap on his shoulder.
He turned to face the white-haired attorney. “Al, how’ve you been?”
“Fine, now that I’ve found you.” The wizened old man drew a letter from the pocket of his shirt. “I have a letter for you from Otto Kessler.”
Throckmorton searched Al’s face for signs this was a joke. “You can’t be serious.” He accepted the proffered envelope and examined both sides. Crisp and yellowed, it wasn’t addressed or stamped. “Kessler died in 1935. That’s what, eighty years ago?”
“Eighty-two. Long story.” Al nodded toward Debbie and retrieved the envelope from Throckmorton’s hand. “Perhaps we should discuss this in my office.”
Throckmorton followed Al’s gaze. Debbie leaned against the counter behind him. Her work abandoned and her head buried in a copy of Teen Vogue, she had an ear cocked toward him. The magazine was upside down.
Typical. In Rockburg he could pose a question to a friend on the street, stroll three blocks to the other side of town, and have a casual acquaintance volunteer the answer. If humans had developed language to allow them to gossip, as anthropologists speculated, the tradition remained robust in Rockburg. He paid for the aspirin and left the store with Al.
“How’s that boy of yours doing?” Al asked as they jaywalked across the street. “Is Mrs. Heath still living in, keeping an eye on him?”
“No. He’s in remission, at least for now. They reduced his chemo to a maintenance dose.” Throckmorton pretended to look at something on the other side of the street and took a deep breath. “The poor kid went through hell, but there’ll be no more oral ulcers and no more . . . no more intra-spinal chemo. Man, those were hard to watch.”
They reached Al’s office, a single story blond brick building, only sixty years old. That made it forty years younger than any other commercial building in the three blocks of Rockburg’s business district. Al unlocked the front door. “I can’t imagine what that was like.”
“He goes in for blood work every two weeks now, but that’s minor. Last November they said he had a sixty percent chance of surviving. I damned near bawled with relief when they said he was in the clear.”
“Good to hear it’s over.” Al turned on the lights. Empty bookcases against the far wall, an empty wastebasket, and the bare surface of a large, walnut desk gave the room a deserted atmosphere. Squares of pale-yellow paint on the dull, cream-colored wall marked where diplomas and bar association memberships had hung.
Al relaxed into a well-padded swivel chair behind the desk. “Did I tell you I was retiring?”
“No, but your office did.” Throckmorton took a chair beside the desk, relieved to talk about anything but leukemia.
“I’m seventy-four. Long past time to call it quits.” Al pushed the old envelope across the desk toward Throckmorton. “My grandfather was Kessler’s attorney. Otto gave him this letter with instructions to give it to his descendants living in Rockburg after the Depression ended. Gramps gave it to my dad when he started practice, and he gave it to me when I passed the bar exams. I only learned you were a Kessler a few days ago—a classmate I talked to at my law school’s fiftieth reunion had been a neighbor of your mother’s in Minneapolis.”
Throckmorton turned the envelope over in his hands. Fine lines spread across its surface with a crackle. A musty smell, reminiscent of libraries and old books, rose from the envelope. “I’m almost afraid to open it.”
Al handed him a letter opener. “I hoped you’d do that here. I’ve spent sixty years wondering what was in it.”
Throckmorton sliced open the envelope, pulled out a letter, and hefted the envelope. A key, four inches long, dropped on Al’s desk with a clunk. He scanned the handwritten letter and read aloud. “May 12, 1935. My doctor says . . .” He looked at Al. “This will be slow. The ink is faded, and Otto’s handwriting looks shaky.”
“My heart is going. The canning factory won’t survive long after my death. No one can save it in this economy. You will need resources to restart the brewery when this business slump ends. What remains of my assets are in an office off tunnel number 4. My attorney can guide you to it. The key to the office is enclosed. The safe combination is 10R-30L-22R.
“My prayers are with you,
Puzzled, Throckmorton looked up from the letter. “Were the brewery and canning factory the same building?”
Al nodded. “Every small town in Wisconsin had a brewery before Prohibition, and they all converted to canning factories in 1920. Most went bust.” He picked up the key, turning it over in his hand. “I lost track of the letter when I remodeled the office in ’76—found it last week when I cleaned out my files. You’re the first Kessler descendant I’ve ever met. Any idea why others haven’t returned?”
“There aren’t any others. My grandmother and her brother moved to the Twin Cities after Otto died in ’35. Mom was an only child, and her uncle Bill died a bachelor in Normandy on D-Day. I believe Otto had a cousin in upstate New York, but I’ve never been in touch with that branch of the family.”
“They’d be irrelevant, vis-à-vis the letter,” Al said. “Otto’s instructions specified his descendants living here.”
“My father deserted us before I was two, and Grams died a few years later. Mom never told me much about either side of the family.” He looked at the letter again. “I wish I could have seen the brewery.”
“You came to town six months too late.” Al leaned back in his chair, a faraway look in his eyes. “It looked like a medieval castle, sitting there at the end of Main Street. I hated to see it go, but it was in bad shape by 2013—bricks were falling off, kids getting in trouble exploring the place. The demolition was the biggest thing to happen in Rockburg in my lifetime. The office building and the tunnel under Main Street are the only things left of the Kessler complex.”
“Yeah. Lager beer can’t be brewed if the temperature gets over sixty degrees. Going underground was the only way they could brew beer in the summer before refrigeration. There were tunnels and caverns under the brewery, but those weren’t supposed to survive the demolition.”
“Any idea where tunnel four is?”
“I don’t have a clue. Best guess is that it and the office were under the brewery and filled in or collapsed when the building dropped.”
Throckmorton turned the letter over. “Nothing here, either.”
“Gert at the Coffee Cup might know something about it.” Al looked at his watch. “It’s 2:00. She’ll be relaxing after the noon rush. Good time to talk to her—catch her before her afternoon nap.”
That didn’t make sense to Throckmorton. “She’s no older than you, is she? This letter was written years before she was born.”
“Gert’s been a waitress since . . . .” Al looked at the ceiling and closed his eyes. “About 1960. A few old fossils used to tell her stories about the early days. She’s heard more gossip than all the bartenders in town.”
“That’d be a lot. Rockburg must hold a record for bars per capita.”
“We have enough.” Al stood, pushing off from his chair’s armrests with his hands. His knees and back creaked as he did. “Gert acts like a grouch. She might give you a hard time, but she’s all bark.”
“I don’t want this all over town. Will—”
“You can trust her. She’ll bend your ear about the old days, but she can keep a secret. She griped once that she felt like the town’s unofficial confessor. In the fifty years I’ve known her, that’s the closest thing to gossip I’ve heard from her.”
Throckmorton returned the key and letter to the envelope, thanked Al, and walked down the block to the Coffee Cup Café, a single-story, white, wood-frame structure squatting between two brick buildings, a former grocery store and the town’s beauty parlor. Time hadn’t been kind to Rockburg’s business district. The windows of empty and under-used two-story brick buildings stared at each other across Main Street like glass eyes.
From the corner of his eye, he saw Wilbur wave at him from the window of the old grocery store. He pretended he didn’t notice. Being seen talking to Wilbur, a local horse trader and con artist, could call a man’s sanity and integrity into question. A CPA, Throckmorton couldn’t risk his reputation for either.
A breeze pulled at the envelope in his hand, and he tightened his grip. Otto’s letter fit with a letter he’d found in his mother’s effects, a letter addressed to his grandmother and post-marked in 1936. According to the letter substantial assets were missing when Otto’s estate went through probate.
But why this treasure hunt? Otto could have left his assets to his son and daughter. Was resurrecting the brewery that important to him? And the assets he stashed? It would have taken a chunk of seed money, a hundred thousand or more, to attract investors to restart the brewery in the late ‘30’s. Anything worth that much in 1935 could be worth millions now, assuming it wasn’t cash. That’d help with Ben’s medical bills.