We love you!
Arguably the most beloved, most mysterious, and most written about sign in Minneapolis, the Grain Belt Beer sign on Nicollet Island, has a rich history. It is name checked by the nationally-recognized band The Hold Steady in their song “Party Pit,” and is likely the only sign in Minneapolis that has a Twitter and Foursquare account.
What a sight!
Built in 1941 for $5,000, the Grain Belt Beer bottle cap sign is one of the largest freestanding neon signs in the region. The sign is approximately 50 feet wide and 40 feet tall.
According to the Schell’s Brewing website, the sign’s bottle cap design with a red diamond background dates back to 1938, reflecting the company’s dominance of package beer sales. Even when it is not lit, the porcelain-faced sign is a striking addition to the river landscape, displaying the beer’s signature color combination of red, yellow, and black. The “M” inside a circle above “Grain Belt Beer” is the logo for the original brewing company, Minneapolis Brewing.
When lit, the sign elicits glowing accolades. Former Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commissioner Tom Hollman stated, “It just doesn’t flash at you; it presents a show.” 1,400 incandescent light bulbs spell out the beer’s name one letter at a time—G-R-A-I-N B-E-L-T—followed shortly after by a flashing “BEER.” According to the sign contractor that completed the 1989 restoration work, the lighting sequence after the restoration may have varied from the original sequence. The sign also displays more than 800 feet of exposed neon. The bottle cap and the diamond are lined with red neon, while the Minneapolis Brewing Company’s “M” circular logo and border are outlined in green.
You look familiar
The sign on Nicollet Island was not the only of Grain Belt’s large bottle billboards that could be seen around town; at least two other similarly designed billboards existed in the 1940s. One was located on the rooftop of a hotel at 101 Washington Avenue North (next to Runyon’s), and another at the intersection of Nicollet Avenue and 7th Street South.
You’re not from around here, are you?
The sign was completed in 1941, but Nicollet Island was not its original home. The sign first lived on top of the Marigold Ballroom (built 1909, demolished in 1975) at 1330 Nicollet Avenue (what is today the Hyatt Hotel) for nine years, from 1941-1950.
In 1950, the Grain Belt Beer bottle cap sign was moved to its current home, a small plot of land on Nicollet Island facing downtown (2-4 West Island Avenue). The Eastman family, descendants of some of the first settlers of the island and the land’s first developers, owned this small parcel, which presented this prime location for advertising. According to a Minnesota Public Radio story in 2009, the original terms of the lease were $1,000 per month, plus 50 cents per barrel of beer.
The Minneapolis Brewing Company likely decided to move the sign because of the additional visibility the new location provided. In the area around Nicollet Island, the sign competed with fewer other billboards and buildings. It was high enough and well-positioned to be seen by those traveling on Hennepin Avenue by foot, streetcar, or vehicle from as far away as 10th Street (past the Orpheum Theater). In addition, many of those traveling via rail to Minneapolis ended up at
the Great Northern Depot (built 1914, demolished in 1978), where they would be would be greeted with the oversized advertisement from across the river.
The cost of the sign and scarcity of some construction materials after World War II could have also played a role in the decision to move the sign in 1950, rather than having another one built for the new location. The sign was built for $5,000 original, or $80,025 adjusted for inflation today.
Minneapolis Brewing Company formed with the merger of four smaller brewers in 1891 (Orth, Heinrich, Noerenberg, and Germania). Two years after the merger, Minneapolis Brewing introduced, Grain Belt Golden. It became the company’s flagship product and one of the best-selling beers in the upper Midwest soon after. According to the Schell’s Brewing Company website, the name Grain Belt referred to the geographical area of the country known as “America’s Grain Belt,” where “the finest in Minnesota grains, along with Perfect Brewing Water, made the perfect beer.” In 1947, Grain Belt Premium was introduced. Since most people associated the brewing company with the Grain Belt product line, Minneapolis Brewing officially changed its name to Grain Belt Breweries in 1967 as it began to expand to other parts of the country. By 1970, Grain Belt was the eighteenth largest brewer in the United States.
The next decade was a difficult one for Grain Belt Breweries. According to Doug Hoverson’s defining book on Minnesota beer history, Land of Amber Waters, the cost cutting measures of the larger brewers to reduce their product’s selling price and inflationary pressures of the mid-1970s combined to undermine the company’s finances and forced the brewery to seek a buyer. In 1975, Minneapolis businessman Irwin Jacobs purchased Grain Belt Brewing. Less than a year later, Jacobs sold the Grain Belt assets to G. Heileman Brewing Company. The lights went out for the Minneapolis brewery in Northeast Minneapolis (13th Avenue and Marshall Street Northeast) and for the Nicollet Island sign.
“Bringing back an old friend”
On May 24, 1989, the Grain Belt Beer sign was relit after being dark for 14 years. G. Heileman Brewing Company, brewer of Grain Belt Beer from 1976 to 1991 (at the former Schimdt Brewery in Saint Paul), was the primary financier of the relighting project. The six-year, $125,00 relighting effort, however, had a lot of ups and downs.
When the Eastmans approached Heileman in 1983 to relight the sign, Heileman was not interested. According to articles in the Star Tribune, the Wisconsin beer company and advertisers tried to get the sign redesigned, which included the removal of the Grain Belt logo. Other proposals for the landmark included a “crawler” sign above or below the Grain Belt Beer bottle cap, and a billboard on the other side. The crawler sign (an electronic billboard with scrolling letters) was never built (and the City approvals have now lapsed), but a small billboard was eventually placed on the backside of the sign.
The Grain Belt manager at the time, Charlie Simpson, credited the tenacity of the Eastmans and the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission for helping convince Heileman to relight and restore the sign to its historic appearance. “They just more or less wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
The rehabilitation project was a major undertaking. It involved rewiring, bulb replacement, and re-doing the neon. According to a 1989 Star Tribune article, squirrels had chewed through the old cloth-covered wiring in the bottle cap. That, combined with other deterioration, made it difficult to tell what colors most of the lights should be. The only parts of the lighting system that were salvageable were the wiring in the sign’s border lights and some metal and glass insulation. Everything else had to be replaced, all 1,400 incandescent lights, 800 feet of exposed neon and 3,000 feet of extra wiring. SignCrafters, the sign contractor chosen to complete the rehabilitation job, tried to replicate the original appearance, but they admit that the flashing sequence is different than the original.
Mayor Don Fraser, Bill Eastman, and a crowd estimated by the Star Tribune to number about 200 people were there to celebrate the relighting event in May 1989. Although the “G” and the “A” did not come on when the switch was initially thrown, the crowd was energetic and filled with positive energy. That positive energy paid off. After the sign went through a couple of sequences it lit up like it should and the crowd chanted each of the letters as they were illuminated. Providing additional encouragement, vehicles driving by on the Hennepin Avenue Bridge honked their horns.
Euphoria was in the air when the sign was relit. Jack Lawrance, owner of SignCrafters, said of the restoration project, “It’s bringing back an old friend.”
Dark again. Light again. Dark again.
Unfortunately the sign did not stay lit for long. According to Land of Amber Waters, G. Heileman Brewery declared bankruptcy in 1990 and production of Grain Belt Beer halted. The sign, however, remained lit until November 1991 but went dark for a few months while the new owner, Minnesota Brewing Company (a new company formed by Twin Cities investor Bruce Hendry), figured out a plan to finance delayed maintenance. In 1992, another ceremonial relighting project took place, this time with the new owner at the helm. The sign stayed lit until 1996, but by that time it was not the grand spectacle it once was. According to the Star Tribune, the sign was down to “R-A-I-N E-L-T.” Shortly after this slow deconstruction, the lights went out and have stayed out since. Minnesota Brewing Company stayed in business until filing for bankruptcy in 2002. At that time, Schell’s Brewing won the bidding and has been brewing Grain Belt Beer since then.
I’m a survivor!
It is rather remarkable that the Grain Belt Beer sign has remained a part of the Minneapolis landscape for more than 80 years, especially as the riverfront around it has undergone radical changes. If the sign had been moved to the downtown side of the river rather than Nicollet Island in 1950, it is likely that it would have been torn down as part of the Urban Renewal efforts in the 1960s. The sign was also able to hang on through the 1950s when Minneapolis Brewing Company completely overhauled their marketing programs and advertising logos. Hoverson shows in the Land of Amber Waters that the bottle cap was eliminated and the red diamond increased on its product shortly after the sign was moved to Nicollet Island. Today, the bottle cap has returned to accompany the red diamond on packaging and marketing.
The Eastman family owns both the sign and the land, and have continually paid the property taxes and kept the sign out of nostalgia. The protection that local heritage designation provides has also benefited the sign. Nicollet Island is part of the Saint Anthony Falls Historic District, and any modification to buildings and structures within the district require City and/or Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) approval.
The sign has been unlit for more than 16 years, but the interest in having it shine again has not diminished. The sign gained attention again in 2009 when the Eastman family put the piece of property and the sign up for sale. In the three years since it has been on the selling block, a purchase price was never disclosed and a transaction never took place. Garfield Clark, the real estate agent representing the Eastman Family Trust, said that the family is interested in donating the property to a nonprofit that could raise revenue for the maintenance and operation of the sign and establish perpetual care for it.
A number of people have helped or said that they would be willing to help with the sign relighting. Star Tribune columnist James Lileks and former City Pages reporter and current Minn Post columnist Jim Walsh have raised awareness of the Minneapolis icon through their writing. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) union has stated they are willing to provide some in-kind labor, and Schell’s Brewing Company is willing to financially contribute. Given the great expense of the sign rehabilitation, however, Schell’s Brewing said that they will not be the sole funder. In a 2010 Star Tribune letter to the editor, Ted Marti, President of Schell’s Brewing stated the following:
“Over those same seven years, we have met with and explored cooperative efforts with the sign’s owner to relight the sign. We are an old, historic brewery, and with more than 149 years under our belt, we understand the importance of history and support the preservation of historic gems in our community. Bringing the Grain Belt sign back to life is something we would love to see. In our earlier discussions with the owners, the cost of renovation and maintenance has been a difficult hurdle to clear. We are not a large brewery, and over the past years, building a financially and physically sound brewery has been our top priority. We will continue to meet with the owner as well as with other interested parties to help preserve this historic icon for all Minnesotans to enjoy.”
Relighting the sign will be a major undertaking. Preliminary costs for redoing the wiring, the lighting—possibly converting to LED, and other restoration work has been estimated at between $500,000 and $750,000. In addition, it is estimated that annual operating costs could be as much as $20,000. Although these can seem like daunting numbers, other relighting projects of a similar scale and rehabilitation projects with a much greater price tag have been completed. It will likely require patience, perseverance, and a meeting of a passionate group of people and a willing funding source to see the project through completion.
Where to check it out
You can get an up close and personal view of the sign by walking on the west side of the Hennepin Avenue Bridge. To get a head on view of the sign walk down the staircase on the downtown side of the river or view it from West River Road. The view from the boat docked next to the sign is likely another great vantage point.
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