Perhaps the most utilitarian use of the caves was for storage. The Villaume Box & Lumber Company, founded in 1882, was a well-known St. Paul business—“one of the nation’s leaders in the manufacture of custom millwork, shipping cases and boxes.” According to a 1940 promotional brochure, “Villaume has on its own property, 14 hillside caves with surface level entrances. Each cave has a ceiling height of 12 feet and is 20 feet wide. The 14 caves contain a total of 50,000 square feet of floor space, usable for manufacturing, storage, or as shelters in event of air raids.”
From the earliest days, some of the Mushroom Valley caves were used for entertainment. In 1886, Northwest Magazine described the elaborate caves that German immigrants had dug, called “felsenkellers” (transated, “cellar in the rocks”). “The Felsenkeller with its bowling alleys, etc., is occupied by John B. Fandel Jr., whose father spent seven years in fashioning the grotesque interiors of his spacious caverns.” The nightclub era got its real boost just as Prohibition was winding down. There were two nightclubs in Mushroom Valley in the 1930s, Mystic Caverns and Castle Royal. A local mushroom grower recalled “the bumper-to-bumper cars that poured past here day and night to those nightclubs.” Oliver Towne called Mushroom Valley “one of the oddest night club belts in the world.”
Mystic Caverns, “[t]he most novel café and night club in the country,” opened on April 8, 1933. Garish newspaper advertisements promoted “St. Paul’s Underground Wonderland,” advising readers to “See the Beautiful Silver Cave and the Rainbow Shower of 2,000 Mirrors. DINE, DRINK, and DANCE to the rhythmic tunes of JACK FOSTER’S TEN CAVEMEN.” The ads spelled out the location exactly: “Cross the Wabasha Street Bridge at the new St. Paul Courthouse. Travel…up the river road under the High Bridge to the huge Neon Skull and Crossbones.”
Some of the magical effects were produced by a stage manager for the famous magician Howard Thurston. By far the biggest draw was the nude fan dancer, Sally Rand. Mystic Caverns was forced to close in the following year for running a subterranean casino.
The other big 1930s nightclub was Castle Royal, proclaimed “The World’s Most Gorgeous Underground Night Club,” on what is now South Wabasha Street. On October 26, 1933, the nightclub opened in the former mushroom cave with a fancy, patterned brick façade that you can still admire today. The chandeliers, fountains, and tapestries that graced the establishment came from a recently demolished mansion. Doorways were carved out in the shape of mushrooms. In the Big Band era, performers like Cab Calloway, the Dorsey Brothers, Harry James, and the Coronado Orchestra played there. The nightclub fell on hard times and went bankrupt in 1940.
We sometimes hear nostalgic proposals for recreating some of these historical “St. Peter industries” (named for the sandstone) in the local underground, but a cautionary note must be struck. While the reasons why some of these industries went extinct might be obscure to us today, they were obviously real to the businessmen of the day. And some of the artisanal secrets involved in the various processes could prove difficult to recover. But other endeavors have flourished in the present day.
Castle Royal was purchased by Bremer Construction in 1992. Under their ownership, the cave flourishes as the Wabasha Street Caves. The Bremers rent out 12,000 square feet of finished space for wedding receptions and other events. The Bremers added a cave tour, St. Paul “gangster tours,” and Grumpy Steve’s Coffee Shop. In 2013, they hosted the Society for Industrial Archeology’s annual conference, which had not met in the Twin Cities for 30 years and had a special tour devoted to the subterranean industries highlighted in this article. The Bremers’ success is just one example of how the caves of Mushroom Valley, rich in history, may be utilized and made profitable again.
Greg Brick, Ph.D., is the author of Subterranean Twin Cities (2009) and is descended from German brewers.
Editor’s Note: The Growler would like to remind readers that the abandoned caves of Mushroom Valley are potentially dangerous and are posted “No Trespassing” by the city of St. Paul.