Long before glaciers rolled through Minnesota, a massive pool of water circulated throughout the Twin Cities, and soon, residents will be able to line up at a well in St. Paul, and fill up their jugs with the water that experts say is about 30,000 years old.
"When you think about it, the woolly mammoths were drinking that water, potentially," said Michael Convery, a hydrologist with the Minnesota Department of Health.
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The owners of the old Jacob Schmidt Brewery plan to re-open the 1,100-foot deep well, which had been closed for several years, and sell the water through a vending machine at the site. At a price of 50 cents a gallon, site manager David Kreitzer says it might be one of the best deals in town.
"We think this a very economical solution, with much better water than what you would find in the store," he said.
Geological experts say the well also offers a unique look at the history of the Twin Cities.
The well taps into an immense body of water called the Mount Simon-Hinckley aquifer. When glaciers bulldozed over the river valley between 12,000 to 15,000 years ago, they heaped sediment on top of the water. The pressure sealed off the basin and kept most of the water from seeping out.
For tens of thousands of years, the water in the deepest part of the basin sat untouched, while ancient buffalo roamed the area, followed by the arrival of the first human inhabitants at least 10,000 years ago.
The spirit of capitalism
The industrial revolution of the 1800s finally brought the water to the surface. Businesses were eager to take advantage of its pristine quality. Many made the expensive decision to drill deep underground into the aquifer, forcing their way through other, more recently formed bodies of water. The process often took years.
"If you were a railroad and you were boiling water in your steam engines, all the scale, the material that precipitates when you boil the water, is a big problem," said Calvin Alexander, professor at the University of Minnesota's Department of Geology and Geophysics. "If you were a laundry back in the late 1800s, the softer the water, the less soap scum would form."
The now-defunct brewery on West 7th Street drilled its first well in 1855.
"Where it was by pure mistake or design, the brewery, when it started in 1855, just happened to locate itself above this very unique water," Kreitzer said.
The business changed hands many times over its 147-year history, starting as the Stahlmann Brewing Company. By 1879, the site became the first Minnesota brewery to sell more than 10,000 barrels a year, and exported the beer as far south as Memphis, Tenn.
Jacob Schmidt, a Bavarian immigrant, bought the brewery at the turn of the century, and gave the business its enduring name.
Despite pumping out water almost daily for over a century, the owners never knew exactly how old the water was. The discovery was made in a somewhat roundabout fashion in the late 1970s.
The G. Heidelman Brewery Company, the site's owner, had brainstormed a new marketing campaign. They wanted to advertise that the water they used came from glaciers, and hired Alexander to prove it.
Kreitzer ran into a problem though.
The water that many thought was a few thousand years old was much, much older. The ad campaign would have to change.
Through carbon-14 testing, Alexander learned that the water existed "a long time before humans were active on this continent."
Shortly after the discovery, the brewery opened its newest well to the public. The water was free.
"They'd be down here in the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening," Kreitzer said. "Even when we were a 24-hour operation, there would be people lined up at two or three in the morning on some nights."
Eventually, the owners started charging for the water. The brewery closed in 2002, and an ethanol plant on the property closed two years later. The property has been vacant ever since.
A popular thirst-quencher
Kreitzer said he expects a lot of public interest in the well, particularly because, for the most part, residents cannot access the water elsewhere.
The state's Ground Water Act, passed twenty years ago, made it illegal to drill new wells into the Mount Simon-Hinckley aquifer in the seven-county metro area, unless other water is not available.
A grandfather clause also allows a few municipalities to still tap into the basin, but most of the old, deep industrial wells were sealed years ago.
The brewery well works like a vending machine. Customers put in money, place their jug in a slot, and choose the amount of water they want to purchase.
The water then enters the jug from a tank held at the surface. Customers can buy anywhere from one to five gallons at a time.
Kreitzer expects the well to be ready for the public within the next few weeks. A city grant funded the project, which will cost about $100,000.
Although some people might think that allowing public access might endanger the ancient water, Alexander says the aquifer is so large that the vending machines will have little impact.
And he hopes the well program will help consumers become more connected to the state's natural resources.
"Most people don't think about where their water comes from," Alexander said. "Their water comes from the tap. You turn the knob and the water comes out. And that's the extent of an awful lot of people's knowledge."