Curiosity led young Gene Haller into the world underneath Columbia.
Now at 82, as an active historian of the city, he speaks of his childhood experience with two cool brick-encased underground storage areas where beer was taken to age in the 19th Century.
One still exists behind a fence on the west side of South Main Street just south of West Ludman Street.
Much of the other, in the 100 block of West Gundlach Street, has been destroyed.
He discovered both of them while he was a child in the late 1930s. Haller lived closest to the one on South Main Street.
Today, a person on the sidewalk next to Main Street can look through a fence at a trash-filled enclosure. It has two rooms, one in back of the other.
But in the 1940s, workers for the Schmidt Brewery on Main Street would roll barrels to the naturally-cooled cave. Then they were delivered to local saloons.
View Monroe County caves in a larger map
After the brewery went out of business in the 1860s, it was used to store ice that was cut in local ponds, Haller said.
Much later, in the 1930s, hobos who had ridden trains on a nearby track used it.
"They would go in there, and they would sleep," Haller said.
Once when Haller was a child, he looked out the window and saw smoke coming from the ground. Hobos were making coffee, and smoke from their fire was coming up an air hole.
"I went down and saw that they were in there, and I'd hightail for home," Haller said. His mother wouldn't let him get close.
The hobos left long ago. Owners have put up a fence to keep people from going inside.
Haller, meanwhile, would like to see the city or the Columbia Historical Society buy the property. He'd then like to see the property restored.
The city isn't actively exploring this, said Paul Ellis, Columbia's director of Community and Economic Development. But he said, "I wouldn't rule it out."
Doris Wilson, who owns the property, said she wouldn't mind selling it. But she said she would have to receive something for it and couldn't give it away.
Although much of the South Main Street storage area still is intact, part of the other underground storage area was destroyed during excavations during the renovations of the Old Distillery Center in the 100 block of West Gundlach Street.
Photographer David Norman took pictures of the area that was later destroyed while he was taking pictures last year for his book "A Small Town Celebration: Columbia, Illinois Upon the Sesquicentennial."
The weight of the dirt on top of the domed storage area gave the structure stability, Norman said. Once the dirt was removed, it lost its strength and had to be removed.
The storage area was first used by the Old Monroe Brewery starting in the 1850s. In the 1940s, it was used as a distillery. Now Gregg Crawford is redeveloping it.
Today it looks much different than it did when Haller and some other children saw it more than 70 years ago.
They found an entrance and made their way in about 100 feet.
"I was impressed because it had been there for a long, long, long time," Haller said.
Contact reporter Jim Merkel at 618-344-0264, ext. 138
Other caves in the region
Monroe County has about 100 caves of varying sizes, the most in Illinois, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.
The only one that has been open to the public is Illinois Caverns at 4369 G Road in Waterloo, but it's been closed since a fatal type of bat disease was found inside in May. The fungus, known as White Nose Syndrome, has been hurting bats across the country.
The cavern, where the temperature is a constant 58 degrees, is also known as Manmmoth and Eckert cave.