A History Set in Stone
Quarriers of Thornton, IL, circa 1890
Brewing is in our Foundation
The colorful history of The Well at the Distillery can be traced back to the mid-nineteenth century. In 1857, John S. Bielfeldt built the original brick and limestone brewery and grain tower on the west bank of Thorn Creek in the small Village of Thornton, Illinois. The building is now the oldest standing brewery in Illinois and where The Well operates today.
Bielfeldt selected the site largely because an artesian well was already on the property where a log cabin saloon and brewery had opened in 1836. Just down the street was the beginning of a large rock quarry which has ultimately become the largest limestone quarry in North America. Bielfeldt’s brewery would go on to quench the insatiable thirst of the multitude of workers and quarriers that mined the limestone that was used to help build what is today the great city of Chicago.
The Well, circa 1860
While many came to Thornton to extract the limestone, Bielfeldt used the limestone as a filter for the water in his beer. The Well tapped into the same limestone filtered spring feeding from a deep underground aquifer from Lake Superior. The minerality of the limestone filtered water provides a desirable effect on the production of fine spirits both then and now. Thornton’s limestone geology means that iron is filtered out of the water as it flows over the rock and becomes a pleasant-tasting, mineral water. The water is pumped out of a limestone aquifer 150 feet underground and filtered using reverse osmosis, so the mineral content remains intact.
By early 1857, the Bielfeldt family built a residence above The Well and adjacent to the brewery’s grain tower. Both buildings remain today as the core of the Distillery. The beer they brewed became known as “J.S. Bielfeldt Lager Beer” which was later changed to Bielfeldt Brewing Company after the death of John S. Bielfeldt in 1899. The Bielfeldt family’s production persevered despite floods, tornadoes and fire. What ended the brewery wasn’t nature, it was the law.
The Flood of 1902
Prohibition Brings Change
At the onset of Prohibition, the Bielfeldt Brewing Company was sold to Carl Ebner, Sr. Ebner bottled soda pop, but also continued to secretly produce beer. Soon, federal agents raided the brewery with axes, smashed the vats, and thousands of gallons of beer were poured into Thorn Creek. Ebner’s business was ruined and the brewery quickly fell into the control of Chicago’s crime elements.
First to take control was Joseph “Polack Joe” Saltis who re-established the brewery to supply the number of speakeasies he controlled on Chicago’s South Side. Joe soon ceded control to his neighbor, Al Capone who had a network of beer and booze suppliers for speakeasies throughout the rest of Chicagoland’s South Side. It was only a matter of time before Chicagoland’s bootlegging gangsters engaged in territorial disputes and the violence of gangland wars began. Eventually, Capone and Saltis were named on the first “Public Enemies List” released by the Chicago Crime Commission. They were Numbers One and Nine, respectively. As more of Polack Joe’s associates were murdered or were forced to flee, his syndicate collapsed, and he retired to his estate in Wisconsin. Al Capone was sent to prison for tax evasion, but the effects of crime syndicate interference would be felt for decades to come.
A Rocky New Start
Once Prohibition ended in 1933, the brewery came under the control of successive owners beginning with John M. Kubina. Kubina claimed to have been approached by Joe Saltis wanting to own a piece of the new business. Kubina swiftly declined.
Renamed “The Thornton Brewing Company,” Kubina’s company was able to produce 25,000 barrels per year of their “Thornton Special” until falling upon hard times and filing for bankruptcy in 1936. From there it moved into the hands of successive owners. It became “Illinois Brewing Company” followed by “Frederick Brewing Company,” and “McAvoy Brewing.”
In 1951, Lidefonsas “Joe” Sadauskas took ownership and the brewery was renamed “White Bear Brewing Company.” He produced a Lithuanian-style beer that proved unpopular with local residents. This, combined with Sadauskas refusing to pay a crime syndicate for protection led to big trouble. Once again Thorn Creek was filled with beer, this time dumped by the crime syndicate as retribution. At this point, Sadauskas and his partner were through with brewing and in 1957, the beer brewing stopped at The Well. After 100 years, beer brewing ceased altogether at the historic Thornton brewery. While various businesses would come and go, its heart-the old artesian well-remained, but was forgotten.
From Ruin to Restoration—The Well Today
In 2014, as the old brewery sat vacant, a small group of craft distillers happened upon its colorful history as Illinois’ oldest standing brewery and discovered the artesian well still functioned. After four long years of meticulous building restoration, The Well at the Distillery is again producing fine distilled spirits. The Well is a testament of the enduring spirit of Chicago and the spirits of all those past and present in Thornton who have shared a dream about those limestone-filtered waters beneath an artesian well.