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Grain Belt beer sign: Let it glow again

Grain Belt sign
Photo by Minneapolis Star Journal Tribune, courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Here’s a view of the Grain Belt sign from the Great Northern Railway station from the May 28, 1953, edition of the Minneapolis Star Journal Tribune.


I suppose because I went to De La Salle and grew up under the glow of the Grain Belt beer sign I have a soft spot in my heart for the big un-P.C. lug that looms over the Mississippi River off the Hennepin Avenue Bridge. Countless daredevils — ritual-whipped graduating classes and otherwise — climbed the Minneapolis sign back in the day, which gives it a romantic teen-thrill luster. But to me it’s more than that:

It’s a landmark, a beacon, a… hell, I’ll just share bits of a letter I wrote to the Star Tribune in August, not long after the I-35W bridge collapse:

“To commemorate the 35W bridge tragedy, I think we should light up the Grain Belt beer sign on Nicollet Island, which has been dark for some time. I’m sure it takes nuclear power to run it, but I’d be willing to cut back on the Christmas lights this year and skip Holidazzle for the rest of my life to get the big bottle cap up and glowing again.

“It’s an icon, something that says ‘Minneapolis’ and ‘cheers’ and ‘city of lights USA’ to people all over the world. Reigniting it would be a fitting tribute to the river itself, and all the souls who’ve gone before us. For the 35W bridge victims specifically, we could honor them with a bumper sticker: ‘Throw Out the Bridge Collapsers.'”

My personal email inbox was immediately filled with enthusiastic replies — from people asking what they could do to help, to fans of Hold Steady, who name-check the rusty relic in “Party Pit.”

I came back to start a band, of course
Saw her walking through the Crystal Court
She made a scene by the revolving doors
She’s gonna walk around and drink some more
So we walked across that Grain Belt bridge
Into bright new Minneapolis

But the most informative response was from Winthrop E. Eastman, the retired Houston, Texas-based businessman whose family founded the Grain Belt Brewing Co. and who owns the sign and the land it’s built on.

“There is nothing more I’d like than to see it relit,” said Eastman. “The last time that sign was refurbished and relighted was 1986. I stood on the west bank of the river with my hand on a big switch along with the hand of the then mayor. At the appointed time we threw the switch and the old sign came back to life. There were about a thousand people there that evening and everyone cheered long and loud.”

A reenactment of that scenario isn’t likely anytime soon: The sign contains a complex array of neon tubing and more than a thousand energy-sucking incandescent bulbs. Eastman has looked into alternative lighting methods, including LED, which would cut the operating expense by 80 percent. He and Ted Marti, owner of the Schell Brewing Co., which now brews Grain Belt, have discussed ways to generate revenue to get it up and running again. But Eastman also knows any effort to relight the sign could be a political minefield.

“There’s a lot of people who would like to see that sign glow again,” he said. “But there’s also a bunch of newbies who own the million-dollar condos on and around Nicollet Island who would like to see it carted away.”

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Mark Oyaas on 11/14/2007 - 03:10 pm.

    Mr. Walsh nailed it at the end of the post, if the swells on the island are willing to go to the Supreme Court to fight a play field for children one can only imagine the lengths to which they would go to stop that wonderful talisman of good taste from being relighted. The challenge of refurbishing provides an opportunity as well. Let’s find a way to move our beloved bottle cap over to the warehouse district and find an appropriate spot for it in full view from inside the new baseball park. The sign could serve as a new/old trademark ala the Citgo sign in Boston. Mr. Walsh you and your fellow Islanders have bitten off plenty with the 120 x 60 grass play field, you won’t be parting with your special memories you will be sharing them with millions for years to come.

  2. Submitted by Chris Steller on 11/14/2007 - 03:24 pm.

    My son learned his letters from the Grain Belt Beer sign during its all-too-brief period of being re-lit. With the Eastman family (who once owned all of Nicollet Island) and Schell Brewing on board, it does seem that money and technology are the main hurdles to re-lighting the sign again. The idea comes up from time to time and generally seems to receive rousing support. I have a t-shirt with the sign on it that the folks at the old Hazelworks silk screen shop on Washington Ave. told me was their best seller. It’s a much-loved sign, and I understand city staff are looking into granting it city landmark status. That might help with any “political minefields” that exist. I have doubts about the existence of any “bunch of newbies who own the million dollar condos on and around Nicollet Island who would like to see it carted away.” For one thing, there are no million dollar condos on Nicollet Island. And the ones with that do carry that price tag are far enough away that they’d avoid the glow. (Do retirees in Texas even use the word “newbies”?) I live on Nicollet Island and have given tours here; people who live on and visit the island, to a one, are fans of the Grain Belt sign. The neighborhood association has even discussed putting NRP funds into restoring it. Thanks for the article and shining light on a darkened sign that I hope will glow again someday soon.

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