By LINDA MCALPINE Daily News
While there may not be a big demand these days for coopering — the art of barrel making — it once was a highly sought after occupation.
Mills in Washington County’s Young America and Richfield, among many others in the county in the early 1850s-60s likely depended on local cooperages, according to Frank Carr, president of the Richfield Historical Society.
Gary Hess of Madison, whose grandfather learned the coopering trade in his native Bohemia and applied those skills when he settled in the Madison area at the turn of the century, shared what it was like as a job during a presentation to the Richfield Historical Society on Thursday at Richfield Village Hall.
“My grandfather, Frank J. Hess, knew by the time he was 14 that he wanted to be a cooper and he spent three years as an apprentice learning the trade in Bohemia,” Hess said.
Frank J. Hess came to the United States and settled in Chicago, and took work as a barrelmaker in that city. He eventually moved to Madison and in 1904, started his own cooperage shop, creating the barrels that were used by breweries for their product. The company grew to be the largest in the state before closing in 1966.
Frank J. Hess had four sons, including Gary Hess’s father, who all worked in the cooperage. “I worked in the cooperage during the summers, and it was hard work,” Gary Hess said.
Hess Cooperage took up two large buildings in Madison and had its own saw mill. White oak logs were delivered to the cooperage and split by hand with a sledgehammer and a wedge. These smaller pieces of wood were then hauled by wheelbarrow to the saw mill where they were “quarter sawed, by a machine that had a 54-inch saw blade,” according to Hess.
The wood used for the barrel tops and staves were left outdoors to age for a season, he said.
Once properly aged, the wood was brought into the factory and the staves, which created the sides of the barrel, were steamed for about 90 minutes, then, while still hot, placed on a stave bending machine. The staves were then hand assembled into a barrel with three metal hoops being placed around the barrel by a machine.
An important step in the process for beer barrels is the installation of the aluminum cooling coil, Hess said.
“The breweries out East wanted barrels with the coils. We would send them the completed barrels, they would fill them with beer and then deliver them to taverns,” Hess said. “At the tavern, the barkeep would tap the keg and pump it full of air and pump cold water into the coil, which kept the beer cold for customers.”
The leaves from cattail plants also played an important role in barrel making, Hess said. “We put a strip of cattail leaves between each stave and around the top and bottom of each barrel because the cattail strip served as a gasket to prevent leaking,” Hess said.
During the years of Prohibition, the cooperage switched to making barrels for local dairies, but when the ban on alcohol was lifted, the company returned to serving its best customers — breweries.
When the company closed for good in 1966, it was the only cooperage company left in the country, Hess said.
For more information about Hess Cooperage, visit www.fauerbrewery.com and click on the link for Hess Cooperage or visit www. wisconsinhistory.org and type in Frank J. Hess.