Eau Claire's Legendary "Cave Lady"

Frank Smoot, photos by Andrea Paulseth |

The Eau Claire River
Are there caves along the Eau Claire River? You can bank on it.

Let's enjoy a blast from the past (July 7, 2011 to be exact) as former V1 columnist and local history ninja Frank Smoot details the very true tale of a very real cave along the Eau Claire River – and the very real lady who once lived in it.

I walked along the south bank of the Eau Claire River between the Dewey Street bridge and the S-bridge by Banbury. I had heard there was a cave on the north bank, but I couldn’t see it. Do you know where it is? – V1 Reader

Thanks for asking! I do. Your informant was off by one riverbank. It’s actually on the south bank and you were almost to it. It’s about a quarter-mile upstream from Dewey. You’ll find a nice path on the south side of the Dewey Street bridge. The trail goes native just beyond a state office building lawn, but keep going up the river anyway. You’ll see a world of concrete relics in the woods: shipping docks without their buildings, old foundations, piers. The path roughens, and suddenly you’ll see it, carved into the bluff below East Grand. It’s a big vault: 12 feet at its tallest, 20 feet at its widest, some 50 feet deep.

It’s not a natural cave. As far as I know, a renegade brewer named Robert Hantzsch blasted it out (or maybe, more mildly, excavated it) about 1860. One story says he brewed in a house at 830 East Grand, and sent his brew down a shaft into vats in the cave. Or he brewed on River Street (now Graham Avenue). Or at the corner of Eau Claire and Farwell streets. Anyway, he stored beer there, it’s said, to escape a tax on distilled goods. In 1870, one of Eau Claire’s many fires destroyed the distillery. He skedaddled to Minneapolis and died there in 1882 at 46 years old. The only other commercial tenant: a local construction company (Schlosser & Hubener), which used it briefly as a powder magazine.

But the most locally famous story wasn’t Hantsch’s. Maude Phillips was a poet (under the pen-name Violet Leigh), a free-thinker, and an advocate of free love. She married Wilbur Phillips, a music teacher, and they had five children. This didn’t stop her from having affairs (by her own admission) with several men, including a Madison physician and an Eau Claire minister.

The affair with the minister went badly. The courts got involved. Legal fees accumulated. Her husband – apparently Wisconsin’s most patient man – finally couldn’t keep the family afloat. In August of 1917, they all moved into the cave, along with Maude’s 76-year-old mother Katheline. They made a home as best they could, hauling in carpet and furniture, even flying a flag out front.

Local authorities tried to cajole, berate, and intimidate the family into vacating. No luck. It was apparently Maude’s personality holding the standoff together, because the eviction effort keyed on Maude. Someone, I’m guessing the sheriff, finally got a hearing scheduled in front of Eau Claire County Court judge George Blum in February 1918 – a sanity hearing, with the goal of committing Maude to the Wisconsin State Hospital for the Insane at Mendota. Blum issued the commitment order, and Sheriff George Garman escorted her to Madtown the next day. Wilbur followed her. The last trace before I lose the trail: Maude published a poem from Madison in 1928.

That cave needs some love. I don’t mind the graffiti, or the campfire soot. They add to the ambiance somehow. But it’s piled in garbage: old food wrappers, plastic bottles. If you go down there, take a lawn-n-leaf bag and fill it on your way out. I know, the next time we hike down there, we plan to do just that.