Grain Belt Beer Sign


Grain Belt Sign

The Grain Belt sign as it looked in 1975. MPR News

In 1941, the Grain Belt Beer sign, a bottle-cap shaped 50' X 40' billboard constructed for $5000, was placed on top of the Marigold Ballroom at 1330 Nicollet Avenue in downtown Minneapolis.

The sign was moved to Nicollet Island in 1950. It was put on land owned by the Eastman family, facing downtown alongside the Hennepin Avenue bridge. Rent for the location was $1000 monthly, plus fifty cents for every barrel of beer sold. This move to Nicollet Island offered better visibility and reduced competition from other neon advertisements downtown.

It remained illuminated until 1975 when the Minneapolis Brewing Company, unable to compete with a consolidating brewing industry, was forced to shut down. Around the same time, real estate developer Irwin Jacobs purchased the brewery for $4.1 million, intending to redevelop the area near the Mississippi River.

The Grain Belt brand was sold to G. Heileman Brewing of Lacrosse, Wisconsin, in 1976, though production continued at the Jacob Schmidt Brewery in Saint Paul.

In the fall of 1985, the Eastman family, the Minneapolis Historic Preservation Council (HPC), and G. Heileman Brewing started discussions to revive the Grain Belt Beer sign. In 1989, after years of negotiation, G. Heileman Brewing agreed to sponsor a $125,000 effort to relight the sign. Finally, on May 24, 1989, after fourteen years of darkness, the Grain Belt Beer sign was lit up again.

The relighting process faced several challenges, not just financial ones. Workers had to remove a dump truck load of squirrel and bird nests from the sign. Years of deterioration and squirrel damage to the old wiring made it difficult to determine the original colors of the lights.

In October 1991, G. Heileman Brewing sold the Grain Belt label to Saint Paul's Minnesota Brewing Co. The on-again-off-again sign was again turned off. Discussions to once again light the sign led to it being turned back on in a small ceremony on February 18, 1992, coinciding with the introduction of a light version of Grain Belt beer.

It stayed lit until 1996. That year, poor sales of the brewery's flagship brands, among other financial issues, forced Minnesota Brewing Company to cut costs. The Grain Belt Beer sign, expensive to keep lit and steadily falling into disrepair, was turned off.

The sign was no longer the grand spectacle it once was, with only the letters "R-A-I-N E-L-T" illuminated. A return to its former glory wasn't yet to be. After a brief sales bounce in late 1996, the company spent the rest of the decade in financial free-fall. It closed in June 2002.

In July 2002, Schell's Brewing from New Ulm purchased the Grain Belt brand at auction. Despite an almost universal desire to see the sign glowing along the riverfront again, financial priorities took precedence, and its future remained uncertain.

The Eastman family, owners of both the sign and the land, put both up for sale in 2009. Schell's had hoped to relight the sign one day but wanted to make the financial success of their brewery a top priority. They vowed to help in any way possible to ensure the Grain Belt Beer sign remained on Nicollet Island.

Discussions began with the community to find the necessary funds for restoration. One of the first moves would be to transition away from neon lights to more cost-effective and easier-to-maintain LED lights. The Eastman family even offered to donate the land to a non-profit willing to care for the sign permanently.

Additional billboards, including electric ones on the sign's back side, were considered to bridge the funding gap.

Finally, in November 2014, Schell's Brewing stepped back in, announcing plans to buy the iconic sign and the land it sat on. The sale was made official in January 2016, marking the beginning of restoration efforts.

Schell's started selling the old bulbs as commemorative packages for $100 each to raise money.

On December 30, 2017, at 5:30 PM, the historic Grain Belt Beer sign was switched back on after being dark for over twenty years. The incandescent bulbs were replaced with LED lights and 800 feet of neon tubes.

The brewery organized a pub crawl to celebrate the relighting, followed by a gathering near Nicollet Island in the winter cold to witness this historic moment. Bands played, and beer flowed in the Nicollet Island Pavillion shortly after the ceremony.

The Grain Belt sign shone once again.


This location is part of

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Bibliography

  • August Schell Acquires Historic Grain Belt Sign." Grain Belt. Last modified June 2, 2020. https://www.grainbelt.com/august-schell-acquires-historic-grain-belt-beer-sign/.
  • Brandt, Steve. "Going against the grain?" Minneapolis Star Tribune, April 21, 2010, AA3.
  • "Grain Belt Beer." Historic Minneapolis Signs. Last modified May 28, 2013. https://historicminneapolissigns.wordpress.com/signs/grain-belt-beer/.
  • "Grain Belt Sign Lighting and After Party." Grain Belt. Last modified June 23, 2020. https://www.grainbelt.com/grain-belt-sign-lighting-party/.
  • Kaszuba, Mike. "Nicollet Island bottle cap may glow again, this time as a piece of history." Minneapolis Star Tribune, September 24, 1985, 18.
  • Lindeke, Bill. "Signs of the Time: Why We Spend Big Bucks to Save Old Ads." MinnPost. Last modified October 30, 2015. https://www.minnpost.com/cityscape/2015/10/signs-time-why-we-spend-big-bucks-save-old-ads/.
  • Minneapolis Star Tribune. "Grain Belt sign aglow once again." February 19, 1992, 4.
  • Wascoe Jr., Dan. "On-off Grain Belt sign on the 'off' side of cycle." Minneapolis Star Tribune, November 22, 1991, 3.