Gonna be LIT

No more darkness on the edge of downtown: The 76-year-old Grain Belt Beer sign comes back to life Saturday at sundown. Photo by Jim Walsh

I literally grew up under the glow of the Grain Belt Beer sign, attending as I did DeLaSalle High School and all those ’70s Nicollet Island basketball games, dances, kegs and other nighttime activities, therefore — ahem — I know a little something about the romance and magic that the sight of a single huge colorful neon sign reflecting off the Mississippi River can bring to the soul of the city.

It’s been dark since 1996, but through the miracle of technology the big beer cap in the sky is about to rise again, and I for one can’t hardly wait to see the old warhorse RELIT this Saturday at sundown (5:30 p.m., with pre-lighting festivities at Wilde Café & Spirits starting at 3 p.m. and a post-lighting party at Nicollet Island Inn).

“Better to light one candle than to curse the darkness,” goes the old optimist adage, and in this, the darkest days of the year in these new dark ages, it says here that the lighting of the Grain Belt sign is a good thing symbolically, poetically, karmically, and if all goes well, after Saturday people all over the world will know once and for all that there is a place called Minneapolis where the citizens worship a giant neon beer sign and revere it as a shrine and sacred sign of life, so much so that after decades in the darkness the believers figured out a way to once again beam out their message of simple joy and prairie-brewed suds to the rest of the planet. Hallelujah!

“Euphoria was in the air when the sign was relit in 1989 … the relighting was accompanied by honks across Hennepin Avenue Bridge and cheers from a crowd of about 200,” wrote one Grain Belt beer sign historian about the briefly relit sign, and Saturday night I’m hoping for an encore, a super-explosive hygge ritual for the ages, because Lord knows after the year we just survived, we could use some serious euphoria and civic silliness.

Not to mention love and good vibes. Saturday evening, I’m happy and heartened to know that one of Minneapolis’s most beautiful couples, my niece Maddy Brown and her fiancé Tom Powers, will be pre-celebrating their New Year’s Eve marriage vows at a gala on the riverbank across from the Grain Belt sign at the very moment of its relighting, and it is absolutely fitting that their inspiring young love and good energy will forever be associated with such an historic and potentially magical night in electric river city.

Monday afternoon, I stood on the Hennepin Avenue Bridge and snapped a few photos of the Grain Belt sign towering over the hissing frozen Mississippi. I was the only one on the bridge, but Saturday evening hoards of hardy Minnesotans will undoubtedly stand there shoulder-to-shoulder to witness the relighting of the twin town torch (forecast calls for -10 at lighting time) and gather in celebration of Minnesota’s first brewer, the Minneapolis Brewing Company, and its most popular export: beer, bars and nightlife.

From Historic Minneapolis Signs: “Minneapolis Brewing Company formed with the merger of four smaller brewers in 1891 (Orth, Heinrich, Norenberg, and Germania). Two years after the merger, Minneapolis Brewing introduced Grain Belt Golden. It became the company’s flagship product and one of the best-selling beers in the upper Midwest. According to the Schell’s Brewing Company website, the name Grain Belt referred to the geographical area of the country known as ‘America’s Grain Belt,’ where ‘the finest in Minnesota grains, along with Perfect Brewing Water, made the perfect beer.’”

This time around, the August Schell Brewing Co., the company that owns Grain Belt and the corporate powers behind the relit sign, sold commemorative LED light bulbs for $100 each, and the people who bought ’em up got a bargain and a stake in something uniquely hokey and homegrown.

To be sure, the big sign gives the city heart, and even though it’s been dark for more than 20 years, I haven’t forgotten its beacon-like pull. I wrote a plea for the relighting in 2007 and talked to Winthrop E. Eastman, the Wayzata native and retired Houston, Texas-based businessman whose family founded Grain Belt Brewing Company and who owned the sign and the land it’s built on.

“There is nothing more I’d like than to see it relit, and there’s a lot of people who would like to see that sign glow again,” said Eastman, who died last year. “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.”

So glad the newbies didn’t prevail. I thought about the Grain Belt sign on Christmas Eve as I passed a bonfire in front of a house on 42nd & Harriet, where a dozen or so neighbors gathered round a little hearth. I’m sure there were indoor fireplaces to be had, but like the Grain Belt beer sign’s resurrection, the act of building a bonfire outdoors is an act of faith, of persisting and of cutting through the darkness in these cold, dark days, and a living out of Dylan Thomas’s words about not going gentle into that good night, “but rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Saturday night, the raging riverfront glows yet again with light, neon promise and possibility.

’Bout damn time.

Been a long time a-brewin’.

Light it up!


Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at [email protected]