Nearly 150 years ago, a few years before Jesse James reputedly used it as a hideout, a brewery used Robber's Cave to store beer.

In 1869, Lincoln Brewery enlarged the existing cave and stored barrels of finished beer as well as beer-making ingredients there. Workers for the brewery spent three years digging out the soft Dakota sandstone, eventually making a 5,600-square-foot warehouse space.

The brewery was sold in 1873 and later went out of business. Since then, beer and Robber's Cave have only gone together in ways most people would prefer not to talk about.

But the owner of a local brewery wants to resurrect history and reopen the cave in southwest Lincoln to the public.

Brian Podwinski, owner of Blue Blood Brewing Co., has a deal in place to buy the property and construct a building above ground to house his brewery and an expanded taproom and restaurant.

A big part of his plan also involves reopening the cave, which has been closed and sealed up since 2000. He also plans to use the cave as storage for a line of barrel-aged beers Blue Blood makes.

"We'll use the cave for whatever we reasonably can," he said.

Podwinski said he visited the cave earlier this month with a structural engineer who pronounced it safe and sound.

He said everyone he's talked to about his plans "is just really excited about it."

"I think it's a big deal for Lincoln," he said.

A lot of Lincolnites have fond memories of the cave, which is just south of 10th and High streets.

Television personality and Lincoln native Dick Cavett mentioned in an interview with the Journal Star in October that he was sad Robber's Cave was no longer open.

Its long and somewhat checkered history goes back to the Civil War era.

According to historical accounts, early settlers used the cave to hide from Native tribes, and a duel was fought there in 1867. It's also been said the cave was one of the stops on the Underground Railroad that helped slaves escape to the north.

An oft-told story holds that outlaw Jesse James visited the cave in the 1870s after visiting his mother, who lived in Rulo, but local historian Jim McKee said there's no evidence of the visit.

The first time the cave was open to the public was in 1906, when the Scarborough family of Lincoln bought it. It hosted tours and events for decades -- McKee said he remembers going on a Cub Scout tour as a boy -- before the family closed it in 1973 because of vandalism.

It opened again in 1986 and then was sealed in 2000 by current owner, developer Tom White, because of ongoing concerns about safety and trespassing.

Podwinski said he was drawn to the site because of its history of hosting a brewery and also because the Jesse James lore -- true or not -- is a perfect marketing peg for Blue Blood's Outlaw line of small-batch beers.

His current location in an industrial park in southwest Lincoln has room to expand the brewing operation, but not his small taproom. And it's also not an ideal location to draw visitors.

He wants to build a 9,000-square-foot building on the site. The brewery operation would take up 6,000 square feet, while the other 3,000 square feet would house a 100-seat taproom and restaurant with a full kitchen.

About half an acre of the 1.5-acre site can't be built on or used for parking because it sits on top of the cave, so Podwinski said he is looking at developing an outdoor seating area and beer garden.

The entire project is expected to cost about $1.5 million, and Podwinski has applied to the city to use tax-increment financing to help defray some of the costs.

According to a city analysis, the project would qualify for about $100,000 in TIF, which uses the increased property taxes generated by the development to fund bonds to pay for improvements that will benefit the public.

Podwinski has an ambitious timeline, saying he has his fingers crossed that the brewery and taproom will be open by August.

He hopes to have the cave open and ready for the public to use by then, too.

McKee, the historian, said he thinks a brewery using the cave again makes a lot of sense.

"It's a neat idea. I like it."

Reach the writer at 402-473-2647 or molberding@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LincolnBizBuzz.

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