“The soul of a city lies in its history, and this piece of neon memorabilia we’re going to light tonight helps bring back a part of that history.” - Minneapolis Mayor Don Fraser in 1989
In 1941 the Grain Belt Premium Beer sign, a bottle-cap shaped 50’ X 40’ billboard constructed for $5000, was put on top of the Marigold Ballroom at 1330 Nicollet Avenue in downtown Minneapolis. It was there for nine years.
The sign was moved to Nicollet Island in 1950. It was placed on land owned by the Eastman family, facing downtown alongside the Hennepin Avenue bridge. Rent for the location was $1000 per month plus .50 additional for every barrel of beer sold. The island location allowed for greater visibility and less competition against a sea of neon advertisements downtown.
It remained lit until 1975, when the Minneapolis Brewing Company, unable to compete against an ever-consolidating brewing industry, was forced to close its doors. That same year local real estate developer Irwin Jacobs bought the brewery for 4.1 million dollars.
He closed the brewery, intending to redevelop the area alongside the Mississippi River. In 1976 he sold the Grain Belt brands to G. Heileman Brewing of Lacrosse, Wisconsin (although they produced Grain Belt at the Jacob Schmidt Brewery in St. Paul).
The Eastman family (owners of the sign and land), Minneapolis Historic Preservation Council (HPC), and G. Heileman Brewing began conversations to resuscitate the Grain Belt Beer sign in the Fall of 1985. In 1989, after years of discussion, G. Heileman Brewing agreed to underwrite a $125,000 effort to relight it.
On May 24, 1989, after fourteen years of darkness, the Grain Belt Premium Beer sign glowed once again.
The challenges in the relighting effort after fourteen years weren’t only financial. A dump truck load of squirrel and bird nests was removed. Years of deterioration, along with squirrels chewing through the old wiring in the bottle cap, made it difficult to tell what colors most of the lights should be. Workers that maintained the sign years prior were consulted to try and get the sign back to what it once was.
In October 1991, G. Heileman Brewing sold the Grain Belt label to St. Paul’s Minnesota Brewing Co. The on-again-off-again sign was once 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 Co to cut costs. The Grain Belt Beer sign, expensive to keep lit and steadily falling into disrepair, was turned off. It 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 to be (at least not yet). 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, New Ulm’s Schell’s Brewing bought the Grain Belt brand at auction.
Having the sign glow along the riverfront again, while absolutely something everyone wanted to see happen, was pushed into the background.
In 2009, The Eastman family, owners of both the sign and the land, put both up for sale. Schell’s 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 they could to ensure the Grain Belt Beer sign remained on Nicollet Island.
Discussions began with members of the community to find the money. It was decided that one of the first moves would be to transition away from neon to cheaper-to-light and easier-to-maintain LED lights. The Eastman family, for their part, offered to donate the land to any non-profit willing to care for the sign in perpetuity. Conversations included additional billboards on the site, including electric ones, to close the funding gap.
In November 2014, Schell stepped back in, announcing plans to buy the iconic sign and the land it sat on. It took a while, but in January 2016, the sale was made official. Restoration efforts were officially underway.
Schell’s began selling the old bulbs as part of a commemorative package to interested individuals for $100 apiece to raise money.
On December 30, 2017, at 5:30 PM, the historic sign, kept off for more than twenty years, was switched back on. LED lights replaced thousand incandescent bulbs and 800 feet of neon tubes.
The brewery celebrated the relighting by first hosting a pub crawl before everyone huddled together near Nicollet Island in the winter cold to experience history. Beer flowed and bands played in the Nicollet Island Pavillion shortly after the ceremony,
The Grain Belt sign was aglow once again.
- "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.