Cannon Ball Brewery and Bar opening at the corner of 17th and Bellefontaine Street, just east of College Avenue, offers 114 years of multi-layered history and unmitigated passion for building neighborhood with every pint and small plate served.
Starting with naming the brewpub for one of their heroes, bicycle racing great E.G. “Cannonball” Baker, owner-brewer Mark Swartz and co-owner Tania Swartz went hunting for a site to locate their nano-brewery.
Was serendipity at work when 1702 Bellefontaine, a short bicycle ride from their home, provided the ideal location? While Baker’s cycling speed fame now emblazons the west wall of the building, the original stone cut “F.X. Erath 1902” identification remains above the east side front doorway and the south wall bears reminiscences of a former life as a beloved neighborhood grocery. Mark and Tania have been meticulous about maintaining the essence of this century-old structure, interior and exterior, as a gathering place.
Mark’s hands-on transformation from a retail store to a brewery and bar is happening with repurposed materials and Tania’s historically-based furnishings are providing the visual elements in a building that has a century-plus of stories.
CONNECTING PRESENT WITH PAST
At the age of twelve, under the care of a sponsoring family, Frank Xavier Erath came to the United States from his birthplace in Rottwell, Germany in the State of Baden-Wurttemberg, according to descendant Donald Richard Erath, who has taken an active role in developing the soon-to-be installed story wall connecting present with past.
“I don’t know how [or when Frank Erath] found his way to Indianapolis but he was there and married Pauline Link Erath on February 3rd, 1888,” explained Don Erath, when we met on August 23.
There is evidence Don’s great-grandfather was a stone mason involved in cutting limestone for the Indiana State Capitol, which was completed in 1888. By 1902 Frank had carved his name into the building that housed his grocery store and meat market at the south end, and the family home on the north end, for some 30 years.
“Frank and Pauline’s children, Emma, Karl and Frank, all worked in the store,” related Don, who shared a treasured photograph of the interior. of the store, with a focus on the meat counter.
While there’s no visual identification for beer being sold, we surmise, based on the culture during the early 1900s, Indianapolis breweries were making deliveries to neighborhood grocery stores for retail sale. Don Erath and I concur a new life as a brewery appears to be a worthy fit, which he claims is making his daughter happy, since craft beer is to her special liking.
“Sometime in the early 1930s Frank and Pauline traded the grocery
and their home to another couple for their farm in Friendswood,” said Don. Thereafter, the building went through several transitions on its way to becoming a modern brewpub.
Multiple transitions also mark the extended Erath family, and the two dozen-plus descendants living in the Indianapolis area are ripe for sharing barstool stories with neighborhood residents, many of whom are lifelong residents and descendants of customers who came F.X. Erath Grocery and Meat Market.
“Through the years I have encountered numerous people who frequented [Frank’s] grocery and it seems that it was one of the leading social destinations in the neighborhood,” said Don Erath, reflecting that though Frank died March 1, 1940 and Pauline died in1956, they seem to live on in memory.
BRINGING A NEIGHBORHOOD TOGETHER
It's a location with excellent DNA for a brewpub, according to Evan Tester, Deputy Director of King Park Development Corporation (King Park), who sent an email response to my question about the viability of a brewpub in what has been an economically troubled neighborhood.
“King Park Development Corporation
has been working in the seven neighborhoods that comprise King Park since 1987. Much of its most recent work in 2015 and 2016 is in commercial development through its non-profit lending arm called the Build Fund,” explained Tester.
“The Build Fund
provides affordable, flexible and responsible loans to small businesses throughout Indianapolis. Cannon Ball Brewing Company is one of our loan recipients and a big success for the core urban neighborhoods of Indianapolis. The staff of King Park and all its neighbors can attest to the waiting public is ready to step into Cannon Ball on its opening day for a fresh glass of beer. Cannon Ball sits in the Kennedy King neighborhood, which is coming alive due to new and rehabbed housing and its proximity to the Monon Trail. The Monon Trail’s increased traffic brings bicyclists and pedestrians by, and car traffic has increased too, to see Cannon Ball and all the new activity in the neighborhood.”
An email from a new King neighborhood resident attests to the grass-roots validity of this evaluation. “I’m most excited for Cannon Ball — it's within walking distance of my apartment!”, wrote Beth Neville, after she and I met at an event and we talked about the multiple brewpubs poised to open around downtown Indy.
REVITALZING A ONCE VIBRANT AREA
Cynthia Hooks’ reminiscences from her childhood bring alive the original vibrancy of the neighborhood. While she is ‘too young’ for the Erath grocery tenure on the northeast corner, her recollections are of another grocery across the street.
“I remember the Frankovitz Grocery Store which is the building on the southwest corner of 17th & Bellefontaine [originally a drugstore],” wrote Hooks in an email. “They would wash the produce in the alley behind the store. I remember being able to get fresh produce and meats from Mr. Frankovitz; he would always put a li’l something extra in the bag for my grandmother.
“The neighborhood was very clean and safe. People walking everywhere and everyone knew you by name. The Small Pagoda on the northeast corner was a [Shell] gas station and next door was a shoe repair shop.
“According to my Aunt Grace, electric street cars/trolly's used to run down College Ave.
“Kountry Kitchen on 19th & College used to be the Star Movie Theater (whites only for years). Next to it was a grocery store. The Monon train track would run very regular with beautiful passenger trains. My aunt said she always wanted to ride on one.
“Thanks for bringing back great memories for my aunt,” concluded Cynthia Hooks, who still lives in the neighborhood. She added she was happy to see the activity in the Erath building, and how that was bringing a makeover in what was the Frankovitz grocery.
This excitement for reviving good memories was underscored by the positive reception to Mark and Tania during this past April’s events taking place at Kennedy-King Park.
When fellow NUVO staffer Casey Parmerlee and I stopped by to visit soon after, we got to meet neighbors who knocked on the door ‘to check out latest progress.’
We learned about historical intersections that lend themselves to barstool stories.
E. G. Baker was born in a log cabin in 1882, in Lawrenceburg, Ind. Interestingly, connecting with F.X. Erath being twelve upon his U.S. arrival, on Baker’s 12th birthday his family moved to Indianapolis, where young Erwin worked ten hours a day at the Indianapolis Drop Forge Company, earning 88 cents a day, making the wheels that got shipped to bicycle manufactures nationwide.
Little wonder E. G. Baker became a bicycle racer, concurs Mark Swartz. Baker’s racing stepped up to gasoline power in 1906, and the rest is the “Human Cannonball” making the kind of racing history Tania and Mark will honor along with the story of Frank Erath and family.
FOOD AND BEER, BEER AND FOOD
The other bit of serendipity connects with how the locally-sourced small plate food component came into play, when the original intention was to limit the Cannon Ball operation to brewing and serving beer. The way Mark Swartz tells it, a bad break for Erin Kem became a boon for Cannon Ball Brewery and Bar. When R Bistro on Mass Ave. closed, Erin found herself out of a job. Mark called Erin, a King neighborhood resident and friend, and now they’re making their own bit of history circling back to ‘the way it was.’
“Erin cooks very seasonally and that is the way I have brewed for a long time. We are having a great time coming up with some cool pairings,” offers Mark when I ask what we should expect. “We will have some German styles but it will not be limited to those,” he adds, in response to me wondering how much of F. X. Erath’s German heritage is influencing style choices.
For Mark, being inclusive and being part of the revitalization is a major incentive for transitioning from homebrewer to professional brewing, albeit on a nano system. “I really love being a part of the neighborhood.”
“It’s all very special,” attests Tania Swarz, who pointed to ‘the antiques’ she snagged at a recent sale at neighboring Landmarks Center, along with everything else that’s been salvaged and integrated into the decor of Cannon Ball Brewery and Bar at 1702 Bellefontaine.
“Pronounced ‘Bell Fountain’ by people who have lived here a long time,” added Mark, with a knowing wink.
And then Mark, anticipating the hard question, assured me opening will happen as soon as all the permits are in hand. In the meantime, stop by — and lend a hand if you’d like the finishing touches to have your imprint, or simply share a story.
And show up at Cannon Ball Brewery on October 8 when “Everyone is meeting at the brewery for the fall neighborhood cleanup. It really makes me so proud playing a part bringing everyone together, and we aren't even open yet,” reported Mark following the Aug. 29 Kennedy-King neighborhood association meeting .
Cannon Ball Brewery & Bar, 1702 Bellefontaine St., Kennedy-King Park Neighborhood, 317-436-5978