The Legend of the Beer Machine

Aerial view of Barro Colorado Island at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, c. 1986, Access

Beer is almost like a universal language. Most places you go to in the world will have a national beer and plenty of people willing to drink it with you. This is even truer when Oktoberfest comes around. From Oktoberfest flavored brews to the countless festivals held throughout late September and early October, people take the time to drink and be merry!

In honor of Oktoberfest, and in the spirit of beer, we thought we would share one of our beer stories from the Archives Oral History Collection. Beer is one of the best ways to sit and relax and socialize after a long hard day of work. Even when Smithsonian staff goes into the field in search of collections and knowledge, they find time to take a break from collecting to unwind with a cold one. But sometimes in these often remote locations, getting your favorite brew is a challenge.

Barro Colorado Island from Gatun Lake, 1950, Record Unit 50, Smithsonian Institution Archives, neg.

Smithsonian researchers from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Center (STRI) came up with an ingenious way to overcome this problem. STRI began on Barro Colorado Island (BCI), an island found in the man-made Gatun Lake in the Panama Canal watershed. Smithsonian staff have traveled there for biodiversity research since the early 1900s. The research station officially joined the Smithsonian in 1946 and has served as a home to staff and their families ever since.

A. Stanley Rand in Panama on the Old Gamboa Road in June of 1996, by Dorothy White, Record Unit 9579

In the 1960s-1970s a group of BCI inhabitants found a way to make their time on the island even more comfortable. They created a beer machine. In an oral history interview A. Stanley Rand, a STRI herpetologist, discussed how they accomplished this feat:

The original beer machine was in the bunker at Naos, and it was discovered that the [Panama Canal] Company apparently had forgotten about it, because nobody ever came to fill it. So they decided they didn't need it. It was a Coke machine in those days, and was moved to BCI, and people used to sneak in and buy cases of beer and bring [them] out and put [them] in the machine. It didn't work very well, but people were afraid to tell the Company, complain to the Company . . . It later turned out that, in fact, the Company was delighted to have a beer machine, and not only that, but they would deliver beer to Gamboa once a week if you got around to calling in in due time.

Dr. Brian C. Bock along pipeline road at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, circa 1986, Ac

The person who handled the beer machine key thus became one of the most important people on the island. In fact, when Brian C. Bock, a herpetologist who was a visiting scientist in STRI's Biology Program, split his ear on a ceiling fan, his first act was to not think of medical attention, but the beer key. Bock recalled that he was:

. . . bleeding all over and feeling rather stupid. I managed to get . . . to the top of the front porch where everyone was having Happy Hour. I was the beer hefter at the time, so my first act, of course, was to surrender my flag. I took the keys off and passed them, because it was like capital punishment to leave the island with the keys to the beer machine, because that would bring things to a halt.

This small luxury helped Smithsonian staff deal with life in the field. The beer machine helped STRI staff bond and add enjoyment to the hard work of collecting in the steamy tropics. However, a beer machine is not the only way Smithsonian staff brought beer into the field – check out the Field Book Project Blog to learn how beer became a collection in and of itself, and remember to enjoy this year's Oktoberfest celebrations safely!

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