He loved watching fires, hated sidewalk clocks, drove the fastest and flashiest car in town, and set the city’s political establishment on its ear. Elected mayor in 1906 at the age of 26, he only served a single two-year term but no one had more fun in office, or pulled crazier stunts, than Sherburn M. Becker, nationally famous as “Milwaukee’s boy mayor.”
Sherburn was born into considerable wealth. (His father, Washington “Lace Curtain” Becker – so called for his prominent white whiskers – was president of Marine National Bank.) Sherburn developed an early interest in firefighting and even had a fire department alarm indicator installed in his bedroom in the family house at 1409 N. Prospect Ave. When the alarm sounded, Sherburn was off and running. On cold days he would take along containers of hot coffee to serve to the chilled firefighters.
Although Sherburn had already served terms as 1st Ward Alderman and as a County Supervisor, Milwaukee’s political insiders laughed when Sherburn announced he would run for mayor. After all, the 26-year-old was facing incumbent David S. Rose, a popular and politically powerful mayor seeking his fifth consecutive term in office.
Rose attempted to dismiss Sherburn’s challenge by clumsily referring to him as, “That brat born with a silver spoon in his mouth who thinks he is going to be mayor.”
The comment struck many as needlessly insulting and probably cost Mayor Rose more votes than it gained him. Worse, Sherburn proved gifted at political give-and-take, responding, “Old Dave was born with a tin horn in his mouth and he has been tooting it ever since.”
From that point on, whenever Rose would give a speech, someone in the crowd was certain to bellow “tin horn!” to the general laughter of the audience.
On election day, Sherburn won by a comfortable margin and embarked on a two-year term best described as “uproarious.” Sherburn, after first ordering a fire alarm indicator installed in the mayor’s office, hit the ground running.
On the heels of his upset election, he was invited to give a speech in New York City. Rather than take the train, Sherburn, three friends, and a chauffeur crowded into his bright red Pope-Toledo automobile and set off cross-country. This at a time when most roads were little more than primitive dirt tracks.
The mayor, whose car was decorated with a banner reading “Sherburn M. Becker, Boy Mayor of Milwaukee,” stopped at towns along the way to give speeches. A favorite topic was the need to improve roads. By the time they reached Toledo, the car was on its last legs and was handed over to the Pope-Toledo company to be rebuilt. It is said factory personnel replaced nearly everything but the engine but soon had the car back on the road to New York.
The party, having driven around a policeman in Erie, Pa., who was attempting to arrest them for violating that city’s ban on automobiles, arrived in New York City in 62 hours, easily setting a long-distance driving record.
After delivering his speech, Becker paid a call on President Theodore Roosevelt at his home at Oyster Bay, New York. Roosevelt had forbade the use of automobiles on his estate, but set the rule aside temporarily so that Sherburn and his famous red car could roar triumphantly up to the front door.
Back in Milwaukee, the mayor made headlines with another spectacular stunt. Jewelers, at the time, customarily advertised their businesses with large post-mounted sidewalk clocks. In 1906, there were a great many jewelers along Grand Avenue (now Wisconsin Avenue) and consequently a great many clocks cemented into city sidewalks.
The city attorney found the clocks to be an illegal infringement of publicly owned walkways but store owners ignored the ruling. One night, Sherburn rounded up six firefighters and an assistant city attorney. The next morning, residents awoke to find the clocks removed, and their mayor calmly telling the press, “If people fail to heed warnings, they must accept the consequences.”
The road trip and the midnight removal of sidewalk clocks are the main things for which Becker is remembered but he did much else in his two years in office. From his hobby interest in firefighting, he was aware that advertising signs overhanging sidewalks dangerously impeded firefighters and complicated rescue efforts. There were many of these signs in Milwaukee but the mayor and fire department quietly and successfully worked with building owners to have them removed.
In early 1908, a fire in a public school in North Collinwood, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, took the lives of 174 children and two teachers. Most of the bodies were found huddled against a poorly designed exit door. The mayor and members of the Milwaukee School Board determined nothing of the sort would happen here, and soon had every school in the city equipped with vastly improved fire escapes.
Sherburn did not seek reelection in 1908 and David Rose finally won his fifth term.
The former boy mayor purchased a seat on the New York Stock Exchange and settled into a successful financial career. In 1937, he retired to a 2,000-acre dairy farm in upstate New York. In April 1946, Becker visited the city to attend a Marine Bank shareholders meeting and sat down for an interview with The Milwaukee Journal.
“We have to stay young in our ideas,” the 69-year-old Becker told the paper.