The surprising history of Milwaukee’s Soldiers’ Home

In the late 1800s and into the early 1900s, Soldiers Home was a popular place for Milwaukee residents to spend a summer afternoon. Postcard image, Carl Swanson collection

In the late 1800s and into the early 1900s, Soldiers’ Home was a popular place for Milwaukee residents to spend a Sunday afternoon. Postcard, Carl Swanson collection

Soldiers’ Home, or to use its formal name, the Northwestern Branch of National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, is a collection of 25 historic buildings on the grounds of what is today the Clement J. Zablocki Veterans Administration Medical Center at 5000 West National Ave., in Milwaukee.

The grounds are expansive, well-maintained, and peaceful but visitors are few and far between. That’s a dramatic change from the home’s early years, when a day at Soldiers’ Home was a popular outing for Milwaukee residents. As this 1900s postcard (above) shows, outdoor concerts were especially well-attended (the soldiers had a highly regarded brass band).

Soliders Home looked like this in the 1970s, shortly after completion of the signature five-story building that still stands on the grounds of today's Veterans Administration facility.

Soldiers’ Home looked like this in the 1870s, shortly after completion of the signature five-story building that still stands on the grounds of today’s Veterans Administration facility.

Today several of the most significant buildings are empty and deteriorating, including the five-story main building  designed by famed architect Edward Townsend Mix, which once housed disabled veterans of the Civil War and is today closed and surrounded by a tall fence. Progress has been made in stabilizing some of the landmark historic buildings but much more work remains.

The hospital traces its roots back to 1861, the same year the country was plunged into the Civil War. With Wisconsin volunteers signing up for the Union cause, Milwaukee residents began thinking about ways to support the soldiers.

The signature building at Soldiers Home, dating back to shortly after the end of the Civil War, was designed by Edward Townsend Mix. It is closed and fenced off today and awaiting restoration. John Swanson photo

“Old Main” is the signature building in the Soldiers’ Home complex and dates back to shortly after the end of the Civil War. Designed  by Edward Townsend Mix, it is closed and fenced off awaiting restoration. John Swanson photo

As the war dragged on and casualties mounted, the need to provide care for disabled soldiers became apparent. In April 1864, local women banded together and established a temporary home in downtown Milwaukee. By May 1867, Union soldiers had been provided with 150,167 free meals and more than 1,000 received medical treatment. Moreover, the women had raised $100,000, a staggering amount of money in the 1860s, and obtained a state charter for construction of a permanent facility.

In March 1865, the U.S. Congress passed legislation establishing a framework for national centers for care and President Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address, which included an appeal to the nation to, “care for him who shall have borne the battle.”

The women’s group turned over the funds they raised to the Federal government and in this way, through many twists and turns, the local relief effort evolved into a regional center that was part of a national system of care for disabled veterans. The Milwaukee branch opened in 1867 – one of the original three such facilities in the nation. By 1895, Milwaukee’s Soldiers’ Home had 2,421 residents.

Admission was open to any honorably discharged disabled veteran with a medically certified injury preventing them from supporting themselves by ordinary means. Life in the center was organized along military lines with residents assigned to a company of men of roughly similar levels of disability overseen by a captain. Residents lived in large open dormatory-style rooms and were provided an armchair, an iron bedstead with wire springs, a wool mattress, four blankets, pillowcase and sheets. They were expected to keep these items tidy and – to the extent their disability allowed – were assigned a half-day of light duty per week, such as assisting with meal preparation or helping out around the grounds.

In their spare time, veterans enjoyed a library stocked with 3,000 books, 27 daily newspapers, 130 
weekly papers, and 37 magazines. Solders could also take classes in bookkeeping, music, telegraphy, and printing. 
A large theatre on the grounds offered frequent and varied performances. Bedtime was 9 p.m., and residents rose at 6 each morning. Lastly, they had to bathe at least once per week.

To our eyes it seems a Spartan life, but it provided food, shelter, and expert medical care for many damaged men. Just as importantly it gave them a sense of purpose and belonging.

Soldiers' Home trolley station

Solders’ Home was served by streetcar, making it easy for Milwaukee residents to visit the pleasantly shaded grounds. Postcard, Carl Swanson collection

Happily, the old warriors also had plenty of company. For many years, Sunday afternoon band concerts at Soldiers Home routinely drew large numbers of visitors. The grounds were especially popular on patriotic holidays. In 1889, the Milwaukee Sentinel reported a good-natured crowd of more than 30,000 attended Fourth of July festivities, watched over by a temporary police force of 70 old soldiers. At sunset, the grounds were illuminated with 5,000 Chinese lanterns and visitors danced until well past midnight.

In a Oct. 16, 1921 article, the Milwaukee Journal noted, “It was a common thing to hear someone conclude a discussion on the infant subject of public parks with the remark, ‘Milwaukee did not need public parks while it had Soldier’s home.’ ”

If you wish to tour the grounds today, you can download a map and free smart phone walking tour app here. Learn more about the historic grounds and efforts to preserve them here.

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