On the afternoon of Sept. 10, 1927, Francis Wren, age 15, dived into the swimming pool at the Milwaukee Eagles Club. More than 40 people were in the pool at the time, most of them classmates from West Division High School. No one noticed when Francis failed to resurface.
Minutes later another diver bumped into Francis’ body floating near the bottom of the pool’s 9 1/2-foot deep end. Firefighters responded and performed artificial respiration for more than a half-hour but could not revive the boy.
It was initially speculated he died as a result of a heart attack but an autopsy determined drowning to have been the cause of death. There was no sign of heart disease.
No one has ever explained how an athletic young man, known to be an expert swimmer and diver, could have drowned, unnoticed, in a pool filled with other swimmers. His death has remained a mystery for 87 years.
In the 1920s, the Milwaukee chapter of the Fraternal Order of Eagles was the second largest in the nation, and members wanted to build a suitably grand new clubhouse. Designed in the Mediterranean Romanesque style by local architect Russell Barr Williamson, excavation began in April 1925. Construction of the monumental five-story building took two years and cost a staggering $1.25 million, about $18 million today.
Along with the pool, the Eagles Club included a two-story gym, bowling alleys, lounge, and a restaurant. Most of the club’s founding members worked in the theatrical industry, so it’s not surprising that entertainment was a focus right from the start. The ornate 25,000-square-foot Eagles Ballroom is the centerpiece of the huge building. It has a capacity of 4,000 people.
In 1939, the club leased the space to George Devine, who operated it as the “Million Dollar Ballroom” into the 1960s. Dancing to big band music was a favorite attraction.
By 1941, the Milwaukee’s Eagles chapter was the largest in the country with 9,200 members in the city. But in the late 1950s, membership began a long, slow decline, which finally resulted in the local chapter filing for bankruptcy and selling its building in 1989.
In the 1960s, the club was picketed over its then-policy of excluding blacks, but the passage of time brought changes. When the club closed its doors in 1989, it had a black president, Thomas Davis.
The building, now known as the Eagles Ballroom/Rave, continues to be a popular live music venue. The swimming pool is still there, deserted, drained, and behind locked doors.
A few days before his 16th birthday, Francis was laid to rest in Milwaukee’s Holy Cross Cemetery. According to AnnEllen Barr, who would have been Francis’ niece, a newsman asked his father, Frank Wren, if the family planned to sue. He replied, “I will if it will bring him back to us.” No suit was ever filed.
Three weeks later, the boy’s mother, who suffered from heart problems, also died. She is buried next to her son, the youngest of her 12 children.
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