All history is local, in this case the locality is Milwaukee

Milwaukee’s airship port


Was the spire atop the Wisconsin Tower, 606 W. Wisconsin Ave., intended for mooring giant passenger airships like the Hindenburg? When this building was built in 1920, that wasn’t a far-fetched idea. Carl A. Swanson photo

According to legend, the owners of the 22-story Wisconsin Tower (originally the Mariner Tower), built 88 years ago at 606 W. Wisconsin Ave., included something unusual in its design – a rooftop mooring mast for dirigible airships. In drawing up plans in the late 1920s builders pinned their hopes on the latest development in transportation – airships. With a dirigible mooring mast on the roof, 280 feet above the street it was just a matter of time before Zeppelins linked Milwaukee, via this very building, to the major cities of the world.


Election year madness


There has never been a presidential election like this: The Republican Party is split into bickering factions and unable to unite behind its candidate, while the Democratic Party is in disarray following a bitter nomination process. Adding to the turmoil, candidates from two small parties are attracting unprecedented support.

Now one of those upstart candidates is coming to Milwaukee – where an assassin will fire a bullet into his chest.

It is Oct. 14, 1912, and Theodore Roosevelt is scheduled to speak at the Milwaukee Auditorium. Covering a city block, the auditorium holds 9,000. An overflow crowd is gathering, eager to hear the popular former president make his case as the candidate of the new “Bull Moose” party. John Flammang Schrank, a New York saloonkeeper, is also in Milwaukee. He had followed Roosevelt from city-to-city for nearly a month. There is a gun in his pocket. (more…)

Mae West’s Milwaukee secret

Film actress Mae West believed in leaving little to the imagination, but something happened to her in Milwaukee that she very much wanted to remain a secret.

Actress Mae West believed in leaving little to the imagination, but early in her career, something happened in Milwaukee she very much wanted to remain secret.

Mae West, called the “epitome of playfully vulgar sex” by the New York Times became a household name and amassed a vast fortune by portraying confident and outrageously outspoken characters on stage and in films. But, early in her career, something happened she wanted to forever remain secret.

In 1911, at the age of 17, she had gotten married in Milwaukee.

As her fame grew, West maintained she had always been single, famously saying, “Marriage is a great institution, but I’m not ready for an institution yet.” In fact, West not only had been secretly married to Vaudeville song-and-dance man Frank Wallace, their union lasted 31 years.


Cracker-Jacks Park was a river landmark


A shopping cart at the north end of Richards Street marks the former location of Cracker-Jacks Park. This once-popular privately owned picnic grounds on the west bank of the Milwaukee River is nearly forgotten today. Carl A. Swanson photo

On the Fourth of July, 1938, two sisters, ages 6 and 12, seeking a spot to watch the Estabrook Park fireworks from the west bank of the Milwaukee River found trouble instead. As they approached the bluff, an adult male emerged from the bushes, slapped the 6-year-old twice across the face, picked her up, and carried her off down a ravine.

Fortunately, help was nearby. Henry Kaeding, a resident of the 4200 block of North Richards Street, came running at the sound of the older girl’s screams and charged into the ravine in pursuit of the abducted child and her assailant.

Racism, candy bars, and fairness

Milwaukees Sperry Candy Co. is remembered for its popular – if oddly named – "Chicken Dinner" candy bars, which it delivered in an equally odd fleet of chicken-shaped trucks. Photo courtesy Milwaukee County Historical Society.

Milwaukee’s Sperry Candy Co. is remembered for its popular – if oddly named – “Chicken Dinner” candy bars, which it delivered in an equally odd fleet of chicken-shaped trucks. Photo courtesy Milwaukee County Historical Society.

From its beginnings in a one-room factory on National Avenue in 1921, the Sperry Candy Co. grew into one of Wisconsin’s largest candy makers. By the 1940s, 275 workers in a five-story factory at 133 W. Pittsburgh St., were producing Sperry’s 5-cent “Chicken Dinner” and “Denver Sandwich” candy bars for customers nationwide.

One of those workers was Inonia Champion.


Nightmare on Holton Street

Schulz murder house

In 1952, a mother and her two young children were murdered in a second floor flat on Holton Street. Carl A. Swanson photo

In February 1952, Arno Schulz walked into a nightmare. Returning from an out-of-town business trip, Arno found the body of his wife, Katherine Schulz, 38. She had been killed by multiple shotgun blasts in the family’s upper-floor flat at 2616 N. Holton St.

He ran from the building to summon police without realizing his son Robert, 11, and daughter Kathleen, 6, were also lying dead in the flat. The boy had died as he crawled under his bed to escape the killer. Police found the little girl huddled in a closet in which she had attempted to hide.

At almost the same time, and nearly 400 miles away, Missouri State Highway Patrol troopers pulled over a driver for speeding. Thinking the man was acting strangely, they decided to detain him and check into his story.

That’s when Arno Schulz’s nightmare took another turn. His 16-year-old son, John Schulz was under arrest in Missouri. He had murdered his mother, then his brother, and finally his kid sister. The cause? An argument over borrowing the family car.

An anguished Arno Schulz told Milwaukee Sentinel reporter Robert J. Riordan, “This has wiped out everything I have been fighting for. His mother, his brother, his darling little sister. But … [John] is my flesh and blood.”


Wilkie James and the measure of greatness

Wilkie James headstone

Garth “Wilkie” James, a brother of the famed novelist Henry James, is buried in Milwaukee’s Forest Home Cemetery. Carl A. Swanson photo

The five children of Henry James Sr. include some of America’s greatest thinkers.

Henry’s oldest son, the philosopher and educator William James, is considered the father of American psychology and his second son (and namesake) Henry James Jr. wrote 22 novels, hundreds of short stories, and many volumes of biographies, travel writing, art criticism, and memoirs. A third son, Robert, a promising artist and writer, was plagued by alcoholism throughout his adult life. Sister Alice taught history but suffered from psychological and physical illness much of her life. Alice’s sharply observed and insightful diaries, published after her death, are still widely read and admired.

Then there is the fourth son, Garth Wilkinson “Wilkie” James. Born in New York City in 1845, Wilkie was an undistinguished student, experienced many failures and died young and penniless.

Of all the James family siblings, guess who ended up in Milwaukee.


Riverwest’s hidden landmark

Milwaukee River Pumping Station

This brick structure on the bank of the Milwaukee River in Riverwest is part of the city’s water utility. When it entered service in 1924, its massive pumps set a world record. Carl A. Swanson photo

On a stretch of the Milwaukee River once home to both ice houses and a lost neighborhood, only one structure remains – a five-story-tall, windowless brick building. Although well maintained and surrounded by neatly mown lawn, no sign identifies it and its purpose isn’t immediately obvious.

Here, at the foot of East Chambers Street in Riverwest, the city built a record-setting engineering landmark. This 92-year-old building is the Milwaukee Water Works Riverside Pumping Station. (more…)

Buses, bikes, and forgetfulness

Since 2009, all Milwaukee County Transit System buses feature front-mounted bicycle racks. Users simply fold them down, secure their bikes, and, often, forget they're there. Carl A. Swanson photo

Milwaukee County Transit System buses feature front-mounted bicycle racks. Users simply fold them down, secure their bikes, and, quite often, forget they put them there. Carl A. Swanson photo

In 2009, all Milwaukee County Transit System buses received front-mounted bike racks. The racks are extremely popular – more than 100,000 bikes are carried each year. Although it hardly seems possible, it’s quite common for a bus to return to its depot at the end of the day with a forgotten bike on its rack. Last year about 120 bikes were lost, an average of one every three days.

Most are reunited with owners. Strangely, some never call to retrieve their bicycles. What happens to those?


A landmark church in Shorewood turns 100

Luther Memorial Chapel, Shorewood

Establishing this Shorewood church took an unusually persistent man. Luther Memorial Chapel in Shorewood marks its 100th anniversary in 2016. Carl A. Swanson photo

Slightly built and bespectacled, 30-year-old Rev. Theodore Kissling had already lived an adventurous life when his church’s mission board asked him, in 1914, to organize a congregation in the fast-growing community that would become Shorewood.

That church, Luther Memorial Chapel, 3833 N. Maryland Ave., marked its 100th anniversary in 2016. Oddly, both its choir and Sunday School are older than the congregation itself. It’s a story of twists, turns, setbacks – and a young pastor who overcame them all.