Riverwest Neighborhood

The forgotten Milwaukee River park

Pleasant Valley Park on the west bank of the Milwaukee River was once one of the city's most popular beer gardens. Owned by the Blatz brewery and visited by thousands, it featured elaborate landscaping, a restuarant, bandshell, pavilion, steamboat dock, and even a few cottages. In 2014, little remains to remind visitors of its glory days a century ago. Photo by Carl Swanson

Pleasant Valley Park on the west bank of the Milwaukee River was once one of the city’s most popular beer gardens. Owned by the Blatz brewery and visited by thousands, it featured elaborate landscaping, a restuarant, bandshell, pavilion, steamboat dock, and even a few cottages. Little remains to remind visitors of its glory days a century ago. Photo by Carl Swanson

Pleasant Valley Park, at the foot of East Concordia Avenue on the Milwaukee River, is a peaceful place. The band packed up and left a century ago, about the time the steamboats stopped calling at the park’s dock. A little later, the pavilion, pier, cottages, and bandshell were torn down and the rubble removed. Officially this is a Milwaukee County Park but you wouldn’t know it by looking at it. There are no signs, no parking area, no picnic benches or ball fields, nothing at all to suggest it had ever been anything other than a ravine filled with downed trees and garlic mustard.

But once this was one of Milwaukee’s best-known beer gardens:

“Blatz Park (“Pleasant Valley” before 1892) swarmed with picnickers in those days. Troops of large families from St. Casimir’s Parish, a mile south, regularly followed a makeshift marching band up Humboldt Avenue to the park, each family pulling a coaster wagon containing a picnic lunch. Steam-powered boats, sailing from a dock just above the North Avenue dam, pulled up periodically at the pier and discharged crowds of passengers. The park had a bandshell and later a restaurant. There were also cottages, often rented in the summer, by one account, to actors from a theatre downtown.” – From Riverwest: A Community History, by Tom Tolan, copyright 2003, Past Press, Milwaukee, WI.


When Milwaukee police handed out courtesy cards

Hi Fi Lofts Condominiums 3059 N Weil St, Milwaukee, former home of JW Speaker
The Hi Fi Lofts Condominiums building at 3059 N. Weil St., is the former home of J.W. Speaker Co., which originally manufactured tire repair kits. Carl Swanson photo

The courtesy cards once issued by Milwaukee Police to a favored few weren’t Monopoly board game style Get Out of Jail Free passes, but one might be excused for thinking they might be. Light blue in color, the wallet-sized cards read, “The courtesies of the Police Department of the City of Milwaukee are extended to [name].” Each courtesy card was dated and signed by the chief of police.

It’s not known when the cards first appeared, but no more were issued after September 22nd, 1950, the day an angry Police Chief John W. Polcyn told the Milwaukee Journal the long-standing practice would end.

Polcyn, a former Marine, had worked his way up from patrolman to chief. According to the Milwaukee Police Historical Society, the “hard-working, clear thinking, and ambitious” Polcyn was appointed to lead the department in 1945 and is remembered for his many innovations. To name just a few, he introduced the two-tone paint scheme Milwaukee’s police cars still wear, created the department’s narcotics squad, instituted its Police Aide apprenticeship program, and even established the city’s night parking permit system (the first of its kind in the nation).

Polcyn also pushed the department to address the topic of race and published “A Guide to Understanding Race and Human Relations,” a booklet used by police departments throughout the United States.

The courtesy card kerfuffle was a rare public embarrassment for the chief, and it happened because of one man.

In 1935, John W. Speaker established a company to manufacture tire repair kits. The venture succeeded and soon the J.W. Speaker Co. moved into a large factory at 3059 N. Weil St. in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood and added radiator fronts, automotive lighting, and car and truck mirrors to its product mix.

During World War II, J.W. Speaker Co. developed the Heatab miniature stove and a simple folding can opener. Both were made in vast quantities and packaged with the rations used by the U.S. military. (The company, still operated by the Speaker family and now based in Germantown, today specializes in after-market vehicle lighting systems.)

Tragedy struck the J.W. Speaker factory in Riverwest on November 1949, when a massive explosion and fire instantly killed 20-year-old Dorothy Gruber. A second worker, Cora Schultz, died a few hours later of injuries suffered in the blast. She had just returned to work following her honeymoon. Four other employees were hospitalized with burns.

Speaker, busy in his office at the front of the plant, heard the blast and saw two injured workers running from the building. He went after them, loaded them into his car, and rushed to the hospital.

The explosion shattered windows in nearby buildings and left a 45-foot-long by 20-foot-high hole in the wall of the one-story drying room at the south end of the factory. It took the combined efforts of the plant’s sprinkler system, six fire engines, three ladder trucks, and a rescue squad to bring the fire under control.

Fire officials speculated that fumes from nitrate used to make the tire patch backing accumulated and been touched off by a spark.

Oddly, for a manufacturer of auto accessories, Speaker had a poor driving record. Seven months after the factory explosion, a motorcycle patrolman saw a car driven by Speaker weaving his way down North Prospect Avenue. When the officer tried to pull him over, Speaker abruptly swerved, nearly colliding with a taxi cab. When he finally did stop—parking four feet away from the curb, the officer noted—he failed sobriety tests, briefly scuffled with officers, and was charged with drunken driving. According to the June 2, 1950 edition of the Milwaukee Journal, Speaker had been fined 16 times previously for traffic offenses dating back to 1937.

When his case came to trial on September 20, 1950, Speaker was found guilty and fined $100. He also caused a sensation when he told the court of displaying his police courtesy card to the arresting officer, who, Speaker said, showed “anything but the usual courtesy.”

Two days later, Chief Polcyn ordered Speaker to come to police headquarters and surrender his card. “I’m going to tear it up in his presence,” Polcyn told the Journal. If Speaker failed to show, the chief said, “I will send an officer to bring him and his card in.” (As it happened, Speaker waited until just before the chief’s deadline—then sent the card by messenger.)

Polcyn told the newspaper the practice of issuing courtesy cards was an old custom he had inherited on taking office and only 20 or 22 cards were in circulation. He refused to provide a complete list of cardholders, but said they were mostly male, usually above middle age, and included the sheriff, a couple of union leaders, friends of the police, and a few lawmakers who might be expected to vote favorably on issues important to the department.

Under no circumstances, he insisted, were the cards to be used to get out of a violation. Mostly, the chief said, they were handy for getting a check cashed or for obtaining hotel accommodation while traveling.

“It does help you get around among strangers if you have an extra means of introduction where you’re not known,” he told the Journal.

Polcyn added, “I’ve never liked the idea of these cards. They didn’t seem to me to be the sort of thing the police should issue. There was a bare chance they might be misused or misunderstood.”

Still, the chief was confident no Milwaukee officer would be swayed from his duty by being shown such a card. He pointed out Speaker had tried it and had been arrested anyway.

Who knows? Maybe he was right. Maybe no prominent citizen ever dodged a ticket by flashing a courtesy card, personally issued by the chief himself, at a lowly beat cop.

Or maybe when Speaker aired his complaint in open court in front of some suddenly very interested reporters, he had violated the first rule of the courtesy card, that being one does not talk about the courtesy card.

Interested in learning more about Milwaukee’s fascinating (and occasionally odd) history? Check out my book. (Paid link)

Riverwest factory made the world a more colorful place

A view of the former Cottrell & Sons, Claybourn Division printing press manufacturing plant at 3701 North Humboldt Boulevard in Milwaukee, WI
The former Cottrell & Sons, Claybourn Division printing press manufacturing plant at 3701 North Humboldt Boulevard is vacant today but it has a proud heritage. Carl Swanson photo

A color printing press is a miraculous machine. As big as a house (and the newest ones are much bigger than that), packed with rollers and gears turning at blinding speed, producing tens of thousands of printed sheets per hour, they are so precisely made that a single part misaligned by a few thousandths of an inch would ruin the output.

One of the early pioneers in color printing, Leslie Claybourn, built a factory in Riverwest in 1922 and his workers were soon turning out printing presses that were more innovative, massive, and precise than any before. His company attracted visitors from around the globe and even held the record for a time for the world’s largest color press.

Then, in 1957, it all came to an end. Other companies would occupy the 172,344-square-foot factory at 3701 North Humbolt Boulevard over the subsequent years.

Leslie Claybourn was born in Albert Lea, Minnesota, in 1884. He started an electroplating company and then a machine shop. Business being slow at times, he augmented his income by moonlighting as a professional wrestler. Known as Lex “The Terrible Swede” Claybourn, he was good enough to hold the lightweight championship at one point.

It is not known when he hung up his wrestling tights, but by 1914 he was working as a development engineer for a Cincinnati printing machinery company. In 1918, Claybourn became vice president and director of operations for the Menasha Printing & Carton Co. While there, he perfected a process for printing pictures on butter and ice cream cartons.

His patented techniques, involving both improved machinery and new ways of producing printing plates, attracted a great deal of industry attention. In 1921 he was able to organize the Claybourn Process Corporation and build a large factory on Humboldt near Keefe Avenue.

One of the company’s first customers was the Milwaukee Journal. Other newspapers followed, including The New York Times. The Philadelphia Inquirer, Cleveland Plain Dealer, and many more. By 1929, Conde Nast was printing Vogue on a Claybourn five-color press.

In a 1929 article, a national trade publication, The Pressmen’s Journal, wrote, “Mr. L.W. Claybourn is one of the outstanding geniuses of the printing industry of the world, and it has been said by many authorities in the printing and printing machinery fields that Mr. Claybourn is actually 25 years ahead of the industry.”

On the last day of 1930, Claybourn’s car was involved in a collision at the interaction of North Prospect and East Newton avenues. So violent was the impact that Claybourn’s car was thrown sideways into a unity pole, snapping it off at its base. He spent all of 1931 in a cast and never fully recovered from his injuries.

It would take more than that to sideline “The Terrible Swede.” In 1934, the Claybourn company made headlines when it unveiled a 72-ton five-color press able to print 4,000 sheets per hour while cutting set-up time in half. The gain in efficiency was startling. This high-speed full-color press could be up and running as quickly as a simple two-color press.

But in those dark years of the Great Depression excellence in design and manufacture might not be enough to save a company. In 1937, with the Milwaukee plant struggling to stay afloat, Connecticut-based C.B. Cottrell & Sons Company acquired the firm.

Claybourn stayed briefly to help with the transition, then moved on to work with many other printing firms. At the time of his death in 1956, he held more than 200 patents for printing innovations.

The Riverwest plant’s new owner, Cottrell & Sons, traced its roots as a machine builder all the way back to 1855. By the time of the Civil War, the firm was specializing in printing presses. The firm sent Donald Cottrell, grandson of the founder, to manage its newly acquired Milwaukee operation. A graduate of Harvard, he had served as captain of an infantry company in World War I. He also had a local connection—Charles Ilsley, chairman of the board of Marshall & Ilsley Bank, was a classmate of his at Harvard.

Cottrell would lead the company out of the Depression and through years of wartime production in World War II.

In 1943, the company plowed a 13,000-square-foot plot near the factory and its employees planted and tended a victory garden. The Milwaukee Journal reported that, among other things, the garden had 480 tomato plants, which produced far more than its employees could consume at home. A bushel basket of tomatoes was kept in the factory in late summer for snacking. Their agricultural efforts earned the company’s workers a trophy from the National Victory Garden Institute.

In 1953, Cottrell & Sons was itself taken over by the Harris-Seybold Co. and the Milwaukee plant had another owner. By 1955, the factory had 165 employees and was building rotary color presses that weighed 40 tons and measured 42 feet long.

Two years later, Harris-Seybold closed the Humboldt factory and a piece of Milwaukee’s industrial heritage died.

In 2015, the Wisconsin Historical Society sponsored a survey to find industrial properties that might be eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. The report concluded the C.B. Cottrell & Sons, Claybourn Division factory is “significant as an example of an early-twentieth-century industrial complex with a consolidated plan. The first factory and warehouse were constructed in 1922, and the Classical Revival main office was constructed in 1927. In the 1950s and 1960s, the plant expanded at the rear; however, the complex retains the character-defining features of the form including the large expanses of original window sash, roof lighting, and a consolidated plan. The C.B. Cottrell & Sons buildings retain a high degree of integrity and are therefore potentially eligible.”

If a historical marker is erected, which seems unlikely, it might quote the founder, Leslie Claybourn, who told The Pressmen’s Journal in a 1929 interview, “Printing is a mechanical problem. Establish accuracy and precision into the locked-up form to be printed or moulded from, which is the very foundation of the printed job, and you will print that form correctly in spite of yourself.”

Maybe it could also mention the tomatoes.

Interested in learning more about Milwaukee’s fascinating (and occasionally odd) history? Check out my book. (Paid link)

The digital age (almost) invented in Riverwest

This factory, the former home of Globe-Union, at 900 E. Keefe Ave., was once the employer of electronics genus Jack Kilby, and may even have started him on a path that eventually changed the world. Carl A. Swanson photo

The device upon which you are reading this, the network you used to access it, along with every modern computer, smartphone, GPS device, in fact, the entire digital age was born in 1958 when Jack Kilby, an electronics engineer with Texas Instruments, designed the first integrated circuit built on a piece of semiconductor material. As Thomas Fehring, author of the new book, The Magnificent Machines of Milwaukee and the engineers who created them, explains, this world-changing invention may have its roots in a company located in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood. 


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…)

The top 5 posts of 2015


The Gordon Park bathing pavilion was the most popular blog post for the second year running. Photo by Jos. Brown.

Thank you for a great year in 2015! This blog was viewed 29,000 times in the past year. In 2015, 43 new posts were added to the site (for a total of 90) and 378 pictures uploaded, about a picture per day.

These are the top five posts of 2015. Have you read them all?

  1. Amid the ruins of Gordon Park’s riverside bathing pavilion
  2. Secrets of Shorewood’s Hubbard Park
  3. Just a neighborhood movie theater
  4. Drinking Pabst in Whitefish Bay
  5. Sunk, burned, and haunted, this tugboat keeps on working

Much more is on the way in 2016 —stay tuned!Carl_sig

“Awful fight for life and honor”

In 1909, the battered body of 14-year-old Hattie Zinda was found in a tumbledown shack in Riverwest. Attacked by two men, evidence showed the little girl had put up a fierce – and ultimately futile – fight her life.

In 1909, the battered body of 14-year-old Hattie Zinda was found in a tumbledown shack in Riverwest. Attacked by two men, the little girl waged a lonely, desperate fight her life.

At about 8:30 p.m. on Nov. 12, 1909, 14-year-old Hedwig “Hattie” Zinda was seized by two men and dragged into a deserted office building near the intersection of Garfield Avenue and Humboldt Boulevard in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood. She was sexually assaulted, murdered, and her body left slumped in a corner of the abandoned office.

The building’s interior showed how fiercely Hattie fought her attackers. Furniture was overturned, a chair was smashed, and marks on the dust-covered floor traced how her assailants had been dragged the struggling little girl back and forth through the office. Deep finger marks on Hattie’s neck revealed the cause of death. She had been choked by powerful hands.

When found, Hattie was still clutching strands of blond hair she had torn from the head of one of her attackers.


Five favorites for Doors Open Milwaukee

Doors Open Milwaukee was held Saturday and Sunday, September 19th and 20th. About 200 locations, many normally closed to the public, were open for visitors. Here are five of my favorite places to visit during this annual event.

1. Former Pabst Brewery

Although the area is undergoing rapid development, some of the original Pabst buildings remain. Photo illustration by Carl Swanson

Although the area is undergoing rapid redevelopment, some of the original Pabst buildings remain. Photo by Carl Swanson

Tour a speakeasy (actually, the former plant infirmary and ancient storage tunnels) at the Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery, 901 W. Juneau Ave. The speakeasy is open if the red jelly jar light is illuminated at the doorway marked “J.C. Haertel Real Estate & Financial Consulting.” The Pabst Brewing Co. was the subject of this Milwaukee Notebook post. (more…)

Revisiting Kern Park’s “Lover’s Lane”

This early 1900s postcard shows Milwaukee's "Lover's Lane." Carl Swanson collection

This early 1900s postcard shows Milwaukee’s “Lover’s Lane.” Carl Swanson collection

An antique postcard adds a fresh perspective to a post from last year on the end of Kern Park’s “Lover’s Lane.” Read it here.Carl_sig

The spectacular defiance of Captain Bodenlos

Expert ship handling, icy contempt for petty bureaucrats, and a flair for the dramatic made steamship Captain E.J. Bodenlos a local hero in 1934.

Expert ship handling, icy contempt for petty bureaucrats, and a flair for the dramatic made Captain E.J. Bodenlos a local hero in 1934.

In summer 1934, tugboat crews in Milwaukee went on strike. But what started as a minor labor dispute became front page news with a steamship captain’s spectacular act of civil disobedience.

Before it was over, the dapper captain (he favored panama hats and kid gloves) had threatened to throw a police officer in the river and, two nights in a row evaded a cordon of authorities in order to take in a movie. For a grand finale, he treated a cheering crowd of thousands to a magnificent display of boat handling. (more…)