The Lady and the Light

For 33 years, starting in 1874, the operation of the North Point Lighthouse in Lake Park was in the capable hands of an extraordinary woman. Photo by Carl Swanson

If you visit the old lighthouse in Lake Park you will hear the surprising story of Georgia A. Stebbins, keeper of the North Point light for 33 years starting in 1874.

To put that in perspective notes the lighthouse website, it would be another 46 years before women were allowed to vote. Yet here was Georgia, duly appointed by the federal government and in sole charge of a vitally important maritime safety facility.

(more…)

The Great Courthouse Trouser disaster

first_court_house

The first courthouse was built in 1836. Additional offices and the jail are to the right. This is the site of Cathedral Park today. Carl Swanson collection

Early settler James S. Buck wrote the four-volume Pioneer History of Milwaukee, which one writer described as “a fascinating hodgepodge of largely undigested facts, gossip, puffs and salty observations.” Buck included events both great and small in the city’s formative years. For example, many historians relate the construction of Milwaukee’s first courthouse in what is today Cathedral Square, but only Buck gave us “The Courthouse Trouser Disaster.”

(more…)

Book contains favorite posts from Milwaukee Notebook

Nearly 100 attended the book launch event for “Lost Milwaukee” April 24th at Milwaukee’s Boswell Book Company. Photo by John Swanson

We did it! Thanks to The History Press, the all-time best posts from Milwaukee Notebook – rewritten and expanded – are now collected in the new book Lost Milwaukee. The 42 essays and more than 70 images cover a broad range of topics, including:

  • In the waning days of World War II, a duck named Gertie built a nest in downtown Milwaukee and became a national sensation.
  • A popular bike path was once the route of one of the world’s fastest steam-powered passenger trains.
  • The last days of the Schlitz brewing empire in Milwaukee.
  • Women employed in a World War I munitions factory worked in their bloomers because the machinery made long dresses hazardous.
  • Today’s Estabrook Park was once a massive quarry and the home of the world’s largest producer of natural cement.
  • A nearly forgotten Milwaukee River park was a popular beer garden.
  • One-hundred years ago, excursion steamboats ran on the upper Milwaukee River.
  • For decades the rickety-looking Wells Street viaduct provided a thrilling ride for trolley passengers.
  • In 1859, Abraham Lincoln’s visit to Milwaukee included fiery rhetoric – and an encounter with a sideshow strongman.
  • The story of the lost canal under a busy city street.

From beer barons to chocolate makers, from a courthouse statue locals said resembled a drunken dancing girl to an ice cream run that led to the founding of Evinrude outboard engines, Lost Milwaukee is a fascinating glimpse into the city’s past. Click here for more information on this new book!

[From the Acknowledgments section of Lost Milwaukee] “Lastly, I wish to thank those who have followed my blog and shared their love for Milwaukee. This book would not have been possible without their support, comments and suggestions.”

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. 

(more…)

East Side tunnel to nowhere

Built more than a century ago, this stone tunnel portal in the east bluff of the Milwaukee River is near the intersection of North Cambridge Avenue and Hampshire Street. Partly filled in and heavily vandalized, it remains impressive — and mysterious. Carl A. Swanson photo

There is a mystery in Cambridge Woods Park on the east bank of the Milwaukee River — an ancient tunnel made from carefully cut and fitted stone blocks and large enough to drive a truck through.

From its portal in a bluff at the foot of Hampshire Street, the tunnel extends eastward under the Oak Leaf Trail only to end abruptly at a modern concrete wall about 60 feet inside the entrance.

Who built it? And for what purpose?  (more…)

The man who dreamed of locks

0304171059-1

This Master Lock no. 3 padlock is made from multiple steel plates stacked and riveted together under enormous pressure, just as Harry Soref designed in 1921. Carl A. Swanson photo

Harry Soref, the founder, general manager, and chief designer of The Master Lock Company, was a most unlikely industrial tycoon. Small, slight, and soft-spoken, he preferred working in an unadorned cubbyhole of an office in the huge factory he built. His working day started at 5 a.m. and often continued until 9 or 10 at night, six days a week.

“There is no Sunday, no Monday, no Tuesday for me,” he told the Milwaukee Journal in 1940. “The days are too short and nights too long.”

His factory employed more than 600 people but Soref refused to install time clocks or set production quotas. One could spot newly hired employees when they referred to the company’s founder as “Mr. Soref.” The workers who had been there a while called the boss by his first name.

(more…)

Milwaukee’s airship port

airsh

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.

(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.

(more…)

Cracker-Jacks Park was a river landmark

Cracker_jack_cart

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.
(more…)

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.

(more…)