Did you know that your city had the first Socialist mayor in the United States?
Or that a Bay View-based iron mill was once the second largest manufacturer of rails in the country?
Those are some of the interesting nuggets I’ve unearthed while doing research on the Milwaukee area for a screenplay I’m writing about a real event that took place in 1925 just outside of the city. Some of the interesting facts I’ve come across were published in “The Making of Milwaukee,” a fantastic book by John Gurda that has been a great reference for me.
Here are a few of the most interesting items from the time period 1846-1910:
- When Solomon Juneau became the city’s first mayor in 1846, 1,000 copies of his inaugural address were printed – an equal number in English and German.
- By 1856, there were more than two dozen breweries in Milwaukee, nearly all of them owned and operated by Germans and oriented to German customers.
- The Milwaukee harbor isn’t the harbor that was there when white settlers arrived. In 1857, a new harbor, a half-mile north of the original mouth of the Milwaukee River, was completed. The new harbor created Jones Island, named for shipbuilder James M. Jones, who operated a successful, yet short-lived shipyard there in the 1850s.
- By 1860, when the city was just a little more than 25 years removed from a frontier settlement, it had grown to the 20th most populous in the United States, with 45,246 residents.
- A nationwide depression in 1959-60 caused Milwaukee to close both of its high schools and lay off many of its teachers, leaving a student-to-teacher ratio of 61 to 1.
- One of the city’s founders was described thusly: “Byron Kilbourn was blessed with a cast-iron conscience. Whether he was fabricating claims to prime Milwaukee real estate or undercutting his political and economic rivals, the West Side’s impresario had always shown an impressive absence of scruples.”
- In 1866, the year after the end of the U.S. Civil War, the United States made Milwaukee one of four sites in its network of “national asylums” for disabled soldiers. This led to the construction of the National Soldiers’ Home the following year.
- In 1862, Milwaukee passed Chicago as the largest shipper of wheat in the world, a title the two cities passed back and forth for the next 10 years.
- The city’s richest man in 1864 was meat-packer John Plankinton with $104,000. That would make him a millionaire In today’s dollars. His meat-packing facility actually spawned two more well-known meat-packing plants as his one-time partner Philip Armour left to make his fortune in Chicago and his general manager turned partner Patrick Cudahy eventually started his own business south of Milwaukee in what is now the city of Cudahy. It was said that Plankinton mastered the art of using, in hog-packer’s language, “everything but the squeal.”
- The Milwaukee Iron Co., chartered in 1866, was the area’s first heavy industry. It was built on the shores of Lake Michigan south of the city. Within four years, it had a labor force of 1,000 men, and the company got so large that a company town developed just outside the plant gates. That town became Bay View, incorporated in 1879 and Milwaukee’s first suburb. Only eight years later, Bay View voted to become part of Milwaukee.
- Jacob Best and his sons opened Best Brewery in 1844. The brewery was later taken over by Frederick Pabst. The flamboyant Pabst led the brewery to America’s largest by 1874. In 1889, the company changed names to Pabst.
- The founder of Schlitz Brewery, Joseph Schlitz, was lost at sea in 1875.
- Milwaukee’s nickname as the Cream City is not a reference to any fermented beverages. It comes from the preponderance of pale yellow bricks used in the city’s buildings in the late 1800s. Most of those bricks were produced by George Burnham’s brickyard in the Menomonee River valley near today’s 13th Street.
- An 1871 description of local labor in the Journal of Commerce: “A large proportion of the population of Milwaukee is composed of thrifty, frugal, industrious, productive Germans, each of whom owns a little land about his house, and sports a pig or two, and sends his troop of children to school, and lays up money on nine dollars a week.”
- At one time in the late 1800s, attendants at the Public Museum were required to speak both German and English.
- Mitchell Street blossomed into a commercial district after an influx of Polish immigration to the area in the 1870s and 1880s. The south side street was nicknamed the “Polish Grand Avenue.”
- St. Stanislaus became the first Polish church in urban America in 1866. The city’s Poles added the nation’s first Polish Catholic school onto St. Stan’s in 1868.
- America’s shortest celebrity survived an 1883 fire that destroyed what had once been Milwaukee’s leading hotel, the Newhall House. Two-foot-tall Tom Thumb and his wife were rescued.
- In the late 1860s, polluted streets were one of Milwaukeeans’ concerns. Gurda writes: “As the city grew, so did concerns about urban waste: domestic, industrial and animal. In the heyday of horse-drawn transportation, tons of manure landed on the city’s streets every day, producing ‘streams of liquid filth’ after each rain.”
- Brewery workers in the late 1800s received free beer as one of their perks. It was reported by a manager at Schiltz in 1886 that each of his men drank an average of 40 short glasses of beer per day, with the plan champion downing 100, more than three gallons.
- The Knights of St. Crispin, a union organized by the city’s skilled shoemakers, was the largest union in America at one time.
- Puddlers Hall, a bar on St. Clair Street in Bay View, is one of the oldest landmarks of organized labor in the Midwest. It was founded by the Sons of Vulcan, skilled ironworkers, in 1873.
- Milwaukee City Hall was tallest habitable building in the United States when it was dedicated in 1895. The city hall’s bell tower, at 353 feet, also made it the second tallest structure in the nation, behind the Washington Monument.It is still one of the tallest masonry structures in the world.
- The Edward P. Allis Co., a metal fabrication plant that later became Allis-Chalmers, outgrew its Walker’s Point in 1900 and moved to a site near the intersection of South 70th Street and Greenfield Avenue. The city of West Allis spring up around the plant.
- Metal-bending industries led Milwaukee’s rise in the first decade of the 20th century. In 1907, the Milwaukee Sentinel boasted that the sun never set on Milwaukee-made equipment: “The hum and roar of her monster engines and massive machinery is heard in every civilized land.”
- Completed in 1901, St. Josaphat’s Church on Sixth and Lincoln was one of the world’s largest domed structures.
- Golda Meir, later prime minister of Israel, came to Milwaukee in 1906 as an 8-year-old Russian Jew named Goldie Mabowehz. She and her family lived in an apartment on Walnut Street.
- By 1910, Milwaukee was the country’s 12th-largest city by population.
- At one time, there were suburbs named North Milwaukee and East Milwaukee. North Milwaukee was annexed by Milwaukee; East Milwaukee became Shorewood. South Milwaukee and West Milwaukee remain suburbs.
- Milwaukee’s first electric street car made its appearance on April 3, 1890. A Sentinel headline recorded the passing of the horse-drawn era to electricity: “Horses Sold Cheap.”
- River Street (now Edison Street) was a red-light district in the early 1900s.
- In response to widespread corruption in its local government, Milwaukeeans began to elect Socialists to office. Those who took office in 1904 were said to be vastly superior to “the hacks and grafters” of the previous regime. Gurda writes that they were “politicians the voters could trust: hard-working, well-prepared, and incorruptable.” In 1910, Milwaukee had elected the first Socialist mayor in the nation (Emil Seidel). Voters also chose Socialists for 21 of 35 aldermen, 10 of 16 county supervisors and two judges.