The family and I spent this past weekend in Milwaukee with my old high school friend Dan, his wife Jen, and their two daughters. Here’s some of what I learned.
OK, maybe that’s unfair. Maybe there are places around town where would could hear about the Native American tribes that lived in the area before French-Canadian explorer Solomon Juneau began his intensive marketing campaign to lure European settlers, but I didn’t happen across any of them. And I don’t mention this to take away from Juneau’s story, which is quite fascinating. I just heard his name a hell of a lot, and suspiciously little about the Menominee, Fox, Mascouten, Sauk, Potawatomi, Ojibwe, and Ho-Chunk people who walked the same shores before the slow trickle of fur traders and missionaries became a steady stream of immigrant wheat farmers.
Here’s how that trickle became a flood.
In 1785, Alexis Laframboise, the first settler of European descent to make his home in what we now know to be Milwaukee, made his way from Michilimackinac (the region around the Straits of Mackinac, between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, in what we today know to be Michigan) and opened a trading post near the Milwaukee River. The credit for “founding” Milwaukee, however, goes to Solomon Juneau, who saw the potential to build a port town on Lake Michigan, at the mouth of the Milwaukee River. Solomon arrived in 1818, and laid claim to a parcel of land between the Lake and the Milwaukee River. He called his town Juneau’s Side, or Juneautown, and began advertising for settlers. Then, just as he began to experience some success, a fellow land speculator by the name of Byron Kilbourn, began doing the same damn thing on the west side of the Milwaukee River, calling his development Kilbourntown. (Kilbourn, it’s interesting to note, began distributing maps of the area which showed Kilbourntown being bordered on the east not by Juneautown, but by uninhabited, swampy wilderness, lest anyone contemplating a move from the East Coast might get the idea that they wanted to live closer to Lake Michigan.) And, in the 1830s, Juneau and Kilbourn were joined by George H. Walker, who began developing land south of the Milwaukee River, which would come to be known as Walker’s Point.
The three men (especially Juneau and Kilbourn) fought tooth and nail over settlers, natural resources, and access to the river. This competition grew steadily throughout the 1840s, culminating in the Milwaukee Bridge War of 1845, during which Kilbourn and his supporters destroyed part of a bridge initiated by the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature, which was intended to connect Kilbourntown and Juneautown. (Kilbourn felt as though this bridge would make Juneautown less dependent on Kilbourntown, as it would give them more direct access to the products being produced west of the Milwaukee River.) And it was mainly because of the Milwaukee Bridge War, and the associated fallout, that, on January 31, 1846, these various regional factions were forced to come together and merge into what we now know as the City of Milwaukee. Solomon Juneau would have the distinction of serving as the first mayor, but one suspects the victory was bittersweet, as the City which he ran no longer bore his name. (And I imagine his cousin, Joseph Juneau, who founded the city of Juneau, Alaska, gave him endless shit about it.)
And the immigrants from Poland and Germany kept rolling in… By the time the Civil War broke out, Wisconsin was the second largest wheat-growing state in the country, and Milwaukee shipped more wheat than any port in the world. Of course, in the end, Chicago won out over Milwaukee as the preeminent city in America’s interior, given their rail infrastructure and access to capital, but Milwaukee still prospered.
Now, with all that by way of background, here are a few of my more interesting discoveries about the city.
1. Milwaukee became the beer capital of the united states as a result of the Chicago fire… I haven’t verified this, but, while taking a boat tour down the Milwaukee River, our guide mentioned in passing that brewing really took off in Milwaukee in the wake of the Chicago fire, in October, 1871. Apparently, all of the major breweries in Chicago had gone up in flames, and the brewers of Milwaukee were called upon to step up production and supply the Windy City, deploying newly invented refrigerated rail cars for the purpose. At one point, Milwaukee was home to four of the largest breweries on the planet – Schlitz, Blatz, Pabst, and Miller – and produced more beer than any other city in the world. But, as a result of industry consolidation, all of that changed decades ago.
Launched by August Krug in 1849, Schlitz (“The beer that made Milwaukee famous”) was sold to Stroh Brewery Company in 1982, and subsequently sold again, along with all the rest of Stroh’s assets, to the Pabst Brewing Company. Unfortunately, at the time of the acquisition, in 1999, Pabst was no longer in Milwaukee either. Three years prior to that, the company, under new leadership after a hostile takeover, had elected to close its historic Milwaukee brewery, and outsource its brewing activities to the Stroh Brewery Company’s La Crosse, Wisconsin facility, making Pabst essentially a virtual brewery… until, of course, it turned around and bought Stroh. And things didn’t stop there. In 2010, Pabst (along with all of its assorted brands) was again sold. And, this time, the company headquarters moved to Los Angeles. (I believe it’s still brewed in La Crosse, but I can’t find conformation of that fact.) As for Blatz, they were acquired by Pabst back in 1959, after 108 years in business. So, as a result of all of this consolidation, Miller is now the only major brewery still actually making beer in Milwaukee.
Thankfully, the cycle is starting over again now, though, with smaller breweries, like Lakefront Brewing getting into the game, cranking out awesome beer, and keeping the tradition alive. (If you’re ever in Milwaukee on a Friday night, I’d suggest you drop by Lakefront for their weekly polka-fueled fish fry. And, if you can, check out their brewery tour, which, at least five years ago, when I last took it, featured an inspiring homage to the bottling line sequence at the opening of Laverne and Shirley .)
2. A “Bronze Fonz” isn’t just a crude sex act…. It’s also a beloved Milwaukee landmark. Yes, the fictional embodiment of 50s cool stands watching over the Milwaukee River from his perch on Wells Street, his shiny bronze thumbs perpetually raised, as if to say, “Now, this is a cool city.” (This is much better, in my opinion, than Ypsi’s silly “Cool City” banners… Which reminds me… Are we ever going to make that Iggy Pop statue? Wouldn’t that be exponentially more cool than a banner proclaiming our coolness, which is about a cool as wearing a jacket that says, “I’m cool” across the back.)
We had a great vacation. There were inumberable highlights. The zenith for me, though, was standing next to the bronze Fonzie and trying to explain to Clementine why Arthur Fonzarelli captured the imagination of our then 200 year old country… “Well, you see, Clementine, he could just thump a juke box with the side of his fist, like this, and make it play music. He was kind of magical. And everyone loved him. This one time, he almost died in a heroic attempt to jump over a shark on water skis… while wearing a leather jacket and jean shorts… and people around the country went crazy.” She just didn’t get it.
I don’t want to make this whole post about the Fonz, but I’ve always found Henry Winlker’s casting as the lovable hoodlum to be puzzling, given the fact that he’s only about 5’6″, and was already about 30 years old when tapped to play the dumbed down, television version of the troubled James Dean-like loner. Here’s a little something from Wikipedia that I found hugely fascinating.
Micky Dolenz, on the strength of his performance as a biker on an episode of Adam-12, was Garry Marshall’s original choice to play Fonzie. Dolenz was several inches taller than the other cast members, and Marshall thought it might be better for Fonzie to be on the same eye level as the other characters. A search for a shorter actor as an alternative resulted in Henry Winkler landing the role. ABC’s censors refused Fonzie a leather jacket, thinking it made him look like a hoodlum. Garry Marshall got them to allow Fonzie to wear his jacket close to his motorcycle (a Triumph TR5 Trophy) since a leather jacket was considered safety equipment. Marshall put him near his motorcycle as often as possible, even to ride it into Arnold’s. When it wasn’t possible to have the bike in the scene, Fonzie would wear a white windbreaker. Eventually, Fonzie was allowed to wear the leather jacket even when not near his bike and Marshall used this opportunity to have the white jacket destroyed. One of the jackets is in the Smithsonian Institution.
3. The bricks of old Milwaukee are green… Apparently a great deal of early Milwaukee architecture was constructed with bricks made from light-colored clay harvested along the shores of Lake Michigan. According to what I can find online, these bricks, which were very much in favor during Milwaukee’s initial building boom, are commonly referred to as “cream brick”, but they look green to me. “Milwaukee’s first cream brick structure was erected in 1836,” according to the Wisconsin Historical Society. “By 1853, six million bricks were being produced in Milwaukee kilns annually. The brickyard of George Burnham and Son became the city’s largest producer of cream colored brick, manufacturing fifteen million bricks in 1880.” By the late nineteenth century, these bricks, however, fell out of favor, due to competition from brick manufactures in Chicago, the growing availability of concrete, and the shifting preference of consumers, who were developing a taste for darker masonry. By 1900, the cream brick industry was pretty much dead. I know none of you likely give a damn about this stuff, but I find it every bit as fascinating as the prospect of Micky Dolenz playing the Fonz.
4. The mallard that captivated America… All along the Milwaukee river walk, there are references to a mallard by the name of Gertie, who, toward the end of World War II, became a media sensation across the United States. It’s difficult for me to understand how, in April of 1945, with the sudden death of FDR, the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp, the Battle of Okinawa, and everything else going on in the world, that people in Milwaukee, let alone the rest of the nation, would give a damn about a duck sitting on nine eggs beneath the Wisconsin Avenue bridge, but apparently that’s what happened… It makes me wonder if maybe, one day, we’ll have a brass statue of Psy, the man who captivated our war-weary nation in early 2013, or that woman who became an internet sensation for describing a hail storm, or the “hide your wife, hide your kids” guy.
5. Things taste better when they’re served on nice plates in well designed environments… Maybe this is something that the rest of you already knew, but I just figured it out while eating brunch at a place called Trocadero. The food, I’m sure, would have been good in any setting, but I was really struck by their sense of design, and how everything seemed to work together in harmony. Yes, I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for dirty, little places off the beaten path, where visionary cooks churn out delicious, heartfelt food on mismatched plates, but I think I might have, at long last, reached a point in my life where I equally value the ability of restauranteurs to create cohesive, well-thought-out environments that complement the very calculated menus that they’re putting forward… It’s not my most insightful observation ever, but I wanted to record it here so I’d have it ready when I decide to launch a restaurant of my own.
6. Bringing the prixe fixe to the bar… I don’t know if it’s unique to this bar that Dan and I found ourselves at, called Nomad World Pub, but, as I’ve never come across any other bars doing it, I’ll give them credit for the idea. They’ve brought the prix fixe from the world of fine dining to the world of the dark bar. As with a traditional prix fixe, where you pay a set amount for a full meal, including several courses of food, at Nomad, you pay a set price for a three course serving of debauchery. For the very affordable price of $5, you get a can of PBR, a shot of Jameson, and a cigarette. As I haven’t smoked a cigarette since my dad forced one on me when I was about 12, I didn’t make use the third course, but I very much liked the idea, and I’d love to see someone bring it to Ypsi/Arbor… perhaps with a non-tobacco alternative, like a crunchy garlic pickle, a strip of crispy bacon, or a Slim Jim. Can someone make that happen, please? (Nomad also advertises the world’s shortest happy hour, which is only 18 minutes long.)
7. There are a lot of bars in Milwaukee… If you like beer, you will like Milwaukee. The key, as I’ve found, is steering clear of the more happening parts of town, and finding bars that aren’t full of either frat boys or douche bags. In addition to Nomad World Pub, here are a few others that I visited with my friend Dan on this trip: Wolski’s Tavern, Hosed on Brady Street, and Monica’s on Astor… I probably should have explained it earlier, but here’s how you vacation with other families who have small kids. One evening, the fathers put the kids to bed, and the mothers go out. And, the next evening, the mothers put the kids to bed, and the fathers go out… When it was our turn, Dan and I decided to hike a mile and a half across town to check our Wolski’s, which is a dark neighborhood bar that’s been owned by the same family for over 100 years. That was our primary objective, and everything else just kind of fell into place. We hit Nomad World Pub and Monica’s on the way there, and Hosed on Brady Street on the way back. I’ve already told you about Nomad, so here are some quick thoughts on the other two… Monica’s is a little, below-street-level bar in the middle of a neighborhood. It reminded me, for some reason, of going into the belly of a tiny cruise ship. The people were nice. The drinks were cheap. And it was quiet enough that Dan and I could talk about nonsense. (I have a note in my pocket from this stop which says, “Bacon Pills: all the salt, all the fat, no taste.”) Hosed on Brady Street isn’t the kind of place that I’d normally stop, as it has the word “hosed” in its name, but we felt as though we needed one more beer on the way home, and decided to give it a shot. And, it wasn’t until we were inside that we figured out the significance of the name, when we saw all the fire fighting gear on the walls. We were probably there for about 10 minutes when we heard the siren and realized there was a fire station next door. (With the siren, came a round a free shots, which tasted like cherry Nyquil and cheap vodka, and a toast to the brave fire fighters headed out to risk their lives.) If I were more adept at computer things, I’d mark all four of these bars on a map, so that you could retrace our exact steps, but, as I don’t have the required skills, I’ll leave it at that… Oh, and here’s another weird thing. There were bachelorette parties at three of the four bars that we visited. And three out of the four were showing rugby matches on at least one screen. Having never encountered a bachelorette party in real life, or a televised rugby match, I wasn’t sure what to make of it.
8. If you get a chance, you should see the “30 Americans” exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum… I can’t remember the last time I bought a catalogue at an art show. It was probably about 10 years ago, when I saw the show Beautiful Losers. This show, while admittedly a bit flawed, is that good. I know the collection has been making the rounds for a while, but it was my first time seeing it, and I’d highly recommend it, especially if you enjoy the work of modern African American artists like Nick Cave, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Kehinde Wiley, who’s work you can see to the right, along with the Nick Cave air freshener, the existence of which I found a bit puzzling… My favorite piece was Rodney McMillian’s “Untitled, 2005“. The following description of the piece comes from the Washington Post.
(It) is a large, once-white carpet, hung on the wall. It is filthy, stained, discolored and worn. A white rug is a statement of aspiration, to an orderly, elegant life. A soiled white rug is like a piece of film, though even more sensitive, recording the direct impress of time, poverty and despair. McMillian’s “Untitled” is a powerful standout and an exception to the many more technically crafted and visually brilliant works in the exhibition. It is simple, poetic and haunting, and it allows the artist and the people who made the art – the people who soiled the rug – to disappear while leaving traces more evocative than many representational paintings.
I can’t find mention of it online, but I believe the carpet was either taken from his aunt’s or his grandmother’s apartment… And I very much appreciated having the opportunity to spend a few minutes, standing in front of it with Clementine, talking about what art could be.
OK, there’s more I want to say, but this will have do it for tonight. Look for part two later this week… And visit Milwaukee if you get a chance. It’s a hell of a town.