Ghost Signs

Photo by Ben Smidt. This story appears in the December 2010 issue of Milwaukee Magazine. by Rosemary Lane, photos by Ben Smidt It looks almost as though the candy bar is melting. It’s a sign for “Snirkles,” the spiral-styled chewy candy that swirled alternating layers of caramel and vanilla nougat, and was a beloved treat for many a child. But the sign for the now-defunct candy has faded badly, as has the sign below it announcing that “5 cents” is the price of a Snirkles. Both ads can be found on the side of the one-time Stark Candy Co., then located…

Photo by Ben Smidt.

This story appears in the December 2010 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

by Rosemary Lane, photos by Ben Smidt

It looks almost as though the candy bar is melting. It’s a sign for “Snirkles,” the spiral-styled chewy candy that swirled alternating layers of caramel and vanilla nougat, and was a beloved treat for many a child. But the sign for the now-defunct candy has faded badly, as has the sign below it announcing that “5 cents” is the price of a Snirkles. Both ads can be found on the side of the one-time Stark Candy Co., then located in a seven-story building at the southern end of North Broadway in the Historic Third Ward.

Throughout the district, once a manufacturing hub in Milwaukee, lurk all kinds of ghost signs – faded advertisements for shoe polish and chocolates, blankets and throat lozenges – on the sides of the former factories and warehouses, the messages painted on their brick walls, and now, nearly vanished thanks to the ravages of time.

The vintage paintings whisper tales of the former Irish and Italian working-class neighborhoods and a booming old-style economy of manufacturers whose gargantuan signs bespoke a company’s advertising swagger before today’s trendy boutiques, condos, galleries and swanky restaurants took over the ward.

“They’re echoes of another time,” says Milwaukee historian John Gurda.

Current Third Ward property owners cannot repaint these ghost signs. They must allow them to “age gracefully in their original form,” according to the Third Ward’s design guidelines. And so they are ever-so-slowly fading away.

“On the one hand, to refurbish them is a little bit of a falsification of history,” Gurda says. “But losing that touchstone would be a loss for the city.”

So should these colorful phantoms be allowed to fade away? Here are their stories to help you decide. Let us know your thoughts, and we’ll publish them in Milwaukee Magazine.

The Lofts on Broadway
191 N. Broadway

Besides the “Snirkles” and “5 cents” signs, you’ll find the faded lettering of “Factory of Rex Chocolates: King of Bitter Sweets” on the side of this building. At various times, this was the home for a bookbinding operation, a twine manufacturer, war materials processing and a Boston Store warehouse, but it also boasted two eras of candy making.

Established on Water Street in 1884, the American Candy Co. churned out about 100,000 pounds of candy monthly, according to Historic Third Ward documents. It moved into the seven-story Broadway digs in 1902 and was best known for its “Rex” brand of fine chocolates, along with cream almonds and other mixed candies. The American Candy Co. is now known as the creator of Fun Gum Sugar Lips, or wax lips. The company moved to Selma, Ala., in 1939, folded in 2003 after filing for bankruptcy, and is now a division of Tootsie Roll.

Howard B. Stark invented Snirkles in 1920 in Milwaukee, and after buying equipment from the American Candy Co. in 1939, founded the Stark Candy Co., which operated in this building for a while. Also famous for its Candy Raisins, Sweethearts Conversation Hearts and candy wafers (now called Necco Wafers), Stark Co. moved its factory to Pewaukee in 1960. William F. Stark (the founder’s grandson) sold the company to the New England Confectionery Co. in 1988, which then shut down the Pewaukee factory on May 30, 2008, causing 137 people to lose their jobs, news reports said.

“It’s a shame. It was bought by conglomerates, and you lost the family attachment to the business,” says village of Pewaukee Trustee John Laimon. The 63-year-old remembers buying Snirkles as a boy. “They were just chewy and could last you all day.”

One other ghost sign on the building says “Industrial, Commercial and Real Estate,” but the company in question is unknown.

Harri Hoffman Company
125 N. Water St.
The trim, white sign with red block lettering, “Home of Hoffco Shoe Polish,” was probably erected around 1962, when the company moved to Water Street, says Lorraine Hoffman, owner and daughter of founder Harri Hoffman. The sign has been repainted a few times over the years, but now “costs an arm and a leg” to do it, she says.

Harri and his wife, Herta, both Jewish, emigrated from Germany in 1939, and Harri began working for 40 cents an hour for a cousin of Herta’s father, who owned Greenebaum Tanning Co. Sometime around 1946, Harri met a tanner, who gave him a bottle of his homemade white shoe polish in return for some trivets.

“My father took it home, gave it to my mother, and that was the end of it as far as he was concerned,” Lorraine says. But Herta noticed a remarkable thing about this shoe polish. It lasted much longer than other polishes, which quickly wore off the shoes.

Harri began selling the shoe polish for the tanner to supplement his Greenebaum’s earnings. After a split with the tanner, Harri had to travel to a Denver flophouse to meet a man who knew the shoe polish’s secret recipe, says Lorraine.

Harri then sold the shoe polish on his own while Herta made it in their kitchen. They opened a shop on Park and Murray, then a factory at 2018 E. Thomas Ave. before settling into their current location in 1962. Now, Hoffco sells internationally and makes more than 70 different colors of shoe polish.

Broadway Theatre Center
158 N. Broadway
The sprawling pink poster for Sen-Sen throat lozenges, with swirling S’s on the north side of the Broadway Theatre Center, is perhaps the best-known vintage sign in the Third Ward. Except it’s not vintage. It’s actually a fake – painted in 1968 for the Academy Award-nominated movie musical “Gaily, Gaily,” composed by Henry Mancini and shot partly in the Third Ward. Set in the early 1900s, the film starred Beau Bridges and the Greek actress Melina Mercouri. According to Milwaukee Journal articles from 1968, Mercouri insisted that a “nice girl who could speak Greek” should play her stand-in for Mercouri’s first U.S. movie. Eight women applied, and Margaret Spillius, a Milwaukeean of Greek descent, got the nod.

When the Skylight Opera Theatre refurbished and expanded this building into the Broadway Theatre Center in 1993, they asked the Chicago-based makers of Sen-Sen to refurbish the sign. The sign reads, “invaluable for singers and speakers,” which the Skylight’s leaders felt was fitting for their musical company.

Sen-Sen, America’s oldest breath freshener, was developed by perfume makers in Rochester, N.Y., at the end of the 1800s, according to the website of F & F Foods, its current makers. The licorice-tasting “exotic little pellets,” as F & F Foods refers to them, were sold in small cardboard boxes with pull-out sleeves.

Another ghost sign creeps beneath the Sen-Sen, an example of pentimento. This sign may perhaps be for the Badger Tobacco Co., which sold wholesale items, including vending machines and candy.

Renaissance on Water
309 N. Water St.
The scratchy “Goll & Frank, Wholesale Distributors, Notions, Furnishing and Good…” (the last word is too faded to read) ghost sign on the side of this swanky building greets those entering the Third Ward. Two young Germans, Julius Goll and August Frank, started Goll & Frank in 1852 in Milwaukee.

Frank, nicknamed the “Little Salesmen,” and Goll, described as “energetic, but modest and withdrawn,” according to family letters, got along fabulously. Both raised flowers, enjoyed reading and were exempted from the Civil War draft because of nearsightedness.

The two sold dry goods and hardware, such as linens, velvet ribbons, collars, gloves, men’s socks, combs, suspenders, silverware, teaspoons, purses and pocket books, according to an 1853 Goll & Frank advertisement. “Our supply of hardware and Yankee-notions is plentiful,” an 1852 ad read.

In Goll & Frank’s early years, business was booming. In a letter to his parents in 1853, Frank wrote, “Business is so good at present that I hardly know where my head is from 7 in the morning until 9 at night. I have to gulp my food down and there is hardly time to caress my wife, and child.”

By 1864, Goll & Frank had expanded to include customers from Minnesota and Iowa, and moved to the Water Street location. Twenty-eight years later, the building was almost destroyed by the “The Great Fire of 1892 in Milwaukee’s ‘Irish Third Ward,’ ” as a story by William Maher in a 1993 issue of The Irish Genealogical Quarterlywas titled.

The disaster displaced all of the Irish in the Third Ward, paving the way for Italians to settle there between 1900 and 1920, Maher wrote. According to the Third Ward’s website, the fire destroyed 440 buildings throughout 16 square blocks, leaving 1,900 people homeless and resulting in $60 million in damages by today’s standards.

Goll & Frank was rebuilt into a seven-story building in 1896 with a renaissance design, according to Historic Third Ward documents. In 1929, Julius’ son, company president Frederick Goll, renamed the firm Fred T. Goll & Sons when his sons Harry and Julius joined as partners. After Frederick died in 1931, the company became the J.H. Goll Co. in 1938. It is not known when the company went out of business.

Cityside Plaza
239 E. Chicago St.
Like chalk smudged on a blackboard, only a few words are legible on the ghost sign taking up an entire side of this building of condos, including “Cohen,” “blankets” and sheets.” Several clothing manufacturers owned the building in the once-thriving garment district, though Cohen Bros., makers of lumberjack and miner outfits, were the ones who built the factory in 1910.

Yiannis Konstantinou, president of Magnet Group, developed the building into commercial and condo space in 2006. He says special chemicals were needed to clean the building and leave the sign intact. “There was 90 years’ worth of dirt,” he says.

Konstantinou had no idea where the sign came from. Nor did the previous owners, Reliable Knitting Works (now Reliable of Milwaukee), which owned the building from 1969 to 2006. The Polacheck family, which co-owns Reliable, was part of a second wave of Jewish immigrants (from Eastern Europe) who settled in Milwaukee in the late 19th century and dominated the city’s garment industry. Many were former merchant tailors and enterprising businessmen before immigrating to America, says Gurda.

Herbert Polacheck, born in 1909, worked at Reliable in the sales department before becoming president after marrying Isabelle Rosenberg, whose father founded Reliable in 1911 with his two brothers, according to Martin Hintz’s book Jewish Milwaukee.

Rubin’s Furniture
224 E. Chicago St.
Barely visible, a sign for the old Monarch Manufacturing Co. adorns the tippy-top of this building in an alleyway off Chicago Street. Monarch sold “sheep-lined coats and work clothing” to wholesalers and was situated in the heart of the Third Ward’s former garment district, according to the 1922 book History of Milwaukee.

The company landed on Chicago Street in 1917 under the leadership of Galbraith Miller Jr. He was a former news editor for the Milwaukee Journal before he took over Monarch from his deceased father-in-law in 1909. At that time, the company had only 80 employees. By 1922, Monarch had expanded to four plants and 1,000 workers, according to History of Milwaukee. Miller also happened to be chairman of the war service committee of the garment industry during World War I, as well as president of the International Association of Garment Manufacturers, the book notes.

Eppstein Uhen
333 E. Chicago St.
There also may be another Monarch ghost sign. A 1947 ad in LIFE magazine lists Monarch’s address at 333 E. Chicago St. There is a large, unreadable ghost sign on the back of this building, which could have been Monarch’s. However, a shoe, clothing and wholesale merchandise company also owned the building during the 1900s, so the sign’s precise maker is unknown.

Riverwalk Plaza,
141 N. Water St.
Above the Moda Salon, the white block letters “Yahr & Lange” hug the building’s corner as if on a bookbinding. Yahr and Lange was a former wholesale drug company that occupied the seven-floor building from 1914 until 1969, according to the Historic Third Ward’s Walking Tour. More is known about the owners than the exact details of the sign’s erection.

A 1937 Time magazine article titled “Strike-of-the-Week” reported that Yahr & Lange President Fred Ernst Yahr walked into work one morning to find his 115 employees had ordered his resignation. The employees refused to “interrupt bridge games or badminton contests to fill orders.” They went on strike because of Yahr’s reported policy of hiring young people for low pay and firing them when their salary would rise. After a day of bargaining, Yahr fired himself but was able to keep the title of president.

In 1984, the company, then making $80 million a year, was acquired by pharmaceutical giant FoxMeyer Corp, and in 1997, this building was turned into space for 79 residential units and Moda Salon.

Commission House Condominiums
400 N. Broadway
LoDuca Bros.’ gold and burgundy sign, with its Arthurian-like crest, not only stands as a historical beacon of the Third Ward, but also as a memory trigger for the thousands of Milwaukeeans who took lessons and bought musical instruments from the LoDucas for almost 30 years.

Jim LoDuca, president of LoDuca Bros., estimates that about 50,000 to 70,000 students took lessons from about 3,000 to 4,000 teachers while the company resided in the Third Ward. He constantly runs into former employees and customers. “A lot of those teachers married each other, so they attribute a lot of their life to the musical connection,” he says.

The company even made it into Milwaukee poet Susan Firer’s poem, “1956, The Year My Sister, Using Her Ill Health Once Again, Blackmailed My Parents Into An Accordion,” where she writes, “My mother even hated / the name of the store where she had to pick it up: / LoDuca Bros.”

Although the LoDucas relocated to New Berlin in 2003, their sign still remains clear and impressive. It went up when the LoDucas purchased the building in the 1970s. Irish painter Mike Shanahan, of the former Life Signs Co., did the hard work – almost poetic, as the neighborhood’s demographics had shifted from Irish to Italian during the 1900s. “For him to get that crest exactly, as good as he did, was quite a trick,” LoDuca says.

The site was formerly a wholesale grocery firm for more than 40 years in the early 1900s (the first to ship bananas to Milwaukee), then a Bible-printing company, which added a fancy dining room and chapel to the building. It finally housed the LoDucas in 1974, according to Third Ward building records.

Brothers Tom and Guy LoDuca founded the company in 1941, importing accordions, guitars and other instruments from Europe. Jim’s father, Tom, had grown up around the corner in the largely Italian Third Ward. “My dad was so proud,” Jim says. “It was like coming back home.”

The company still sells musical instruments, along with wine, olive oil, grape seed oil and vinegars, but not so many accordions. “The problem was that Elvis Presley and The Beatles took the wind out of the accordion business,” says Kendall Breunig, the Sunset Investors developer who renovated the building into condos after the LoDucas moved. “That kind of killed it.”

Breunig says that after the LoDucas relocated, they wanted the sign removed to avoid confusion with their new headquarters. These days, LoDuca says he’s glad the sign’s still in the Third Ward, though he wishes it could be retouched.

But Breunig notes the Third Ward rules: “You can’t repaint them because then you’re making a ghost sign into a modern sign, and it’s supposed to be unaltered.”

LoDuca disagrees: “I believe in preserving things. One thing in America is we know how to tear everything down, so there’s nothing left to look at. Pretty soon, they’ll be tearing down Miller Park and the Bradley Center. I think the signs are part of history.”

And nowhere more so than in the Third Ward.


Rosemary Lane is a former intern for Milwaukee Magazine. Write to her at