A Brief History of Beer Gardens in Milwaukee

The resurgence in beer gardens takes a page out of the history books.

Let’s be honest. The beer gardens of today at Estabrook (4400 N. Estabrook Dr.) and Hoyt (1800 N. Swan Blvd.) parks bear little resemblance to the pastoral drinking establishments Milwaukee’s 19th-century beer barons constructed in Brew City.

“The beer garden was popular during an age when there were not adequate public parks,” says John Gurda, Milwaukee’s chief historian and a man who has been spotted sipping on a barley pop at Estabrook’s beer garden. The “retail outlets” created by the big brewers were also a marketing tool, and they worked hard to attract large, thirsty audiences for their product.

“Pabst had a Ferris wheel and plank whitefish dinners,” he says. “Schlitz had everything from light opera to diving horses.” As much as we want to bring back equestrian water sports (not really, so put the pens away, PETA), Gurda says today’s establishments do share some DNA with the gardens of yore: a jovial, familial atmosphere.

THEN: The interior of the Schlitz Palm Garden, which was built in  1895, but closed in 1919 thanks to Prohibition; photo courtesy of Historic Photo Collection/Milwaukee Public Library

“You might go to church in the morning and spend the afternoon in the beer garden,” he says. “There was no conflict whatsoever. It was a very family-oriented theme.”

But once the city and the county got into the business of building parks, the attraction to the beer gardens diminished, Gurda says. Even with beers selling for a nickel a pint, a BYOB option was more fiscally attractive. And The Great Experiment, or Prohibition, was the final nail in the coffin, which led to beer gardens vanishing from the local landscape.

But recently, as craft beer’s popularity grew, Gurda says, along with it came “a resurgence in things that are local, intimate and community-based.” That sure sounds like a modern beer garden to us.

Shorewood author Lucy Saunders, who released Dinner in the Beer Garden late last year, echoes the sentiment that an outing to the beer garden is still a perfectly suitable way for the family to spend the day. “One of the best lessons you can give your children,” she says, “is to show that it’s about the total experience of enjoying a beer in the company of friends.”

With County Parks Director John Dargle Jr. floating the idea of taking the show on the road with a traveling beer garden (still in the R&D phase), even more parks might house what once was a quintessential summer escape.

“Milwaukee realizes we have a history here, we have a legacy,” Saunders says. “We should be proud of this and showcase it, not only for visitors, but residents as well.”

This article appears in the 2014 City Guide in the June 2014 issue of Milwaukee Magazine. 
Read the rest of the City Guide online here, or subscribe to Milwaukee Magazine.




Former Managing Editor