Imitation may be flattery, but in a time when German immigrants were flocking to the Midwest in droves to find work, the founders of a quaint Michigan city weren’t out to spread compliments. Zilwaukee, Michigan, is only a single letter off from Milwaukee, and for good reason – or rather, one that may have been intended to deceive.
Zilwaukee is small – population 1,650, according to 2018 estimates – and sits in Saginaw County, right in the crook of Michigan’s thumb. It’s just shy of two hours from Detroit, and is perhaps best known for the Zilwaukee Bridge, which carries the busy I-75 expressway over the Saginaw River. According to local legend, the town was directly named for Milwaukee, Wisconsin – first as Zilwaukie, and later as Zilwaukee.
As the story goes, founders Daniel and Solomon Johnson, who were originally from New York, were inspired by Milwaukee’s industrial success in the 1800s. So, they named their new village after the up-and-coming Wisconsin city – largely to trick new settlers. “German immigrants in New York City would sign agreements to come to Zilwaukee to work, thinking they were headed for the well-settled German community of Milwaukee,” reported a 1954 article published in the Saginaw News during Zilwaukee’s centennial celebration.
There was a lot for the founders of the Michigan city to envy in 19th-century Milwaukee. Even before its incorporation in 1846, Milwaukee was growing incredibly quickly, with its population rising from a few thousand to nearly 20,000 between 1835 and 1850. Its booming industries, from metal-working to beer brewing, attracted swaths of German immigrants and rivaled fast-expanding Chicago. Around the time Zilwaukee was founded, it was a quaint village with just a few houses and a sawmill, and in desperate need of laborers to expand its industry.
“The population of our village is now about two hundred,” the Johnson brothers and their associates wrote in an 1851 advertisement. “[It] must be not less than three times that number within one year, in order to keep pace with the growing wants of the surrounding country.”
The Rev. Eugene A. Forbes, a pastor in the Saginaw area and local history buff who died in 2003, spoke to the Saginaw News during the city’s centennial about his attempt to track down the origins of Zilwaukee’s name. “Because of the tremendous lack of labor in the newly settled Saginaw Valley, [the founders] commissioned agents in New York City to sign up mill hands,” he told the paper in 1954. “This story of the origin of Zilwaukee’s name is repeated in several places by historians and seems to have a great deal of foundation.”
But no one’s sure exactly where the story originally came from, or – despite Forbes’ confidence – if the trickery was completely intentional. “The source for the name Zilwaukee is undocumented and unclear,” says historian Tom Trombley, vice president of the Castle Museum of Saginaw County History. It’s a tale that’s been passed down through generations but is only mentioned a handful of times in the written historical record.
That doesn’t mean it’s not a likely story, though. And it also doesn’t mean Zilwaukeeans were the only ones who believed it. On the other side of Lake Michigan, Milwaukee newspapers
wrote scant about Zilwaukee, but one article from the Milwaukee Sentinel shows we were at least aware of the Michigan city almost 70 years ago.
“Don’t look now, but there’s a small community in Michigan by the name of Zilwaukee,” wrote one on-the-nose columnist in 1954. “It’s a suburb of Saginaw and the Zilwaukeeans admit they swiped the name from youknowwhere…”
Despite the name being a potential con, a pamphlet from the city’s centennial notes that the founders didn’t intend to create the same kind of bustling metropolis as Milwaukee in their state. When the village was founded, it was only meant to be a lumbering point near Saginaw. German immigrants, however, likely wanted no part of this “unheard of wilderness,” as the Saginaw News centennial article reported. But there’s no record of how many people the name actually confused – or if the city actually succeeded in recruiting the mill hands they needed.