The new book "Milwaukee in the 1930s" resurrects a Depression-era guide to Milwaukee. The government-funded writers clearly weren’t Chamber of Commerce types, and their warts-and-all take on our city is hilarious, as well as enlightening.
It was a book that city officials tried to hide. For more than 75 years, they succeeded. But now the jig is up, and Milwaukee in the 1930s is out. The picture it paints of Cream City is amusing, educational and decidedly less than flattering: People drive like grannies and walk like drunks, Broadway shows dread stopping here and the brick facades of buildings have gone gray from soot.
The guidebook was a product of the Federal Writers Project, a Depression-era government program similar to the Works Progress Administration, which employed people to spruce up the nation’s parks, and build bridges and roads. Then as now, there was a segment of the population unsuited to practical employment, people whose only skill in life was the ability to write. The FWP was created for them. Although it employed a relatively small number of people, about 6,600 at its high point, among them were such talents as Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Loren Eiseley, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, John Steinbeck, Studs Terkel and Richard Wright. Project writers produced guidebooks to the 48 states, as well as the District of Columbia, Alaska Territory and Puerto Rico, and a handful of major American cities. All the books followed the same format, with three main sections: essays on each locale’s history and unique characteristics; a survey of distinctive areas or buildings; and auto tours of described locations.
Milwaukee’s city guide was greenlighted by the County Board in 1935 and completed in 1940. Originally, it filled 602 pages, half of which consisted of 16 essays that aroused strenuous objections from members of the County Board committee. One charged that the writers glorified the Social Democratic Party, which played a major role in Milwaukee’s history well into the 1950s; another complained that several essays contained “objectionable material and bits of poison.” And committee member Susan Drew, a librarian, sniffed that the book’s grammar “would not have done credit to a 5th-grade pupil.”
After this harsh reception, the book was mothballed, until now.
The manuscript, according to John Buenker, professor emeritus of history at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, was discovered in the archives of the Wisconsin Historical Society and brought to his attention. Buenker’s edited version of the tome, published earlier this spring by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, weighs in at a trim 260 pages, including Buenker’s lengthy and insightful preface. And it’s got some real good grammar.
Buenker says the book is “better than reading some historian” because it’s based on the perspectives of ordinary people. “It goes right down to the real thing, what we call primary sources in history.”
Only one of the 16 original essays made it into the book. According to Buenker, the other 15 vary significantly in quality and importance and consist largely of material already covered adequately in easily accessible books and articles, notably Bayrd Still’s Milwaukee: The History of a City, published in 1948. Buenker also believes the intellectual integrity of these omitted essays was compromised: “Not only were they ultimately ‘written by committee,’ but by a committee whose deliberations were constantly disrupted by bitter ideological and partisan conflict.”
We’ll just have to take his word for it that the omitted essays are expendable, since they are, by definition, not included. But it is tempting to wonder what was left on the cutting-room floor, especially since the sole included essay, titled simply, “Today,” is a scream. Though the identity of its author or authors has sadly been lost to history, it is a brightly written and wryly perceptive look at what made Milwaukeeans tick. And it’s also the source of many of the quotes that we felt leapt off of the pages, simply demanding to be shared.
From the introductory essay, “Today”:
Careful drivers, careless pedestrians
Tart letters to the newspapers denounce the slow-moving traffic; the “Sunday drivers;” the leisurely, day-dreaming, jay-walking pedestrians; and the speed limit of twenty-five miles on several streets that in other cities would be speedways. It has been said that Milwaukee has the most careful drivers and the most careless pedestrians of any city.
Better call the constable!
Call this smalltown “nosiness,” or call it praiseworthy awareness of civic responsibility, but if a strange automobile drives two or three times around the block at an unusual hour the police telephone is likely to be busy with calls from suspicious householders.
Three worst weeks for Broadway shows
Only a few Milwaukeeans rush to read the new books, see the new pictures or attend the new shows. A book is no better, soberer citizens reason, because it is new; a picture gains nothing in line or color simply because people are talking about it; and, if the current Broadway hit is as good as the papers say, it will reach Milwaukee next year, or the year after. … Theater people comment morosely that “the three worst weeks in show business are Holy Week, the week before Christmas, and the week in Milwaukee.”
Don’t show off
Milwaukee’s rich people make little ostentatious display of wealth, perhaps because their tastes do not incline that way, perhaps because many of their fellow Milwaukeeans find such display irresistibly comic rather than impressive. … Tails and top-hats are not so common at the concert or the theater but that necks are craned at their appearance; there are few places here … where evening dress does not render its wearer mildly conspicuous.
It is generally felt here that Milwaukee has benefited less than other cities from the generosity of its sons … The handle of a whiskbroom may be painted an alluring red, but Milwaukee housewives test the bristles before they buy.
Milwaukee today retains little evidence of the light colored local brick, made from the red clay that gave the community its sobriquet, “The Cream City.” Soot and smoke have turned the creamy buff to a harsh gray.
What’s urban planning?
Milwaukee in 1940 still gives the impression of a toy village spilled from a box by a careless child, with homes, stores, factories and churches of a half-dozen architectural periods jumbled together in an effect that is not without its own haphazard charm.
River of muck
The Milwaukee River, once “like a silver thread … in which the Indian could detect and spear fish at the depth of twelve and even eighteen feet,” is today, like its sister rivers, a chocolate-brown lethargic caterpillar crawling through the downtown district.
We are all Aunt Susan
Milwaukee people are aware that their city, while superficially resembling her sister cities of the Middle West, has her own “little peculiarities,” and they sometimes bitterly berate her for them. Secretly, however, they regard her idiosyncrasies with the affectionate and amused pride that one takes in one’s old Aunt Susan, who always leaves her spoon in her coffee cup. She is not suave, or permanent-waved or “smart,” but she does as she pleases, speaks her mind and commands recognition.
From Buenker’s Preface:
Factories relied on Southern blacks
Adding to the [ethnic] mix were Southern-born African Americans, whose population rose from 980 in 1910 to 7,501 in 1930. They were recruited largely by “labor agents” who scoured Southern states for workers in foundries, tanneries, meat-packing plants and on construction crews. By 1930, 80 percent of black males in Milwaukee held industrial jobs.
From Prohibition’s ashes, festivals rise
The end of Prohibition [in 1933] gave life to 1,776 taverns, as well as employment at the city’s newly reopened breweries. The volkfest held to celebrate repeal morphed into annual Midsummer Festivals, cosponsored by the city and county. Along with the annual Festival of Many Nations, these served as precursors for today’s Summerfest.
From the chapter on Milwaukee’s Near North Side:
The small district bounded by North Eleventh, North Thirteenth, West Vine and West Lloyd Streets has been said to contain more synagogues than any other area of equal size in the United States. Today the Jewish residents, though still worshipping in their temples and conducting business in this district, have moved north and west, leaving the area to the growing Negro colony.
From the write-up for St. John’s Cathedral, 820 N. Jackson Street:
Cathedral’s colorful history
During the rescue of the [fugitive] slave Joshua Glover [in 1853], an irate mob led by Sherman Booth and Edward P. Allis used a massive timber left over from the new cathedral to smash the door of the nearby jail. … In 1892, when the Third Ward was devastated by the most spectacular of Milwaukee fires, the cathedral served as temporary refuge for thousands of people left homeless and impoverished.
From the write-up for the Lion House:
DIY funeral pyre
The Lion House (1241 N. Franklin Place) was the “dream home” of Edward Diedrich, a German business speculator, who, according to legend, walked to Milwaukee from New York with $80,000 in his pockets. … Rudolph Pfeil, a close associate of Diedrich, became the second owner of the house. When Pfeil’s wife, who had lived several years in India, was dying, she asked to be cremated on a funeral pyre at the shores of the lake. A pyre of logs and brush was built at the water’s edge. When Pfeil himself was preparing to light it, a mob led by the sheriff persuaded Pfeil to bury his wife in a more conventional manner.
From the driving tour that includes areas south of Milwaukee:
Who let the dogs out?
By 1842, approximately 40 families had settled within the region of Oak Creek. The settlement, a cluster of small homes, had a sawmill, a grist mill, a general store, a post office and a combined school and church. The first town meeting was in April 1842, and Luther Rawson, receiving six votes for “dog whipper,” was empowered to use any means necessary to prevent dogs from disturbing meetings at the schoolhouse.
Countess the Baby Elephant
Washington Park Zoological Garden, the sixth largest zoo in the country, began in 1907 when the Garfield Lodge of the Knights of Pythias purchased a baby elephant with $1,200 raised at a benefit performance … Countess, the baby elephant, “persuaded Milwaukee to be zoo-minded. Most institutions start in a small way and build up, but the Milwaukee Zoo wanted to do things in a big way at the very start. The elephant is, therefore, the very best animal to begin with.”
Calvary Cemetery, 5503 W. Bluemound Rd., is the oldest Roman Catholic cemetery in Milwaukee … Before the days of streetcar service the trip to Calvary Cemetery was long and tedious. It is told that the owner of a nearby tavern would count the people going to the cemetery in the morning so that he might gauge their demand for refreshments on the return journey.
Chicago not Impressed
The Broadway Building, 707 N. Broadway, … was erected in 1870. … Milwaukeeans pointed to the magnificence of the building as proof of the cosmopolitan character of the city at a time when Milwaukee and Chicago rivaled each other in urban development. A Chicago newspaper wrote sarcastically of the building that “the merchants of Milwaukee as they sit on the grass in front of their stores, look up from their checkerboards to watch the progress of work on a new building which is rising in their town. As they contemplate its lofty elevation, towering six stories in the air, they congratulate one another with the remark that ‘Milwaukee is growing, and some of these days will become a city.’”
From the section “General Information”:
Liquor stores and counters: Sale forbidden on election days, Sundays, and weekdays between 9 P.M. and 8 A.M.
Fun facts on the suburbs
Brown Deer: Got its name in the 1870s, when a brown deer charged through the open door of a county saloon, then the only building, and broke up a card game.
Cudahy: In 1893 Patrick Cudahy moved his packing plant from Milwaukee to the 700-acre tract between Lake Michigan and the Northwestern Railroad tracks, escaping a proposed ordinance defining a meat-packing plant as an objectionable nuisance.
West Allis: Was the second-fastest growing community in the U.S., according to the 1930 federal census.
Bill Lueders is associate editor of The Progressive. He grew up in Milwaukee.