Milwaukee During Growth, Turmoil and Wartime

What it was like in Milwaukee between 1910 and 1950.


Milwaukee’s patchwork of ethnic enclaves made for tense times during the First World War, particularly with the city’s large German population. When the nation entered the fight in 1917, anti-war voices were persecuted, and Germans – even longtime citizens – were viewed with suspicion. With nearly 500 Milwaukeeans killed in the war, another 1,100 citizens dead from the Great Influenza that followed, and the city’s most famed industry shuttered due to Prohibition, Milwaukee limped into the 1920s. But the city’s population increased by 55% between 1910 and 1930 , and the city grew its acreage via annexation by more than 70% during the Roaring Twenties. This period also brought new tensions: between the law and Milwaukee’s long-standing love of the bottle, between the races (the KKK marched in the city in 1922, while both African American and Mexican American communities were growing) and finally between the classes as the Great Depression took hold in the 1930s. The U.S. entry into World War II soothed some of these tensions and exasperated others (there were 66 labor strikes in the city during the war ) but also pulled the city from the dregs of the Depression and left it, at the war’s end, once again bursting with potential. 

A Model Neighborhood: In 1915, Frank Lloyd Wright’s populist streak took physical form in the 2700 block of Burnham Street with the construction of six models of his American System-Built Homes. The grand plan – using what we’d now recognize as an IKEA approach with pre-cut materials assembled on site – fizzled. Only about 25 houses were built in total, and the six on Burnham are the only grouping of System-Built homes.

Ride the Rails: Launched in 1860, Milwaukee’s first streetcars were horse-drawn cars on rails. But 1890 heralded the arrival of the electric streetcar in Brew City. At only a nickel a ride and covering 190 miles of track, the cars were wildly popular. The era of the electric streetcar ended on March 2, 1958, when the last remaining car took its final run.

Tough Teddy: An afternoon spent sipping beer and dancing alone in a Downtown barroom? Not terribly odd by Milwaukee standards. But on Oct. 14, 1912, John Schrank followed that up by shooting former President Teddy Roosevelt, in town on a campaign swing. Roosevelt survived – and famously gave his speech despite the wound. Schrank, who’d been stalking Roosevelt for months, spent the rest of his life in an asylum.

Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society


Social MKE: Milwaukee is the largest U.S. city to ever elect a Socialist mayor, doing so three times between 1910 and 1960. Daniel Hoan was the longest-serving (1916-40) of these mayors and was ranked the eighth-greatest mayor in U.S. history in a 1999 book on American mayoralty.

Emil Seidel (1910-1912), Daniel Hoan (1916-1940), Frank Zeidler (1948-Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Public Library

Before the Great Migration: Milwaukee’s Black population soared during the postwar Great Migration period, but it also experienced smaller growth starting amid World War I’s industrial buildup. The number of Black Milwaukeeans grew from about 1,500 in 1915 to about 10,000 in 1945 – nearly all of them redlined into the area north of Downtown that became known as Bronzeville.

Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Public Library

Notable name: Golda Meir, Israel’s prime minister from 1969-74, graduates from North Division High School, 1916.

Photo via public domain

Born in Milwaukee:  Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, 1924 | Children’s author Ellen Raskin, 1928 | Bob Uecker, 1934 | Rocker Steve Miller, 1943 | NFL kicker Tom Dempsey, 1947 | Historian John Gurda, 1947

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s January issue.

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