Sherburn Becker was rich, young, and brash. And for two years, he was one of the flashiest mayors in the nation.
Known as Milwaukee’s “Boy Mayor,” Sherburn Becker won perhaps the most surprising upset in Milwaukee political history and served as one of the most flamboyant mayors the city has ever known. The son of Washington Becker, president of the Marine National Bank and among Milwaukee’s most prominent citizens, the Republican Becker had served unremarkable terms as a city alderman and a county supervisor when he launched a campaign for mayor in 1906.
The incumbent was David Rose, a near-caricature of the era’s crooked and preening big city mayors. Rose ran a wide-open town and was proud of his common upbringing. He derided Becker as “the brat born with a silver spoon in his mouth,” and never doubted that he would beat the 26-year-old with ease. The campaign was defined as the young and privileged Becker against the experienced but morally-loose Rose. Becker ran a shallow campaign, making no speeches, but passing out “BECKER FOR MAYOR” hats by the thousand and parading around the city in his sleek, rubber-tired buggy. Rose was so sure he would win that he left town on election day for a vacation. When word reached him of the result, he learned he had been beaten by 1,500 votes.
As mayor, Becker’s most lasting action (at least the most widely-remembered) action was against the signs and clocks sponsored by local jewelers on Wisconsin Avenue (then Grand Avenue). Becker hated the displays and found them an impediment to sidewalk traffic. One evening shortly after his election, the mayor went out with six fire department members and watched as the clocks were pulled down and the signs destroyed. He claimed that he had the power, as mayor, to remove the obstructions.
Becker seemed to enjoy being mayor more than actually doing the mayor’s work. He had a flashy gold star made for himself shortly after his election, set with diamonds and sapphires, it read “MAYOR OF MILWAUKEE.” He also had a sign made for his car – one of the first in the city – that read, “Sherburn M. Becker, Boy Mayor of Milwaukee.” He traveled extensively during his term, doing most of the driving himself and even once impressing President Theodore Roosevelt with his automobile.
Becker declined to run for reelection in 1908 and left Milwaukee for good in 1911. He died in 1949 in New York, where he had been living and working for many years. This postcard was sent by an unknown Becker friend or family member (someone close enough to him to call him “Sherbie”) to friends back in New York City just days before he was inaugurated, expressing that the Mayor-elect was already looking forward to a vacation.
Antique Milwaukee is a new web Milwaukee Magazine web series that takes a closer look at objects and curiosities from around town that have a story to tell. We’ll reveal a piece of Milwaukee’s history through a new artifact in each installment.