The Grain Exchange’s Transformation From Wheat to Weddings

Get a glimpse into the history of this long-standing Milwaukee building.

There’s no place like it in Wisconsin. With its soaring ceilings, ornate plasterwork and mural-sized oil paintings, the Grain Exchange is as artfully finished as some of Milwaukee’s finest churches. Its built-in elegance has made the room a perfect venue for weddings, proms, banquets and the most lavish parties.

Earlier Milwaukeeans knew the Grain Exchange as something else: the nerve center of the local economy. As Wisconsin became an agricultural powerhouse in the mid-1800s, specializing in wheat, Milwaukee prospered as the primary exporter of all that grain. By the early 1860s, the city was the largest shipper of wheat on Earth. 


 

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The Milwaukee Chamber of Commerce was formed in 1858 to coordinate the grain trade, ensuring quality, setting prices and providing a forum for exchange. After outgrowing a smaller building on Broadway and Michigan, the Chamber tore it down and had the palatial Grain Exchange built on the same site in 1880. This 1910 photograph shows traders evaluating samples of grain for purchase. Trading was a high-stakes, high-volume activity that could make or break millionaires in a single session. 

In the later 1800s, as the wheat belt moved west, there was less grain for Milwaukee to buy and sell. The Chamber
of Commerce found other things to trade, including stocks, but in 1934 the group abandoned the Grain Exchange
for less elaborate quarters nearby. 

The room was terribly mistreated in the decades that followed. A false ceil-ing split it horizontally into makeshift offices, and ventilation ducts were punched through the decorative plasterwork. In 1979, the building’s owner, Elenore Ashley, decided to bring it back to life. The Grain Exchange was not so much restored as recreated over the next four years, giving Milwaukee an elegant reminder of its brief reign as a world capital of the grain trade. 

TAKE A CLOSER LOOK: 

  • Long poles were necessary to open the Grain Exchange’s high windows for ventilation on hot days.
  • The Grain Exchange provided samples that were truly representative of the grain being sold, in contrast to the bait-and-switch practice in Chicago.
  • The styles ranged from Homburg to porkpie to derby, but hats were still a popular male fashion accessory in 1910. 
  • Porcelain spittoons and wire wastebaskets were fixtures of any well-appointed business environment.
  • Telegraph boys were the epitome of high-speed communication in pre-Internet days, most of them delivering messages for Western Union.

IN COLLABORATION WITH MILWAUKEE COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY


 

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

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