When the bell rang to start the school year in Milwaukee many Septembers ago, one institution stood out from the rest: the public school on Jones Island. Established in 1896, it served a community of commercial fishing families who had been setting their nets in Lake Michigan since the early 1870s. Most were from the Baltic seacoast of Europe, particularly the Kaszuby region of northern Poland. The Kaszubs and their neighbors supplied the city with an abundance of trout, whitefish, herring, perch and sturgeon – more than 2 million pounds in a good year.
When this photograph was taken around 1905, the village was close to its peak population of roughly 1,600, many of them children. The islanders were technically squatters. Since they paid no city land taxes, they received no city services, with the sole exception of the school, a simple barracks-style structure on the lake side of the peninsula. As students across the river scraped their knees on gravel playgrounds, the kids of Jones Island enjoyed recess on the beach.
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Their teachers, all of them young women from the city proper, were rowed to work every morning and rowed back to the mainland in the afternoon. “Jones Island was completely isolated, a different country entirely,” recalled one early schoolmistress. “The youngsters had accumulated a lot of knowledge about birds and animals and the waves and the winds in the course of their open-air life. I was the one who was ‘different.’”
As Milwaukee grew, the little fishing village was increasingly an anachronism. In 1914, the city condemned the peninsula to build a sewage treatment plant and an outer harbor, sparking an exodus that lasted for the next decade. In 1919, the Jones Island school closed forever, ending a unique chapter in Milwaukee’s educational history.
TAKE A CLOSER LOOK:
- The hand-cut squirrels and leaves suggest that the season was autumn.
- There is no record of what the school was celebrating, but it was important enough to bring out cake, dried fruit and handmade table decorations.
- Upswept hairdos and high collars were the fashion for teachers in the early 1900s. Some boys wore ties as big as Christmas bows.
- The class pet: a fish, fit for a fishing village.
- The serious expressions were likely the result of long camera exposures, not sour dispositions.
IN COLLABORATION WITH MILWAUKEE COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY