Tag Archives: Wisconsin Historical Society

Explore Milwaukee — 75 years in the past

images - wigout - 050516 - MilwaukeeGuide“Numerous explanations have been advanced for Milwaukee’s low crime rate,” according to the city’s newest guidebook, although “there is quite a little downtown activity right up until midnight.”

If that sounds like a less-than-accurate set of facts, you’re technically wrong — since this guidebook describes a Milwaukee of yesteryear, almost a century in the past.

Seventy-five years late, this guide written by members of the Federal Writers’ Project has finally been published by the Wisconsin Historical Society. The manuscript tells the story of Milwaukee from its founding in the 19th century until 1940.

“You can look at how the city was laid out and how different, really, it was back then,” says the project’s editor, John Buenker. “People from that time coming downtown today would be amazed at the high-rise buildings. They had never seen anything over three or four stories.”

The Federal Writers’ Project was one of the many programs launched during the Great Depression by the national Works Progress Administration. The WPA hired millions of unemployed workers to build civic improvements such as roads, bridges, locks, dams, hospitals and schools, as well as to improve parkland.

It employed writers, too. “They generally hired teachers or journalists, people like that,” says Buenker, who taught history for 35 years at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. He also taught at UW-Milwaukee and UW-Madison.

The Federal Writers Project also hired mapmakers, photographers and archeologists — more than 6,500 employees in all. WPA workers compiled priceless oral histories and field recordings, notably of the last generations of African-Americans who had been held in slavery.

The Federal Writers Project also produced guidebooks for every state. Wisconsin’s, published in 1941, was a 651-page behemoth. The next task was to write guidebooks for major cities, including Milwaukee.

Then Pearl Harbor was attacked. The tragedy of World War II brought economic recovery, and suddenly writers had other things to write about.

Decades later, “there always was this rumor that there was a history of Milwaukee that was worked on, but nobody knew where it was,” says Buenker. The files were found in the archives of the Wisconsin Historical Society, which has finally published it.

The book, richly illustrated with period photos and maps created expressly for the guide, is like Alice in Wonderland — if Wonderland were made up of colorful ethnic communities and landmarks now lost to Milwaukee.

The guide includes once-important industries, such as “the fishing fleet,” and the Pabst Brewery, 917 W. Juneau Ave., “where visitors may view talking pictures which tell the story of brewing.”

Readers were invited to visit the Milwaukee Public Museum, then housed inside the Milwaukee Public Library at 814 W. Wisconsin Ave. “In front of the building stands a totem pole carved by the Haida Indians.” Besides a model of Solomon Juneau’s trading post, inside you could see “birds’ nests and eggs,” postage stamps, and “boots and shoes of all the nations.”

Or you could have visited the “veal and poultry commission district.” There, the Central Municipal Market covered an entire square block at North Fifth and West Vliet Streets. “On weekday mornings, farmers within a radius of 150 miles bring farm produce to sell to housewives and independent merchants. … Here and there a farmer’s wife, more enterprising than her neighbor, hawks bouquets of freshly picked flowers.”

At night, you could visit the theater belonging to the Wisconsin Players, 535 N. Van Buren St. The former church housed “one of the oldest little theater groups in the United States.” Talk about drama! Once it was home to “spasmodic feuds.” In fact, a bomb was found there that killed nine police officers. Today it’s a parking facility.

Much of “the Negro district” — Milwaukee’s historic Bronzeville, the African-American community centered northwest of downtown — had recently won its battle to simply exist; property owners refused to give way to what later was called “urban renewal.” The cruelest urban renewal of all had yet to be conceived: Tearing down blocks and displacing thousands to create the freeway cutting through Milwaukee.

“When they put I-94 and its subsidiaries in (during the 1950s and ‘60s), they destroyed whole neighborhoods,” says Buenker. “They actually gutted whole parts of the city, neighborhoods that had Polish or African-American or Italian or Greek people. There was a lot of controversy about that. Back in the 1930s, people used public transportation or they walked.”

"The Flagellants" (right) was once an iconic painting within the Milwaukee Theatre (left). It's now at the Museum of Wisconsin Art. Photos: Wikimedia Commons/MOWA.
“The Flagellants” (right) was once an iconic painting within the Milwaukee Theatre (left). It’s now at the Museum of Wisconsin Art. Photos: Wikimedia Commons/MOWA.

The guide describes what has been lost. Readers are challenged to learn what has survived. Whatever happened, for example, to the mammoth 14-by-23-foot painting of “The Flagellants”? It was a landmark all by itself inside the Milwaukee Auditorium (today the Milwaukee Theatre, 500 W. Kilbourn Ave.). “The picture depicts a group of religious fanatics who believed that by flogging themselves they would appease God.” (The guide left out that they were semi-nude.) Painted by city native Carl von Marr in 1889, it was “awarded the gold medal of the Royal Academy of Berlin that year,” and four years later drew crowds at the Chicago World’s Fair.

We have to set the guide aside to learn that, today, “The Flagellants” is on permanent loan to the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend. At least it still exists — as does much of what Milwaukee once was, trapped in amber by the Federal Writers’ Project’s delightful guide.

Oh — and the reason for Milwaukee’s low crime rate?

“Small town ‘nosiness.’”

“Milwaukee in the 1930s: A Federal Writers’ Project City Guide,” edited by John D. Buenker, is published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, $18.95; ISBN 978-0-87020-742-6.

Passion and preservation | Play chronicles gay couples efforts to save Mineral Point

Mineral Point residents are familiar with the story of how Bob Neal and Edgar Hellum coordinated an effort 80 years ago to save what is now one of Wisconsin’s most significant historical sites. Now a pair of Chicago-area authors is taking the story of the closeted gay couple and their preservation work to the stage and, perhaps, the silver screen.

In “The Bachelors,” authors Rick Kinnebrew and Martha Meyer chronicle the efforts by Neal and Hellum during the 1930s and ’40s to preserve the historic stone cottages of Cornish lead miners who settled the Iowa County community of Mineral Point a century earlier. Carried out over decades – and at a time when there was little area interest in historic preservation – Neal and Hellum’s efforts to save the cottages from the wrecking ball eventually resulted in the creation of Pendarvis, a “neighborhood,” now owned by the Wisconsin Historical Society. Pendarvis is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

The authors, both of whom work for the Evanston Public Library system, first tackled the story as a screenplay, which was a semi-finalist in Pride Films and Plays’ Great Gay Screenplay Competition. Now, in a reversal of the usual process, Kinnebrew and Meyer are reworking their screenplay into a stage work.

“The Bachelors,” which has received several dramatic readings, arrives June 2 in the town where it all began, in a sense. Alley Stage, Mineral Point’s local theatrical troupe, is performing the work at the beautifully restored Mineral Point Opera House – one of the many buildings that have benefited from Neal and Hellum’s preservationist vision. Their vision has helped turn Mineral Point into the thriving artists colony and tourist destination that it is today.

Kinnebrew and Meyer first visited Mineral Point during their honeymoon in the area. The couple’s discovery of Pendarvis and, especially, the lives of the two men behind its restoration, led them to write the screenplay, Meyer says.

“(Neal and Hellum) demonstrate what a good working marriage can do – not just for the couple, but for the whole community in which they live,” says Meyer. “Right now, we are all hungry for stories of healthy, long-term LGBT partnerships. Bob and Edgar’s contribution to Mineral Point continues to this day.”

Neal, a Mineral Point native who worked as a designer in both London and New York, met Hellum, originally from Stoughton, Wis., when the two attended the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1934, the couple moved back to Neal’s hometown and began what became a lifetime of preservation work.

To survive, the two men ran Pendarvis House, a restaurant serving Cornish pasties, or meat pies. Although not terribly popular among locals, the restaurant was the favorite of another area resident, architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Mineral Point residents viewed Neal and Hellum as “eccentric” and thought their efforts were “pixilated,” a Cornish term for “crazy.”

“The Bachelors” chronicles not only their restoration work, but especially the men’s relationship. Kinnebrew and Meyer did much of their research in the Mineral Point Public Library and also heavily tapped “A Passion to Preserve: Gay Men as Keepers of Culture” by Milwaukee author Will Fellows. The book was especially useful because of its perspective on restoration and Fellows’ 1997 interview with Hellum, who was then 91 years old.

“As far as I know, my interview with Hellum was the only time he sat down with an interviewer who asked him about being gay and his life with Bob as his life partner,” Fellows says. “It was evident from how he engaged with me on the topic that he wanted to talk about it, but his many years of mask-wearing in a small town made it difficult for him to do so comfortably.”

The pair’s relationship is what made the story of Neal and Hellum a good candidate for drama in the first place, Meyer says.

“This is a love story, one of a cosmopolitan man who is savvy in the gay world miraculously finding a way to hold on to someone who has mostly lived in small rural towns and had to leave town every time a relationship developed,” Meyer says. “One partner is emotionally intelligent, the other learned only in the history of British tea cups.  It is the stuff of which movies are made!”

The first Chicago reading of “The Bachelors” in January raised $540, which Kinnebrew and Meyer donated to the Mineral Point Public Library in Neal’s name. A second Chicago reading was scheduled for May 29 at Stage 773. The June 2 Mineral Point reading is being made possible with the help of Alley Stage officials, who are enthusiastic about the production.

“As a Mineral Point resident and a history-lover, Pendarvis is a point of pride,” says Ainsley Anderson, Alley Stage’s general manager. “The story about Bob and Edgar’s relationship deserves to be told.  Their relationship – their legacy – is more than just the buildings they saved.”

Fellows agrees: “’The Bachelors’” is a fine work, notable for many reasons, not least of which is that it is, to my knowledge, the first dramatic work to focus on a chapter from Wisconsin’s gay history. And it took a non-gay couple to see the dramatic potential of the Pendarvis story and tell it.”