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 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.