The Original Polar Bear – James G. Brazell

As many get ready to dip into the icy lake for the New Year’s Day tradition, we should look back at the hardy men and women of yesteryear who began the annual tradition. According to a Milwaukee Sentinel article from February 16th, 1919, printer James G. Brazell was the originator of the swim, starting it in 1910 and swam every Sunday through the winter. His compadre and fellow pioneer polar bear was Frank Sutter. By 1919, even women like Amy Jacobs, the “Nymph of Boreas”, jumped into the water for a swim. During the great Milwaukee blizzard of ’47 Brazell jumped with wild abandon into the dark waters of McKinley Beach.

The sport grew slowly, like an icicle from the roof, but popularity waned by 1928 when Brazell was the only one to hit the waters. Before he kicked all the no-shows out of the club he critiqued, “Some people like to brag about their hardiness, but it’s a different thing when they are called on to prove it!”

Read Jim Stingl’s column from December 30, 2008 for more history of the swim.


Know Your Milwaukee

From the Milwaukee Journal of February 18, 1936:


Gallagher’s Restaurant

Downtown of the 50’s and 60’s had many interesting small clubs and restaurants. Several of these were owned by the infamous Balistrieri brothers, Frank and Peter, including the Downtowner, Melody Room, Tower, The Scene, and Gallagher’s. The Balestrieri’s were well known as the “Milwaukee Mob” and owned many smaller hotels, strip-clubs, and taverns downtown and on the east side. Despite their main business of organized crime they operated these businesses that were iconic parts of mid-century Milwaukee history.

Gallagher’s was located at 829 N. 3rd St. and was the tavern portion of the Gilpatrick which was torn down in 1941. The one-story tavern was re-roofed, remodeled and began its new life. It was originally called the White Pub in the 1940’s, then when the Balistrieri’s bought it in 1954 changed to the Beachcomber before a lawsuit by the owner of the national chain forced the name change to the Trade Winds. Again, that name caused a lawsuit because it too was a popular national chain of restaurants. It finally became Gallagher’s in October 1958 and changed to a steak house/supper club. It is not know if it was an official franchise of the New York Gallagher’s although there appears to be a pattern in the choice of names.


The idea for Gallagher’s was to try to bring in a younger crowd for dinners downtown by offering quality entertainment and bands from national circuits. It featured blues and jazz groups such as Jonah Jones, Dakota Staton, Oscar Petersen, Lonnie Mack with Troy Seals, Mel Torme, and many others. Not all of them were playing standard dinner music but they drew in the crowds and added to a robust live entertainment and club scene.

Gallagher’s closed in October 1969 and the building was torn down in July 1970.


The Milwaukee Six-Day Bike Races

The Riverwest 24 bike race starts on Friday but the hardcore riders of yesteryear competed in a grueling six day race.

According to an article in the Milwaukee Journal of February 26, 1939, the first professional six-day race in the United States was held at the West Side Roller Rink in August 1880. Those early races were ridden on the large wheeled Columbia “specials” with front wheels 60-inches in diameter. E.M. Hicks of New York won that first race after riding 72 hours over six days and covering 656 miles. The professional sport did not gain interest in Milwaukee at the time due to the focus of the Milwaukee Bicycle Club on recreational rides instead of racing.


The Eagles Club sponsored the first modern race in 1931 from 9pm on January 6th until midnight on January 12. New York City had already been holding these races for twenty years prior so it was becoming a national sport with its own circuit. Ten two-man teams raced in twelve hour shifts over the six days on a specially built track in the Auditorium. At intervals there were sprints which gave points to the teams but otherwise it was a solid grind of pedaling around the track.

Governor Phil La Follette was on hand to fire the starting gun. Sellout crowds came over the weekend to see the cyclists and cheer on the teams. The Canadian-Irish cycling team of Torchy Peden and Polly Parrott won the race after cycling 2,367 miles and gaining a total 1,079 dash points over the six days.


The race series was successful enough to continue as an annual event for many years and was part of a nationwide circuit. By WWII, the popularity of the races dwindled and it eventually disappeared.

Bringing Back the Forst Keller

The big news unveiled today was the announcement that Pabst will once again be brewed in Milwaukee. The location of this new microbrewery and tasting room is the former Forst-Keller in the Pabst brewing complex. Several newspaper articles over the years tell of its long history including this one from 1953.


This 1973 article tells of the final closing of the restaurant.

Milwaukee Journal, September 2, 1973

Landmark Cafe to Close

The Forst-Keller, a German restaurant at 1037 W. Juneau Ave. and an official Milwaukee landmark, will close Sept. 15.

The Pabst Brewing Co., which has since owned the restaurant since the late 1890s, plans to turn the building into a brewery museum. The restaurant, originally a German Methodist Church, was built 100 years ago. In July it was designated an official landmark by the Milwaukee Landmarks commission.

The restaurant has had a long and colorful history. Over the years it has been a meeting hall for three singing societies – the Milwaukee Liederkranz, the Lieder Tafel, and the Bel Canto Chorus. The restaurant has also been a popular eating place for Courthouse judges and employes and for brewery workers.

The Forst-Keller closed for six months in 1971. It was reopened in December of that year and has been operated ever since by Karl Skacel and his wife, Gretchen. The Skacels formerly operated Karl and Gretchen’s Supper Club on Lake Nagawicka.

The restaurant was operated from 1937 to 1960 by two brothers, Richard and Fritz Baumann. Their wives did all the cooking.

Between 1964 and 1971 Adolf (Adi) Binder ran the restaurant. Binder’s mother, known as “Mutti” to customers, was the chief cook.

During World War II the Forst-Keller and other German style restaurants in the city were believed to be gathering spots for Nazi supporters. It was said that FBI agents began frequenting the restaurant in the line of duty during the war years.

No date has been set for its reopening as a museum. A brewery official said the company would refurbish the building. It will house Pabst’s collection of old beer steins, antique brewing equipment and other mementos.

And finally this newspaper story from 1901 sheds a more humorous light on the history of the Forst-Keller. Hope to have a beer there with you when it opens!

The Iroquois Influence on the United States


One of the lesser-discussed influences on the founding of the United States we celebrate this weekend is that of the five nations confederacy and their form of government. The 1936 article quoted below sheds light on that influence and this Youtube video goes into more depth about Chief Canasatego. Happy Fourth!

Milwaukee Journal March 26, 1936
Indian Origin of Constitution

Iroquois’ Idea of Government Was Unique, Investigator Says

The germ from which the American Constitution grew may have been planted by an almost unforgotten Iroquois Indian orator.

J.N.B. Hewitt, student of Indian history and customs, after years of research among records of the early Iroquois, announced Thursday that he had found a direct chain of evidence connecting the Constitution with an eloquent plea made by an Iroquois statesman named Canasatego at a conference held at Lancaster, Pa., in 1744. The conference was called to settle differences over land rights and for mutual defense against the French invaders.

Quotes Tribal Sage

The Indian told delegates from the then British colonies of Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland to unite on their own initiative under the principle that government rested on the consent of the governed, not the rulers.

Canasatego quoted from the words of the historic founder of the Iroquois confederacy of five nations, Deganawida, including the eloquent phrase:

“We, the Mohawk, the Seneca, the Onondaga, the Oneida, and the Cayuga people, set up this tree of government.”

Hewitt pointed out the close resemblance to the phraseology with which the federal Constitution begins:

“We, the people of the United States, in order to from a more perfect union…”

Idea Made Impression

He found that records of the Lancaster conference greatly abbreviated Canasatego’s speech, although evidently it made an impression. The idea that he advanced was new to the colonists, trained in the European tradition that the authority of government came from above – that is, the throne. The Iroquois confederation was the only place in the world during the eighteenth century where a different idea was in operation, Hewitt said.

Thirty-one years later, in 1775, representatives of the five nations of the Iroquois and delegates from the continental congress met to sign a treaty which would keep the Indian confederacy neutral in the war with Great Britain.

Hewitt points out that in a formal speech, Col. Turbot Francis, one of the colonial representatives, told the Iroquois that the colonists had remembered the advice of Canasatego and finally had acted upon it.

Do You Remember the Old Whitefish Bay Excursion Boat?


Local writer and historian Carl Swanson wrote a history of the Whitefish Bay resort on his blog. It brought to mind this article written by Frederic Heath back in 1920 about the excursion boats that serviced the resort from downtown. Heath’s article fills in some of the details of the resort.

Milwaukee Leader, April 13, 1920

By Frederic Heath

Whitefish Bay as a resort for city-baked people seeking the cooling influence of lake, woods and grass in the good old summer time, is now merely a memory. The old steamboat pier is almost washed away, just as the old piers off Huron and other early streets also disappeared.

Afternoon and night crowds flocked to the resort north of the city and from the high terrace viewed old Michigan by day, or hunted pebbles on the beach below, and at night sat at the open air tables, drank their beer, munched their caviar sandwiches, and chatted or watched the lights on steamers and schooners passing to and fro on the black waters out in the lake.

Excursions Years Ago.

It is the criticism of strangers coming to Milwaukee that our people act as though the lake were merely to be tolerated, and they wondered why excursions on the bay and to near-by points are not a part of the city’s enjoyments. This criticism would not have held good years back, for there was a Whitefish Bay boat making regular trips that was well patronized. It was 25 cents a round trip and there was always a comfortable crowd on board when the weather was at all favorable.

The view given today is of the Cyclone, one of the steamers that successively handled the bay excursion business. It had its dock just north of Grand Ave. bridge, alongside the old No. 2 Grand ave., which was for many years the old Pollworth Home restaurant. The river at this point could tell many historical facts, had it the power of speech. For years and years Old Abe Muehlendyke rented rowboats at the lakeshore, off the present Juneau park. But the memory of man goes back a little further to the days when Abe’s boat livery was originally situated on the shore of the river, also near the Grand Ave. (Spring St.) bridge.

Park System Blamed.

It is altogether likely that the passing of Whitefish Bay can be laid to the door of the development of the city park system. Lake park, with its cool shades, its beautiful view of the lake, its accessibility and its band concerts and other attractions, became a powerful competitor to Whitefish Bay before motor vehicles became common, and even afterward they do not appear to have put the bay back into favor, as might have been expected.

Whitefish Bay is getting nearer and nearer to town. A few years ago the county was offered, free of charge, a strip along the lake shore in Whitefish Bay village, just north of the turn on to the county loop (Silver Spring Rd.) for park purposes, but there were enough wise ones in the county board to block its acceptance. It was a narrow strip and the edge of the bluff was close to a Whitefish Bay street, which would have to be protected from landslides at some cost, but even so, a par at that point would have given the people access to the lake. Now the Whitefish Bay resort is gone and the public cannot reach the beach without becoming trespassers. All of which is sincerely to be regretted.

Dawn O’Hara – The Girl Who Laughed


I am in the middle of reading this fun book by Edna Ferber, Dawn O’Hara – The Girl Who Laughed. It was Ms. Ferber’s first book written in 1911 when she was working as a newspaper reporter in Milwaukee. Much of the book takes place in the Milwaukee of the time and probably was based on many of her experiences. The title character was also a newspaper reporter and the story follows her as she tries to keep her sanity through her many adventures. It gives a unique but accurate view of the city at the time:

There is a fascination about the bright little city. There is about it
something quaint and foreign, as though a cross-section of the old world
had been dumped bodily into the lap of Wisconsin. It does not seem at
all strange to hear German spoken everywhere–in the streets, in the
shops, in the theaters, in the street cars. One day I chanced upon a
sign hung above the doorway of a little German bakery over on the north
side. There were Hornchen and Kaffeekuchen in the windows, and a brood
of flaxen-haired and sticky children in the back of the shop. I stopped,
open-mouthed, to stare at the worn sign tacked over the door.

“Hier wird Englisch gesprochen,” it announced.

I blinked. Then I read it again. I shut my eyes, and opened them again
suddenly. The fat German letters spoke their message as before–“English
spoken here.”

On reaching the office I told Norberg, the city editor, about my
find. He was not impressed. Norberg never is impressed. He is the most
soul-satisfying and theatrical city editor that I have ever met. He
is fat, and unbelievably nimble, and keen-eyed, and untiring. He says,
“Hell!” when things go wrong; he smokes innumerable cigarettes, inhaling
the fumes and sending out the thin wraith of smoke with little explosive
sounds between tongue and lips; he wears blue shirts, and no collar to
speak of, and his trousers are kept in place only by a miracle and an
inefficient looking leather belt.

When he refused to see the story in the little German bakery sign I
began to argue.

“But man alive, this is America! I think I know a story when I see it.
Suppose you were traveling in Germany, and should come across a sign
over a shop, saying: ‘Hier wird Deutsch gesprochen.’ Wouldn’t you think
you were dreaming?”

Norberg waved an explanatory hand. “This isn’t America. This is
Milwaukee. After you’ve lived here a year or so you’ll understand what
I mean. If we should run a story of that sign, with a two-column cut,
Milwaukee wouldn’t even see the joke.”

It is a fun book by a very talented writer and because it is now in the public domain, can be downloaded for free in many formats on Project Gutenburg including spoken audio files. I highly recommend anyone interested in reading home grown fiction to download this. Ms. Ferber eventually wrote many popular books, some which became famous films in their own rights such as Show Boat, Cimarron, and Giant which starred three immortal film stars; Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean.


Lakeside Hospital on Prospect Avenue

Upper Prospect Avenue in the 1890s around Woodstock Place was sparsely settled. It was near the end of the Farwell Avenue car line with the carbarn located where the Oriental Theater now stands at Ivanhoe and Farwell. Because there wasn’t much there it was a good location for hospitals and rest homes. In November 1894, Dr. Horace Manchester Brown opened his new surgical hospital at the northeast corner of Woodstock & Prospect and named it the Manchester Brown hospital. It was a small hospital that looked more like a German hunting lodge than a medical facility but the inside was modern for the time and cost $18,000 to build. What made it unique was the fact that it was the first strictly non-sectarian hospital in the city.


In 1915, Ford Motor Company bought the property across the street and began plans to build a large automobile plant there. Dr. Brown pushed hard against the proposed plant and filed a lawsuit which he didn’t win but the furor led to stricter zoning laws preventing manufacturing from being built that close to a residential district. Shortly after the factory opened Dr. Brown closed the hospital. In a strange twist of fate the factory was taken by the federal government late in 1918 to be used for a medical hospital during the war. Meanwhile in 1919 the old hospital had been bought by the Country Day School for use as a Junior School until it moved to new facilities in Whitefish Bay in 1932. The building sat vacant until it was torn down in 1934 for the proposed Milwaukee Western Fuel Company offices. That building was a modern art-deco building designed by Milwaukee architect Herbert W. Tullgren.

Country Day School

Big thanks to Gary Rebholz for providing a picture from his research on Milwaukee’s German Newspapers and the idea for this article!

Public Library Display on 70th Anniversary of End of World War 2

The Central Library has a small display on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. It’s in the 2nd floor hallway near the Humanities Room entrance. It focuses on FDR’s death, his Four Freedoms, includes Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms poster series and their first appearances in The Saturday Evening Post.

Next month’s focus will be on V-E Day & Gertie the Duck. June may be a bric-a-brac on the home front, death camps & Okinawa. July will be on Potsdam and Churchill’s Tories losing the 1945 UK election before wrapping up in August w/the A-Bombs & V-J Day.

Display materials are from the Milwaukee Public Library’s magazine and newspaper collections, Historic Poster Collection, Historic Photo Collection and Historical Sheet Music Collection.