The Cream City

Located approximately 90 miles north of Chicago, Milwaukee, Wisconsin is often forgotten. As Wisconsin's largest city Milwaukee is nestled on the western shore of Lake Michigan, at the junction of the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic Rivers. It is this location along three waterways that made the city ideal for trade, with groups like Native Americans living in the area, European settlers trading fur, Beer barons, and many other industrial groups.  The history of this great city is a study in and of itself. If you are interested in learning more, please see the sources section for suggested reading.

The Beginning

The Beer

The Politics

In 1763, Milwaukee bands of Potawatomi, Ottawa, Ojibwe and Menominee joined Pontiac's Rebellion against the British, and 15 years later they supported the colonies during the American Revolution. The city's modern history began in 1795 when fur trader Jacques Vieau built a post along a bluff on the east side, overlooking the Milwaukee and Menomonee rivers. Vieau was a seasonal resident, and in 1818 transferred his Milwaukee assets to his son-in-law, Solomon Juneau. Juneau is generally considered not only the city's first permanent white resident but also its founder.

Between 1835 and 1850, Milwaukee's population grew from a handful of fur traders to more than 20,000 settlers. Three separate villages were started: Juneau's, east of the Milwaukee River and north of the Menomonee; Byron Kilbourn's across from Juneau's, on the west bank of the Milwaukee; and Walker's Point, across the Menomonee from the other two. In 1846 they incorporated into a single city. By then Milwaukee rivaled Chicago in size, wealth and potential, but in 1848 the Illinois city secured railroad and telegraph connections that enabled it to eclipse


Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin Visual Archives


Figure 2:.Solomon Juneau Fur-Trading Post, Milwaukee

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During the middle and late 19th century, Wisconsin and the Milwaukee area became the final destination of many German immigrants fleeing the Revolution of 1848. In Wisconsin they found the inexpensive land and the freedoms they sought. The German heritage and influence in the Milwaukee area is widespread. With the German immigrants came one of the cities biggest exports: Beer.Miller Brewing Company became synonymous with Milwaukee The Germans had long perfected the art of brewing beer. They didn’t waste any time setting up breweries when they arrived in Milwaukee. By 1856, there were more than two dozen breweries in Milwaukee, most of them German owned and operated. Among these were Pabst, Miller, Schlitz and Blatz breweries. Besides making beer for the rest of the nation, Milwaukeeans enjoyed consuming the various beers produced in the city’s breweries. As early as 1843, pioneer historian James Buck recorded 138 taverns in Milwaukee, an average of one per forty residents! Beer halls and taverns are abundant in the city to this day although only one of the major breweries. It is often said there are more bars in the city than grocery stores. Carrie Nation, a temperance movement leader, once said, “If there is any place that is hell on earth, it is Milwaukee.” After World War I, the prohibitionists convinced many people, including U.S. government officials, that alcohol was the cause of most of society’s ills. With its German connotations, beer was singled out for being especially unpatriotic. On July 1st, 1919, Prohibition became national policy.

Although beer production was never central to the overall economy of the city, Prohibition had negative effects on the economy and character of Milwaukee. The larger breweries were able to stay open by producing near beer or other products such as flavored soda, cheese, candy bars and even snow plows. Many other businesses related to beer production were also affected.

Nearly all of Milwaukee’s saloons were closed down by Prohibition. In 1918, there were 1,980 saloons in Milwaukee, one per 230 residents. Prohibition was detrimental to the cultural character of the city. Not surprisingly, the end of Prohibition was marked by a number of celebrations including one on the lakefront known as the Mid-Summer Festival. It became a regular event for eight years and foreshadowed Summerfest.


In May of 1886, striking workers in Milwaukee were fired on and killed by the state-sponsored local militia. Workers throughout the city, most of whom joined a movement organized by a national labor union, the Knights of Labor, condemned the action. The People’s Party of Wisconsin emerged from this movement. The city’s Socialists reluctantly joined forces with the People’s Party. The Party experienced great success in the elections of 1886, winning many seats, including one in Congress. The next year the Socialists left the Party and the Democrats and Republicans joined forces against the People’s Party. The Party disintegrated over the next few years.


Although Socialists and other populists were active in Milwaukee’s municipal government over the next twenty years, it wasn’t until 1910 that they made some real electoral progress, including the election of the city’s (and the nation’s) first Socialist mayor, Emil Seidel.


After the election of 1910, the Socialists — Mayor Emil Seidel and the Common Council — raised the minimum wage and made the eight-hour day standard for city workers. The administration was praised for its compassion and efficiency, but Republicans and Democrats who were humiliated by their defeat, put all their effort into defeating the Socialists in 1912. Seidel lost the election and the Common Council lost its Socialist majority. Victor Berger lost the seat in Congress he had won in 1910. Seidel also lost in a rematch in 1914. In 1916 the Socialists nominated Dan Hoan for mayor. Hoan, who had entered Seidel’s administration as city attorney in the 1910 landslide, beat the incumbent candidate, Gerhard Bading. Unlike Seidel’s term, the Common Council that came in after the election wasn’t overwhelmingly Socialist. Hoan’s popularity had its ups and downs but he was repeatedly elected until 1940.


Dan Hoan’s tenure as mayor was a golden age in the city’s government. His administrations were marked by honesty and efficiency. Under Dan Hoan, between 1925 and 1940, Milwaukee won a number of awards as the healthiest, safest and best policed big city in the United States.

Courtesey of Wikicommons

Mayor Emil Seidel

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