Milwaukee's Fascinating History
In his book, The Making of Milwaukee, Historian John Gurda describes present-day Milwaukee as a stronghold of industries and immigrants: “By the early 20th century, Milwaukee had developed a national reputation based on three related hallmarks: Germanism, Socialism and beer. Today all three have faded in importance, but, as another century begins, the Milwaukee Idea retains a thoroughly distinctive sense of place. Choice and circumstance have combined to produce a unique community, one whose character reflects influences as diverse as Harley-Davidson and Pabst Blue Ribbon, Golda Meir and Father Groppi, the German revolutionaries of 1848 and the Milwaukee Braves of 1957.”
This gives us an idea of how fascinating and diverse the Milwaukee heritage really is. From obscure beginnings as an Indian settlement and then as a hugely successful Great Lakes port, it has come on a unique journey to become a place well worth exploring today.
Milwaukee had the best natural harbor on the western shore of Lake Michigan. Settlers flocked here and three rival settlements were established by three main founders - Solomon Juneau, Byron Kilbourn and George Walker. Juneau came to Milwaukee from Montreal in 1818 to work with the American Fur Trading Company, but he realized the fur trade was dwindling and became a real estate developer when he partnered with Morgan Martin, a wealthy Green Bay lawyer and businessman. Kilbourn was a ruthless businessman from Ohio who wanted to develop Milwaukee as a port city, although he couldn't touch Juneau's land on the east. He managed to obtain the land on the west with the help of a crooked surveyor, as the land actually belonged to the Potawatomi. The south side of Milwaukee was claimed by Walker, who didn't have the wealth of Juneau and Kilbourn, and remained undeveloped for years as ownership was tied up in legal wrangling.
The three rival settlements - Juneautown, Kilbourntown, and Walker’s Point - fought a small-scale civil war over the issue of bridges, but in 1846 all three sides came together as the City of Milwaukee.
Milwaukee rose to early prominence as a trader of grain, and in the early 1860s it was the largest shipper of wheat on the planet. There were also processing industries - flour-milling, meat-packing, leather-tanning, and brewing. In the later 1800s, manufacturing became the city’s lifeblood, and Milwaukee produced a great variety of steam engines, agricultural machinery, electrical equipment, mining shovels, and automobile frames. Jobs in the metal-bending industries attracted tens of thousands of newcomers. German families were the majority of Milwaukee’s population as early as 1860, and they were also joined by Irish, Polish, Italian, Greek, and other immigrants. In the 1920s, continued industrial expansion attracted large numbers of African-Americans and Latinos as well.
Milwaukee became a big city, with big-city problems to prove it. Political corruption was among the worst, and under Mayor David Rose the city became a center of officially sanctioned vice. In 1910, however, Milwaukee became the only major city in America to give power to Socialists, who made Milwaukee one of the best-governed communities in the country. Mayors Daniel Hoan (1916-1940) and Frank Zeidler (1948-1960) were particularly instrumental in cleaning up the city.
Since World War II, Milwaukee has not been immune from urban problems such as racial unrest, poverty, and the loss of family-supporting factory jobs, but there have also been some extremely positive developments: world-class festivals, a downtown renaissance, and the rise of a truly global diversity. Tourism in particular is thriving in Milwaukee today, as there is such a rich variety of culture and natural beauty, which continue to bring people from across the world.