Friday, February 12, 2016

Strolling down the streets of old Milwaukee

Wow! It's been a really long time since I've blogged. It's been pretty cold and uneventful, so I haven't had too much to share. But after a recent trip to The Milwaukee Public Museum, I have something very cool to share. We've had an exhibit at this museum since the 1960s called The Streets of Old Milwaukee. It was something new for its time when it was created and it's always been a favorite part of the museum for me.

The Streets of Old Milwaukee shows what it was like in the city more or less a century ago. It's super cool if you're familiar with local history and the buildings around here. But even if you were new to town, I think you'd enjoy this. The streets have been recently updated and I was really excited to see the new changes. The first big change is that you enter the exhibit through an old streetcar.

As you stand in the car, images zip past the windows and you watch as the same street goes back in time. The cars change style, as do the people's clothes. It also goes from day to night, which makes sense because in the exhibit it is night. There was a conductor in full uniform at the back of the streetcar and this guy was perfect. His facial hair, his uniform, his manner. Everything.

So you step off the streetcar and into the old streets. Some new changes were the silhouettes moving in the windows and some advertisements from businesses that existed back in the day and still exist now. The ads looked old and I thought it was a clever way to help fund the exhibit.

The silhouettes of the men in the Falk building were moving and you can see a bit of the conductor in the streetcar.
Something I have been doing over the past few months is reading local history. For several reasons it became important for me know about some of Milwaukee's buildings, streets, and people. The time of history I'd been focusing on was around the turn of the century so that was a perfect fit for what's going on in this exhibit. I'll link to some of the books and web sites I've been reading at the end of the post for those who are interested. I don't think for the most part those who read my blog are from my state, but you never know. I'll also share a site that could apply to anyone's local history.

See the full moon glowing? If you look to the upper left, you'll see part of an old kite stuck in the phone wires.
Anyway, I brought up my recent reading material because it was definitely on my mind during this exhibit. See, a lot of what I've been reading has not been pleasant. So I was thinking about some old crimes and the dangerous climate of this part of Milwaukee in the late 1800s to early 1900s as I toured the exhibit. Especially, with this being a nighttime setting. 

There are some little nooks and crannies behind buildings and I carefully peeked around them as if some drunken, deranged man from a century ago would be ready to jump out. After doing my recent research, I knew that these exact streets were places I would have gone nowhere near 100 years ago. And at night? Pfft!

The Pfister Hotel still exists and is still fancy.
A favorite part of this exhibit for me has always been the old granny who rocks on her chair on the front porch. She was spooky to me as a kid, but now I think she's really cool. OK, I still think she's a little spooky.

To my surprise, I saw that the rocking granny has her own twitter account. I read a little about her when I got home and learned she's been through a lot over the years. She got a little makeover in the 1980s after someone turned her head around and majorly messed up her hair. What's scarier than a realistic mannequin rocking in a chair in the dark? One with her head turned around.

Note the Sendik's grocery bag behind her
The silver lining here is that Granny needed a makeover. The original was a little too scary in my opinion. 

I love the signs that show clearly what the business was. This as you might guess, was an optometrist's office. No matter what language you spoke, and chances were good it might not have been English around here at the time, you could tell what that meant.

Above the office is I think where there's a little nod to the famous Madam we had in Milwaukee. Here name was Miss Kittie Williams. Some say her name inspired Miss Kitty's on Gunsmoke, but I don't know about that. Miss Kittie was a big deal and allowed to operate fairly openly for a while, probably because her clientele were the rich, bigwigs around town. So I heard there was a red room that's decked out in the way one of her girls' rooms would have been. My opinion is this is it. Although, what's throwing me off is that there's supposed to be a painting of a nude woman in the room. I was sure I got a photo of it, but it was pretty dark in there. When I got home, I closed in on the painting and saw...

A dog? What do you guys see? It looks like one of those dogs in people clothes, like one of those dogs playing poker.

*Update* I revisited this window in March and tried again to find the painting. I did find another painting, but again, I have no idea what I'm looking at. Thoughts?

I think I'm seeing a lady's arms and maybe a black boa hanging across her body. I definitely see the man's hat that people talk about. It's down in the lower right side of the window.

There were many old businesses to peek in, like this bar. Again, not a place I would have gone at night in this neighborhood 100 years ago.

And a neat old glowing beer advertisement next to a Houdini poster.

There was the apothecary with the large, lovely glass containers full of what you imagine to be some mystery remedy. I guess it was probably dye and water.

And the pharmacist hard at work:

There was a general store with probably everything a person could want back then. I loved that glowing stove. There was an old phone you could pick up the receiver of and listen in to a conversation. I wish I'd gotten a photo of that now! The conversation wasn't all that juicy, just a guy with a strong German accent booking a hotel room.

Outside the old store, I could hear a cat yowling and yowling. It turns out there's some sort of motion sensor that turns on the cat noises. I never saw the cat, but I did see a pic of it online:

Cat projection

It was probably up above me in a tree or something. Maybe it's just as well that I didn't see it! What's funny is there was a lady with a baby carriage near the cat noises and I thought it was the baby at first.

*Update* I went back to the museum in March and spotted the cat! A couple were standing near the smallest of spaces (I think it was supposed to represent an alley) and they were looking at an app that told them where the cat was. So they were nice enough to point above our heads. I still couldn't see anything in that dark little space so I pointed my camera up and saw:

Actually, this is what I saw after using a flash. The first few pics I took were without a flash and all I saw were the green eyes glowing at me! It's pretty spooky to look up and see something like this.

There happened to be a man standing behind me as I took my first pic and he asked me to take another one so he could see the cat on my camera screen. He said he'd been wandering around that area looking for a cat and wondering if he was going crazy imagining those sounds! So it was a nice community moment with those people sharing their app and then me sharing my photo. I can't imagine how shocked I would have been had I discovered this cat on my own with no one around. I probably would have shrieked.

I got the chance to try a Penny-farthing bike, although I wasn't going anywhere. The bike was stationary and very difficult to pedal. It was like biking through water the way it was set! It was really high too. I had to take quite the stretch to get on it. This pic is a bit blurry in part because I was pedaling away to the best of my ability.

There was an old movie theater that's a replica of one of the many beautiful theaters that are now gone. I wish so many hadn't been torn down. The museum now plays a loop of old early 1900s silent movies inside the theater. There were some funny movies being played as well as some old Harry Houdini footage.

There was an older part of The Streets of Old Milwaukee that was left pretty much untouched. This part exists in the daylight, and is supposed to exist in Europe. "The European Village" is attached to The Streets of Old Milwaukee, but is like a different world. You can get a small glimpse into what the living situation looked like for different ethnic groups long ago. I just checked the museum's web site and they say these would be homes from 1875-1925. I took some photos inside a few of the houses and noticed afterwards that I'd photographed the homes that fit with my ethnicity.


German - That face in the window kind of spooked me, but I think there was a place for people to walk on the other side of this structure.


Isn't she realistic? Part of me wouldn't be surprised if these figures turned and looked at me. I would be freaking out, however!

I've heard a few other museums around the country have something similar to The Streets of Old Milwaukee. I'd like to hear about it if you've been to any of those exhibits, and if you have some photos, even better!

Here are those links I mentioned earlier:

Milwaukee Mayhem by Matthew J. Prigge

Prigge writes articles about Milwaukee history for our local paper so I was somewhat familiar with his obscure and interesting finds before reading this. In fact, the link I put up to Miss Kittie Williams was directed to one of his articles. This book was along the lines of Wisconsin Death Trip for me, only without the disturbing photos. Milwaukee Mayhem is split into different sections, like unsolved mysteries and murders. My favorite part of the book was the vice section. Some chapters are depressing, some are intriguing, and some make you go "Wow! Life was like this in Milwaukee?" The book spans about a hundred years from 1840-1940. It's interesting for someone who is familiar with the city, but anyone interested in true crime would be into this.

The Milwaukee Mafia by Gavin Schmitt 

The first half of this book was very interesting for someone like me who went to school and lived right in the heart of where the local mafia was centered in the 1800s through early to mid 1900s. For people into mob history, there are some stories worth reading. I didn't see some things I expected to see in this book, but those who don't live here won't care about that. I got a definite sense of how crime worked in one part of town from this book.

This is Milwaukee by Robert W. Wells 

I am midway through this book now and I'm loving it! This is Milwaukee was published in 1970 but the perspective still fits with modern day Milwaukee. This is written in such a funny way and I've been learning a lot of history as I laugh along. I'm not sure how interesting this would be to those outside the state, because some of the humor is pretty specific to here. But if anyone from around the Milwaukee area happens to be reading this, I'm recommending this book to you!

I learned from all three of these books that the Milwaukee I saw in The Streets of Old Milwaukee was something that would have been different for me socially. I get the sense that it was rougher than most modern people could handle. Walking through this exhibit was a way to experience that world safely and take in the beauty of the old buildings and lights.

The last source I wanted to share is something that would be useful to anyone, not just those in Milwaukee. If you're into history or genealogy, you will be very into the old newspaper archives. You probably know already that you can search google news, but you might not know that you can search way back in time, to newspapers that were in your area in the 1800s! I don't know how to link to this aside from showing an actual search, so I chose an interesting local one:

Bit of old Milwaukee will rise inside new museum

This article is from 1962, and you'll see why I chose it. 

If you want to try searching through the archives, just type something else in the search box up there and the name of the city nearest you. Just a search for a random year in your area can turn up something interesting. I even found a quote from my great uncle when searching for one of the names in my family tree! Just be sure to click "search archive" instead of "search the web". If you're like me, you'll also enjoy the old advertisements. You'll find yourself saying things like "You could buy something like that for only 25¢?"


  1. That's really interesting! Interactive museums are the best!

  2. Lisa ~ Yeah! It's worth seeing. Do you have an exhibit similar to this where you are? I agree about interactive museums. I think you can learn a lot more from them than a regular exhibit you just look at. Getting to experience the old bike, the silent movies, the old phone, etc. really gives you a hands-on glimpse of what it was like back then.

  3. This type of thing fascinates me. I often look at an area and wish I could step back in Time, decade by decade, to see how much its changed. Here in England it would be especially interesting to see the former industrial, working class towns have changed.

    1. Ali ~ Yeah, that's part of what was neat about the streetcar with the windows that went back in time. You could watch the same building change over the decades in reverse. I bet it would be interesting to see some areas in England back when they were industrial! You could call what you're looking at on this post somewhat industrial. They had to pack a lot of buildings in here in miniature form so you'd get the idea, but there was definite industry there. Warehouses, breweries, factories. Some of the buildings haven't changed much. I wish they'd all stayed the same. In my opinion, there were some perfectly good old buildings that didn't need to be torn down. A whole city full of buildings from the 1880s-1900 would be fine by me!

      I'd be interested to know if that last web site I linked to works for you. That would be cool if everyone worldwide could look through the newspaper archives there. I can't see why not, since it's all from google. You might just see some pics of those old, industrial areas you mentioned.

  4. I love the cable car entrance, that's cool. When the exhibition is at night that makes it very spooky - imagine TrickRTreating then. They had something similar to this in Bakersfield CA where I grew up called, Pioneer Village. It showed stuff,from Indian times. The figures are kind of spooky too, huh? All and all, I love rustic stiff like this.

    1. Matt ~ Me too! I thought that streetcar was such a great idea. It really puts you in the mindset of traveling through time. I agree that having the exhibit exist in a nighttime setting adds something spooky. And as I said above, knowing the history of this area, being there at night is real spooky!

      Oh, I would love to go trick-or-treating back then! Again, not in this exact area... Unless they were giving out trick-or-treat beers at all the bars. :) I think it would be amazing if they'd do something for Halloween in this exhibit where the kids could go to each door for some candy, or whatever treats they gave out back then. Probably a popcorn ball or a penny if you were lucky. I know they do something for Halloween at this museum, although I've never attended it.

      I just looked up the Halloween event and they do mention trick-or-treating. I'm not sure where that happens, though. I can just imagine if they used The Streets of Old Milwaukee exhibit! Can't you see lit pumpkins by each door? Granny's porch all decorated? I would love it!

      We might have something kind of similar to Pioneer Village at the museum. Although, after just looking up the Pioneer Village, I think it's something different. That's outdoors, right? Oh yeah, the figures are always a little spooky at these things. There's something about a figure that's nearly lifelike, but not quite.

  5. Yeah, I googled-it and I could see the old clock-tower - haven't seen that in decades. They have buildings you walk through with artifacts on display from pioneers and Indians. Lots of things in Milwakee are eerie, huh? Do you think that's the German influence?

  6. Matt ~ I saw that old clock tower too and read about it today. What a neat story - that the local people would team up and raise funds to rebuild it. I can imagine that a lot of brick buildings have fallen with all the earthquakes. At least the metal parts were left and they could incorporate those into the new structure.

    This sounds a lot like a place around here called Old World Wisconsin. It's pretty much an outdoors museum with historically accurate houses you can go into. There are people dressed up in the old clothes there doing things like teaching school or making soap. I looked at some of the houses on the Pioneer Village site too. It looks like they're kept really historically accurate. Sometimes I go in old museums and feel like a piece or two doesn't fit, but those houses look like you're stepping back in time.

    Yup, lots of things in Milwaukee are eerie! I could tell you lots of stories, especially after reading these books. Haha! The "German influence" :) Yeah, I think the German influence could have a little something to do with it. I'm German, I can say it. ;) There's that darker flavor to things.

    After reading some history, I'm thinking the eeriness might have something to do with how the city was formed. Things were pretty wild, for a few reasons I can think of. When there's massive overcrowding, massive amounts of immigration at once, and in the area we're talking about here, many bars and brothels thrown into a few blocks, well... I can try to imagine, but probably can't. The violence and constant fires. The culture around alcohol here (That German influence) the wildness during Prohibition. I could go on! So the ghosts of the past have the potential to be pretty darn eerie.

  7. Yeah, German is actually my favorite culture. I like to say, that no one does goth better than British, but it's a more refined spooky goth. German is darker, as you say, and more ancienty and archaic. I like to say that German is the perfect Heavy Metal language. They're both a lot alike, but German has a darker edge that I like.

    1. Matt ~ I agree with all of what you said there. Yeah, when I think of British Goth, I think of that Victorian, top hat, Jack the Ripper stuff. And when I think of German Goth, I just get scared! Yeah, it's that ancient, naturally dark, medieval stuff. I'm thinking of the churches, the art, and the style of their writing. Lots of spooky old fonts there! Yup, the perfect Heavy Metal language. :) You add some guitar to someone yelling in German, and there ya go. Are you German too?

      Speaking of German things, have you been keeping up with the current season of Grimm? There are some pretty wild things going on! I'm pleased with where the show is going and I'm still really interested in what will happen next.

    2. No, I haven't been keeping up, but it sounds like it'll be fun catching up. Yeah, Grimm has a great European flavor with Monroe's German heritage.I'm thinking about writing short stories and joining like @emmiemears, gothic-horror, of course.

    3. Matt ~ I just watched the latest episode of Grimm last night. They've turned so much of the previous plot completely on its head. I like where it's going, it's just been a little hard to adjust to the changes in some of the characters. The latest episode really showcases Monroe's heritage.

      Oh, that's cool that you're thinking of writing some stories! Had you mentioned Patreon to me before? I think someone has.

    4. Yeah, I'm the one. I'm still trying to figure out how to make money online, been addicted since 1994! :)

  8. Hadn't seen this earlier, got here by way of your Christmas post. Very nice, we have visited Milwaukee many times for Irish Fest, and have enjoyed touring the city. I know we checked out this exhibit before, but I think it was ~10yrs ago. Thanks for the reminder to see it again.

    1. Stephen ~ Ah, cool! I love Irish Fest! I've been there every year for the past decade or so. It's my favorite of Milwaukee's ethnic festivals. You're not from nearby, are you? I thought you were on the east coast for some reason. So you must have really traveled to attend the fest. Are you still visiting Milwaukee in the summer?

      Oh, the exhibit would have changed somewhat in the past 10 years. It's changed subtly from time to time now. With every visit, things have been moved a bit. But one big difference you'd notice is the street car. It's a very cool addition and I think it's the perfect way to enter the city. That and they've added some things people can access or learn about with some apps on their phones. Yeah, let me know what you think of the changes when you visit the museum again!

  9. You're right I'm on the east coast, and we came out specifically for IrishFest. We used to come out annually, but have missed the past couple. We'll make it back eventually, maybe this year.

  10. Stephen ~ That's cool that you make the trip all the way out here for Irish Fest. I've heard that a lot of people travel to Milwaukee for it. You might have heard that it's the largest Irish music festival in the U.S. There was a lot of good music there this last time. "We Banjo 3" was fun and lively, if you get a chance to see them.