Located on the Southside of Milwaukee, Forest Home Cemetery was founded shortly after the city’s establishment in 1850. Two of Milwaukee’s founding fathers, Byron Kilbourn and George H. Walker, along with beer barons like Pabst, Schlitz, and Blatz, Wisconsin governors, Milwaukee mayors, military heroes and captains of industry are all buried there.
However, less public attention has focused on the pioneering women also at rest in the cemetery, like Dr. Laura Wolcott, Wisconsin’s first female physician and only the third woman in the U.S. to earn a medical degree. She was denied admittance to the Medical Society of Milwaukee County because she was a woman in 1857. But she was eventually admitted, due in part to the influence of an older doctor and her future husband, Erastus B. Wolcott, Surgeon General of Wisconsin in the Civil War. Another trailblazer was Alice Chester, founder of the Girl Scouts of Wisconsin Southeast, and her daughter Marion Chester Read.
Inspired by the life and legacy of Chester, Forest Home held its first ever Girl Scouts: Women in History tour this year. In partnership with Girl Scouts of Wisconsin Southeast, the tours took local troops on a journey through the graves of influential women at the cemetery. This foundation offered an educational narrative about women in Milwaukee’s history, like
“Last year there was a group of Girl Scouts from South Milwaukee who wanted a tour of only women,” said volunteer Anita Pietrykowski. “They wanted the girls to see the fantastic things some of the women did. So I created the tour last summer and now we’re offering it to Girl Scouts throughout Southeastern Wisconsin.”
Pietrykowski, a historical educator and retired Milwaukee Public School administrator, designed the Girl Scout tours and has been instrumental in providing teaching opportunities of the pioneering women resting at Forest Home.
“Even though the women are not living, their stories serve as an inspiration and help young women today know that they can accomplish great things,” said Pietrykowski. “I think it’s important for them to learn about Wisconsin’s first woman doctor and about the creation of some of the hospitals and institutions that women were instrumental in founding.”
The tour features both 19th century women and contemporary women, including Dickey Chapelle, known for her War Photojournalist, and Mary Nohl, contemporary artist, painter, and sculptress. Other women featured include Margaret Falk, part of the group of women who founded the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, and Clarissa Brown, a conductor in Milwaukee’s Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses used by enslaved people of African descent for escape to free states.
Girl Scout troops who participate in the tours and learn about these legendary women also earn points towards their history badge. Forest Home held ten different types of tours this year to meet the demand of various interests, according to Jan Van Rens, the cemetery’s executive director.
“Everybody needs role models,” said Van Rens. “These women did instrumental things regarding social issues and causes, issues that needed to be taken care of. They saw a need and did something. We wanted to share this with the girls, think big.”
Girl Scout troops that would like a tour must schedule it with Van Rens at email@example.com. Tours last approximately two hours and guide attendees through one and a half miles of the unique garden cemetery. For those who are not Girl Scouts, Forest Home also provides guided tours Contemporary Milwaukee Women and Women of the 1800s.