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Author: Carl Swanson

Milwaukee Notebook: Mae West’s Little Milwaukee Secret

Actress Mae West believed in leaving little to the imagination, but early in her career, something happened in Milwaukee she very much wanted to remain secret. Mae West, called the “epitome of playfully vulgar sex” by the New York Times became a household name and amassed a vast fortune by portraying confident and outrageously outspoken characters on stage and in films. But, early in her career, something happened she wanted to forever remain secret. In 1911, at the age of 17, she had gotten married in Milwaukee. As her fame grew, West maintained she had always been single, famously...

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Milwaukee Notebook: The Man Who Dreamed of Locks

Master Lock remains a Milwaukee institution nearly a century after it was established. Harry Soref, the founder, general manager, and chief designer of The Master Lock Company, was the most unlikely of industrial tycoons. Small, slight, and soft-spoken, he preferred working in an unadorned cubbyhole of an office in the huge factory he built. His working day started at 5 a.m. and often continued until 9 or 10 at night, six days a week. “There is no Sunday, no Monday, no Tuesday for me,” he told the Milwaukee Journal in 1940. “The days are too short and nights too...

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Milwaukee Notebook: Racism, Candy Bars, and Civil Rights

Milwaukee’s Sperry Candy Company is remembered for its oddly named yet popular “Chicken Dinner” candy bars, which it delivered in an equally unusual fleet of chicken-shaped trucks. From its beginnings in a one-room factory on National Avenue in 1921, the Sperry Candy Company grew into one of Wisconsin’s largest candy makers. By the 1940s, 275 workers in a five-story factory at 133 W. Pittsburgh St., were producing Sperry’s 5-cent “Chicken Dinner” and “Denver Sandwich” candy bars for customers nationwide. One of those workers was Inonia Champion. She grew up in Lee County, Mississippi, moving away in 1957 after a...

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Milwaukee Notebook: City’s Airship Port

At 22 stories, the Wisconsin Tower was the second tallest in the city when completed in 1930. The developers of The Couture, a 44-story skyscraper planned for Milwaukee’s lakefront, included a stop for the soon-to-be-built streetcar system. The developers of the 22-story Wisconsin Tower (originally the Mariner Tower), built 88 years ago at 606 W. Wisconsin Ave., would have laughed at that. Streetcars were nothing special in 1930, they already had plenty of them rumbling past their doors. After all, the city’s first electric streetcar line opened in 1890. Instead, in drawing up plans in the late 1920s The...

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Milwaukee Notebook: The sweet smell of disaster

In 1919, with Prohibition about to end beer production, the owners of the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company, turned their attention to candy, building a vast complex on Port Washington Road in Glendale. From its massive purpose-built factory to the staggering amount of money lost in its eight-year history, everything about Milwaukee′s Eline’s Chocolate and Cocoa Co. was outsized. The venture was launched by the Uihlein family, owners of Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company It’s not easy to go from Beer Baron to Count Chocolate but they certainly gave it a good try. The family hired experts, built a sprawling state-of-the-art...

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Milwaukee Notebook: The horseman in Lake Park

Erastus B. Wolcott, M.D. was a brilliant surgeon, benefactor of the poor, expert horseman, and all-around good guy. The emergency surgery described above did take place on the patient’s (very well-scrubbed) kitchen table in 1861. The man survived the operation, but died 15 days later of exhaustion due to the difficult recovery. Still, Dr. Wolcott made medical history for performing the first-ever successful removal of a diseased kidney. He was 35 when he arrived in Milwaukee on July 4, 1839. A graduate of the New York College of Physicians and Surgeons, Wolcott had served several years as an army...

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