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Author: Carl Swanson

Milwaukee Notebook: Grenades and Underpants

A few months after the United States entered the First World War Milwaukee investors established a company to make munitions, built a factory along the Milwaukee River in Glendale, and hired an all-female workforce. Many Milwaukeeans fought the Kaiser. The women of Briggs Loading Co. did so in their underpants. In his corporate history, The Legend of Briggs & Stratton (Write Stuff Syndicate, 1995), Jeffrey L. Rodengen wrote, “Long Victorian-style dresses were serious hazards, since they could become caught in rotating machinery and belts. Women took to wearing ‘bloomers’ pants-like garments originally intended as undergarments.” In time the government...

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Milwaukee Notebook: Downtown sculptured is an overlooked masterpiece

“Victorious Charge” is the name of the 1898 sculpture on Wisconsin Avenue near the Central Library. It memorializes the courage and sacrifice of Wisconsin soldiers in the Civil War. Milwaukeeans love to despise the city’s public art. From David Middlebrook’s deliberately lopsided Tip in Gordon Park to Gerald P. Sawyer’s Bronze Fonz on the downtown Riverwalk, just about every sculpture in town has its share of detractors. Even in Milwaukee a piece of public art can occasionally resonate with nearly everyone. For example, the sculpture in the above photo was immediately embraced by art critics and the public alike...

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Milwaukee Notebook: A river made for recreation

Canoes crowd the Milwaukee River at Gordon Park on a fine summer day in the early 1900s, as spectators line the railing of the Folsom bridge, now Locust. The North Avenue dam, built in 1843, divided the Milwaukee River into an industrialized lower river through downtown to the harbor and a relatively untouched upper river, which became a center for recreation for the growing city. Here, from the late 1800s to World War I, you could take a steamboat from North Avenue up the river to visit a beer garden or an amusement park. For the more energetic, there...

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Milwaukee Notebook: Election yesteryear madness

There had never been a presidential election like this: The Republican Party is split into bickering factions and unable to unite behind its candidate, while the Democratic Party is in disarray following a bitter nomination process. Adding to the turmoil, candidates from two small parties are attracting unprecedented support. Now one of those upstart candidates is coming to Milwaukee, where an assassin will fire a bullet into his chest. It is Oct. 14, 1912, and Theodore Roosevelt is scheduled to speak at the Milwaukee Auditorium. Covering a city block, the auditorium holds 9,000. An overflow crowd is gathering, eager...

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Milwaukee Notebook: Red Arrow, the park that moved

Since the 1920s, Milwaukee has had a park dedicated to local soldiers who fought with the 32nd Red Arrow division of the U.S. Army. The 8-foot-tall divisional insignia was added in 1984. Milwaukee has always considered park names open to change. The strip of greenery in the median in front of Central Library, for instance, was once Washington Park. The present-day Washington Park was originally West Park. Pere Marquette Park is along the downtown riverfront, formerly it was several blocks south and in front of the Milwaukee Road station. The station is gone, but there is still a park...

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Milwaukee Notebook: Gertie the Duck

A statue of Gertie the Duck stands guard over her ducklings on a Wisconsin Avenue bridge pier, seventy-one years after the real Gertie hatched her young on the bridge and captured national attention. The story of Gertie, a mallard duck who hatched her eggs on a bridge piling in the heart of downtown, is a familiar one to many Milwaukeeans. Updates on the duck’s activities front-page news for a full month in spring of 1945. She was featured on the cover of Life magazine, profiled in Reader’s Digest, and was the subject of a prime-time television show in 1963. Last...

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