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Author: Carl Swanson

Milwaukee Notebook: Streetcar builds on a sometimes strange history

The original Milwaukee streetcar system racked up a lot of stories in its 100 years of service to Milwaukee. This is one of the stranger ones. Milwaukee has many transit firsts. It was the first large city to merge independent trolley companies into a single transit system. It pioneered the use of weekly ride passes. Milwaukee also boasts possibly the first recorded case of “trolley rage.” In December 1946, Albert Greb, 43, a Milwaukee streetcar motorman, appeared in district court to answer charges of reckless driving and causing damage to property – namely, using a streetcar to demolish an...

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Milwaukee Notebook: A Factory Town for Marriages

In the 1890s, couples flocked to Milwaukee to take advantage of laws allowing immediate weddings, no license, no waiting period, and hardly any questions asked. As a Milwaukee Journal article of the time put it, the State of Wisconsin might as well be called the State of Matrimony. On any given day, the Goodrich Transportation Co. excursion steamer Christopher Columbus was sure to have a few eager couples boarding at Chicago for the trip to Milwaukee.When those couples sat down for a meal they would find advertisements on the ship′s menu from Milwaukee justices of the peace offering special...

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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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