Tag Archives: Wisconsin

Nibble on Wisconsin

Preface This essay’s title, Nibble On Wisconsin, is an unapologetic play on the state’s anthem, and (with a few lyrical changes) the fight song of its flagship university, the University of Wisconsin: ON, WISCONSIN.  [Disclosure: Wisconsin was my home state through most of my youth, from Christmas week 1962, until August 9, 1974 – the day Nixon resigned the presidency.

Wisconsin: 1848-present

A Michener-esque telling of the history of Wisconsin (AKA America’s Dairyland), might start a few hundred million years ago with Pangea; or even billions of years before that, including volcanoes and their flows through the Arachaen Eons, tectonic plate migrations, and perhaps even asteroid and comet impact effects. 

Or, less tediously, one of the 20th century’s best writers would commence as recently as a mere 11,000 years ago with the end of the Last Glacial Period (LGP), which itself lasted over 100,000 years. During most of those millennia much of the land we now call Wisconsin was under an ice sheet two kilometers thick.

Extent of Laurentide Ice Sheet, circa 11,700 years ago

Wisconsin, as with much of what is often called the “Upper Midwest” (and “Big 10 Country”), owes its treasured, tranquil terrain and farm-friendly fertility to repeated periods of glaciation which have sculpted and blessed the land. 
Wisconsin was bejeweled – like Minnesota – with countless lakes, rivers, and inlets: a heaven for sportsmen and a haven for mosquitoes.

Deposits near the southern extent of glaciers left fabulously fertile land. This vast field of fertility covers, approximately, the southern halves of Wisconsin and her sister states Minnesota and Michigan – as well as nearly all of Iowa, and the central-to-northern regions of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. Within the story “Nibble on Wisconsin” these other states take on various “villain” roles.

Today, moraine hills – evidence of glacial activity – lie scattered across the geography. For cartographers, it was this repeated glaciation that created the Great Lakes, the river valleys of the upper Mississippi basin, and the gentle ridges and hills that separate their extensive watersheds.  This glaciation has been going on for hundreds of millions of years – billions really – and, technically, we are still in an Ice Age (humans are  currently in an inter-glacial period within the Quaternary Ice Age). 

With all due respect to Mr. Michener, and the limited time available to readers, we shall instead commence with the relatively recent year of 1783.

From there, we’ll track some historical low points to tell the story of how the extent of what would become the great state of Wisconsin got trimmed and nibbled upon – its size reduced by roughly one-half – until it became the 30th star to spangle the nation’s banner, 65 years later, in 1848.

Preliminary notes: Should the reader at any time find this a bit tedious… Then simply stop and scan through to the pretty maps and art so painstakingly gathered and assembled herein.  A very concise history is at the bottom.

Still, I hope you can have some fun, tiptoeing with me through circumstances in the history of mid-west states from Ohio to Minnesota, and their effect on Wisconsin’s final shape and size.  

From “The Toledo Strip” (not a burlesque dance), to a war between northern states; from a continental divide to slavery; from transportation to commerce … these all contributed to Wisconsin’s smallish size and odd shape.


Implied size and shape of Wisconsin, based on Land Ordinance of 1787

By the end of my residence in Wisconsin, my teachers had told us much about the “lay of the land” in Wisconsin, but not why or how it got its shape.  Clearly Lake Michigan to the east and the Mississippi river to the west were well defined.  But much of the remaining jiggly jumbly borders seemed … well, somewhat arbitrary.  Why doesn’t Wisconsin look more like the second “Bucky Badger Red” shape, shown here? History and geography suggest it could be so.

Well, Nixon resigned; I moved away (pure coincidence). Many decades passed. I didn’t think about it anymore… until recent research brought the topic back to mind.

Chapter 1 Wisconsin: part of The Northwest Territory

The verdant spread that would eventually turn out to be the State of Wisconsin became a possession of the United States at the close of the American Revolution through the Paris Peace Treaty of 1783. At the time, it was not really named; it was not defined; it was largely wild and only thinly settled even by native Amerindian nations, like the Menominee, the Chippewa, and Potawatomi. 

From Native peoples’ perspective, we might rephrase this by saying: some random new foreign nation — the United States of America — gained from some other random foreign nation – the Brits – the right to try and administer the region. Well, the hell with all of you. These native Nations — and let’s not forget the Sac, Fox and Winnebago — would surely say it had always been theirs … or nobody’s.

Since the US Constitution was not written until 1787 (and not effective until 1789) the nascent nation’s ruling body was still the Confederation Congress, which succeeded the more famous 2nd Continental Congress. This body governed the nation from War’s end until ratification of the Constitution.  This Congress passed several important Land Ordinances dealing with its new territories. 

Significant to us presently is the Land Ordinance of 1787, which defined an area known as the Northwest Territory. It laid out instructions for how it was to be administered and governed (for example: no slavery, land set aside for schools). As shown in this figure, the Northwest Territory was US land and water:

  • a) to the west of Pennsylvania;
  • b) north of the Ohio River;
  • c) east of the Mississippi River; and
  • d) south of British Canada.
    (Connecticut had claim to some of the land; this was resolved and dispensed with later – that’s what the Western Reserve was).

Article 5 of the Ordinance provided a path to statehood for between 3 and 5 regions within this territory. Specifically, the region was split by an east-west line that lay tangent to the southernmost reach of Lake Michigan (now known as ~41° 37’).  This is the Territorial Line: exactly east-west and tangent to the southernmost reach of Lake Michigan.  Remember this. Up to three states were to be formed south of this line, and up to two additional states north of that line.

1800: Northwest Territory split into Ohio and Indiana Territories

The three southern states — called the eastern, the central and the western states in the Ordinance — eventually came to be the states Ohio (1803), Indiana (1816) and Illinois (1818), respectively.

A quick glance back at first two Bucky Badger Red Wisconsin maps and we see that the problems are beginning to form already.  Each of these the first three states formed from the Northwest Territory have northern borders that lie north of the southernmost tip of Lake Michigan.

Chapter 2 The trouble with boundaries: Ohio snags extra territory

In 1800 the Ohio Territory was formed – split off from the Northwest Territory – in preparation for statehood, which followed in 1803. (The remainder of the Northwest Territory became, for a while, Indiana Territory).

Congress’ Enabling Act of 1802 provided the legal federal instrument for Ohio to attain statehood. Ohio’s boundaries were described in Section 2; its western boundary being somewhat of a battle owing to a feud between Federalists and Jefferson’s Democrat-Republicans.  Nevertheless, the aforementioned “Territorial Line” was to be Ohio’s northern boundary, the term being a clear reference to the wording of the 1787 Ordinance.

In 1803 Ohio submitted its state constitution for review by Congress.  Here is where the “nibble on Wisconsin” saga really begins.  Article 6 makes some vague reference: since the southern extreme of Lake Michigan was not precisely known, Ohio reserved the right to draw its northern border along a line from the southern tip of Lake Michigan to “the most northerly cape of the Miami (Maumee) Bay.” Why? This bay provided an excellent harbor on Lake Erie — (it is where the city of Toledo now sets), the river’s mouth providing potential for a nice port.

Why? Since access to water for shipping and commerce was crucial to economic success, Ohio’s first politicians wanted to ensure that this harbor site was part of their new state. [In fact, lacking precise survey data, they feared that Lake Michigan might extend so far south that the east-west Territorial Line would pass completely to the south of Lake Erie, thus leaving Ohio with no access to Lake Erie at all.  Maps and surveying being immature at the time, this wording was the safest way they could ensure direct access to commercial shipping.]

The “Toledo Strip”: the southern boundary runs directly east-west, tangent to the southern tip of Lake Michigan, and is the implied northern boundary of the state of Ohio, from the 1787 Ordinance.  The northern boundary was “usurped” by Ohio for a future port city on Maumee Bay.

This odd shaped slivery quadrilateral-ish slice of land came to be known as “The Toledo Strip” – which is not a dance that involve a pole, either. It was named for the city that would soon sprout upon Maumee Bay (which was, in turn, was named after an ancient capital of Spain).  Notice how this farther north slanted not-quite-east-west line moves Maumee Bay, and its potential port, into Ohio Territory. In other words:  Ohio simply ignored precedent, and appropriated additional land in their state constitution.

The US Congress reviewed the Ohio state constitution and made no significant comment – positive or negative – with regard to this adjusted boundary. When Ohio quickly became a state after submitting its constitution (March 1, 1803 by an Act of Congress) they naturally began to administer this additional strip of land as if it were part of Ohio.

[Note: both the Northwest Territory and the Louisiana Territory refer to the Mississippi River as their west and east boundary, respectively; but the river did not extend up to British Canada (border determined later). Thus, boundary ambiguity abounded].

Chapter 3.  Michigan, Illinois, and revised Indiana Territories formed
— Indiana becomes a state and snags extra land

Michigan & Illinois Territory formed (faint state line borders only came into effect much later and are for reader reference only).

Over the next decade, via subsequent Congressional Acts, Michigan Territory and Illinois Territory were cleaved off from Indiana Territory, as shown here.  Still no mention of Wisconsin, which temporarily became part of Illinois.  [Note: Indiana’s Northern boundary is still nominally also along the east-west line tangent to the southernmost reach of Lake Michigan.]

With formal creation of the Illinois Territory we find hints of future “nibbles” on Wisconsin.  The Illinois Territory (which contained what would be Wisconsin) was split off from Michigan and Indiana Territory by an extremely arbitrary north-south line, projected due north from the, then significant, city of Vincennes, Indiana Territory, on the Wabash River. Further east is a line projected up from the Indiana-Ohio border. To the east was Michigan Territory, to the west unassigned territory.

The map shows that a small part of the Upper Peninsula (U.P.) was assigned to Michigan, most of the rest to Illinois (what would be Wisconsin) and some was left unassigned – between the northward projections of the Indiana borders.

Indiana’s 1816 entry to the union as the 19th state was clearer with regard to its boundaries. But, they had a dilemma: should their northern boundary be laid out exactly along the east-west Territorial Line and precisely tangent to Lake Michigan? If so, there would be insufficient lakeside to have a port (in fact, geometry dictates it would be an infinitesimal point). Answer: NO. To ensure access to Lake Michigan, Indiana lobbied for, and received via the Congressional Enabling Act of 1816, significant access to Lake Michigan. As stated in Section 2, its northern border shall be “ten miles north of the southern extreme of Lake Michigan …” Indiana’s lake ports were later developed here: Hammond, Gary, East Chicago, Burns Harbor and Michigan City.

So the monkey business with the Northwest Ordinance’s east-west Territorial Line through the southern tip of Lake Michigan was well underway by the time Illinois came into being as a state, #21, in its own right, only two years later.

And that Michigan Territory toe-hold on the U.P. would become the beachhead for a much larger nibble later on.


Chapter 4 Michigan Gets its Dander up, the First Time

Michigan Territory, with official status since June 30, 1805, made a fuss when they learned of Ohio’s sneaky appropriation of “The Toledo Strip.” This dispute roiled until, finally, in 1812, Congress agreed to have the line surveyed; but this task was postponed until 1817 on account of the War of 1812.  It didn’t matter.

Ohio hired a surveyor who traced a line according to Ohio’s constitution.  Michigan hired a surveyor who mapped an east-west line according to the 1787 Ordinance. Each was submitted to Congress. They had resolved nothing, except to more accurately trace out the shape of “The Toledo Strip.”

Chapter 5 A Continental Divide provokes Illinois aggrandizement

One of the things Jefferson hoped that Lewis and Clark would find was a water passage to the Pacific Ocean. I think we have all had that smug feeling more than a few times in our life:  What were they thinking?  How could there possibly be a water passage, even with a short portage, across the continent, connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans? 

In our minds’ eyes, we know of the vast arid regions and the impossibly rugged mountains.  And yet even Lewis and Clark themselves had hoped to find such a passage.

First, it’s important to note that none of them were at all certain that such a passage existed.  And second: no, they weren’t stupid.

These were all well-read, erudite men.  They would have known of the reports of earlier travelers, like the 1776 Dominguez-Escalante Expedition and their published recollections.  The west and southwest of the continent was unimaginably expansive, very dry and had many mountains.  Surely that provided no water path.

North America’s Continental Divides

But of the northwest, little was known. However … they would have known of the reports and journals from the travels of French explorer Louis Joliet (Lou-ee Zhō-lee-ay) and his traveling missionary companion, Pere (Father) Jacques Marquette, from 1673-1674.  They had found two simple water passages from the waves of the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River; thus traversing a continental divide with ease – twice.

The first passage they found near what is today Madison, Wisconsin. The location is now the town of Portage. (To portage is to carry your small boat from one body of water to another.) By carrying their canoe about two miles, they had crossed a continental divide.

The second passage is even more important.  For their return trip, Amerindians had told Joliet and Marquette of a passage up the Mississippi to the Illinois River, then up the Des Plaines River.  There, they said, was a short flat field, often filled with water, from which they could cross to Lake Michigan.

—- People say Kansas and Nebraska and Iowa are flat. Pssshaw. Those aren’t flat.  Chicago is flat.  Go there today and – except for excavations for the overpasses, the underpasses, the skyscrapers, and the buildings – there is no elevation feature to the terrain at all.

Illinois River watershed

There is no noticeable elevation change from the Lake going up the Chicago River to its South Branch.  There is no noticeable elevation going up along the sluggish South Branch to a point just a handful of miles from the Lake.  There is no noticeable elevation change going west.  This was all swamplands that the native Amerindians avoided. Because it smelled.

And yet, travel under two miles west from the South Branch, with no noticeable elevation change, and you are at the Des Plaines River, which eventually flows to the Mississippi. Here, the “divide” is merely 15 feet higher than Lake Michigan, near a Chicago neighborhood somewhat ambitiously called “Archer Heights.” This small elevation gain is attained over a distance of some 6 miles from the river’s mouth at the lake.

That is flat.  15 feet in 6 miles. And yet it is enough to form a continental divide, separating the Great Lakes and Mississippi watersheds.

During some wet seasons, Amerindians canoed without portage directly from Lake Michigan to the Des Plaines River… and then on to the Mississippi via the Illinois. So: there was a navigable water path – or with a simple portage – across a continental divide. The glaciers had formed this tiny whimpish divide. And a good thing too: the confluence of Des Plaines and Kankakee Rivers, where the Illinois river starts, is 60 feet lower in elevation than Lake Michigan.  Without this most gentle of rises, much of the fertile mid-Mississippi River region would be under many feet of water.

This continental divide between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi basins literally hugs the coast of Lake Michigan near, what would become someday, Chicago.

With no knowledge of the areas through which Lewis and Clark would travel – areas that would become vast, parched states like Missouri, the Dakotas, Montana and Idaho – these intrepid explorers and President Jefferson had good reason to be at least be somewhat hopeful that there would be a water-borne connection from the Mississippi-Missouri watershed all the way to the Pacific Ocean. 

Chapter 6 Illinois Becomes a State: a Great Nibble

Men had long dreamed that a canal could join the Great Lakes and the Mississippi across this mild continental divide.  “In early 1814, the Niles Register of Baltimore had predicted that a canal could make Illinois the seat of immense commerce; and a market for the commodities of all regions.” [1] 

As Illinois approached its date for statehood, 1818, there was a bit of urgency.  Mississippi had been admitted in 1817, and Alabama was about to be admitted (1819). Those were slave states and there was a need to keep the pot from boiling over by preserving the number of slave and Free states at, or near, equal tallies.  

We can understand Illinois’s request to push its border north to the mouth of the Chicago River (there was no Chicago yet; however, there was a small settlement associated with Fort Dearborn, perhaps a few score in population). Here, at the mouth of the Chicago River, would be their port on Lake Michigan, with a chance to join commerce on the Great Lakes to commercial centers along the Mississippi and the Ohio Rivers, and the Gulf of Mexico… if the canal would be built (the first great Chicago continental divide canal was finally completed in 1848).  Plus, construction of a much more ambitions canal – the Erie Canal – had already commenced; when it was complete, Illinois would be linked by this 2nd route to the eastern seaboard, and world markets.

Aggressively, Illinois lobbied for, and received, a 61-mile push northward of its entire northern border, all the way up to what seemed like an arbitrary but convenient latitude of 42.50 degrees. A push of only about 20 miles – and this only near Lake Michigan – would have been required to secure a potential port at the river’s mouth, and the path for the canal.

This extra aggrandizement amounted to awarding themselves an appropriation of about 5.6 million acres. Thanks to the glacial ages’ deposition of scraped fertile topsoil from Canada and nudging it along, depositing it through the region, this was some of the most fertile land God had crafted upon the earth.

It also contained a substantial deposit of galena (lead sulfide) near Illinois’ northwest corner.  Its discovery, near what would become Galena, Illinois, led to the first major mineral rush in the United States. And the first of Chicago’s major westward railroads.

Illinois becomes a state (1818). Now, all three new states had pushed across the Territorial line, running east-west and tangent to Lake Michigan’s southern tip.

But there was a reason to push to 42.5 degrees, an additional 40 miles north of the mouth of the Chicago River. Illinois needed to show they had a population of 60,000 to become a state, as required by the Ordinance. Without that extra land, they couldn’t convince Congress that they would get there by 1818.

The region’s map now looked like this, with Wisconsin part of Michigan territory.

Chapter 7 Michigan gets its Dander up a second time, becomes a State, and reaps a huge territorial bounty

In 1835 Arkansas was about to be admitted as a slave state, and Michigan prepared to follow it as a Free state.  But there was a problem. What would Michigan’s boundary with Ohio be? Michigan petitioned again for the east-west Territorial Line as defined in the 1787 Ordinance. Ohio passed legislation declaring the northern Toledo slanted line. Neither would back down.

Each raised armed militias and marched them to the Toledo Strip. The Toledo War was on! Shots were fired, but there was only one injury – a stabbing with a pen when a Michigan sheriff went into Toledo to make an arrest. Eventually cooler heads prevailed, and President Andrew Jackson helped negotiate a deal: Michigan would become a state, Ohio would keep the Toledo Strip, and Michigan would be given ALL of the Upper Peninsula (or “U.P.”), and quite a bit more. This was the penultimate nibble on Wisconsin; and it was a pretty big bite, actually: about 16,000 square miles. That’s larger than many countries; the “nibbled away” U.P is larger than the Netherlands! Larger than Switzerland!

Michigan gets the entire UP, and a bit more!

The map shows the pink area that was given to Michigan via the compromise. Note that the rest or eastern part of the U.P. had already been nibbled away by extension of the arbitrary north-south line from Vincennes, Indiana.

Even though vastly larger than the Toledo Strip (a puny 468 square miles), acquisition of the U.P. was thought a poor exchange for Michigan at the time.  Little did they know.  The rich forests and mineral deposits of iron and copper made it a tremendous economic resource in the long run for Michigan. Today, Toledo’s significance is small, and it is a sad excuse for a city.

Wisconsin Territory formed, 1836. With land across the Mississippi added, then revoked for Iowa, 1838

When Michigan’s new borders became official in the Michigan Enabling Act of 1836 (it became a state in 1837), Wisconsin finally became its own official territory – on its way to state status.  Wisconsin Territory’s boundaries looked as shown here, still much larger than today.  The area that would become Iowa territory was added in 1836, then taken away in ‘38.

Chapter 8 On (Wisconsin) to Statehood; one final nibble — the final ignominy.

With the possible exclusion of Kansas Territory (no one knew how that would turn out) there were few real possibilities to add slave states after Texas’ and Florida’s entries in 1845. To keep up with these additions, Iowa petitioned to become a Free state. Its land size was limited to far less than that shown here, so as to maintain the possibility of adding new Free states later, if required. However, the rest of the territory was not turned back over to Wisconsin Territory, which had itself in the meanwhile petitioned for statehood.

Instead, Wisconsin’s borders were trimmed much further.

The final stripping of land: Minnesota Territory formed and given access to Lake Superior

Wisconsin Territory’s western boundary reached to the Mississippi River and its headwaters, which were deemed to be Lake Itasca, in what is now northern Minnesota. And from there north to the British Canada border, near Lake of the Woods.  In other words, Saint Paul (now Minnesota’s capital) would be in Wisconsin, pursuant to over 50 years of precedent.  And also, many of those bountiful beautiful 10,000 Lakes.

Map drawers and national legislators decided that any new state must have access to the shipping and transport opportunity provided by the Great Lakes; Lake Superior in the case of Minnesota. 

There are very few harbor opportunities along the Lake’s northern shore. Still it all ended up with Minnesota.

In one final nibble, Wisconsin was reduced in size again, in order to provide the future state (Minnesota, 1858) access to the river-fed natural harbor at the western tip of Lake Superior. A small fur trading post there would become the port city of Duluth. By my calculation, this was even larger than the U.P. “confiscation.”

Finale. Wisconsinites are known for nibbling on cheese and sausage, and quaffing a few beers; the state Wisconsin (or ‘Skonsin, to locals) has been nibbled on quite enough.  If you feel like nibbling on Wisconsin, then please do: enjoy these treats.  On, Wisconsin!

[A brief pictorial summary is provided in text and maps below.]

Joe Girard © 2020

Bibliography and notes below ….

Time line of the nibbles, with maps:


[1] Nature’s Metropolis; Chicago and the Great West, Cronon, William –

Note on the canal: the Illinois-Michigan Canal was completed in 1848.  By 1892 it was deepened, thus reversing the flow of the Chicago River. At the same time, it was being replaced with the deeper and wider Chicago Shipping and Sanitary Canal, which opened in 1900.

[2] Minnesota Territory Map, Minnesota Historical Society, Accessed April 1, 2015, http://education.mnhs.org/northern-lights/learning-resources/chapter-6-land-changes-hands/minnesota-territory-1849%E2%80%931858

[3] Illinois Watershed map attributed to USGS

[4] http://www.bratwurstpages.com/dialect.html


[1] Near the east bank of the Des Plaines River, at about 4700 South Harlem Avenue in Chicago, is the Chicago Portage National Historical Site.  Not recommended for late evening or nighttime visits.

[2] Wisconsin, current size, square miles: 65,556
      Michigan, Upper Peninsula, sq mi:        16,452
       Minnesota, east of Mississippi:             27,191
      (from ~41.62 to 42.50 deg, or 60.7 mi x 125 mi = 7,590

Approx. land re-appropriated = 49,458 sq mi

Map showing Illinois counties in 1820, 2 years after statehood.  Note Indian territory and also non-existence of Cook County (Chicago).  1820 census shows all of Clark county with just a few hundred residents.

Local Lexicon

Wow! I received some well-deserved corrections from you readers of my last essay: a bio on songstress Bobby Gentry and a review of her most famous song.  Thank you!  It turns out that the use of “dinner” for the mid-day meal extends through northern rural America from Ohio to Montana as well as the South. In fact, one reader who grew up in the Cleveland metro area informed me of this! I knew that some rural areas of Indiana, West Virginia and Missouri say “dinner.” Wow. Thanks all for the corrections and information.

Public drinking contraption is called a ______?

As long as we’re on regional word usage.  What do you call this common device shown in the photo?  On account of response to concern over the novel coronavirus, it has been eight weeks since I’ve seen one of these actually functioning anywhere.  Their usefulness is surely missed in many public areas.  Hydration is important! 

Some say it is a “water fountain.”  Some call it a “drinking fountain.”  As with dinner vs. lunch, what name you call this device varies by region across the country.  What do you call it?

As you ruminate on that, let’s consider the Kohler family, of Wisconsin.


Johann Michael Kohler emigrated to the United States from Austria, with his large brood of children and new bride, his second, around 1854.  His oldest son, and fourth child – Johann Jr – was 10 years old.  They settled in Saint Paul, the capital city of Minnesota Territory, some four years before Minnesota became a state. In fact, its Twin City, Minneapolis, across the Mississippi, was a mere fledgling: just a few houses, an original platting and the old Fort Snelling. St Paul was already over 4,500 souls.

St Paul was a like many new, inland, booming US cities of the era, such as Milwaukee, St Louis, and Chicago.  Immigrants from almost anywhere in Europe could easily feel at home: their native language was spoken at church services and theatrical productions, was read in newspapers, and used to discuss current events over a cup of coffee (or a glass of beer).  [OK, Catholics, constituting the vast majority of Austrians, even today, would have used mostly Latin in church]. And opportunity abounded.

The name of Kohler presents perhaps a fleck of interest here. In some cultures, particularly those with roots in Germanic and English lands, the family name often designates a skilled trade. This commenced in medieval times, as the importance of tracking families grew: recording land, taxes, and military service. In English, think of surnames like Baker, Smith, Cook, Fowler, Taylor, Mason.  Not hard to guess what those professions are.  Back in the day many families took their name from their ancestral trade, passed from generation-to-generation. 

The name Kohler probably was Anglicized upon immigration and certainly came from Köhler: a charcoal burner.  (In England, the name would be Collier. Neither that popular, but Collier did leave its name on a line of Encyclopedias.)

Charcoal burners were considered a lowly profession. They marched through their lives in exquisite solitude, collecting and piling wood, then turning it into charcoal with a careful, slow, low-temperature semi-burn, either in heaps of carefully assembled wood mounds, or in crafted kilns. It was an important profession: Charcoal was necessary as a heat source in smelting, forging, and smithing of many metals – from basic iron and copper to precious metals like silver.  It was also used in glasswork.

Schnepfau, Austria: in one of countless fertile Alpine dairy producing valleys

So, historically, the Kohler’s family ancestors would certainly have been charcoal burners.  As the Industrial Revolution matured, the significance of the role of charcoal burner decreased, even though charcoal remained extensively necessary.  This precipitated a move to industrial scale production of charcoal. At some point, the Kohler family left their namesake’s profession; Johann Kohler, the elder, is listed as a Dairy Farmer from Schnepfau, Austria; that’s high up in a valley above Bregenz, near Lake Constance (Der Bodensee).  Upon settling in Minnesota, he resumed this occupation.

From our travels and hikes, the alpine valleys of Austria are utterly drenched with countless dairy cows, almost regardless of slope; one hears cowbells ringing and echoing off every hill, dale, and ridge.  Often the isolated and remote dairy farmhouses serve double-duty as guest houses, where a trekker can rest their feet, quaff a crisp refreshing beverage – and sometimes even get a meal, or a room for the night.

Dairy farming – for those who don’t also provide respite to travelers – is quite accommodating to the less gregarious and socially-oriented person, but not so much so as charcoal burner. 

So, why leave?  Well, there was much general disappointment in Europe after the failed attempts to liberalize governments in the widespread Revolutions of 1848.  Other than that, people left for America because they could.  My mother’s ancestral male-side left Germany at this time (also for Minnesota), and a generation later, my father’s maternal-side did, too (for Chicago).  It was a good call for most who came to the US. My mom recalled her father and uncles speaking German around the house decades into the 20th century.

John Kohler, Jr — founder of The Kohler Company

In any case, a few years after settling into St Paul, Johann the younger – Johann, Jr, and now going by John Kohler, Jr – started to make his own way in the world.  His early schooling was there in St Paul. The eager and aspiring young Kohler picked up a variety of jobs there.  At 18, he moved to Chicago, to study at Dyrenfurth’s College, the first business college in Chicago, and certainly the closest to St Paul. 

The rapidly growing Chicago would be his hometown for a few years, as he took on more ambitious jobs – from merchant to traveling salesman. Kohler developed a sense of purpose, willpower and world-view that set him apart from his ancestral recluses.

The young, eligible, well-connected and well-traveled John Kohler, Jr met the acquaintance of a lovely young lady, Elizabeth “Lillie” Vollrath, some four years his younger.  Lillie, a first-generation immigrant from Rheinland, Germany, happened to hale from Sheboygan, Wisconsin, some 50 miles north of Milwaukee.  They shared a mother tongue. 

In the similarly immigrant-rich city of Sheboygan, where German and Polish were as likely to be heard on streets as English (and that, often with an Irish accent), Lillie’s father, Jacob Vollrath, owned substantial interests in local manufacturing businesses, including two iron and steel foundries.

John and Lillie were married in 1871, in her hometown, and settled there. John was given a small interest in one foundry, probably as a wedding gift, and a job there as well.

We are now well on our way to telling the story of “what to call that convenient public area drinking device.”  Many who are familiar with such water-spewers, and the Kohler name, might well know the story already. Especially those who live in, or were raised in, Wisconsin. But first we must separate fanciful fiction from the rest of the story.

A couple years later it’s 1873 and a great financial panic strikes brutally with icy indifference.  Across Europe and North America economies collapse. With weak, or non-existent, central banks the holes open deep, wide, and quickly.  It mercilessly lasted for several years.  It was so devastating that the crisis was called “The Great Depression” up until the 1930s.  Then, of course, that title was supplanted by the economic abyss of the ‘30s. With that lost decade, the numbing economic circumstances commencing in 1873 passed to the brink of historical oblivion, surviving now with the mere understated label of “Panic.” 

But the Panic was grave: It nearly ruined the implausibly colossal Krupp manufacturing empire in the newly united Germany. 

Panic. Depression. Prices collapsed. Currency depreciates. Cash flow seizes up. Businesses flounder, especially those leveraged with credit, as debt must be paid back with more valuable currency – and at a time with decreased receipts.  

With his employer’s iron and steel business staggering (coincidentally, Krupp’s major product was also steel) young John Kohler saw an opportunity.  He made an offer to purchase his employer’s entire operation.  Vollrath and his partners were ready to sell and get out with their skin. Kohler joined in ownership with a small team, led by him; but he was majority owner of the firm. Before the decade flipped to the ’90s he would own it all.

One of the reasons historical economists provide for the panic was the massive over-building of railroads. The US was on a rail building spree. With bank and investor support, based on expectations of an ever-expanding economy, and the need for transportation to support it, railroad lines and networks grew stunningly and precipitously in the years after the civil war.  This was perhaps, an example of malinvestment: money so cheap, and/or optimism so great, that capital which could have been either saved or conservatively invested chases after bigger returns, blind to risk. As railroads require vast amounts of steel (locomotives, boilers, tenders, cars, rails, depots), and capital to expand, it’s no surprise that many steel vendors found themselves in trouble.

_______________________ o _______________________ o _______________________

Initially making farming implements, Kohler’s company soon got into manufacturing bathroom fixtures: a product line for which they are still known around the world today.  What came to be known as the “Kohler Company” (now based in the adjoining community of Kohler, not Sheboygan) is one of the largest and most successful privately family-held companies in the world. Their first great leap forward came from an idea probably fetched from family members over on the Vollrath side. Vollrath’s main business concern (also in iron and steel) had been experimenting with adding enamel to the surfaces of products. Kohler began doing the same thing with items such as tubs and sinks around 1878.  Their great bathroom and plumbing business was born; and has since grown to be an extensive world-wide enterprise.

And now for the story of the drinking fountain.  Or the water fountain.  Call it what you will.

However, if you are very special – if you were raised in some very specific geographic areas, or spent many years there – you call this device a “bubbler.” 

The largest of these special locales is a sort of L-shaped region.  One leg of the “L” goes from Madison, Wisconsin, almost due east to Oconomowoc, about 2/3 the way to the Milwaukee city limits. From there the north-south leg goes up to Green Bay. The width of each leg, varies along their lengths, but is generally approximately 60 miles. Within this “band” the use of “bubbler” is nearly 100% among locals. The L spreads out into a bean shape if predominant use of bubbler is included, say over 50%; but definitely not beyond the western shores of Lake Michigan, and certainly never, never south across the Illinois state line. Say it there and, if you’re lucky, they look at you like you’re from a distant country. If you’re not lucky, you’ll be ID’d as a cheesehead and taunted with detestation, in ways that only people from Chicago-land (i.e. long suffering Bears fans) can administer.

Map is approximate, but fairly accurate for bubbler. The “heart of bubbler land” is the L described in the text.

Two other tiny US regions also call it a “bubbler”: Most of Rhode Island and slivers of eastern and southern Massachusetts, reaching in a few areas into New Hampshire.  (Actually, they probably say “bubb-lah”, but the root and idea are the same).

I left Milwaukee nearly 46 years ago; I still instinctively want to call them bubblers.  I’ve forced myself to say “drinking fountain,” for clarity (see Colorado, on map).  But in the company of other native Wisconsinites I drift autonomically: it’s a “bubbler.”

A commonly repeated legend about the bubbler moniker and the Kohler Company lives on, percolating outward from this special L-region, and re-energized with every local re-telling.  It seems that in 1888 a Kohler employee named Harlan Huckabee invented a device that would provide a small fountain of water, shooting up a few inches, from which a passerby could easily dampen their parched palettes by putting their pursed lips to the airborne stream and drawing it in.  The fountain made a “bubbling” sound, with water gurgling up and splashing back down; hence the device that made the sounds was called a “bubbler.” Kohler trademarked and patented the device. And successfully marketed it as such – a bubbler – coast to coast and then internationally.

This is oft repeated fable is largely false.  But repetition of falsehoods somehow makes them more credible.  Followed politics at all?

Yet, there is a strong Kohler and Wisconsin connection.  Kohler had been making a similar device since about 1900.  And it was indeed called the bubbler.  And it did make a bubbling sound (like a small brooklet) as the water shot up a couple inches for the quenching of thirst.  But there was no Harlan Huckabee, and no 1888 invention. The word and name bubbler were never trademarked nor patented by Kohler.

Yet, by 1900, the word “bubbler” for a drinking device had indeed already been around for a few decades. So, what happened?  As Beth Dippel of the Sheboygan Sun reports from her deep research:

“Wisconsin was filled with one-room schools in the late 19th Century, and each school had a pretty standard set of furniture and equipment, including portraits of Washington and Lincoln, blackboards, the old pot-bellied stove, maybe a globe and some type of container for drinking water. One container frequently used was the Red Wing Stoneware Co.’s ceramic water cooler or water ‘bubbler’ made as early as 1877. They came in three-gallon and five-gallon sizes and were prized possessions of schools.”

Sheboygan Press [1]

When students filled a cup for drinking, air would move up through the cooler and make a “bubbling” sound.  And kids in many schools called it just that: a bubbler.

Kohler’s product took the local popular school-children’s name for a drinking device.  By the 1910s a new design had modified the basic design.  Shooting the water straight up was considered unsanitary, since unconsumed water, which had touched lips, fell back onto the spout.  Most devices now shoot an arc of water, as shown in the first figure.  This invention was not from Kohler, but they adopted it and continued successfully selling “bubblers”, although they now didn’t make quite as much of a bubbling sound.

Kohler Family Plot, Kohler, Wisconsin — company founder, John Kohler, Jr passed at a mere 56 years old, in 1900, leaving a long-lasting family legacy

The product sold well for decades, and the name “bubbler” traveled with it, all the way to the east coast.  Hard to imagine residents of Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia being anything but confused today if you were to ask them how to find the nearest “bubbler.”  But once upon a time they did call it that.

From vernacular studies, about 4% of Americans call it a bubbler, or a water bubbler. I find that ridiculously high, but perhaps “water bubbler” bumps it up a few points. I’ve never met a single person from outside Wisconsin (or who didn’t live there a spell) have the faintest notion what a bubbler is.  Some 33% call it a drinking fountain.  The rest, a whopping 63%, call it a water fountain.  The last one, water fountain, seems silly to me; that’s a place to toss coins for wishes, or to take off your shoes, roll up your pants and take a forbidden dip, or – more scandalously – fish out those coins.

Words change. They come and go.  Regions are particular.  Pop or Soda? But the name “bubbler” lives stubbornly in its homeland – that is, much of southern and eastern Wisconsin – as well as pockets of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and almost all of Rhode Island. 

Well, that was a mouthful.  Now I need a drink of water.  Where’s the bubbler?

Popular T-shirt in much of Wisconsin: “Bubbler” is secret code for “I’m from Wisconsin” … in RI and Mass it would be “Bubb-lah”

And a Kohler is no longer a charcoal burner.  It is a fine, respectable bathroom fixture.

Happy public drinking.


Joe Girard © 2020

Footnotes and bibliography below.

Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for when there is newly published material by clicking here. Or emailing joe@girardmeister.com

Afterward:  Vollraths

The Vollrath name and family business remains prominent in Sheboygan, however.  One of Vollrath’s other businesses lived on and is a prominent manufacturer of commercial restaurant and food services equipment: still in the metal implement business.  Since the Kohlers and Vollraths are multiply intermarried (in fact, after Lillie died leaving Kohler 6 children; he then married her younger sister and one more: he would go on to lead the Kohler dynasty into the 20th century), the current generations sit on each other’s boards of directors.  There is a beautiful 26-acre park along the Lake Michigan shore in Sheboygan named for Vollrath, who donated the land and funded its early development.

The Kohlers are, of course, gigantic in Wisconsin.  The family has provided two state governors (not to be confused with the Kohl family, and the Kohl’s chain of stores).  In fact, founder John Kohler was once mayor of Sheboygan. Kohlers have gotten into the golf business, starting locally with two gorgeous links/dunes courses, one near and another along Lake Michigan: Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits. These have hosted multiple major golf championships.  They’ve also expanded into the golf hospitality business, owning and running the famous Old Course Hotel in Saint Andrews, Scotland.
If you get to the area, drop by the Kohler museum in Kohler. And, if it’s summer, try to take in a festival in Sheboygan. It doesn’t matter what festival: there will be really good bratwurst, plenty of beer, friendly people … and bubblers.

[1] https://www.sheboyganpress.com/story/news/local/2014/10/31/sheboygan-history-bubblers/18254395/

Letting Go

I can vividly remember the house I grew up in, in Brown Deer, Wisconsin, just north of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  It still amazes me to no end that my parents raised six kids in that tiny rambler.

White and blue, with a modicum of brick façade, it sat, conveniently, part way up a gently sloping hill.  It was downhill from our house, along North 49th street, south and down to “the creek” where 49th stopped for a few blocks and you had to turn onto Churchill Lane.  The creek, in turn, meandered from there a mile or so to the Milwaukee River: that brown, slothful, murky body of water that I sometimes walked to for fishing until I turned 16 and needed a fishing license. Along the creek friends and I would sometimes plunge in to catch frogs and crawdads.  I guess that’s what young boys do. It’s astonishing I didn’t get ill more often.

I called the hill convenient.  That’s because the gentle slope helped all of us learn to ride a bicycle.  Each of us progressed from trike to bike, with training wheels of course.  Day by day dad would raise the training wheels until we could demonstrate that we’d keep our balance without the wheels touching pavement very much.  Then one training a single training wheel would come off.  We were on parole.  After another few days, or a week, the big day came: dad took off the other training wheel.

This is where the hill came in handy.  You need a bit of speed especially as a beginner to steadily balance a bicycle.  The hill helped.  The hill plus dad, running alongside for 50 or 100 yards, holding the bicycle, helping with speed and balance.  Back up the hill we’d walk, pushing the bike. Then again. Then again.

Each successive iteration dad held the bike less firmly, until — finally he let go (without telling us!) — he was just trotting alongside … smiling widely.  He did this for each of six children.


My wife and I had three children, whom we raised in two different houses in Colorado.  Each house sat on a street partway up a slight hill. How convenient.

Those were some of the simplest, yet happiest, moments of fatherhood.  I can still see myself, thinking of my dad’s beaming face, trotting alongside each child.  Did they know how loved they were?  In their own joy and pride … could they sense any of the same in me?

Finally it is time.  You let go.

Sometimes they still fell, or forgot how to use the brakes, scraped their knees and hands.

Then you meet them at their needs.  Retreat to simply running alongside, or gently holding. Encourage.

And finally it is the very last time.  You let go.  One last time.  You stop running after them…

You smile, knowing that they, with their back to you — swerving wildly — are probably smiling too.


That was decades ago. They are all grown now. I’m pretty good by now at letting go. There are still a few things I should let go of.

But those memories?  Never.

Joe Girard © 2017

Six Kids, Spring 1968

Simply Degenerate

Date line: April, 2015.

My wife and I made a little getaway to Missouri this past February. If you’ve been there in winter, there’s a good chance you’ll understand why I often call it “the state of Misery.” Anyhow, en route from Saint Louis to Hannibal we spent time in the formerly not so well-known — but now very well-known — community of Ferguson, Missouri.

Two rounds of riots there in 2014 resulted in multiple cars and buildings being burned. Businesses were ruined. These riots were the aftershocks from (1) the killing of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson, and (2) the Saint Louis County Grand Jury’s decision to NOT indict said police officer Darren Wilson.

Ferguson Brewery, Ferguson, MO

Ferguson Brewery, Ferguson, MO

We found the community of just over 20,000 to be really quite delightful. Churches and grocery stores and homes of all sorts: like you’d expect anywhere else. We stopped in at the Ferguson Brewing Company, a cheery micro-brewery with a full kitchen and pub menu. There we enjoyed lunch and a beverage. The place was hopping, and the beers we selected were hoppy too. The patrons were mostly pale faced, but scattered about were ebony and ivory-skinned customers, even sitting at the same tables.

We made it a point to drive through the sections of town where buildings and been torched – destroyed by fires from the riots. Laundromats, liquor stores, auto parts stores, restaurants. Pretty much without rhyme or pattern, concentrated mostly in two different parts of the city. Actually, some destruction spilled over into nearby Dellwood, MO.

We stopped at the spot where young Mr. Brown was killed. Even in February, six months after the shooting, there was still a memorial to him there, on Canfield Drive, near Copper Creek Court.

We felt it important to spend some time there: to contemplate the location and its significance. It’s only a few blocks from the Ferguson Market, on Florrisant Avenue.

[What city has TWO major streets near each other with the same name? In this case “Florrisant.” Oh yeah, Atlanta. Almost every other street is named

Michael BrownMemorial, Canfield Dr, Ferguson, MO

Michael BrownMemorial, Canfield Dr, Ferguson, MO

Peach Tree.]

The Ferguson Market is where the petty theft – and physical abuse of a 120-lb weakling store clerk by 290-pound Mr. Brown – occurred that resulted in Officer Wilson locking onto a young man of Mr. Brown’s description. That theft occurred about 10 minutes before their most unfortunate fateful rendezvous.

This was all brought freshly to mind for me a few weeks ago during the NCAA basketball tournament. March Madness.


Right. The College basketball national championship tournament. Why? Because white people riot too, and for really, really stupid reasons. Over and over again.

Kentucky was the odds-on favorite to win the championship. Basketball is religion in Kentucky. The Lexington-based school has won 8 National championship titles, including as recently as 2012. They’ve been runner up twice, including 2013, and National semi-finalists, an additional four times, to my counting at least, including 2011.

That’s a pretty impressive record, given that there are, oh, I don’t know, something like 400 colleges and university basketball teams competing at the Division-I level.

But this year they lost to Wisconsin in the National semi-final match. Which means if there are 400 schools, their basketball team is better than 398 of them. So what did their fans in Lexington, Kentucky do after the semi-final match? They rioted. Burned cars. Trashed buildings. Barricaded the streets. Fought Police.

Really? — Really.

And this is nothing new. Last year, 2014, Kentucky made it all the way to the National Championship game and lost to Connecticut. Guess what?

The fans in Lexington rioted.

Ah, precedence.

In 2012 Kentucky made it to the National semi-final. That time they defeated in-state super-hated arch-rival Louisville. Kentucky won the game. Win? They won? Yes, they won.

The fans in Lexington rioted.

Two nights later Kentucky was in the National championship match and won, defeating Kansas. This time another win!! A National Championship. Oh the glory.

The fans in Lexington rioted.

More precedence.

Back in 2011 Kentucky was defeated in the National semi-final by Connecticut (a bit of a nemesis) …

Yes, you guessed it …

The fans in Lexington rioted.

You know. Just the basic stuff. Burn cars. Tear down light posts. Throw rocks at police. Vandalize buildings. Mug passers-by.

You’d think the police and city fathers in Lexington would be a bit wise to the whole thing by now.

What is weird is that the fans are mostly well-lubricated white people rioting because the mostly black student athletes performed so well that their expectations were that they would win a Nation championship … or else. Or else what? We’ll riot either way.

In 2013 Kentucky’s record was not good enough to even get into the championship tournament (a fate that befalls the vast majority of teams). So, Kentucky pretty much sucked that year … at least by Kentucky standards. Guess what? NO RIOTS! Go figure.

White people rioting for stupid reasons (or no reason) is nothing new. Even in my current “home” metro area – Denver, CO – fans rioted when the Colorado Avalanche won the NHL’s (National Hockey League) Stanley Cup in 1996. Sure this was the first major championship in Colorado. That warrants a riot. (#sarcasm).

The next year the football Broncos won the Super Bowl. No riot. But then they won their second straight Super Bowl, 1998, … more riots. Really? Yeah. Let’s get really pissed and burn some sh*t. No riots when the Avalanche won the Stanley Cup again in 2001. A whiff of sanity.

They don’t riot for no reason in Milwaukee. Or in the whole state of Wisconsin.

I do remember the summer riots of 1967: Barricades in the street. Our humble suburb blocked off at the municipal city limits. Restrictions on gasoline sales: it had to go right into auto tanks; not into portable tanks. People who wanted to mow their lawn (pre-electric mowers) had to bring the grass-cutter right to the gas station.

A permanent scar on our country and on our memory. Newark, NJ, 1967

A permanent scar on our country and on our memory. Newark, NJ, 1967

It was a time of tremendous social unrest – upheaval – and Milwaukee was not spared. Those ’67 riots were not senseless or without reason. They were tied in with the civil rights movement, disappointment with lack of progress from the ’64 Civil Rights Acts, and the move toward freedom of expression, and of course the anti-war movements of the ‘60s. There were a shocking 159 riots in the United States in 1967. One Hundred and Fifty-nine. Mostly race related, they broke out in LA, Cleveland, Minneapolis, everywhere it seemed. The most violent were Detroit and Newark. Too vivid. Too vivid. I remember this gruesome Life Magazine photo from the Newark riots. Burned into my RAM.

The causes, racial participants, locations and provocateurs of these riots were far ranging. From Encyclopedia.com:

“… the year 1967 ended with a final act of violence in late October, when antiwar protesters from around the country moved on Washington, D.C. Those who gathered at the Lincoln Memorial on 21 October were largely white, largely middle class, largely educated, and formerly mainstream in their politics. But, when U.S. Army units met them with fixed bayonets, they took to the streets of the capital in an out-break of destructive rioting and constructive confrontation, and 650 were arrested.”

Fixed bayonets for those expressing freedom to assemble? Freedom of expression? Hell yeah, riot. We don’t turn the military on the public in the US. Riots!

Still, I don’t think that places like Wisconsin or Minneapolis have experienced totally pointless riots, like Lexington. And Denver. Maybe I’m wrong. But I doubt it.

I’ll get in trouble for this, but I can’t help but wonder if this behavior doesn’t carry some sort of genetic pass-me-down from each area’s ancestral settlers.

Wisconsin was mostly settled by the “quiet disciplined” sort. Mostly Germans. Many Poles and Norwegians. Some English, with their stiff upper lips. Work hard. Don’t make a fuss. Stick to your own business and do it well. Get it done and move quietly along to the next thing. “Don’t rock the boat” type of settlers.

Early Irish and Scottish immigrants to the New World were largely unwelcomed by the English and moved west, settling in the rugged Shenandoah and Appalachian Mountains. When the Cumberland Gap popped open they began moving into the territory that would become the states of Kentucky and Tennessee.

I’m not calling the Scots and Irish “rioters” (in fact, I love them, their culture and sense of humor), but they probably don’t have a reputation for spontaneously breaking into (a) drink, (b) song, (c) dance, and (d) fight for no reason. Germans, Poles, Norwegians … they just don’t do that. Ok, maybe they do the drinking part. ☺

Before I get in any more trouble, I’ll close with saying that Wisconsin lost in this year’s (2015) NCAA championship match to Duke University – after defeating Kentucky in the semi-finals. I’ll admit to being partial, but there were many questionable calls during the second half. It seemed that every 50/50 out-of-bounds ball was awarded to Duke, and Wisconsin frequently fouled Duke players with their chins, foreheads and eye-brows.

Nevertheless: There were no riots.

Wisconsin fans did not riot when they beat Kentucky in the semi-final, nor when they lost to Duke in the final.

For emphasis: Last year, 2014, Wisconsin made it all the way to the semi-finals, losing to Kentucky (by one point!, 74-73).

There were no riots.

Meanwhile, in late 2014, while overwhelmingly mostly peaceful riots were going on around the entire country in sympathy with the mostly peaceful protests in Ferguson, something weird was going on in Keene, New Hampshire. Keene State College – mostly white, upper class privileged kids – had their annual Pumpkin Festival.

Yes. You guessed it. … Riots broke out.

Riots broke out.

Drunken brawls. Random fires and mayhem. Burned and overturned cars. Vandalized buildings.

The media are deluding us.

Well, New Hampshire is the “Live Free, or Die” state.  Love the motto.  Hate the riots.

Wishing you peaceful, riot-free and headache-free spring, summer and fall.

Joe Girard © 2015

[1] Encyclopedia.com: 1967 Riots. http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3401803621.html

Milwaukee – Melting Pot within the Melting Pot


December, 1962.  Christmas week.


I was 6 years old, halfway through the first grade, with three younger siblings.


My parents must have been crazy.  Or maybe moving the family with four little children made them crazy.


I could not remember ever being so cold, even though I was running a torrid fever and with a dreadful sore throat.


That was my first experience of Milwaukee.




“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things…”
Lewis Carrol, Through the Looking Glass



Since experiencing a violent car crash seven months ago, I’ve spent quite a bit of time resting, recovering and reflecting.  Like the Walrus and the Carpenter, I’ve thought on many things. I’ve reflected on my life. I’m reminded again that it is temporary.

I’ve contemplated on not a few parts of my life, what I’ve experienced, what I’ve learned, and what it all means.  I remain a committed skeptic and agnostic, yet I’m more open to new possibilities.  I’m more aware of mankind’s struggles, even down to the individual level.

And some thoughts turned to my youth – those formative years.  I pondered how I could weave my youth – or more precisely, my hometown as a child – into my current running theme of early 20th century history, especially the period 1900-14, which I call the Edwardian/Pre-war era.

This is a sort of Thanksgiving essay.  I’m so very thankful for the support I’ve received from my wife, family and friends – and at work.  And so very thankful that recovery continues to reach new levels.

  • During a very, very relaxing week in Calgary to celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving with our son and new daughter-in-law (Mazel Tov!) I was able to begin to stitch together some patches of memories, some research and facts into a working outline.

  • During this US Thanksgiving week, I’ve finally felt well enough to work that patchy outline into an essay about my boyhood memories and my boyhood hometown and state: Milwaukee & Wisconsin. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it. It is a bit longer than my usual works.



The United States, despite its disgraceful xenophobic phases and elements, has quite rightly been referred to as The Great Melting Pot.  Her welcome to arrivals from around the world – who come with different values, cultures, beliefs and languages – is renowned.  They continue to be  welcomed to a land that makes individual rights superior to the will of the majority; and individual rights superior to the will the state. [1] Her welcome is inscribed upon the colossal statue of the Roman goddess Libertas – that 19th century gift from the French – that looks out over New York harbor to hopeful, dreamy immigrants: “Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses yearning to be free!”[2]


In this, the 7th essay discussing the significance of events during the Edwardian/pre-war ear (approximately 1900-1914), we’ll investigate this Melting Pot phenomenon in the state of Wisconsin, and especially its largest city, Milwaukee.



1. Milwaukee, 1960s – the Catholics



I think it was December 26, 1962.  We arrived in Brown Deer, Wisconsin, a small suburb that abuts Milwaukee’s northern limits: six of us packed in a station wagon, bundled and huddled together against the bitter cold – twelve degrees below zero.  Gosh, I was sick with a rotten cold, and miserable … and lonely; we’d left all my friends behind.  Some boys in the new neighborhood were eager to make my acquaintance.  They’d have to wait; about two weeks later another arctic front dropped the temperatures into the minus 20s, and I just could not shake that awful cold.  But, patience paid off: the group of young lads accepted me as if I’d been there all along, and 52 years later I still have friends among them. [1]


The Girard family soon added two more children. We resided in Milwaukee until the day Nixon became the first (and hopefully only) US president to resign the office, in August, 1974.  Just over 11-½ years.  Milwaukee is the city of my childhood and childhood memories.


Upon settling in Milwaukee, we quickly became part of a local Catholic community, Our Lady of Good Hope – affectionately called OLGH. I was enrolled mid-school-year in the 1st grade at its parochial school, staffed mostly by nuns from the Sisters of (I think) the order of Saint Francis.


Not many school years rolled by before I became aware of the wide array of surnames.

  • There was O’Shea and Collins and McCarthy and FitzGerald and Riordon.
  • There was Kaminski and Lezniak and Jabloski and Lesznewski.
  • There was Schmidt, … and Ritter and Rector and Kohlschmidt and Mueller and Messmer and Bessmer. And Schroeder and Vogel, too.
  • A Vincenzi, D’Amato, Fiorenza, and Pucci and Puccinelli and Sardinia.
  • Even a Martinez family, decades before the great influx of Hispanics

All of these families came from very different places! Not all Catholics are the same! They all have different backgrounds and stories. For some reason this was a revelation to me.



2. Milwaukee Immigration


European immigrants were drawn to Wisconsin and Milwaukee even during its simple beginnings in the 1830s and ’40s.  Conveniently located in America’s vast fertile heartland, with the best natural harbor on Lake Michigan’s western shores providing transportation [1] through the Great Lakes – and via the Erie Canal to the eastern states and the world – and then via the railroad explosion, Milwaukee provided what immigrants always wanted: freedom with a wide open chance to succeed, to ascend, without any pretense required, and without anyone really caring where you came from or what you thought.  As long as you were willing to work.


Immigrants continued to roll in throughout the 19th century.  By the dawn of the new century, Milwaukee was the country’s 14th largest city – its population nearly 300,000, over 80 percent of whom were either immigrants or first generation Americans.  If you were to overhear random denizens having a conversation in their first language, there was a 50-50 chance it would not be English; almost as likely was German [2]. After that, Polish, Norwegian and Italian. The ethnic cultures, habits and cuisine that still makes Milwaukee and Wisconsin famous – sausage, beer, cheese, a card game named Sheepshead (Schafskopf) – were well established by this time.


In 1901, when baseball expanded to have a second Major League – the American League – Milwaukee was deemed significant enough to be awarded one of the founding franchises: the original Milwaukee Brewers.  The stands at the Lloyd Street stadium, between 16th and 18th streets, were seldom very full; despite a well-developed network of citywide streetcars, they were unable to attract many of the hard working immigrants who hadn’t quite taken to baseball yet, and had better things to do: like pursue opportunity.  Milwaukee was decades away from being able to support a major league team.  They finished dead last in the American League and drew fewer than 2,000 patrons per game.  The Brewers left the next year for St Louis to be renamed the Browns. [3]



3. Milwaukee 1960s and ‘70s – the Jews


In the 7th grade I started a part time summer job: caddying at a local golf club.  In the 8th grade I was recruited by an Irish-Catholic friend to move my caddy career to another nearby golf club, Brynwood Country Club.  Brynwood was an almost exclusively Jewish club, and I subsequently worked on and off there for the next four and a half years.


I had not met many Jews, but I considered myself pretty aware of Judaism through extensive religious, as well as history, education at OLGH.  Still, I had regarded Jews as all, more or less, the same.


At Brynwood I again became aware of the wide variety of surnames.

  • There was Berlin, and Stein; Wagner and Bernstein; the Grossmans and the Reismans; Adler and Ackerman; several Siegels, Epsteins and variations on Meier. Rosen and Rosenberg and Rosenthal.
    • I’d studied enough to know these were all German names.
  • Then: all the Levin, Levine and Levy families.
  • But what about Schlimovitz, and Markovitz and Hurwitz and Abramowitz?
  • And then the Razansky, Lewinsky and Posen and Posner families.

All of these families came from very different places! Not all Jews are the same! They all have different backgrounds and stories. For some reason this was a revelation to me.



4. Milwaukee Immigration – the Jews


Jews also came to Milwaukee from Europe, almost since the city’s very beginnings in the 1840s, and throughout the 19th century.  Most came from Germany.  They were intelligent, and used the precise, sharp, hard guttural consonants of a well-educated and well-spoken German.


Although never more than 2 or 3 percent of the city’s populace, and usually much less, they had considerable influence as entrepreneurs and professionals – starting businesses, practicing law and engineering. They considered themselves German, and integrated well within the disciplined, hardworking, generous German-speaking non-Jewish Milwaukeeans.


Things began to change dramatically in the 1890s and early 1900s.  Pogroms in Central and Eastern Europe motivated many Ashkenazi Jews to leave their homelands and towns and come to America – and to Milwaukee.  Think “Fiddler on the Roof.”  Not as economically well-off or educated, and speaking a slang-ish “soft” dialect loosely based on German, but about as much like German as Ebonics or Creole Pidgin is to English, they were not accepted by the educated, sophisticated and integrated Jews of the time.


Adding to the new arrivals’ assimilation problem, most established Midwest Jews practiced Reform Judaism, modifying their customs and practices to fit with the rapidly evolving American times.  The Ashkenazi arrivals were mostly Orthodox; their religion literally directed and permeated every detail of their lives.


As the century changed from 19th to 20th, so too did attitudes toward the newly arrived Jews change, and by the mid-decade of the 1900s, new arrivals were accepted and supported by the local established Jews. They too became educated and entrepreneurial; became high achievers who contributed significantly to the greater community of Milwaukee, and the world.


Let’s take a brief look at three such local Jewish families to close out this glimpse through the Time Machine: the Mabovitch, the Kohl and the Binsock/Feingold families.


5. Goldie Mabovitch


Moshe Mabovitch knew he and his family had to move far from their home, near Kiev, Ukraine.  They needed to emigrate desperately.  The Jewish community had been victims of oppressive laws and pogroms.  But they needed money.


Moshe left in 1903, and – after a stint in New York – moved to Milwaukee in 1905, finding a steady job in the railroad yards.  By 1906 he’d saved enough to buy interest in a small grocery store on Milwaukee’s north side, and saved enough to move his family there, too.  They set about building a new life for themselves and their three daughters: Sheyna, Goldie and Tzipke. Five other siblings had not survived childhood.


Education was paramount, even for girls; it meant better opportunity.  Goldie especially excelled, achieving top-of-class status at the Fourth Street Grade School [1] – despite speaking English as a fourth (or fifth) language, and learning that language only after arriving, at age eight.


Goldie went on to Milwaukee’s North Division High School, doing well enough – despite taking time off to visit her married sister Sheyna in Denver – to gain entrance to the Milwaukee State Normal School (teachers’ college) on Milwaukee’s north side (This is now the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, UWM)


A few years later, Goldie married Morris Meyerson (Mazel Tov!), whom she met while visiting her sister, who was recuperating from tuberculosis in Denver.  In an ironic twist, she had left Milwaukee at age 14 because her mother was pressuring her to get married.  After meeting Meyerson, she returned to North Division to graduate, and then married Meyerson in her parents’ living room. They had two children … but none of this is what Goldie is known for.


Goldie’s experience with oppression led to her indomitable desire for a Jewish homeland. Well, one thing led to another, and – to make a very long story short – in 1949 “Goldie” Mabovitch Meyerson was elected to the parliament (Knesset) of the new nation of Israel.  In 1956, as the government’s Foreign Minister under David ben-Gurion, she agreed to a request to take on a Hebrew last name. She took Meir, which means “illuminate.”


Golda Meir of course went on to become Prime Minister from 1969-74, only the third democratically chosen female head-of-state in the modern era.[2] Meir led her county through the crises of the Munich Olympics and Yom Kippur War.


6. The Kohls


I met Maxwell “Max” Kohl, and his three sons (Herbert “Herb”, Sidney “Sid” and Allen) during my five summers working at Brynwood Country Club. All were very pleasant, if somewhat reserved.


As a youth, Max lived in a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that had mostly been historically Polish.  Although a mere teenage lad and a non-combatant, Max was captured by Russian soldiers during World War I and spent most of the war as a prisoner in Siberia.  After returning home – which had become repatriated to the resurrected nation of Poland – he immigrated to the US in 1921 when he was twenty. [1]


Settling in Milwaukee, Max met and married Mary Hiken, a Russian-Jewish immigrant.  They worked hard and saved enough money to set up a small neighborhood grocery store.  Then another, and another.


By the end of World War II the country was primed for economic explosion on many fronts.  “New” and “big” meant better: from cars, to neighborhoods and houses, to travel.  Max Kohl was ready with an idea he had experimented with in his small stores: the self-serve Supermarket, each with a stand-alone deli, bakery, and even butcher and, eventually, floral departments. The first Kohl’s supermarket opened in Milwaukee in 1946.  By the 1970s some sixty iconic stores, with their arched facade, spread out over Wisconsin – as well as a few in northern Illinois and Indiana.


[One last autobiographical note: I worked in a Kohl’s grocery supermarket in fall-spring 1973-‘74.]

Classic Kohl's Supermarket Facade

Classic Kohl’s Supermarket Facade


In 1962, the Kohl family also began opening a string of general merchandise stores.  By the time I met them, around 1970 or ’71, sons Sid, Allen and Herb were managing the business, Max was in semi-retirement, and the controlling interest in the business was being sold off for many millions of dollars.


Herb and Allen stayed on to manage the business until 1979, when the family became fully financially divested from the Kohl’s label.  In 1985, when the Milwaukee Bucks (Milwaukee’s National Basketball Association franchise) threatened to leave the city, Herb Kohl wrote a check to buy the team.  It turned out to be quite a bargain, at only $18 million.  (He sold the franchise in 2014 for $550 million). Allen stayed with the new Kohl’s company as an executive, helping manage the company’s booming department store expansion from coast to coast to become America’s largest retail store chain, currently with over 1,100 stores in 49 states.


Of more consequence, however: Herb Kohl served as one of Wisconsin’s two senators, representing the state in Washington for four terms. He was elected in 1988, 1994, 2000 and 2006, declining to run in 2012. He’s tied for 2nd with Alexander Wiley at 24 years of senate service; only William Proxmire has served longer in the Senate for Wisconsin.  With nice bookends, Kohl campaigned in 1988 on the theme “Nobody’s senator, but yours”; and announced his retirement saying: “The office doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to the people of Wisconsin, and there is something to be said for not staying in office too long.” [2]


7.  The Binstock/Feingold Family


Around 1900, the Binsock family immigrated to the US from Poland [1] settling in Memphis, TN. The Feingolds arrived from Russia, settling first in New York, later in 1917 in Janesville, Wisconsin.  Their first generation children, Sylvia and Leon, met – like Golda Meir and Morris Meyerson – in Denver, Colorado.  Unlike the Meyersons, they were married there, too, in Denver; my current home metro-area.  Mazel Tov!


Leon and Sylvia relocated to Leon’s boyhood town, in Janesville, about 70 miles southwest of Milwaukee, near Wisconsin’s southern border with Illinois, in the 1940s.  Janesville, as a rich agricultural center, was important enough to Milwaukee that a wood-plank road was built between them in the mid-19th century.[2]


Leon practiced law; Sylvia worked in the township land office.  Four children arrived, including two sons: David and Russell.  David, the oldest, influenced Russell to be interested in politics…which he had some success at.


In 1992, Russell “Russ” Feingold was elected to represent Wisconsin in the US Senate.  He vowed to never take a cent of Political Action Committee money; and he didn’t.  He was re-elected twice, in ’98 and ’04, serving a total of 18 years, before being defeated in 2010 by Ron Johnson. He was a very principled and humble senator, and both he and Wisconsin can take pride in his service. (There are some highlights of his career in the footnotes). [3]




8. Wrapping Up


Even with the great numbers of Jews in places like New York, New Jersey and Florida [1]<, there must be something special about Wisconsin, that melting pot within a melting pot. For it was Wisconsin that became – at the same time as California – the first state to have both senate seats held by Jews.[2]  And it was Milwaukee, Wisconsin that provided the fertile setting for a little immigrant Jewish girl to blossom and eventually become a head of state – the first female head of state of a western nation.





Perhaps, then, it comes as no surprise that Emma Lazarus – the great American poet who penned the lines “Give me your tired, your poor” with which the Statue of Liberty welcomes immigrants – was Jewish, from Sephardic descent.


Gazing back through the decades, I’ve grown to be proud of my childhood hometown.  It is a special place within a special country: where anyone, including immigrants and their descendants can ascend to dizzying heights within one or two generations.  Let’s keep it that way.


Shalom Havarim!


Joe Girard ©  2014




[1] First ten amendments, and amendments thirteen, fourteen and fifteen, to the Constitution of the United States.


[2] From the Sonnet “The New Colossus”, by Emma Lazarus:


“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.


“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”



  1. Milwaukee, 1960s – the Catholics

[1] Boyhood friendships: Friendship 50.  https://sites.google.com/site/girardmeister2/friendship-50


  1. Milwaukee Immigration

[1] Milwaukee’s natural harbor (and other stuff) … http://www.themakingofmilwaukee.com/history/

[2] 38% 1st tongue German speakers in 1900.  Wisconsin German Land and Life; Heike Bungert, Cora Lee Kluge, and Robert C. Ostergren; by Max Kade Institute for German-American Studies, 2006

Several thousand more were from Switzerland, mostly from German speaking Cantons. http://csumc.wisc.edu/mki/Ethnic/ethn-his.html

About 20% of Milwaukeeans were Polish Immigrants or 1st generation Poles in 1900.  www.themakingofmilwaukee.com/people/stories.cfm,
However it is difficult to give accurate numbers, since Poland did not exist as a state from 1795 until 1918. Because of German and Austro-Hungarian dominance, many spoke German well enough to pass as Germans to English speakers.


[3] The Saint Louis Browns moved to Baltimore in 1954, becoming the Orioles and still retaining its American League affiliation.

Curious side note: in 1901 the original American League had a Baltimore franchise named the Orioles.  They moved to New York in 1903, becoming the New York Highlanders, and, eventually, the New York Yankees.


In 1901, the Milwaukee Brewers finished 48-89; a win ratio of only 0.350 – horrible. In the dead ball era, they gave up an average of over 6 runs per game, perhaps doomed by a fielding percentage of only 0.934.



  1. Milwaukee 1960s and 70s – the Jews
  2. The Jews


  1. Goldie Mabovitch

[1] This school is now named “Golda Meir Elementary School”

[2] Indira Gandhi of India and Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Ceylon preceded Meir as democratically chosen female heads of state


  1. The Kohls

[1] Some sources say Maxwell Kohl arrived in the US in 1924, some say 1921.  For instance, his bio in the Milwaukee Journal, when he passed away in 1983.

[2] Odd Herb Kohl note: at college (University of Wisconsin) roomed with boyhood friend, Bud Selig, now the commissioner of Major League Baseball. Selig is also Jewish.



  1. Binstock-Feingold Family

[1] Actually from the Polish speaking region of Galicia — a small kingdom near the junction of Poland, Ukraine, Slovakia and Hungary — with bits of Romanian culture thrown in.  Under Austro-Hungarian rule at the time, it was willfully and administratively economically depressed so as to avoid industrial development, and instead be a breadbasket for the rest of the empire. Most Jews in Galicia were not just Orthodox, they were Hasidic.

Galicia ceased to exist as a political entity of any sort at the end of World War 1.


[2] The entire route of the Janesville-Milwaukee wood-plank road still exists today.  Most of the length is still named “Janesville Road”, shortened from the original name “Janesville Plank Road.”  The diagonal section within Milwaukee County was renamed Forest Home Avenue in 1871. Plank roads went out of style in the 1860s, as railroad became more efficient, reliable and widespread.

[3] Although a loyal Democrat — a friend to hard working families — Feingold held some principled positions that many current Republicans can appreciate (besides not taking PAC money.)

  • He was the only senator to vote against the PATRIOT Act, seeing within it the possibility of an unrestrained police state — perhaps portending the massive invasive spying of the NSA exposed about 10 years later by Edward Snowden.
  • He voted against No Child Left Behind on the principle that local control of schools was much preferable to big central government control.
  • He teamed with Republican John McCain to get the McCain-Feingold Act passed; a gallant and ultimately failed attempt to get much of the dirty money out of politics.
  • Feingold always had the lowest net worth of any senator, returned all his pay raises to the treasury, and left as he came in: humble, of simple means, unapologetic and owing no one anything.



  1. Wrapping Up

[1] Jewish population by state: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/US-Israel/usjewpop.html

— Wisconsin is near the bottom at 0.5%; California near the top at 3.2%

— Top two are: New York, 9%; New Jersey 5.7%

Nationally it is about 2%


— By pure numbers

  1. New York, 1.8Million
  2. California, 1.2Million



[2] Wisconsin is tied with California as the first state to have two Jewish senators.  In January 1993 Barbara Levy Boxer was sworn in as California’s 2nd Jewish senator, joining Diane Goldman Feinstein — who was seated the previous November to complete Pete Wilson’s term — on the same day that Russ Feingold was sworn in.

Later, Connecticut had two Jewish Senators from Jan 2011 to Jan 2013 (Lieberman and Blumenthal; Lieberman retired in Jan 2013; Blumenthal is still in the Senate).