In 1996, President Bill Clinton called Milwaukee “America’s most German-American city,” a distinction that the Wisconsin burg has enjoyed nearly since its founding. Playing host to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, the President’s decision to put Milwaukee high on the list of tour destinations was a no-brainer. It was, in Clinton’s own words, a place where his guest “could get some really great bratwurst…and where he could feel at home.”
In his monumental new book, The Making of Milwaukee, historian John Gurda has compiled a comprehensive history of what he and others have called “The German Athens.” In stressing the utter ubiquity of Milwaukee’s strong European underpinnings, Gurda jokes, “What other American phone book boasts 37 pages of names beginning with ‘Sch-,’ from Schaab down to Schwulst, and including four pages of Schmidts?”
The Making of Milwaukee examines virtually every imaginable facet of the city’s evolution–from early settlement to Great Lakes shipping hub; from agricultural hamlet to industrial metropolis; and from traditional urban center to modern American city. But, within each component, Gurda draws heavily upon social context, telling the stories as often as possible from the perspective of Milwaukee’s people. The study thus becomes an insightful look at German culture in America.
And, of course, beer has historically played an important role in that culture. “The beverage of choice in the German Athens, and one of its key social lubricants, was beer.” It is only proper, therefore, that Gurda peppers his opus with numerous and colorful accounts of Milwaukee’s unrivaled fondness of beer. For example, when the city encountered its first bout with the temperance movement (a mere ordinance designed to curb rowdy behavior in saloons), the measure so inflamed the beer drinkers of Milwaukee that a virtual riot ensued. “A mob of several hundred Germans stormed the home of Sen. John B. Smith, one of the law’s leading supporters, and did considerable damage to his windows and furniture.” Beer was never an issue of compromise for Milwaukeeans.
Then, of course, there were the beer gardens. In the mid- and late-19th century, no city in America was better known for the proliferation and extravagance of its beer gardens than Milwaukee. In some neighborhoods, the drinking spots were “nearly as common as bakeries and butcher shops.” Many were owned by the brewers themselves–Schlitz, Blatz, Miller, and the undisputed leader of the Guilded Age beer barons, Captain Frederick Pabst. Each receives ample attention from Gurda, and the collective successes and failures of their descendant companies are chronicled right up to the present.
The Making of Milwaukee, the first complete history of the city published in more than 50 years, is an automatic landmark volume. Its historic depth and refreshing social context will stand the test of time for generations.