Tag Archives: Milwaukee

“What I Did This Summer”: Drinking Urban History in Wisconsin

By Brian Goldstein and Theresa McCulla

As a family of historians who study the city, we are hardly unusual in the way we travel: we like to experience places new and old through food and drink. Less typical, however, is that one of us gets paid to do this. Theresa, as the historian of the American Brewing History Initiative at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, is building a collection around beer and brewing, especially related to the homebrewing and craft beer movements that began in the 1960s. This means visiting brewers, maltsters, growers, purveyors, and others, all to conduct oral histories and gather objects that can tell their stories. As of mid-2018, the United States had more than 6,500 breweries, so one can do this work in nearly any corner of the country. But this summer we visited Milwaukee and Madison, the two biggest cities in the appropriately (if vaguely) heart-shaped heart of American brewing history, Wisconsin.

We don’t usually go on work trips together, but made this a joint venture (with our willing, if not deeply underage, one-year-old in tow) to also visit family and friends in our onetime home state, and to bask in the unique loveliness of Wisconsin summer nights. Lake Michigan, Lake Mendota, and beer: these are the ingredients for doing June in Wisconsin right. Milwaukee and Madison, our destinations are ideal sites for historians who value city streets as much as long docks, adaptive reuse as much as beautiful sunsets. We have close relatives in Milwaukee, resident there for more than a decade now, and family roots in the badger state that go back to the mid-twentieth century. And we spent a wonderful year in Madison while Brian was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Wisconsin in 2013-14.

What was notable in returning to places we hadn’t been in several years was the extent to which we could see changes in each city — and the coexistent layers of urban transformation — in the beer-glass-shaped lens that we brought to this trip. Brewing history is often urban history; urban history is easily experienced through brewing history. This is as true in Milwaukee as it is in New York, New Orleans, and elsewhere. In each Wisconsin city, we found places that we liked and enjoyed, but that were also interesting for reasons beyond what you can imbibe  (or eat) there. Places of beer production and consumption revealed the old and new superimposed–in going back to Milwaukee and Madison, we found each to be a palimpsest where amid many changes, brewing is a mainstay. Highlighted below are some spots that our fellow urban historians might like to see (drink?) when they find themselves in these two great destinations of the upper Midwest. What better way to learn the urban history of a place than through a cold one, some fried cheese curds, and maybe a donut or two?

Milwaukee

Most striking about Milwaukee is the degree to which a postindustrial city — maybe even the postindustrial city, a place that has never quite gotten back on its feet after the mass shuttering of factories during the last half-century — has nevertheless maintained its identity as a capital of beer. When machinery and equipment manufacturers closed or departed, beer companies like Schlitz and Pabst followed. But they didn’t bring the implosion of Milwaukee brewing, which evolved — if in fewer hands — and then was joined in recent decades by upstarts drawing from local history. For us, the history of Milwaukee old and new, and beer old and new, was best seen in two places that take very different approaches to water, yeast, hops, and grain.

First, and inevitably, is the sprawling campus west of downtown over which a red rounded-rectangular sign offers a familiar name: Miller. For more than 150 years, Miller has been churning out pleasurable, easy drinking experiences on these streets. Whether or not you are a Miller Lite fan, a tour of the factory and a visit to the tasting room are a necessary stop for anyone interested in architectural history, labor history, and the history of technology, or just the curious urban historian who wants to experience a beer factory that is itself the size of a small city (“Miller Valley,” they call it). In seeing buildings born over decades, one might find oneself thinking that these bottling lines have churned on, unaffected by the history around them. But of course, Miller is now actually MillerCoors, owned by the multinational corporation MolsonCoors. With offices in Chicago, enough plants across the U.S. that you need two hands to count them, and markets around the world, this is as much a story of globalization as one of the local history of German immigrants like Frederick Miller. If Miller’s arrival here helped give rise to Milwaukee’s industrial ascent, the plant today is a reminder that cities like this one can function as nodes in a worldwide economy while continuing to struggle with trenchant poverty and severe segregation.

Miller’s archives tell a story more than a century old, of Milwaukeeans and others who looked to “Miller Valley” to find the high life. Photograph by Theresa McCulla.

Amid Miller’s persistence, one major change in the cultural and brewing landscape of Milwaukee, as in many cities, has been a new wave of smaller breweries that have emerged in the last few decades. Very often, these draw from the brewing history of the city; likewise, they sometimes take advantage of the industrial architecture that remains. Some have specifically asked how they might be part of addressing the challenges Milwaukeeans still navigate. One that we visited, Good City Brewing, suggests this interest in its very name. Founder David Dupee (a high school classmate of Brian’s, originally from Cincinnati, Ohio), recalled a past conversation with his wife and friends in which they decided to commit to Milwaukee: to stay, make the city their home, and contribute to their neighborhood. Constructing a brewery in a former bicycle shop, Dupee and his business partners chose the slogan “Seek the Good” and the logo of a key to encourage their customers to imagine that they hold a key to the city and the ability to help those around them. Frequently, Good City staff venture outside the brewery’s walls, participating in a different volunteer activity each month. The brewery also invites the community in; when we visited on a weekday afternoon, the taproom’s bar stools were nearly full. A shelf of board games kept even the youngest visitors entertained.

Good City Brewing, in an old bike shop, imagines a Milwaukee where modern towers, sheaves of barley, hops, and glasses of locally-brewed beer together make up the city’s skyline. Photograph by Theresa McCulla.

The stories of Miller and Good City show how, in different ways and different eras, breweries change the urban fabric around them, whether in employing thousands with steady manufacturing jobs, enabling them to buy homes and plant roots in the city, or in creating a new kind of third place: craft beer’s taproom.

Madison

Though only 90 minutes away, Madison is experiencing a markedly different moment in its history than its bigger sibling to the east. When we left in the summer of 2014, broad East Washington Avenue was already in the midst of a transition from car dealers and brownfields into apartment buildings with high rents and commercial tenants like Google. But four years saw urban development reach a fever pitch here and throughout Madison, where a city that has always balanced between blue-collar jobs and white-collar jobs has tipped more toward the latter. The city’s Oscar Mayer plant closed in 2018 after a century on the east side. State government and the university, long major employers here, have seen startups, social networks, and search engines increasingly fill space both in and around the city: homegrown Epic and ShopBop as well as offices from companies like Microsoft, Zendesk, the aforementioned Google, and Amazon (now ShopBop’s owner).

Serious questions about affordability, equity, and access surround the kind of transition that many mayors envy, and this is no exception in Madison where housing prices have risen markedly as more working-class bungalows find BMWs in their driveways. Yet if it is harder to find a factory-manufactured hotdog in the City of Four Lakes, it is ever easier to find beer, both brewed and served, in spaces old and new, most of which tap into the city’s long history even as they symbolize its more recent transitions.

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In a changing Madison, Memorial Union Terrace has remained a space where students, faculty, staff, residents, and visitors all find a seat in the famous Sunburst chairs, a cold drink, a warm brat, and a stunning view of Lake Mendota. Photographs by Theresa McCulla and Brian Goldstein.

That said, the best place to have a glass or a pitcher in Madison is not new — though newly redone — and is notably democratic. Is there a better public space in the United States than the Memorial Union Terrace at the University of Wisconsin-Madison? We haven’t found one. On the day we visited, alumni, students, and other visitors filled the Terrace’s famous Sunburst chairs as the sun lowered over Lake Mendota. The air smelled like grilled corn and brats, student-made ice cream from the Daily Scoop melted from cones onto sticky knuckles, and multiple taps at the outdoor bars pulled Wisconsin-made beer. UW is a land- grant university whose agricultural heritage is still strongly felt. Undergraduate employees at Bucky’s Butchery, an on-campus operation, craft lamb chorizo and beef jerky from animals raised on UW land. Others turn out cheese in curds and blocks, as well as that famous ice cream, at the school’s Babcock Hall Dairy Plant. Part of the same history, the Terrace has functioned for nearly a century as an urban oasis: a lakefront patio just a two-minute walk from State Street, this Big Ten college town’s main drag. An oral history that Theresa recorded with a Wisconsin Historical Society historian and the student president of the Wisconsin Union captured the ways in which beer — served at the Union since the 1930s — has been central (though not essential, especially for underage undergrads) to the Terrace experience for decades. Here is a place where grain, hops, dairy, meat, and a stunning landscape unite Wisconsin’s rural and urban histories in a uniquely sensory way.

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Once a nanobrewery, One Barrel has graduated to a bigger scale but remains a neighborhood mainstay at the corner of  Winnebago and Atwood. Photograph by Theresa McCulla.

The Union Terrace sits on the west end of Madison’s picturesque isthmus. Drive — or, if you’re a true Madisonian, bike — three miles to its east end to find yourself in a much smaller space that speaks to newer histories of brewing in the Midwest and the United States. One Barrel Brewing Company, formerly an ultra-small batch “nanobrewery,” opened in 2012 under the leadership of UW grad Peter Gentry. Installed in a former grocery — barrel-aging beer now rests in the grocer’s cellar storage rooms — One Barrel caught the wave of explosive growth in craft beer that made Gentry’s business one of hundreds to open that year across the country. Like Milwaukee’s Good City, Madison’s One Barrel shows a firm focus on its surrounding neighborhood and its very local customer base. The brewery opened on a shoestring budget and was a labor of love for Gentry’s friends and family. His father, a woodworker, even built the beautiful, horseshoe-shaped bar that dominates the taproom. These days, local drinkers’ allegiance to this new-ish neighborhood mainstay can be seen in the blue and white mugs of One Barrel’s Mug Club. They stand behind the bar, waiting to be filled with the likes of Commuter Kolsch, Penguin Pale Ale, and 5th Element Rye IPA.

One Barrel was part of a larger retail trend in the Schenk-Atwood-Starkweather-Yahara neighborhood (or just Schenk-Atwood), whose early 20th century streets have embodied the transition from factory workers to knowledge workers. Though you can still find bars that serve those who work the lines in the last of the factories on the city’s Near East Side, more likely you will notice home stores, creative chocolatiers (the wonderful Gail Ambrosius Chocolatier), and a cool coffee shop or two. Similar stories have unfolded elsewhere in Madison, and a trip to One Barrel doesn’t come without reminders (at least for the hungry) of this history of neighborhood change: behind the bar you can find charcuterie from Underground Food Collective, one of the most decorated of the recent chef-driven enterprises that have made this a nationally-recognized food city, as well as pizza from Fraboni’s, an Italian grocer and deli that has stood south of the university since the early 1970s. Fraboni’s is one of the last of the businesses in its neighborhood to remind visitors that the intersection of Park and Regent Streets was once known as Spaghetti Corners (the nearby Italian Workmen’s Club, opened in the 1910s and with still-excellent pizza, is an original vestige of those days).

What happened to Spaghetti Corners is a story very familiar to most any urban historian: this area, known as the “Triangle” or Greenbush, was largely cleared in the city’s campaign of urban renewal in the 1960s. New housing and hospitals, and the ongoing expansion of nearby UW, foreshadowed the Madison that was to emerge in the later 20th and early 21st centuries. But amidst the large modernist constructions of that mid-century era, other traces remain to remind eaters that this was not just a community of Italian Americans (many of whom worked on the construction of the nearby state capitol building) but also African American and Jewish migrants. One of those came later but still advertises Kosher wares with a neon window sign: Greenbush Donuts started in the mid-1990s and keeps the old neighborhood’s name alive. A required stop, its wonderful plain and blueberry old-fashioned donuts are an excellent morning prelude to evening beers (or you could, we suppose, eat them together?).

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Greenbush Bakery looks back to the old neighborhood in its name and in the glowing “Kosher” sign, a reminder of the multiethnic community that stood on these streets pre-urban renewal. Donuts and beer: the perfect combination whether or not you are Homer Simpson. Photograph by Brian Goldstein.

People look back on Greenbush nostalgically now, appreciative of what a multi-ethnic neighborhood of dense streets would have offered; nostalgia for Madison and Wisconsin’s even older past shows up in one of the newest additions to the beer landscape too. Not far from One Barrel and on the banks of Lake Monona, Madisonians have since 2017 been able to find the Olbrich Biergarten in one of the city’s public parks, Olbrich Park. The very name (“garten” not “garden”) is an allusion to the German beermakers who were central to the state’s brewing history; on its taps — serving Karben4, AltBrew, Next Door, One Barrel, and even Good City (among other local breweries) — are the names that have written a new chapter in this history. It seems very fitting that in a public park, in a changing city, one can enjoy a not-too-hot summer evening in a space that joins the 19th century and the 21st. Of course, you don’t have to be an urban historian to enjoy beer and brats in a nice place like this, though we venture to say that a historical perspective allows one to better read the multiple landscapes superimposed on the isthmus.

New Glarus

With brewing history in mind and heart during our June visit to Wisconsin, we had to make one more stop: New Glarus, about 40 minutes southwest of Madison, and particularly the New Glarus Brewing Company, an institution so beloved that while it only — and famously — sells beer in the state of Wisconsin, it is nonetheless the 16th largest craft brewery in the nation. One might ask why a brewery in the middle of rural Wisconsin dairy country surfaces on an urban history blog. Yet the newly built home of Spotted Cow (the brewery’s best-selling beerer) is quite literally the model of a small town, with a little of the Germany that birthed the state’s famous brewers (and some of the brewery’s equipment), more of the Switzerland that was the birthplace of many early residents of New Glarus (the nearby town, itself constructed to look Swiss), and even a re-created Gothic ruin, embracing picnic tables instead of church pews. Architectural consistency aside, the effect is a postmodern stage set in which rural Wisconsinites and hipster bachelor and bachelorette parties all find a little gemütlichkeit. The brewery is famous for good reason and here you can go well beyond Spotted Cow to a broad range of brews, many experiments only found on these “streets.”

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The center of the New Glarus Brewing Company is a city plaza, quaint even on a hot summer day in June. With alpenhorns playing, a cold one in hand, and gentle farmlands beyond, you might soon forget you aren’t in Switzerland. Photograph by Brian Goldstein.

When you are in a fake city plaza in the state’s glacier-free Driftless area, surrounded by beer taps and, yes, even two gentleman playing alpenhorns, it seems best to not ask too many questions about how you got there. Enjoy — moderately — a few tastes, then admire the rolling hills on your way back to the cities that beer helped build–and continues to rebuild. We certainly did.

 

mcculla_tTheresa McCulla is the historian of the American Brewing History Initiative at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Her book-in-progress, Consumable City: Food and Race in New Orleans, shows how the pleasurable sensory experiences associated with New Orleans’s culinary world made food a uniquely powerful tool in the exclusion of people of color.IMG_6127

Brian Goldstein is a historian of the American built environment and an assistant professor at Swarthmore College. He is the author of The Roots of Urban Renaissance: Gentrification and the Struggle Over Harlem.

Digital Summer School: The Encyclopedia of Milwaukee

In our second installment of Digital Summer School, Amanda Seligman, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee historian and co-founder of the online project the Encyclopedia of Milwaukee (EMKE), discusses the challenges, triumphs, and goals of the EMKE.

Twitter handle for EMKE: @MkeEncyclopedia

Why did you establish this digital project and who is your audience?

Urban history encyclopedias have been around for two generations. The first major U.S. project, the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, started with a print edition and transitioned into the digital environment. Smaller Midwestern cities (Indianapolis, Louisville) and the largest cities in the US (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles) followed suit. Some projects were print-only (New York, Los Angeles), some were hybrid (Chicago), and some are born digital (Philadelphia). The two of us who are lead editors on the project (Margo Anderson and Amanda Seligman) both had previous experience with historical encyclopedias—Anderson on the US census and me with Chicago. As scholars, we know how convenient it is to have access to short, focused analyses of specific topics. It can be a big timesaver for researchers—but only if they are confident in the reliability of the encyclopedia. We also knew that Milwaukeeans are passionate about their history and believed that Milwaukee deserved an authoritative, scholarly encyclopedia of its own. We also hope that students and scholars who are researching Milwaukee will turn to the EMKE to support their projects.

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View of the Milwaukee River in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Carol M. Highsmith, August 22, 2016, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

What do you hope people take away from it?

We have three major goals for our readers. First, we want to be a starting point for research on the Milwaukee area. We have worked hard to unlock history from archives and libraries, which non-scholars may find intimidating or not even realize exist. But we don’t want to be an end point; we want to inspire our readers to go deeper. Our entries have “for further reading” suggestions and footnotes to guide readers to new sources. To that end, once we realized how much material has been produced on Milwaukee over the past century and a half, we also published a spin-off print project, a Bibliography of Metropolitan Milwaukee (Marquette University Press, 2014) based on the work of one of the first graduate students who came to work on the project.

Finally, we want our readers to leave the project with a stronger sense of how history is written. We developed what we call the “Underbook,” which readers can access by clicking on the “Explore More” button at the end of some entries. In addition to the footnotes and bonus images, right now the Underbook contains “Understories,” a genre we invented for this project. Understories narrate the process of research, so that readers learn about how historians know what we know. One of my favorites is underneath the “Borchert Field” entry. It was written by a student who went from my history methods class to being an undergraduate and then graduate fact-checker for the project. I like his piece, “How Microfilm and the Internet Get Along: A Demonstration,” so much that I assign it to new groups of history methods students. It helps them see that new information storage technologies do not necessarily undermine old ones. I was also really proud of the first undergraduate who did image research for the project. A few years after leaving us, she turned her Understory—about a mysterious postcard showing what she called “Baby Hammocks”—into her own digital history master’s project at George Mason University. To me, these two pieces illustrate exactly the kind of articulation of research and teaching that universities are meant to produce.

How did the project come to fruition? What obstacles did you have to overcome?

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Wisconsin St., Milwaukee, 1900, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

I’m not sure it has “come to fruition” quite yet. As of this interview in mid-June, we have 334 entries live, 105 entries scheduled for release, 115 entries waiting to be scheduled, and about 150 entries working their ways through our editorial process. We also have a Research Assistant hard at work identifying images to accompany the entries (a process that has completely changed since we first envisioned it, thanks to librarians digitizing their collections). The first phase of the project will feel more finished when we have gotten all those entries out and illustrated, and have cross-referenced all the content, loaded the maps, and made some technical tweaks to our platform (like fending off the increasing number Russian bots who keep registering as if they planned to leave comments for our site).

Obstacles? Even for experienced research-oriented scholars, putting together an enormous encyclopedia as a first digital history project has a lot in common with doing prelim exams and writing a dissertation—every aspect of this project has been a learning process, most of them with steep learning curves. First of all, there is simply a huge amount of new content to think about. But it also has involved coming to terms with work processes that ten years ago we were not only unfamiliar with but did not really know existed. When we started in 2008, I didn’t even know the terms “metadata” or “project management,” words that I throw around every day now. Nor did we have a clear path to raising the $3 million (a goal later lowered to $2 million) that we expected it would cost to build and staff the project. I’m so grateful to all the people and institutions who have shown their confidence in us by investing their time and money in the project.

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The Pabst Mansion, one of Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s most notable landmarks, Carol M. Highsmith, August 28, 2016, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Where do you hope it goes in the future?

We hope that the project gets more deeply institutionalized in Milwaukee. When I talk to donors and public audiences, I tell them that having an urban history encyclopedia for our region is like having an art museum, an opera company, a zoo, or a baseball team (all of which Milwaukee has and of course are covered in the EMKE). We want to the EMKE to be a basic civic institution in the Milwaukee area.

To get to that point, there is a lot more work to do. We need to build our public relationships through in-person networking and social media; to build out our non-text content with more images, digitized primary sources, and static and GIS maps; and we need to solicit and consider a lot more feedback through our public comment capacity. Fortunately, we continue to find excellent students who see doing this work as a worthwhile part of their education.

When did you start to consider yourself a digital historian?

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The tower of City Hall in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Carol M. Highsmith, August 22, 2016, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

I have struggled with a lot of imposter syndrome over accepting the label “digital historian.” One of the first times I asked myself whether I was a digital historian, I ran smack into a suggestion that I couldn’t possibly count unless I knew how to code. Several years into the project, my departmental colleagues and I decided it was unethical to fail to train our students in digital history, and I drew the straw that gave me the chance to teach the graduate seminar (at least until we hired someone I considered a real digital historian onto the faculty). Even when teaching that course, I blogged about it as “The Reluctant Digital Historian.”

But despite my self-doubt, “real” digital historians and Twitterstorians have consistently offered warm welcomes into the club and affirmation that my work matters. The beauty of digital history is that—like history in general and unlike, say, mathematics or language—none of us is born with an intuition about the contents or how to do it. Working on the project gives us a chance to learn a bit more than we already know. Where I have come to at this point is that anyone who uses any kind of digital tool to understand or create historical knowledge is standing under the digital history umbrella. This even includes some of the EMKE authors who aren’t particularly tech savvy. Some struggle with how to make their word processors create hanging indents so that bibliographic entries are properly formatted and some send their entries in by email because they don’t want to bother with the backend system our IT team built to organize our workflow (I have only dealt with one entirely non-digital author, whom I located by phone and who sent in a typescript text). It also includes me. By now I have learned enough code to fix—or at least diagnose—minor problems that crop up, and just this week I am trying to learn how to use WordPress to format our tables. There are so many different kinds of digital history skills and platforms that no one person is going to master them all, just like no one historian can know the history of the whole world in real depth. What makes a project like ours functional is bringing together people with complementary skills, each of us knowing or learning a couple of pieces, so that we can somehow manage to pull the whole thing off. History, and digital history, are collective projects.

amanda-seligman.jpgAmanda Seligman (@AmandaISeligmanis Professor of History and Urban Studies and Chair of the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she has taught since 1999. She holds an AB in Classics from Princeton University and a PhD in History from Northwestern University. She is author or coauthor of four books, most recently of Chicago’s Block Clubs: How Neighbors Shape the City (2016). She is also a co-editor of the Historical Studies of Urban America series published by the University of Chicago Press. 

Featured image (at top): Sign for the Milwaukee Public Market, a popular shopping venue and gathering place in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin neighborhood called the Historic Third Ward, Carol M. Highsmith, August 28, 2016, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.