A beautiful life on the water

August 1, 2013

By Katherine Keller

 Bay View’s Alvin Anderson is one of the last of those hardy souls who made a living fishing the waters of  Lake Michigan. For nearly seven decades, he began his day at 3:30am, chugging out over the water to set his nets or lift his harvest. But those days have slipped away. The once abundant wild fishery has been decimated by lampreys, viruses, and zebra and quagga mussels. With the devastation of the these species came the destruction of a way of life that once characterized many of the communities along the Lake Michigan shore. For decades commercial fishing was a way of life — a way to support a family and to provision a market hungry for the local catch.

Alvin’s wife Sandy and their sons Dan and Steve were vital to the operation of the family business. Both sons actively fished until the altered fishery forced them to dramatically alter their course. Dan Anderson and his family moved to Alaska, where he is still able to support himself as a commercial fisher. Steve Anderson left the vocation and is now employed in a local manufacturing shop.

These are some of the stories you will hear if you sit down and talk to Alvin “Gabby” Anderson. They resulted from an interview with Alvin and Sandy Anderson. Scott Slick, also a commercial fisher and friend of the Andersons, was an interview participant.  It is the first of an occasional series we plan to publish that will chronicle the stories told by Bay View’s elders.

Alvin Anderson spent a lifetime plying the waters of Lake Michigan and Lake Superior fishing for trout, chub, whitefish, and perch. —photo Katherine Keller

Alvin Anderson spent a lifetime plying the waters of Lake Michigan and Lake Superior fishing for trout, chub, whitefish, and perch. —photo Katherine Keller


Bay View resident Alvin “Gabby” Anderson was born in 1933. His mother Anna Carlson Anderson was Swedish and his father, Oscar Anderson, was Norwegian. Oscar owned a parcel of land between Ellison Bay and Gills Rock in Door County. He worked a number of jobs to make ends meet. He sailed the Great Lakes, kept the boilers burning in a cherry factory in Sturgeon Bay, and he worked with rock crushers, part of road-building crews. The family kept a cow and an orchard of about 200 cherry trees. He helped his family earn a living during the Depression by picking cherries in Door County. If you want to get Anderson’s dander up, ask him about cherries.

Have you ever picked cherries? So you haven’t picked cherries? You haven’t went to prison then!

“When you were little back then, you had to help the family. If you made a dime, 50 cents, that went into the family. You know, we were so poor, you know. I mean, it was all the same them years because everybody was poor, you know?

“I had a little rotten pair of tennis shoes, and one of them had hole in it. Okay, you’re walking through the orchard early in the morning when there was a lot of dew around and the tennis shoe filled up with sand and you were walking in that. The tennis shoes got wet from the dew and you were walking in that all the time, all day.

“And then, when the owner would assign you to a tree and you would hadda pick that tree clean, every cherry. Up on the ladder, yah. Walking around the tree wasn’t bad because you could pick them off but after that you had to go up to the ladder. You got so high up. There was a branch and all of a sudden, you reached up and your head was hit a cherry bunch. The juice would run down your head.

“And then you’re gonna sit down on top of the ladder and the branch got on seat before you did, and you sat down, and ooh! Real fun! Nice! You gotta be that way all day. Sticky!

“I think, if I got ten pails a day, I was lucky. If I come back with just a level pail, they’d take me back to fill it up. They wanted a heap on that pail. I love cherries, but them suckers, oh, they got the best of me!”


In 1941, Anderson began his six-and-a-half decade career, working on a commercial boat catching whitefish and trout.

“When I was eight years old, right before cherry season in Door County, way up in Ellison Bay, a fishermen, Clarence Lind, he come down to the house one evening and asked if I wanted to help him. I was small, real short. Well, I jumped at the chance because I knew cherry season was coming right around the corner. I never asked how much I was going to get. I was so happy because those cherry trees…no way!

“I worked six days a week about, about 11 — 10 to 12 hours a day, and I walked just about three miles to work and I was never late. I always had to be there by six, or before, in the morning.

“I helped pick the fish (out of the nets), put the nets in the box, and helped them set back (in the water).

“The trout had teeth and you had to be careful and you didn’t dare want to bust the nets either. They was all cotton in them years and they was so fragile that you looked at them and they were practically bust.

“And on the way home, most of the time, Lind dressed the fish, and I steered the boat home.”

Anderson took to fishing from the get-go, even though he got seasick the first two summers out on the water.

“I absolutely loved it. Loved it. I used to get seasick though. Oh, man, oh, terrible! Boy, if the boat rocked a little bit too much… But soon as I hit the dock, stepped a foot on the dock, I was fine.

“I got five dollars a week. To me that was big money. You know, in the 30s. And I worked the next summer when I was nine for him for the same price. I wasn’t happy with the same wage…I remember that.”

Ten-year-old entrepreneur

“When I was 10, I had another couple guys up there. They had some nets and I made a deal with these couple of guys that had these nets (that) if I could borrow them I’d give them half of what I caught. And then I told Clarence, ‘I’ll work for the same but I want to fish these two nets. (He agreed to the terms.) Well, that worked out fine. Oh, yah. I was thinking you know, hey! Hey, you have to use your head once in a while.

“And then, when I was 11, I think the nets went to heck because they were bad in the first place. They were all cotton, you know. So Clarence wouldn’t raise my wages, no. So I quit. I quit Clarence.

“All of a sudden that evening, Howard Weborg must have heard I quit Clarence. All of a sudden he come driving into our yard by our home in this pickup truck and he asked me if I wanted to work for him. Well, it was getting close to cherry time again, I remember that! So I jumped on the chance, oh, yah!

“And I didn’t have to walk to work. Howard picked me up every morning. What a relief that was.

“Well, I never asked Howard what I was going to get, you know, whatever he was willing to pay me. I’ll never forget that, never! Never ever! The first whole week, on the way home was on a Saturday afternoon, Howard handed me the check. I still can’t believe it. I should have never cashed it. I should have framed it. I should have. I looked at the check—$54! Nine dollars a day. Wow! I thought I was the first millionaire to ever hit Door County.

“Course, I don’t want to brag but I was fast. I was fast. I don’t care, I could dress, out-dress them guys, like chubs and that, I could out dress them two to one. String nets, I was faster than them. I knew everything, you know. I could mend nets, whatever. Whatever they needed me to do, nobody had to stand over my shoulder. I could do the same thing as a regular man. I knew how to do everything and I was probably faster than another man that they would have hired. I could do everything.

“Howard and them, they had orders, they’d ship them, most of them went to Chicago. Them years they put them in wood boxes, a 100 pounds in a box. Ice on the bottom; ice on top. They were shipped by truck. See, my uncle way back then, he owned a trucking a company up in Door County. Charlie Anderson. He was my favorite uncle. Oh, yeah. He was great.”

1945 school photo Alvin Anderson

When Alvin Anderson looked at his 1945 class photo, he joked, “I should have been in Hollywood instead of going to fishing!” He is the boy on the far right in the second row from the top. Lief Weborg is second from the left in the third row from the top. Four decades later Weborg and his two crew members, Scott Matta and Warren Olson, perished December 11, 1998, when his commercial fishing tug, the 42-foot Linda E, was struck by a 452-foot integrated tug and barge. The Linda E sank off the shores of Port Washington, Wis.

“Newport School. That was Newport ‘College!’ You learned more in them eight grades there than people going four years to college today. College today is all sports. What the hell are you going to do with sports? You know? We went to learn! Anyway, when I was in eighth grade, my teacher, there was six or seven of us in the class, that’s all there was, you know? The teacher called me, called each one of us up to his desk and he asked each person individually, what we wanted to be, or do in our life. Well, I had no question. I said I want to be a commercial fisherman. He looked at me, he said, ‘Good luck.’ And I never changed my mind. No. And then, we bought our first boat.”

An old photo of Anderson’s boat Aloha chugging back to shore through the ice at the Algoma, Wis. pier. —courtesy Alvin and Sandy Anderson

An old photo of Anderson’s boat Aloha chugging back to shore through the ice at the Algoma, Wis. pier.
—courtesy Alvin and Sandy Anderson

“There was four of us brothers in company. AB Fisheries. Anderson Brothers. But I worked for Harvey Olson for a while, from Ellison Bay. And, actually I worked for him until we bought the second boat.”

Fish stories

“Oh, that one sturgeon—this was way back, in 1947, when we were fishing out of Sturgeon Bay, that time with the old Pelican,” Alvin said. (Laughs). “We were lifting down off of Snake Island, my brother was by the wheel. All of a sudden, he looked out over the rail, and he thought it was a great big log coming up. I tried the lifter and all of a sudden that log started to move. Oh, my god. That doggone thing had to be nine feet long. I’m telling you, that was incredible. I don’t know, I wouldn’t even now how much it would weigh. Oh, cripes, three, four hundred pounds, at least.

“We didn’t get it. It made a couple big splashes, and it ripped itself right out of the net and went. Well, man it was a big, big thing, man. A couple of swats the tail and he was, zoom, gone. Oh, he was big.”

Anderson said the sturgeon was the biggest fish he saw in the Great Lakes, though he saw bigger fish — halibut, in Alaska. But he saw another spectacular fish in Lake Michigan.

“I could still take you within 500 feet of where I saw that fish in the bay. Green Bay. Off of Ellison Bay, right west of Ellison Bay. That was in ’70 — about ’75, I think.

“I’ve seen a lot of 18-, 20-pound whitefish. You know? Back then, a normal whitefish was four or five pounds. That thing…when I seen that, coming up, I looked out and the first thing that entered my mind was, ‘That’s mine. That is mine.’ I could just picture him on my wall, you know, mounted. That’s the first thing that come to mind. That’s mine!

“I had a great big dip net. He come out of the water. I couldn’t get him in the dip net. He would not fit in that net. He had to go 30 pounds, I would say. I don’t know. I never got him but he was three-feet, plus. I never saw a whitefish that big in my life. Never. You know, and I was so angry at myself because he was going to be on my wall. He wouldn’t fit in the net; he was that big! He got away! You know, something big like that, he busted out of there. Never got him back, I’ll tell you.

“Another time fishing out of Algoma something came up in the net. I didn’t know what the heck it was, except I knew it was some kind of a weapon. It was about that long, about that big around (three feet long and six inches in diameter). Oh, it scared me. I didn’t know if it was live or what it was. I didn’t have a clue. But I put it in the truck and I brung it over to the police station.

“And here I come walking in to the police station with that damn big…well, all the cops, when saw me, they tore off running out the back door. (Laughter.) But I mean, I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t have a clue! Later I found out that they were them dummies (unarmed missiles) that they were firing for practice. I think the Navy was doing that all up and down the Lake Michigan shore.”

Alvin and Sandy Anderson partners in life and in their family’s fishing business.  —photo Katherine Keller

Alvin and Sandy Anderson partners in life and in their family’s fishing business.
—photo Katherine Keller

A different catch

Alvin joined the Army, serving in the Korean War from 1951 to 1953. Stationed near Tokyo and Yokohama, Japan, he was part of the amphibious corps, where he skippered a Landing Ship Tank (LST) landing craft that carried tanks in its cargo hold. Prior to his military service and again after he returned to civilian life, Alvin and his brother Floyd lived in Port Wing, Wis. and fished Lake Superior. In 1956 Alvin moved to Algoma, where his brothers Clarence and Clyde has established a fishery. The following year he met Sandy Dier, an Algoma native. Her father, Raymond Dier, was German and Bohemian and her mother, Laverne Corbisier was French Canadian and Native American. Sandy said she liked Alvin right away.

“It was the parade in Algoma, “ Sandy Anderson said. “You were in your fancy car with all these college girls and you seen me. And then you pointed me out to Regina and Regina introduced us. He was 22 and I was 16.”

“Oh…yeah,” Alvin said. “I never regretted. Almost 56 years.”

“And we were married when I was 16,” Sandy said. “We met in March of ’57 and we were married in August of ‘57.” (She turned 17 the following month.)

“We got married on her mother and dad’s anniversary,” Alvin said. “Thirty-first of August.”

“I told my mom, either you let us get married or I’ll have to get married,” laughed Sandy. “He proposed to me on the second date.” (She accepted.)

“When you know you got the right one, you better put the hook in,” Alvin said, with a twinkle.

Unbundled new net meshes

New meshes, still in their original bundles. —photo Katherine Keller

Sandy Anderson was a whiz working the needle to sew the nets to the lines that supported the floats, leads, and meshes (netting).

Sandy Anderson was a whiz working the needle to sew the nets to the lines that supported the floats, leads, and meshes (netting). —photo Katherine Keller

These trapezoidal net boxes, (lower right) are marked “A B” for Anderson Brothers, the name of Alvin and his brothers’ first fishing company.  —photo Katherine Keller

These trapezoidal net boxes are marked “A B” for Anderson Brothers, the name of Alvin and his brothers’ first fishing company. —photo Katherine Keller

Family business

Not long after they were married, Sandy began working with Alvin. She learned to mend and string gill nets. Floats are attached to the top lines and leads are attached to the bottom lines. The floats and leads keep the net vertical in the water. Fish swim into a gill net and get caught in the meshes—the net. When the nets are hauled up into the boat with a mechanical “lifter,” the crew picks the fish from the nets. The nets are folded and stored in net boxes until they’re set out again.

“Sewing nets started out when we first got married,” Sandy said. “And soon after that, I was pregnant with Dan and I wanted to be with the husband, you know. “So he was making new nets and I was [threading] needles for him.”

“We were making new nets. We bought the meshes and then you’d sew them on to the lines. That’s what we did,” Alvin said.

“All of a sudden he said, ‘Well, you’re good at crocheting and embroidery — needlework. I want you to learn how do to this.’

“And I said, ‘Oh, okay,’ you know, to please him. I can tell you after a week, I was faster than he was,” Sandy said.

“She never made a mistake. And the best part, she never made a mistake. Never made a mistake and that was very critical,” Alvin said. “If you made a mistake, it was wrong all the way through…”

“And then it doesn’t fish right,” Scott Slick explained.

Scott Slick demonstrates how a net box serves as comfy quarters to rest or sleep. He slept in boxes like these on board fishing boats. Sandy and Alvin Anderson tucked their infant son Dan among pillows and blankets when Sandy was sometimes called on help crew the boat.                       —photo Katherine Keller

Scott Slick demonstrates how a net box serves as comfy quarters to rest or sleep. He slept in boxes like these on board fishing boats. Sandy and Alvin Anderson tucked their infant son Dan among pillows and blankets when Sandy was sometimes called on help crew the boat. —photo Katherine Keller

Baby on board

Alvin and Sandy Anderson have two sons, Dan and Steve. When they were first married, Sandy helped out on the boat, in addition to sewing and mending nets. Not long after their firstborn Dan joined the family, he joined the crew. Alvin hired a crew member but needed a third. Dan was three-months-old the first time he was out on the water with his mother and father.

Anderson was given a model of his boat the D & S. The boat’s initials stand for his sons’ first names, Dan and Steve. —photo Katherine Keller

Anderson was given a model of his boat the D & S. The boat’s initials stand for his sons’ first names, Dan and Steve. —photo Katherine Keller

“We used to fish mid-lake, 40-45 miles out. It would take four hours or plus to get there. I think we used to leave the dock around 4 in the morning, 3:30 or 4 in the morning. It was eight hours, at least eight hours running time. When we were catching chubs. They were right on the bottom — 28, 30 to 30 fathoms. (A fathom is six feet.)

“I was his crew, you know. Alvin had one crew member, but he wanted three in the boat, so, I was one of the crew. And then when one of the guys got sick, then I crewed after Dan was born,” Sandy said. “We used to take a fish box, I had a good one at that time, and I had pillows and a blanket in there so it was nice and soft. I put the baby in there and made sure he was fed and changed before we got to the nets.”

“The boat rocked. What better kind of cradle could you get?” Alvin said.

B:W shot of olden days shacks

Looking west from the Becher Street bridge at Alvin Anderson’s fishing sheds and boat. Date unknown.
—photo courtesy Scott Slick

Boats & Shacks SCOTT SLICK

Fishing boats moored next to Alvin Anderson’s sheds on the Kinnickinnic River when his fishing business was still operating. —photo Scott Slick

Shacks on KK when active SCOTT SLICK

Alvin Anderson’s dockside fishing operation when it was still active, when there were was still a commercial fishery in Lake Michigan. Date unknown. —courtesy Scott Slick

“There was a couple reasons we moved down here,” Alvin said. “The fish seemed to be getting less up there and it was getting harder to transport your product to the market. There was so many more fish down here.

“Down here I made a deal with a big fish company in Chicago (Joe’s Fisheries, 1438 W. Cortland St.) They came and picked up the fish and everyday. We got along perfectly. Never no problems. If they quoted you a price, that’s what you got paid.

“Way back when we first moved down here, we caught three, four thousand pounds a day.” Alvin said. “Chubs were big back then. So they were probably two fish to a pound. The biggest lift I had was 4,900. I think we got around 25 cents a pound. But then when the fishing got a little scarce, man, then at the end we were getting a buck a pound, or a buck and a quarter, you know.”

“A thousand pounds a day, that’s a thousand bucks,” Sandy said.



This old style wooden fish box and and the newer plastic versions were packed with ice and fish to take the harvest to market. — photo Katherine Keller

This old style wooden fish box and and the newer plastic versions were packed with ice and fish to take the harvest to market. — photo Katherine Keller

When the boys were in school, Sandy began to take the fish to market.

“When Dan was in high school (Boys Trade and Technical High School) and Steve was still at Fritsche (Middle School), I used to haul fish to Chicago. I’d leave about 3:30 in the morning and I’d drive to Chicago, unload the fish, and then I would come back home and get the boys up, and off to school,” Sandy said.

“It was a pickup truck. We put built a wooden box so we could haul a lot more fish. One year, (about 1980 or so) I got caught up in, in the trucker’s strike. I used to go to Russell Road to the truck stop and I used to go there to fuel up sometimes I got caught there with the truckers. But I had two dogs with me and when the truckers would come to the window, I’d roll the window down, they’d see the dogs and they’d back off I drove in and out of the pumps and away I went! I prevailed.”

Alvin Anderson’s fishing sheds along the Kinnickinnic River, east of Second Street, are dormant now, a vestige of a vocation that disappeared from Lake Michigan with the trout, whitefish, chub, and perch, earlier this decade.            —photo Katheirne Keller

Alvin Anderson’s fishing sheds along the Kinnickinnic River, east of Second Street, are dormant now, a vestige of a vocation that disappeared from Lake Michigan with the trout, whitefish, chub, and perch, earlier this decade. —photo Katheirne Keller

Decimated fishery

“Something that I never ever thought I’d see is that the chubs would disappear. That, and all the invasive species. They come in through the ocean ships. They put all that garbage in our lake and now we got nothing, lamented Alvin.

“Perch was always, most species, always were a cycle. Up and down, up and down, but then when all these zebra mussels came in, took the food away. And they clarify the water and there’s no food. They’re worthless. And four or five years ago or so they had that virus in the water here. See, a chub is a very delicate fish and it don’t take much to do them in. I still think probably that virus that was in the water. I’m just curious if that didn’t do the chubs in.”

The good life

Anderson reflected on his 65-year career on the water.

“You’re free. You’ve got beautiful fresh air. It’s a way of life. It’s a good life, but you gotta like it,” he said. “It’s a wonderful life. I would not trade or change my life for anything. Never. I never got put in a shop. I never punched a clock. Ha! Sure, the hours were long but I never minded it. Hey, it was a way of life!”

At the end of the interview we asked Mr. Anderson if he ever considered operating a charger fishing business after his injury and developing arthritis?

“Noooo!” he said. (Laughter) Now you just swore at me!”

Wire rim spectacles hang over a bathymetric (depth) chart of Middle Lake Michigan on the wall of Alvin Anderson’s net shed. —photo Katherine Keller

Wire rim spectacles hang over a bathymetric (depth) chart of Middle Lake Michigan on the wall of Alvin Anderson’s net shed. —photo Katherine Keller


HISTORIC BAY VIEW — Frolicking in Bay View

March 1, 2013

By Ron Winkler

Nearly seven decades of festivals and fireworks

The 1949 evening gown contest.  — courtesy Ron Winkler

The 1949 evening gown contest. — courtesy Ron Winkler

Former Milwaukee Mayor Henry Maier referred to it as “the granddaddy of all city festivals.” No, he was not talking about Summerfest. He was referring to the South Shore Water Frolic, held for the first time in 1949 and every year since, with the exception of 1993. Summerfest debuted in 1968 and the ethnic festivals followed, all modeled on the success of the Frolic, especially with its lakefront location.

The South Shore Water Frolic evolved from an older festival, the South Shore Yacht Club’s old Hi-Jinks, a product of the 1930s. Hi-Jinks featured boat races, water stunts, swimming exhibitions, a beauty pageant, talent show, and doll parade. Sunday evening brought Venetian night, with decorated boats displaying strings of lanterns on their riggings. Fireworks marked the festival’s close.

Hi-Jinks was discontinued during World War II, but was resurrected by the Interorganization Council, comprised of a dozen civic, service, and fraternal organizations. The new event, named the South Shore Water Frolic, retained the same activities as the former Hi-Jinks, and was held for the first time in August 1949.

As the South Shore Yacht Club grew in size and expanded its mooring facilities, the Frolic’s water activities were discontinued and new events were staged on dry land. The parade was added and the beauty pageant became popular. Contestants were identified by the business names of their sponsors, displayed on their sashes Some may remember titles, sometimes approaching the ironic or mirthful, such as Miss BiltRite Furniture (1980), Miss Rich’s Auto Body (1987), and Miss Rudy’s Big Beer Bar (1977).

In its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, the Frolic attracted around 200,000 people. The spectacular fireworks that closed each day are still the most popular event.

Lake Training Band in the 1961 parade at Kinnickinnic and Dover. The house and gas station were replaced in 1993 by the Bay View Library.  — courtesy Ron Winkler

Lake Training Band in the 1961 parade at Kinnickinnic and Dover. The house and gas station were replaced in 1993 by the Bay View Library. — courtesy Ron Winkler

The Frolic has had good luck with weather and has never been completely rained out, although rain has occasionally put a damper on part of the weekend’s festivities. The biggest problem faced by the Frolic is money, the majority being spent for insurance and fireworks. The Frolic almost scuttled in 1986 and 1990, but by 1993 the financial crisis forced its cancellation. Another problem that year was the lack of volunteers; although there were plenty of people willing to help, the bylaws of the Interorganization Council required volunteers to belong to a group within the council.

The event was back in 1994—the Bay View Lions Club, one of the Interorganization Council members, took charge, with assistance from the South Milwaukee, St. Francis, and Oak Creek Lions. There was a change in the bylaws that allowed nonmembers to work at the event and it was renamed the South Shore Frolics. The beauty pageant was dropped, the festival expanded to Friday evening with a fish boil, music, and a movie on the beach for children. A few years later, a mini-fireworks display was added on Friday night. Since that time, in a continuing effort to make the Frolics a family event, other activities have been added such as a classic car show, kiddy carnival, food vendors, and an arts and crafts show.

In the past, even when the festival competed against the Great Circus Parade, Bastille Days, and the Greater Milwaukee Open—sometimes all on the same weekend—it still held its own and today attracts about 50,000-70,000 people. That is quite an accomplishment, considering that volunteers do everything, and with funding coming from area businesses. Bay Viewers can be proud to have Milwaukee’s original festival, which in 1954 inspired former Milwaukee Mayor Frank Zeidler to remark, “New Orleans has its Mardi Gras and St. Paul its Winter Carnival. Here in Milwaukee we can take pride in our city’s largest outdoor event, the South Shore Water Frolic.”

Sprucing up local icon—will you help?

August 1, 2012

—photo Katherine Keller

The Bay View Historical Society is seeking volunteers to donate a few hours of time at the Beulah Brinton House, 2590 S. Superior St., Saturday, Sept. 8.

Volunteers are needed to help with yard work, small repair jobs, window washing, and paint touch-up. Work begins at 10am. Sign up for the task you wish to help with when you arrive.

The Beulah Brinton House is owned by the Bay View Historical Society. It is the former home of Beulah Brinton (1836-1928), who welcomed immigrant families into her home in the late 19th century and early 20th century. She shared her library with them, taught them skills such as reading, cooking, and sewing and helped them to assimilate.

The historic home, built in 1872, serves as the society’s headquarters and houses its archives. The house is also used for educational and social activities that honor the legacy of Beulah Brinton.

For more info about the Sept. 8 work project: call Donna:
(414) 324-5690 or dpogliano@vzw.blackberry.net

Milwaukee sculptor Wiken, new book

July 2, 2012

Bay View writer Anna Passante has published Dick Wiken, Milwaukee Architectural Sculptor. Wiken graduated from Bay View High School in 1931. Self-taught, he was an established, well known architectural sculptor by the 1950s, respected for his work in wood, stone, and metal. Many examples of his work survive in the Milwaukee area, in Fond du Lac, Marshfield, and in Guaymas, Mexico.

To purchase the book or for more information: (414) 482-1781 or passante.anna@yahoo.com.

Ambrose F. Ferri survived Pearl Harbor, grew up in Bay View

December 30, 2011

By Anna Passante

Ferri in 2008 conducting a Two-Bell Ceremony Memorial Tribute for the seven Chicago Sailors and Marines who sacrificed their lives aboard the battleship USS Arizona. ~U.S. Navy photo by Scott A. Thornbloom

Ambrose F. Ferri of Waukegan, Ill. died this past October of heart failure at the age of 92. He was a survivor of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, while serving on the USS Vestal. Ferri grew up in Bay View. In a phone interview this past summer, Ferri recounted his memories, including exploits of mischief perpetrated by him and his buddies.

Born Oct. 29, 1918, in Rockford, Ill., when Ferri was 4 his family moved to Bay View’s Little Italy. He attended Dover Street School and Trowbridge School and played at the former Wentworth Street Playground (2500 block) and the Pryor Street Playground (now Lewis Field). He graduated from Bay View High School.

To go for a dip in the lake, young Ferri and friends descended the stairs at the foot of E. Russell Avenue and swam off the piers in their birthday suits. Katie Canning, a former Bay View resident, remembers standing with her friends on the hill, spying on the boys swimming naked. Miss Elizabeth Morgan, a Trowbridge School teacher known as “straight-laced,” lived on the hill and chased the girls away. One time, Ferri recalled, a patrol officer caught the boys climbing the stairs. With bodies dripping wet, they denied the charge of unlawful swimming. Luckily, Ferri recalled, they got off with a warning.

Spending money was tight in the Depression years of the 1930s, but a paper route earned Ferri a few dollars. He also sold the Milwaukee Sentinel in front of the drugstore at the southwest corner of S. Delaware and E. Pryor avenues, whose name he did not recall. Business was good, since it was a streetcar stop.

Ferri also made money by going door-to-door on Saturday evenings to collect weekly dollar streetcar passes. Though they may have been used for the entire work week, the passes didn’t expire until midnight on Saturday. Hence, the teenage Ferri realized they had value to those slightly elder “young fellas,” who used the streetcar to pick up their Saturday night dates. Ferri, the young entrepreneur, resold them the passes for 10 cents each.

Ferri recalled that some earnings were spent at the Lake and Avalon movie theaters. The show began with a newsreel, then “funnies,” and finally the main movie. At the conclusion the ushers escorted everyone out of the theater before ushering in the next group of moviegoers. Ferri and friends would hide at the rear of the theater to see the films a second time.

Another bit of mischief was to get a free ride on the streetcar. Some of the boys entered through the front, paid their fare, and then ran to the back door to let their friends on. Sometimes they got caught.

Bust of Ferri by Dick Wiken. ~photo courtesy Jori Wiken Flanner

A bit of the mischievous may be glimpsed in the likeness of Ferri sculpted by a former Bay View High School student, Dick Wiken, who assisted the art teacher after he graduated. Ferri sat as Wiken’s model in a high school art class. At the time Ferri was 15. Entitled Little Italy, the sculpture was exhibited at the 1933 Wisconsin Painters and Sculptors exhibition and the 1935 Bay View Art Exhibit. Wiken became a well-known architectural sculptor. The whereabouts of the sculptured head is unknown.

At age 20 Ferri joined the U.S. Navy and in 1941 was serving as a third-class petty officer on the USS Vestal, a repair ship attached to the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor. Ferri was on the Vestal during the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. The Vestal sustained some damage during the attack but did not sink. Seven crewmembers were killed.

After his discharge from service, Ferri married Ruby Nasett and bought a house on S. Superior Street near Potter Avenue in Bay View. In 1953, Ferri was called back to service for the Korean War and remained in the Navy until his retirement in 1966. He was residing in Waukegan, Ill. at the time of his death.

St. Amelian’s orphanage survived three fires between 1855 and 1989

December 1, 2011

By Anna Passante


A drawing of the original 1854 orphanage. — Image courtesy St. Francis of Assisi Convent

Three fires ravaged St. Aemilian’s Orphanage, but after each fire the orphanage rose from the ashes like the mythical phoenix and was reborn. Surprisingly no one was injured or killed in any of the three fires. The Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, who ran the orphanage, probably attributed the lack of injuries or fatalities to the orphanage’s namesake, St. Aemilian, the protector of orphans.

The second building prior to the 1895 fire. — photo courtesy St. Francis of Assisi Convent

The first fire took place in the spring of 1855, a year after St. Aemilian’s had moved from downtown Milwaukee (E. Wells and N. Van Buren streets) to the grounds of the newly built St. Francis Seminary on present-day S. Lake Drive. (At the time the site was in the Town of Lake, but in 1951 was incorporated as the city of St. Francis.) A carpenter started this fire while heating glue. It was devastating. Only a few walls remained, with a damage estimate of $2,000.

The burned-out buildings after the 1895 fire. — photo courtesy New Assisi Archives, Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi

The second fire happened 40 years later, starting in the printing office on Dec. 11, 1895. Foreman Joseph Leutcher and several of the orphan boys were finishing up a printing job, and around 6pm one of the boys tipped over a kerosene lamp. Town of Lake fire engines No. 7 and No. 12 responded to the blaze, as well as two engines from Bay View. By 8pm, nearly the entire population of St. Francis and several hundred people from Milwaukee were at the fire scene.

Students and priests set up a bucket brigade. Staff, students, and volunteers threw bedding, bedsteads, dressers, and clothing out the windows. Bystanders, often hindered by deep snow, carried the articles to safety. Water from the orphanage’s artesian well was used up in the first hour, so the firefighters connected their hoses to the well at the nearby St. Francis Seminary. Fanned by high winds, the fire threatened the seminary and convent buildings as well as the nearby village. Luckily, the wind shifted, sparing these buildings. By 2:30am the fire was out. The main building, the chapel, and the print office building were totaling destroyed. All that remained was the 1894 addition.

Damage totaled $60,000, insurance covering $53,000. All of the 26 staff and the 224 resident boys escaped unharmed.

Rebuilding started immediately. A new main building and chapel were connected to the surviving building and dedicated on June 28, 1896. The cost was $40,000.

The third building prior to the 1930 fire. — photo courtesy St. Francis of Assisi Convent

The burned-out buildings after the 1930 fire. — photo courtesy New Assisi Archives, Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi

The third fire at the rebuilt complex happened on May 22, 1930. At 1am three men and a woman were driving down S. Lake Drive past the orphanage when they saw a fire on the south end of the complex. They threw bricks at the windows to get the attention of the sleeping residents, luckily targeting staff bedrooms. The nuns took charge of the 190 boys but “found that escape from the orphanage was cut off in several directions,” according to the Wisconsin State Journal. Still, within 10 minutes the nuns directed them to the fire escapes and safety. Father Joseph Baier was called a hero, because he felt every bed in the dormitories to make sure no boy was left behind.

Flames shot 100 feet into the air and were seen several miles away. The fire, fanned by high winds, was already out of control by the time firemen from Town of Lake and Milwaukee responded. All the buildings were destroyed—the chapel, the dormitories, and the school rooms. Again, there were no injuries or deaths. Damage was set at $350,000. According to news accounts, fire investigators determined that the fire was of an incendiary nature, but the cause was never officially determined.

Conditions were crowded after the 1930 fire. After the 1930 fire, some of the boys were housed at the convent. — photo courtesy New Assisi Archives, Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi


Beds line the seminary gym to accommodate boys after the 1930 fire. — photo courtesy New Assisi Archives, Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi

The younger children were fed at St. Francis Convent, and sleeping quarters were set up for the orphans in the seminary gymnasium. Shortly after, the orphans were moved to a former Lutheran Seminary building owned by the Milwaukee Catholic Archdiocese at 60th and Lloyd streets in Milwaukee and later to a summer camp, Camp Villa Jerome, at Friess Lake. Land for a new orphanage was purchased in 1937 at 89th and West Capitol Drive in Milwaukee, but it took nearly 20 years for a new building.

In 1989 St. Aemilian merged with Lakeside Children’s Center and is now called St. Aemilian-Lakeside. Presently the center provides foster care, education, and mental health services to children, families, and adults.

Nothing remains of the old St. Francis orphanage except for two old pillars along the St. Francis Seminary driveway that stand sentry at the old entrance to the asylum.

Row houses at 2553-65 S. Logan Ave.

November 1, 2011

By Anna Passante

A 2011 view of the row houses, originally built in 1894. ~photo Katherine Keller

Row houses, a group of connected townhouses, were popular in Chicago and New York City in the 1890s, but the trend never caught on in Milwaukee. One of the few examples in Milwaukee, however, is found in Bay View at 2553-65 S. Logan Ave.

Built in 1894, each of the five units has about 1,500 square feet of living space. Local contractor Anton Stollenwerk designed and built them at a cost of $6,000. He owned the property until 1902, when he lost it due to bankruptcy.

A wooden roller skating rink once occupied the site and was razed to make way for the houses. In 1902 a group of investors bought the row houses, and in 1921 Spanish-American War veteran Herman Taubenheim and his wife Anna bought them and lived in the unit addressed 2559 until about 1941. According to the present owner, Betty Ruehl, Taubenheim’s unit was the fanciest of the four, with ornate woodwork and decorative doorknobs.

Each unit is identical in floor plan, Ruehl said, with a living room, dining room, a wood-carved open stairway—plus a maid’s room on the first floor. The second floor has three bedrooms. The master suite stretches across the front of the unit and includes a small separate sitting room. Ruehl has owned the row houses since 1977.

Masonic Lake Lodge #189

November 1, 2011

By Anna Passante

This gray three-story building at 2234-38 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. today owned today by Ada Duffey once hosted the Lake Lodge in the late 1800s. ~photo Michael Timm

Fraternal organizations were plentiful in Bay View during the late 1800s. The first to organize in Bay View were the Freemasons, followed by the Odd Fellows, Good Templars, and many others. The main attraction of these men-only clubs was the opportunity to engage in social and recreational activities.

The roots of Freemasonry extend back to the medieval stonemasons who built the great cathedrals of Europe. In order to protect their trade secrets, these men formed a primitive trade union consisting of groups they called lodges. Later, those outside of the stone trade were allowed to join.

In 1843 the first Freemason lodge was established in Milwaukee, located downtown, and in 1869 a second lodge opened on Milwaukee’s south side at Second and Oregon streets. By 1872 Bay View-area Masons desired their own lodge, and they enlisted the help of the Freemasons who worked at Bay View’s Milwaukee Iron Company. In September 1872 the Lake Lodge #189, 22 members strong, met for the first time at Puddler’s Hall, 2461-63 S. Clair St.

Most members of Lake Lodge were small businessmen or workers at the Milwaukee Iron Company. Prominent Bay View members included lawyer Theobald Otjen, hardware store owner Charles Lenck, mill puddler Jacob Bullock, and blast furnace builder John Meredith.

Historically, nonmembers have labeled Freemasonry as a “secret society” that conceals their activities and inner functions by the use of secret oaths, passwords, signs, and handshakes. According to Michael Clinnin of the Lake Lodge, the original medieval-era Freemasons felt a need to keep their cathedral construction techniques a secret within their lodges. “Without any of the security or verification methods we have today,” said Clinnin, “they used secret signs and handshakes to identify each other.” (Present-day Masons use security measures, such as ID cards and computer passwords. Freemasonry is no longer seen as secretive, Clinnin said, and it is difficult to hide your affiliation. “Everyone would see you go into the lodge, attend a funeral, or march in a parade.”)

In 1887 Bay View Freemason member Gustave Kuehnel built a three-story Queen Anne style building at 2234-38 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. Kuehnel, a druggist, had his drug store on the first floor and lived on the second. Lake Lodge moved from Puddler’s Hall to the third floor of this building, which still exists today.

The former home of Lake Lodge #189 at 2535 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. is now home to the Bay View Brew Haus. ~photo Michael Timm

For 20 years the Lake Lodge met at the Kuehnel location. In 1908 a new building was constructed at 2535 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., designed by architect Charles L. Lesser in the Classic Revival style.

Present location of Lake Lodge #189 at 1235 E. Howard Ave. ~photo Michael Timm

The lodge met here on the second floor, but due to the lack of parking and the inconvenience of a second floor meeting room, in 1963 Lake Lodge built a new building at 1235 E. Howard Ave., where they remain today. According to Clinnin, the Lake Lodge presently has 350 members.

Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish

September 1, 2011

For nearly 142 years Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish has served the Catholic community of St. Francis, Wis. When Sacred Heart was founded in 1869, St. Francis was not a town, but rather a settlement or neighborhood in the former Town of Lake. The settlement took its name from the nearby St. Francis Seminary, which was established in the area in 1854. It would take until 1951 for St. Francis to secede from Town of Lake and incorporate as a city.

The first Sacred Heart church building, built in 1872. ~image from Sacred Heart of Jesus Golden Jubilee Souvenir Book, 1869-1918

According to a Sacred Heart anniversary booklet, Catholic immigrants began settling in the future St. Francis area in 1844. There were no local Catholic churches in the area, so they had to travel a distance to attend Sunday services at St. John’s Cathedral and old St. Mary’s in downtown Milwaukee. By 1850 they were able to attend Holy Trinity Church, dedicated that year in the Walker’s Point neighborhood, and St. Stephen’s in New Coeln, established in 1847, another Town of Lake settlement (named for Cologne, Germany), located near College and Howell avenues.

The first Sacred Heart church building, built in 1872. ~image from Sacred Heart of Jesus Golden Jubilee Souvenir Book, 1869-1918

Influx of Catholics

In 1854 the Milwaukee Catholic Archdiocese completed their seminary on 48 acres of Town of Lake land, situated along the Lake Michigan shoreline on present-day S. Lake Drive. That same year St. Aemilian’s Orphanage moved from downtown Milwaukee to the seminary grounds, and the children of the settlers attended school at the orphanage.


Sacred Heart’s second schoolhouse, built in 1872. ~image from Sacred Heart of Jesus Golden Jubilee Souvenir Book, 1869-1918

In 1866 the settlers got their own schoolhouse, a converted house, located on the site of present-day St. Thomas More High School. A professor from the seminary, Rev. J. A. Birkhaeuser, came to the school every day to give the children instruction in religion and other subjects.

As the number of Catholic settlers increased, seminary rector Dr. Joseph Salzmann invited the settlers to attend Mass at the seminary chapel. By 1868 there were enough settlers to form a congregation, and on Dec. 29. 1868, the Sacred Heart of Jesus Congregation was founded. Reverend Kilian Flasch was appointed as pastor.

 Kilian Flasch, Sacred Heart’s first pastor, 1868. ~photo from Sacred Heart of Jesus Golden Jubilee Souvenir Book, 1869-1918

Sacred Heart’s Early Days

With Flasch as their spiritual advisor, the settlers continued to attend Mass at the seminary until 1872. That year the congregation purchased three acres of land from the seminary for $300 at the present-day intersection of E. St. Francis and S. Kinnickinnic avenues. A Gothic Revival style wood frame church was built at a cost of $2,000. Architect Victor Schulte, a resident of Town of Lake, designed the church. Schulte had also designed St. John’s Cathedral, Old St. Mary Church, Holy Trinity Church, and the St. Francis Seminary. The new Sacred Heart Church measured just 90 feet by 35 feet. It seated 100.



 Mathias Gernbauer

At that point Mathias Gernbauer served as pastor with no pay, walking from the seminary each day. On cold winter days he carried “an armful of kindling wood and started fire in the box stove in order to have the church comfortable for the people,” according to an anniversary booklet. Also in 1872 a new school was built at a cost of $1,200 near the new church, and later a brick rectory was built at a cost of $1,300.

 Sacred Heart’s 1888 school building with the 1909 addition. ~photo from pre-1920 photo souvenir album

 The second Sacred Heart church building, built in 1886. ~photo from pre-1920 photo souvenir album

Growth & New Construction

By 1886 the parish had outgrown its church building. The old wooden church was sold to George Goelz for $200. It was replaced with a new brick church designed by Adolphus Druiding of Chicago. Built at a cost of $14,000, it measured 104 by 45 feet.

Two years later the school building suffered the same fate. It was sold to John Grobschmidt for $200 and replaced by a new brick building at a cost of $3,500. There were two schoolrooms on the first floor and the two rooms on the second floor served as a residence for the nuns, who taught at the school. A four-room addition, a duplicate of the old section, was built in 1909. A new rectory was built in the 1890s at a cost $4,000.

Sacred Heart Cemetery Mortuary Chapel, since razed. ~photo courtesy Archdiocese of Milwaukee

A cemetery was established just west of the church, and the first burial took place in June 1876. Before this, settlers were buried near the St. Aemilian’s Orphanage, and in 1888 those bodies were re-interred in the seminary’s cemetery located in what is now known by locals as the Seminary Woods. In 1914 architect Peter Brust, a parish member, designed a mortuary chapel (since razed) for Sacred Heart’s cemetery.

Due to increased membership, in 1961 a new church/school combination building was constructed to replace the old 1886 church, which was razed. In the new (present-day) building, the church and rectory were on the first floor and the school on the second and third floors.

While increased membership in 1886 and 1961 led to expansion, in 2011 the opposite occurred. Declining membership resulted in a need for a smaller church. Presently the church sanctuary is being downsized, the former classrooms are being turned into senior apartments, and an addition extends northward into the former parking lot providing additional senior rental units.

Up Periscope!

July 31, 2011

By Anna Passante

Submarines in Bay View
For a number of decades sailboats, ferries, submarines and other watercraft have been moored along Bay View’s beautiful Lake Michigan shoreline. Hold on a minute! Submarines? Yes, submarines! During the 1950s and 1960s the Bay View shoreline was host to two submarines, the USS Tautog and the USS Cobia. They were docked at a pier located at the foot of E. Russell Avenue and served as training ships for the U.S. Navy.


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USS Tautog docked on the Milwaukee River near the Broadway Bridge.
 ~photo courtesy the Milwaukee Public Library Historic Photo Collection

The USS Tautog was one of the most famous U.S. submarines in World War II, sinking 26 Japanese ships. Its first action was the shooting down of a Japanese plane at Pearl Harbor. When the Tautog was decommissioned in December 1945, plans were to use the sub as a target for atomic bomb testing at Bikini Atoll. That plan was cancelled. Instead in December 1947 the Tautog arrived in Milwaukee and was docked at the Marine Terminal on the Milwaukee River near the Broadway Bridge, where it served as a training ship for the Naval Reserve. At the time, the Milwaukee Naval Reserve Center administrative offices were located on N. Water Street. In 1953 the Reserve Center moved to a new building in Bay View at 2401 S. Lincoln Memorial Dr., and the Tautog was towed (minus its propellers for safety reasons) to the Russell Avenue pier.

Two Subs

By September 1959 the Naval Reserve decided to replace the Tautog with the Cobia, which had more modern equipment. The two vessels were docked side by side at the Russell Avenue pier and a brief ceremony celebrated the transfer of training duties from the Tautog to the Cobia. “Symbolizing the transfer was the formal lowering of the colors on the Tautog and raising of the colors on the Cobia,” reported the Milwaukee Journal.

Postcard image of the USS Cobia docked in Manitowoc. ~image courtesy the Milwaukee Public Library Historic Photo Collectio

Attempts were made to preserve the Tautog, but failed due to the Milwaukee’s Common Council’s refusal to allocate city funds for such a project. The Tautog was sold to Bultema Dock & Dredge Co. of Manistee, Mich. and was scrapped. However, some parts were salvaged, including the Tautog’s periscope, which is on permanent display and in working condition in the Little Lakefarer’s Room at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc, Wis.

Like the Tautog, the Cobia saw much action during World War II, destroying 14 enemy vessels. The Cobia was decommissioned in May 1946 and was placed in reserve, but in July 1951 it served as a training ship in New London, Conn. In September 1959 the vessel was transferred to Milwaukee’s Naval Reserve Center in Bay View. According to a 1963 Milwaukee Sentinel Jaunts with Jamie column, the Cobia “was equipped to train men for undersea warfare…simulating dives and other maneuvers required of active units of the fleet.”

Violent Storm

In February 1960, the Cobia and the Tautog made the news. Both subs were moored at the Russell Avenue pier when a snowstorm with 60-mile-per-hour gale-force winds partially tore loose both subs from their moorings. Reservists rushed to the scene. Eight pilings had been ripped loose and the cables holding the subs snapped like strings, according to the Milwaukee Journal. Two regular Navy trainers and a Naval Reservist onboard the Cobia were stranded with no heat or light. No one was on the Tautog, which was awaiting its final journey to be scrapped. A Coast Guard tug stood by, ready to rescue the stranded men if needed. The three men had telephone communication with the shore until the cable broke. “We do not believe we are in any danger,” said Quartermaster William Floyd in a Wisconsin State Journal article. “If we did, we’d jump off when the wind rolls the ship against the finger pier.” Floundering in 24 feet of water, both subs were in danger of being smashed onshore. The Cobia’s generator finally started and light and heat were restored. Ten men boarded the Cobia using a ladder and secured the subs. There was little damage to the subs, but much damage to the mooring dock.

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Postcard image of the USS Cobia docked in Manitowoc. ~image courtesy the Milwaukee Public Library Historic Photo Collection

New Digs

By the late 1960s, the city of Manitowoc was on the prowl for a Manitowoc-built submarine that would serve as a museum and memorial dedicated to the people who built, sailed, and lost their lives on ships. The U.S. Navy offered Manitowoc the USS Redfin, built in Manitowoc, but the city couldn’t afford the towing cost of $75,000. When the Navy offered them the Cobia (although built in Connecticut) for free, they accepted. The Cobia was struck from the Naval Register and towed from Bay View to Manitowoc, arriving there in August 1970. It is now part of the Wisconsin Maritime Museum of Manitowoc, docked on the Manitowoc River on permanent display. Daily tours are given. The museum boasts that the Cobia houses the oldest operating radar set in the world. To add to its glory, in 1986 the Cobia was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Dr. Lewis — Pathologist gave life working to save lives

June 30, 2011

By Anna Passante

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Dr. Paul A. Lewis. ~image courtesy Paul A. Lewis II

To most people, Lewis Playfield on E. Pryor Avenue is just a small park popular for baseball and football. But its name honors a courageous early 20th-century medical researcher.

The playfield was named for Bay View native Dr. Paul A. Lewis, who died of yellow fever on June 30, 1929, while studying the disease in Bahia, Brazil. Originally known as Pryor Avenue Playground, the Milwaukee Common Council renamed the playground in June 1932 “in honor of the public services of Dr. Paul A. Lewis, who gave his life in the interest of medical research…”

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(THEN, left) Dr. Paul A. Lewis’ childhood home at 2519-21 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. ~photo courtesy Carlen Hatala, city of Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commission
(NOW, right) After Clinton Lewis’ death in 1930, Paul’s sister Marian, also a physician, took over her father’s practice and did an extreme makeover of the family medical office and home on Kinnickinnic Avenue. ~photo Anna Passante

Born in 1879, Lewis was the eldest son of Dr. Clinton H. Lewis, who practiced medicine at 2519-21 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. The building was also the family residence where Clinton and wife Caroline raised five children.

Paul Lewis attended the Milwaukee Public Schools, most likely Dover Street School and South Division High School. (Bay View High didn’t open until 1914.) He attended the University of Wisconsin, the College of Physicians & Surgeons in Milwaukee, and earned his medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania in 1904. In 1906 he married Louise Durbin, then had two children, Hobart D. and Janet.

Paul Lewis’ passion was the medical laboratory, and he intended to spend his life as a bacteriologist. In 1906 he held a teaching fellowship at Harvard Medical School and in 1908 joined the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. In 1910 he left Rockefeller to become the director of the Henry Phipps Institute at the University of Pennsylvania-Philadelphia and also taught experimental pathology at the university. Lewis never practiced medicine as a physician either in Milwaukee or out East.

In 1916, while he was at Phipps, a polio epidemic broke out in New York City with over 9,000 cases and 2,343 deaths. Nationwide, there were 27,000 cases and 6,000 deaths. Lewis worked with Dr. Simon Flexner to find a vaccine for polio. Together they proved that a virus caused polio and developed a vaccine that protected monkeys from polio 100-percent of the time. But it wasn’t until 1954 that Dr. Jonas Salk successfully developed a vaccine that prevented polio in humans.

Lewis was highly regarded in the research field, especially by Flexner who was quoted as saying, “Lewis was the smartest man I ever knew.” And the world of 1917 needed smart researchers, for during that year a worldwide influenza, of pandemic proportions, broke out. Also known as the Spanish Flu, this disease killed an estimated 20 to 100 million people over three years. A number of researchers, including Lewis, worked feverishly to develop a vaccine, and, by 1920, a number of different vaccines were administered, including Lewis’. The death toll dropped, but it is unclear if the drop was the result of these vaccines or the fact that the virus had weakened dramatically by that time.

Dr. Lewis researched polio, influenza, tuberculosis, and yellow fever, the last of which claimed his life in 1929. A telegram reporting his death read: “Typical yellow fever. Probably laboratory infection.”

Lewis was a quiet man, not very sociable, unlike his wife who loved societal gatherings. Lewis wanted to be in the laboratory, not fundraising for research projects. Grandson Paul A. Lewis II, son of Hobart, was told very little about his grandfather. However, Hobart did tell his son this story: “Someone came to visit my parents,” related Hobart. “Upon leaving, the person said to my mother, ‘I have met some quiet people in my day, but your husband isn’t quiet, he is silent.’”

In 1923 Lewis returned to the Rockefeller Institute to work on a cure for tuberculosis, but he produced little of significance in the lab and was in danger of losing his position. In an attempt to redeem himself, Lewis volunteered to continue the yellow fever research of Dr. Hideyo Noguchi, who at the age of 28 died of the disease in May 1928 in Ghana, Africa.

Instead of Ghana, Lewis continued Noguchi’s yellow fever research in Bahia, Brazil. Unfortunately, Lewis contracted yellow fever and died on June 30, 1929. A telegram reporting the death read: “Typical yellow fever. Probably laboratory infection.” Lewis’ wife Louise requested that the body be shipped to Milwaukee. Seventeen family members attended Lewis’ burial at Forest Hills Cemetery in Madison, Wis.

It is unknown how Lewis contracted yellow fever, since he reported no research details, and his lab notes provided no information about his laboratory procedures.

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~photo courtesy Carlen Hatala, city of Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commission

The Rockefeller Institute paid the Princeton University tuition for Lewis’ son, Hobart, who was 20 at the time of his father’s death. According to Paul A. Lewis II, after her husband’s death, Louise resided in Merion, Pa., and never remarried.

Hobart went on to make a name for himself in the literary world. In 1960 he traveled with Richard Nixon during his presidential campaign as a journalist for Reader’s Digest. Hobart went on to serve as the chief editor for the magazine from 1964 to 1976. He recently died on April 1, 2011, at the age of 101.


Fatal poisonings at St. Aemilian’s orphan asylum

May 29, 2011

By Anna Passante

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Orphan boys working in the asylum garden. ~photo courtesy The New Assisi Archives, Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi

In order to survive financially, orphanages back in the early 1900s relied heavily on orphan labor, and St. Aemilian’s Orphan Asylum in St. Francis, Wis. was no exception. Household and gardening chores were all part of the orphans’ routine. However, on the morning of Thursday, Feb. 21, 1929, a simple chore took a turn from the routine at St. Aemilian’s. That morning four orphans, sent to the basement to sort cabbages, came upon a white paper bag. What was in the bag would cause the deaths of two of the boys and consequently turn the orphanage’s world upside-down.

The paper bag was half full of what looked like cookie crumbs, and this sweet-tasting substance was shared among the four boys that morning. The four—Philip Giganti, 13; Joseph Djeska, 12; and brothers Frank and Paul Novakovich, 13 and 12 respectively—joined the other boys in the cafeteria for a lunch of beans and sauerkraut. The four boys became so violently ill that Dr. Joseph Lettenberger was called. After an examination, the boys were sent to bed with the instruction that they be given no food.

The next day Giganti was found dead. Shocked, the nuns who ran the orphanage (the order of St. Francis of Assisi) questioned Djeska in hopes that he could shed some light on the cause of death. Djeska told Sister Superior Mary Amabilis about the paper bag. According to Djeska, each of the four boys ate some crumbs, but he and Giganti ate the most. The two Novakovich brothers corroborated this story.

Djeska died the next day. According to Amabilis, before he died Djeska urged her to tell Frank Novakovich “to tell the truth.”

Dr. Edward L. Miloslavich conducted autopsies and found “irrefutable evidence of arsenic poisoning,” reported the Milwaukee Sentinel. That opinion was corroborated by Peter Sampson of the Sommers Chemical Laboratories who conducted a chemical analysis of the boys’ stomach contents.

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Brothers Frank and Paul Novakovich, who survived the poisoning, in an undated and unidentified photocopy of a news clipping.

The Novakovich brothers recovered and were questioned by authorities. The poison paper bag, the brothers said, was of a white, kraft-paper type. Orphanage officials insisted that such bags were never used at the orphanage. The boys’ claim that the bag appeared new and that its contents were loose caused the district attorney office investigators to conclude that the bag had come onto the institution grounds very recently. If the bag had been there a long time, the investigators speculated, the absorption of moisture from the concrete floor would have caked its contents.

Sister Amabilis claimed that arsenic was never used at the asylum “for rat poison, use in garden spraying, or any other purpose,” reported the Milwaukee Journal. A rat did get into the basement vegetable bin a few months back in December, she admitted, but a small piece of bacon was spread with a rat poison consisting of a phosphorous paste, not arsenic.

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St. Aemilian’s pictured in a 1910 postcard from the author’s collection.

An intensive search was made for the bag. The Novakovich brothers told investigators that Giganti had thrown the bag away after lunch on Thursday, during recreation time. Neither the bag nor any trace of arsenic was found on the property.

“Was it an act of a maniac or was there malicious intent?” asked Father Joseph F. Kroha, the orphanage superintendent, in a Milwaukee Journal article. The investigators ruled out orphanage staff. “Since not the least breath of suspicion, culpability, neglect, oversight, or forgetfulness can be attributed or traced to any of the sisters and the working men at the institution, the inference naturally arises that the bag gained entrance into the institution from the outside,” reported the Journal. The investigators later officially ruled the deaths as accidental.

The funeral was held in the orphanage chapel on the following Monday, Feb. 26. It is unknown if any family members attended. Giganti’s father lived in Milwaukee and Djeska’s parents were circus acrobats.

Father Kroha officiated at the funeral Mass and in his sermon referred to the poison deaths as “a very sad occurrence,” according to the Milwaukee Journal. Kroha also asserted, according to the article, that the undue publicity of the case was “salacious, scurrilous, and libelous filth thrown at a Catholic institution.” Inferences by the media that “the boys might have been poisoned by food at the orphanage were libelous,” Kroha said. Though the origin of the poison was still a mystery, in his sermon Kroha contended “that boys as old as the two victims should not have eaten anything of which they knew nothing.”

The two boys are buried side by side in the St. Francis Seminary Cemetery in Section D to the right (south) of Archbishop Frederick Xavier Katzer’s monument in a section where St. Aemilian’s and St. John’s for the Deaf children and staff were buried. It is an open grassy area with no grave markers.

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One of the two extant pillars of the old St. Aemlian’s orphanage. ~photo Katherine Keller

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Drawing of the orphanage pillars done by the late Bay View artist George T. Burns for the Bay View Historian, April 2009.







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