BOOK REVIEW — An Illustrated History of Cudahy Commerce
January 7, 2017
By Katherine Keller
Many things came to mind as I read and gazed at Rebecca Roepke’s and Michelle Gibbs’ excellent historical photo essay, Cudahy: Snapshots of Commerce.
Having worked as a picture researcher for a publishing house, I was dazzled by the quality and depth of the historical photos the authors accessed. The narrative is equally compelling, though it is sparse because it is conveyed solely via photo captions. But instead of a random pastiche, the story is told cohesively in a highly readable narrative, no small feat.
The story begins in the last part of the 19th century with photos of Cudahy’s big factories and charming images that capture ordinary people in domestic and workplace interiors, including one from the 1920s of Mattie Moriarty playing a grand piano for the employees of Cudahy Brothers in a park.
The introduction and first chapters describe the history and growth of Patrick and John Cudahy’s meatpacking business from small shop to empire, as well as Patrick’s personal vision for the community he founded and fostered.
In 1878, Patrick and John acquired the Plankinton and Armour meat packing plant in the Menomonee River Valley where Patrick had worked his way up from laborer to superintendent. In 1892 they moved their operation to farmland purchased south of Milwaukee. That parcel and the surrounding area would eventually become the city of Cudahy. The meatpacking business was originally named Cudahy Brothers but was changed to Patrick Cudahy, Inc., in 1957, 38 years after Patrick’s death in 1919.
The book’s second section spotlights other industries including a number of immense companies, by early 19th century standards, that sprang up, flourished, and vanished.
The Worthington Pump and Machinery Company was incorporated in 1916, operating in an area that covered 28 acres. By 1924 it was out of business. George Meyer Manufacturing Company bought the property four years later. Meyer made bottle-washing equipment used by breweries, dairies, and soda makers. In the mid-1950s Meyer employed over 1,500 people. The plant closed in 1985.
The buildings of Milwaukee Vinegar Company and Red Star Yeast stood on the bluff overlooking Lake Michigan and served as a navigational aid for freighters from 1903 to the 1950s, when the land was sold to Milwaukee County Parks.
The Federal Rubber Company, also long gone, once churned out 18,000 tires a day in its plant on Layton where Angelic Bakery operates today. By the late 1920’s the company employed more than 1,500 people.
Ladish, another of Cudahy’s industrial behemoths, unlike many of its kin, is still in operation. The Ladish Company was established in 1905 by Herman W. Ladish, who began his forging business by purchasing a steam hammer. By the 1950s his company employed 7,000 people and for decades has manufactured parts for the aviation, aerospace, and nuclear industries, among others.
Roepke and Gibbs included numerous mom-and-pop shops, like that of Christ and Alma Becker who sold coal, wood, and building materials. George Ponto is depicted in a regal pose in the lobby of the Coliseum Electric Theater, Cudahy’s first motion picture house. Many readers with Cudahy roots will recognize family surnames and remember some of theses small businesses. Others may only the recognize the buildings that housed them.
The authors close with Cudahy’s revitalization that began in the 1970s. Highlighted are some of Cudahy’s newest businesses — Angelic Bakery; Cudahy’s Supermarket; CLE Haven Cudahy, an assisted living center; Lala’s Place, a Mexican restaurant;South Shore Cyclery; and Disc Go Round, among others.
For readers not as familiar with Cudahy as the authors, some may be frustrated with the lack of detailed location information for the featured factories and other buildings.
The history recounted by Roepke and Gibbs is richly underpinned with images from the Katherine Quentin Eaton Local History Collection of the Cudahy Family Library, a treasure trove, judging from the examples in the book. The authors, employees of the library, are currently working on a book about the history of Cudahy’s pioneer families.
The Cudahy library archive consists of historical materials and photographs given by the Cudahy family, local businesses and organizations, and individuals.
Cudahy: Snapshots of Commerce is part of Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series that includes Cudahy: Generations of Pride, by Joan Paul published in 2002, also illustrated with remarkable historic photos.
Cudahy: Snapshots of Commerce
By Rebecca Roepke and Michelle Gibbs
128 pages, Softcover
Arcadia Publishing; $21.99
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