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Milwaukee’s Outdoor Outfitters

Laacke & Joys supplied the city’s early shipbuilders

May. 27, 2010
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Now that camping season has arrived, many of us will be tempted to buy our outdoor gear and supplies online or from national retailers rather than shop locally. In making that choice, though, customers miss an opportunity to keep a long-standing business alive and thriving. Laacke & Joys, Milwaukee’s longtime purveyor of outdoor gear, is the oldest retailer and manufacturer in the city, and one of the oldest in Wisconsin.

When Milwaukee was little more than a trading post in the wilderness, it was recognized as one of the best harbors on the Great Lakes. The confluence of the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic rivers gave calm and ample shelter for craft entering the port. In addition to having a number of large piers, the harbor also had a reputation among sailors for never closing. The low price of water transportation (compared to that of land travel) gave Milwaukee manufacturers and shippers a considerable advantage over their inland competitors.

Forecasting the profitable future of lake commerce, early settlers were quick to take advantage of the seemingly endless supply of lumber from the surrounding forests to make ships, catapulting the early Milwaukee shipbuilding business into one of the most prominent industries in the area. A 22-year-old Boston native named Greenleaf D. Norris understood that all those ships were going to need to be supplied, and in 1844, only a year after settling in town, opened a ship chandlery and sail loft at the corner of Water and Erie streets on the north bank of the Milwaukee River. Under the name G.D. Norris & Co., Norris and his employee, a Norwegian immigrant named Andrew Joys, sold “cordage, wire rope, tents, flags, banners, awnings, covers, oars, tackle blocks, lubricating oils, paints, tar, pitch, oakum, derrick fittings, and other marine supplies.”

When Norris died in 1869, Joys ran the firm in partnership with Norris’s widow, then later, her son. In 1875, Joys’ brother, Captain John Joys, bought an interest in the company, and it became Joys, Norris & Co. When Mrs. Norris withdrew from the business in 1885, it became Joys Brothers and Company.

In 1887, Richard Laacke, an 18-yearold steeplejack, sign hanger and awning maker founded the R. Laacke Co.

The business, located on Walnut Street, earned a reputation for making quality tents, and soon found itself in the outfitting business.

The Joys Brothers Company adapted when Milwaukee’s shipbuilding business declined with the rise of the railroads, swinging into the production of canvas goods and awnings. During World War II, the company engaged in the manufacture of a wide variety of products for the troops, from paratroop harnesses and diving shoes to vehicles’ covers and shower curtains.

In 1957, the Joys Brothers Company and the R. Laacke Co. merged. Four years later, the company moved to its present location at 1433 N. Water St. Now locally owned and operated by managing partner Marsha Mather, Laacke & Joys still produces sewn products for the industrial, medical, recreational and commercial industries, as well as quality gear for active outdoor recreation.


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