Milwaukee Book Club: Milwaukee in the 1930s: A Federal Writers Project City Guide, John D. Buenker, ed.

Jun. 28, 2016
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One of the “creative” arms of the Works Progress Administration, the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) was established in 1935 to support out-of-work writers, editors, historians, and social scientists. A secondary aim of the FWP was to stimulate travel and consumerism by producing a series of state guidebooks – perhaps the best-known of the project’s efforts – that discussed the history and culture of each state, paired with guided automobile tour routes of notable places. The scope of the guidebook project also covered a number of American cities, including Milwaukee. The Milwaukee project began in 1935, with the County Board of Supervisors agreeing to contribute money to the publication of the manuscript when completed. However, squabbles over the quality and political content of the volume doomed the project and, for over 70 years, the 600+ page manuscript sat in the Wisconsin Historical Society archives.

John D. Buenker, professor emeritus of history for UW-Parkside, has finally brought this incredible work to the eyes of the public in his new book from Wisconsin Historical Society Press, Milwaukee in the 1930s. The original FWP project was conceived in three parts – a series of historical essays about the city, a series of neighborhood guides, and a set of three “tours” one could take – heading north, west, or south – from downtown. In editing down the manuscript, Buenker mostly persevered the neighborhood guides and tours, but left out all but one of the historical essays. In his insightful preface, he explains that the essays were the greatest cause of consternation to the county board when it was submitted for publication and the resulting work was written “by a committee whose deliberations were constantly interrupted by bitter ideological and partisan conflict.” He does, however, supplement the missing essays with a brief recounting of the city’s history and presents the manuscript’s final historical essay, titled “Today,” as-is.

The decades this work spent gathering metaphorical dust (I have no doubt the WHS took excellent care of it) have aged it into a wonderful and articulate snapshot of time when Milwaukee was caught beginning to emerge from its old world roots as a modern American metropolis. In the “Today” essay that follows Buenker’s preface, this is illustrated by noting that Milwaukee was then the 12th largest city in the nation, but the locals still thought of it as an “overgrown village.” Buenker notes that one of the complaints of the county board was that the history essays were too negative in their appraisal of the city. This idea bleeds through just a bit in “Today,” with the local residents depicted as frugal and simple folk. “College degrees and extensive travel cannot always erase typical turns of phrase from the vocabularies of those to whom Milwaukee is home,” the essay states, ““Once” and “yet” are as thick in Milwaukee speech as raisins in a Christmas Stollen and as indiscriminately placed.” 

But to take this as an insult is to miss the strange affection that shows through the book. In closing the Today essay, Milwaukeeans are said to regard their hometown’s “idiosyncrasies with the affectionate and amused pride that one takes in one’s old Aunt Susan, who always leaves her spoon in her coffee cup. She is not suave, or permanent-weaved, or “smart,” but she does as she pleases, speaks her mind, and commands recognition.”

 Milwaukee as it looked in the 1930s.

The chapters that follow reflect this idea. A user of the volume in 1940 could regard the breweries as a greater draw than the skyscrapers, the churches being more important than the mansions, and might note that the Jones Island sewage treatment plant keeps nearly the same hours for public tours as the Layton Art Gallery (and with no admission charge). The neighborhood essays also, of course, capture an image of the city that once was. Supplemented with the tour descriptions that close the book, the essays use simple and clear language, with the folksy touch seen above, to paint a unpretentious portrait of Milwaukee in a long-past time. The previous scarcity of the manuscript itself also preserves a number of interesting items that have remained mostly absent from histories of the city. The “Spite House” that once sat at Park Place and Downer Avenue – an imposing square building painted a deathly combination of red and black to protest a city zoning ordinance – is one such treasure. As is the labeling of what are presently known as the Riverwest and Harambee neighborhoods as the “Wooden Shoe District,” so-called because of a lazy translation of “Deutsch,” in reference to the area’s many German residents, as “Dutch.”

The work is also wonderfully illustrated, with dozens of images of Milwaukee from the era depicted that are – in some cases – as interesting as the text itself. The nature of the book, essentially being a 75-year-old tourist guide to the city, might leave it as something more of a tool for historians or academics than a book just to pick up and read. However, the depth of the information contained, and the uniqueness of the project that produced it, should make the work both accessible and interesting to anyone interested in local history. 


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