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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Milwaukee's Robinson Crusoe


In 1842, a strange character could be found on the edge of Milwaukee village. A hermit named Carl Grotke had taken up residence on a spit of land about 100 yards south of the present-day Juneau Avenue bridge.

He was remembered as "the Robinson Crusoe of Milwaukee" because he lived all by himself in what appeared to be a shipwreck.

At some point, Grotke had laid a keel in the mud and erected ribs which he gradually covered in a patchwork of discarded scrap lumber. Inside the ribs he fashioned a rudimentary cabin, complete with wood stove and chimney, where he slept and took his meals. The wind whistled through the wreck year-round, only partially deflected by surrounding willows and elders.

"He seemed to have a certain repugnance to strangers;" recalled Dr. Jeremiah Selby, "not that he was ugly or morose, for he was a mild and inoffensive man, but he had lived so long alone in a sort of Crusoe life that he had lost in a measure the use of language or the facility of expression." He had been trained as a cobbler and eked out a pittance by doing leather work for the poor.

Grotke had also acquired some colorful delusions, including a fervent belief that he would one day set sail for Buffalo in his house. Even stranger was his insistence that the journey would be powered not by steam, sail, or oars but rather by perpetual motion. To raise money for this invention he petitioned the President of the United States and the Queen of England, neither of whom replied to his letters.

Unfortunately, poor Grotke's dream was never realized. In 1848 the city seized his land by eminent domain to make way for a railroad station. Grotke's shipwreck was hauled onshore, but he was forced to abandon it to the city when a street came through.

His strange home was soon pried apart and used for firewood. Grotke himself disappeared about this time and was never heard from again.


:: Posted in Odd Lives on August 18, 2011
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