Cream City Chronicles: Stories from Milwaukee's Past (Paperback edition)

By John Gurda

Paperback: $18.95

ISBN: 978-0-87020-758-7

320 pages 77 b&w photos 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 E-book edition available


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This new paperback edition of historian John Gurda's classic collection of Milwaukee history shares lively stories about the people, the events, the landmarks, and the institutions that have made the "cream city" a unique American community. These stories, each featuring a historic photograph, represent the best of Gurda's popular Sunday columns that have appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel since 1994. Find yourself transported back to another time, when the village of Milwaukee was home to fur trappers and traders. Follow the development of Milwaukee's distinctive neighborhoods, its rise as a port city and industrial center, and its changing political climate. From singing mayors to summer festivals, from blueblood weddings to bloody labor disturbances, Cream City Chronicles offers a generous sampling of tales that express the true character of a hometown metropolis.

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John Gurda is a Milwaukee-born writer and historian who has been studying his hometown since 1972. He is the author of twenty-one books, including histories of Milwaukee-area neighborhoods, churches, and industries. He is also a photographer, lecturer, and local history columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Gurda is an eight-time winner of the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Award of Merit. The common thread in all his work is an understanding of history as “why things are the way they are.”

Interview with John Gurda

Wisconsin Historical Society Press: What motivated you to write about Milwaukee's history?

I'm a native of Milwaukee's South Side and grew up in a household that blended European ethnicity (Polish for my dad, Norwegian for my mom) with more general patterns of the American middle class. The old connections were always important to me, and I began my career writing about the history of Milwaukee's South Side. I've broadened my focus in the last 35 years all the way out to the county lines. If I live another 50 years, maybe I'll expand to southeastern Wisconsin!

WHS Press: What do you find most surprising about Milwaukee's past?

The dominant Germanism of its formative years. The citizenry's willingness to turn over their government to Socialists. The city's ability to thrive in the deep shade of Chicago.

WHS Press: Do you have a favorite story in the collection?

I hope they all contain something of interest for the reader, but I like some of the more self-contained set pieces: To Green Bay the Long Way, Unplugged, Meltdown at the Iron Mill, The Cost of the Eight-Hour Day, Close Call for Mr. Roosevelt, Winter at the Edge of the World, and Feast of Christmas Past (tallow stuck to the gums and all).

WHS Press: What aspects of Milwaukee's history do you find most interesting?

The persistence of the past in our landscape and culture. The power of the past to explain our present. Mayor Dan Hoan's administration. Charlie Whitnall's work on parks. The unimaginably long and distant Native American period.

WHS Press: What do you want people to take away about Milwaukee's history?

That it's not an antiquarian subject but something of vital relevance to the present. Most of all, I want them to see THEIR stories in the larger context of OUR story. History educates, enriches, and motivates.

WHS Press: What qualities make Milwaukee unique?

Paradoxically, its intense Germanism and its world-class diversity. The crucial role that manufacturing once played. Its human scale. Its blend of big-city attributes (problems as well as resources) and small-city manageability.

WHS Press: What are the most dramatic changes Milwaukee has experienced over the courseof its history?

Moving from commerce to manufacturing in the later 1800s, with the corresponding ethnic shifts. Trading corrupt political hacks for squeaky-clean Socialists in 1910. Evolving from a comfortably European-American city to a not-so-comfortable multi-ethnic city in the post-WWII years. Losing a major share of manufacturing jobs in the 1980s and '90s and transitioning to a service economy, a transition that is far from over.

WHS Press: Who do you see as the audience for "Cream City Chronicles"?

The general reader interested in local history, plus students, teachers, and anyone else with an openness to the past

2006 Midwest Independent Publishers Association Midwest Book Awards
First Place in the Humor Category

2007 Wisconsin Library Association
Outstanding Achievement Award

"This book of newspaper columns penned by Gurda is a perfect complement to 'The Making of Milwaukee.' Instead of trying to tell it all, these essays focus on the interesting, the unique and the important. Fascinating tidbits that can be read sporadically or in one sitting." —Bobby Tanzilo,

"No living person knows more about Milwaukee's past than John Gurda, and 'Cream City Chronicles' readily displays his gifts as a historian and a writer. Balancing narrative with commentary, Gurda supplies historical contexts for the newest landmarks, the latest ethnic shift, and the freshest scandal. Rooted solidly in the sources but just as solidly in a native son's deep affection for his home town these short pieces show that telling good stories and writing meaningful history are not mutually exclusive. 'Cream City Chronicles' is must reading for anyone who truly wants to understand and appreciate Milwaukee's rich heritage." — James Marten, Professor of History, Marquette University

"John Gurda's reach into Milwaukee's story is so deep it can be said he met co-founder Byron Kilbourn in person at the old scallywag's burial. That it was Kilbourn's re-interment in 1998, not his first burial in far off exile 128 years earlier, matters not at all. No Milwaukee writer today better knows this city's yesterdays, and no one more clearly explains how what was then led to what is now. 'Cream City Chronicles' is aptly named; these snapshots, like handsome bricks stacked one on another, build an enduring portrait of Milwaukee." — Dennis McCann, Columnist, "Milwaukee Journal Sentinel"

"John Gurda's 'Cream City Chronicles' is not only a richly evocative history of the city of Milwaukee but, in the tradition of the great cultural geographers of generations' past, is also a reflection of the uniqueness of place. While emphasizing the story in history Gurda shares the drama of struggles for control and expansion along with captivating tales of the city's first sweethearts, its singing mayors and infinitely more. Taken together, Gurda's stories present not merely the outline but the essence of a proud and ever changing city." —David McDaniel, Assistant Professor of History, Carroll College

"The name John Gurda is synonymous with Milwaukee history. The author of several well-regarded book-length histories, he now gives us a chance to enjoy some of his best short stories, culled from his popular monthly 'Milwaukee Journal Sentinel' column. He shares with us new slants on stories that are well-known and introduces us to new personalities and events that have shaped Milwaukee's history. 'Cream City Chronicles' is perfect for classroom use or for anyone interested in Milwaukee history delivered in small, digestible bites. I recommend it highly." —Timothy L. Ericson, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

"For the last twelve years, John Gurda's monthly column in the 'Milwaukee Journal Sentinel' has provided residents of Southeastern Wisconsin with accounts of famous figures, interesting events, and popular places from the city's history. While fascinating reading in and of themselves, Gurda's columns have also served a higher purpose: they have been useful. By providing precedents and historical context for contemporary issues facing the community, the author has helped to inform discussion of these matters. In doing so, he has demonstrated on a regular and continuing basis the value and importance of local history." —Robert T. Teske, Executive Director, Milwaukee County Historical Society

"John Gurda begins with recent events in Milwaukee's history and finds their past origins. His accounts of facts of the past are treated sensitively, and he interprets their meaning with unique observations. These stories will last as long as there is a Milwaukee." —Frank Zeidler, Former mayor of Milwaukee


This feature by author John Gurda appeared in the "Milwaukee Journal Sentinel" on November 5, 2006:

Cream City's chronicles tell the story of a changing Milwaukee

This is a column about, well, this column. More specifically, it's about a book-length collection of these columns titled "Cream City Chronicles." Published two weeks ago by the Wisconsin Historical Society, the book contains 63 stories that originally appeared in this space, some more than 12 years ago.

I'm mildly surprised that the column has been around so long. It debuted in the "Milwaukee Journal" in 1994 and moved to the "Journal Sentinel" when the city's two major dailies merged a year later.

The reason for the column's longevity may be its purposeful connection with the present. My monthly offerings have always had the same goal: to provide the historical context for whatever was happening in the community at the time, whether it was factories closing, landmarks opening, the latest scandal, the newest ethnic group or simply the changing seasons.

The total number of columns now exceeds 150, which, at roughly 1,000 words apiece, adds up to a good-sized book. Fortunately, that was an idea that occurred at the Wisconsin Historical Society, whose editors chose a generous sampling of the stories for publication in book form.

Every journalist has to make peace with a special kind of impermanence. However masterful the writer — and this newspaper and its predecessors have hosted some genuine masters — his or her work generally ends up lining a litter box, wrapping the garbage or being recycled into bus transfers and ceiling tiles.

I'm grateful that so many of these stories have been rescued from such ignominious ends, but "Cream City Chronicles" involved much more than sending a batch of old columns off to Madison. The trouble with commenting on the passing scene is that the scene keeps passing.

Many of the stories were decidedly dated — reflections of a Milwaukee that no longer exists. To mention just a few:

—A historical look at Cathedral Square opened with the ice-skating rink that anchored the Winterfest celebration. Winterfest is gone, and the rink has found a permanent home down the hill in Red Arrow Park.

—The 1996 opening of Discovery World at the museum center suggested a column about pioneer scientist Increase Lapham. Discovery World has since moved again, and its relocation will soon anchor another column.

—The International Arts Festival kicked off a story about Milwaukee's Jewish heritage. The Jewish community is as vibrant as ever, but the festival is just a memory.

—The 1999 demolition of Southgate, Milwaukee's first shopping center, was big news, historically speaking. Wal-Mart and Walgreens now have obliterated even the memories.

—A catastrophic 1997 flood introduced a column about the Pigsville neighborhood — one "g," please. Public officials have since spent millions of dollars moving houses, raising a protective levee and reshaping the Menomonee River's channel. So far, so good.

—Remember the feud between Mayor John Norquist and Police Chief Arthur Jones? Mitchell St.'s 1995 facelift? The closing of Pfister & Vogel in 2000? All old news, and not appropriate for a book that will presumably have a long shelf life.

In order to give the columns the "evergreen" quality suggested by the Historical Society, I found myself rewriting the first and last paragraphs of nearly half the stories in the book. It was more work than I'd expected and a sharp reminder that beginnings and endings are the hardest parts of any story.

Garrison Keillor has created hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Lake Wobegon monologues. The task, he once said, is made easier by the fact that his openings and conclusions are always the same.

"It's been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon," Keillor begins, and he invariably ends with "That's the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average." With his first and last sentences nailed down, it's easy, relatively speaking, to fill in the space between.

Rewriting the Milwaukee stories was somewhat labor-intensive, but that, I would argue, is a measure of our community's vitality. It is our constantly changing cast of characters and the shifting landscape they inhabit that give Milwaukee — or any city — its particular dynamism. Without change, there is no history.

Another editorial task proved much easier: grouping the stories into easily understood categories. There were a few stragglers, but the major topics practically chose themselves: ethnic diversity, making a living, our distinctive political heritage, the central role of water in our history and, of course, celebrations — all of them central themes in Milwaukee's story since the beginning.

What "Cream City Chronicles" offers is a smorgasbord of our community's past — history á la carte, if you will. Taken together, these bite-sized stories add up to a full meal that goes a long way toward telling the larger story of Milwaukee.

It is my hope, as well as the Wisconsin Historical Society's, that readers will find the smorgasbord tasty, nutritious and not so filling that they lose their appetites for another sampler in the years ahead.

The Cream City's history grows richer by the year, and its chronicles just keep on coming.