The city famous for cold brews and lake views knows how to throw a party. But even if Summerfest (or Oktoberfest, or Irish Fest, or Festa Italiana …) isn’t your thing, there’s still plenty of history and culture to go around. So pull up a stool—this round of facts is on us.
1. The first explorers of the Milwaukee area referred to it by various names, including Milwacky, Mahn-a-waukie, Melleorkie and Milwack, all of which borrowed from Native American titles that meant, depending on who you ask, “good land,” or “rich and beautiful land.”
2. Historians credit Milwaukee with having three founding fathers: Solomon Juneau, Byron Kilbourn, and George Walker. Juneau, a French-Canadian fur trader, established a town on the east side of the Milwaukee River, while Kilbourn, a wealthy businessman from Ohio, set up on the west side. The two sides did not play nice: Kilbourn, for one, published a map of the area that completely excluded Juneau’s claim. He also built streets that didn’t line up with those in Juneautown, creating the angled bridges that still span the river today. Walker, meanwhile, established a settlement on the south side of Milwaukee, in an area that’s today known as Walker’s Point.
3. Milwaukee’s roots as a beer-happy city trace back to the influx of German immigrants in the mid 19th century. They came seeking cheap land and refuge from a divided mother country—and they brought their superior brewing skills with them. By 1856, Milwaukee was home to more than two dozen breweries, including Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz and, of course, Miller.
4. Before it became the mega brewery known today as MillerCoors, Miller Brewing Company was a modest operation situated several miles west of Milwaukee. Founded by Frederick Miller, who immigrated to America after learning the art of brewing from an uncle in France, the brewery turned out a modest 1200 barrels of beer in 1855, its first year in operation. Today, some of the company's beers still use yeast descended from the supply Miller brought with him from Europe.
The modern typewriter—that is, the first version to be called a “typewriter” and to use the QWERTY key setup—was invented in Milwaukee. So large and unwieldy was it that one of the developers, a former newspaper editor named Christopher Latham Sholes, called it “a cross between a piano and a kitchen table.”
6. Milwaukee has a rich, albeit obscure, history of manufacturing automobiles, including the Kissel Kar, Nash, and the Ogden. In nearby Racine, Edward Joel Pennington and Thomas Kane created the gloriously named Kane-Pennington Hot Air Engine, in 1895.
7. Forget Democrats versus Republicans: The Socialist Party defined Milwaukee politics in the first half of the 20th century. The city became the first in the nation to elect a Socialist mayor, Emil Seidel, in 1910, and saw some of its most productive years under Daniel Hoan, a Socialist who held office from 1916 to 1940. Hoan’s term was soon after followed by Socialist Frank Zeidler, who served from 1948 to 1960. The party’s focus on infrastructure and public works in Milwaukee earned it the nickname “Sewer Socialism”—a pejorative that members heartily embraced.
Emil Seidel, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Milwaukee’s tradition of long-serving mayors continues. Since 1960, the city has had only four mayors and one of those was interim mayor Marvin Pratt, who served just three months.
9. Prohibition had a profound effect on Milwaukee’s breweries. To stay afloat, many of them sold alternative products like soda, non-alcoholic beer, candy bars, and even snow plows.
10. Milwaukee’s nickname of “Cream City” has nothing to do with the dairy industry or Eric Clapton. It stems from the light-colored bricks that builders used throughout the middle and late 19th century. Drawn from local clay deposits high in dolomite (a type of limestone) and magnesium, the bricks dirtied easily, and therefore many edifices made from Cream City bricks, like the Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church on North 9th Street, are significantly darker today than when they were built. Recent renovation efforts, however, are restoring some of these buildings to their former glory.
It’s also known as the “City of Festivals” for the various cultural celebrations that take place during the summertime. There’s Festa Italiana, the country’s largest Italian heritage festival, which overflows with food and wine and last year included a replica of Rome’s Trevi Fountain. There’s also Polish Fest, Oktoberfest, Irish Fest, Mexican Fiesta, and of course, the state fair, held in nearby West Allis.
12. In 1901, at the age of 21, mechanical engineer William Harley finished his design for a bicycle outfitted with a single-cylinder engine. He joined with his childhood friend Arthur Davidson, and together the two began turning out motorcycles inside a 10-by-15-foot shed on the Davidson family property in Milwaukee. Several years later, Harley would patent the first two-cylinder motorcycle engine, and proceed to leave his competitors in the dust. Today, Harley-Davidson maintains a museum and an 849,000-square-foot manufacturing plant in Milwaukee, where workers craft the transmissions and engines that go into each motorcycle.
13. Ever wondered where to find the world’s largest dinosaur skull? Try the Milwaukee Public Museum, where a 9-foot-by-8-foot Torosaurus cranium, along with a partial skeleton, is on display.
14. Go to the Milwaukee Art Museum at around 10 a.m. and you’ll see a singular event unfold—literally. Large white wings situated atop the museum’s Windhover Hall slowly open, providing a graceful moving exhibit for visitors. The installation, known as the Burke Brise Soleil, has the wingspan of a Boeing 747, and contains sensors that will automatically close up if winds reach 23 mph or higher.
Milwaukee residents were pretty bummed when the Braves baseball team—the team hammerin’ Hank Aaron led to a World Series title in 1957—decamped for Atlanta in 1966. Just a few years later, though, Milwaukee would be the beneficiaries of an inter-city transfer after the Seattle Pilots, established in 1969, went bankrupt after just one season. In 1970, the franchise moved 2000 miles east and became the Milwaukee Brewers.
16. Milwaukee’s vibrant immigrant community has made the city a hotbed for soccer. Clubs like the Croatian Eagles and the Bavarians have been in operation for nearly a century. The city is also home to the oldest continuously run professional soccer team in the U.S. — the Milwaukee Wave, of the Major Arena Soccer League.
17. A bronze statue commemorating one of Milwaukee’s most famous fictional characters, Arthur Fonzarelli, can be found on the Milwaukee Riverwalk south of Wells Street. “Bronzie” or “The Bronze Fonz,” as locals call it, stands 5’6”, the same height as Henry Winkler, the actor who played The Fonz. Despite being much loved by locals and tourists, the installation was decried by some in the art community before it was installed, including a gallery owner who called the city “intellectually bankrupt” in its decision. As the Fonz would say: “Sit on it!”
One of the city’s most lavish and best-preserved homes belonged to Frederick Pabst, the man who gave the world Pabst Blue Ribbon. Located on West Wisconsin Avenue, the Pabst Mansion is a Victorian-style abode that includes 10 bathrooms, 14 fireplaces, and a main study filled with secret compartments.
19. If you’re ever flying into Milwaukee and notice the words “Welcome to Cleveland” scrawled across the roof of a building, don’t worry—your plane didn’t take a detour. That’s just the handiwork of Mark Gubin, a puckish local artist who nearly 40 years ago decided, on a whim, to write the large-scale greeting atop his studio. "There's not a real purpose for having this here except madness, which I tend to be pretty good at," Gubin told the Journal-Sentinel.
20. The tiny St. Joan of Arc Chapel, located on the campus of Marquette University, predates American independence by more than 300 years. Originally built in the French village of Chasse, the chapel was saved from the ruins of World War I, shipped across the Atlantic and rebuilt in New York. In 1964, the owners gifted the chapel to Marquette University, and over the course of nine months it was painstakingly installed on the campus. Today, it’s the only Medieval structure in the Western hemisphere where mass is regularly held.
21. One of the world’s largest collections of antique microphones is on display inside an electronics store on East National Street. Mic guru Bob Paquette has amassed a collection of more than 1000 microphones, most made before 1950, and most in working condition thanks to Paquette’s repairs. There’s the one used by Hitler in the Eagle’s Nest, and another that provided updates during an expedition to Antarctica. There’s also an 1876 telephone invented by Alexander Graham Bell.
22. Close to one million music fans pack the Milwaukee waterfront each year for Summerfest—and they’re all really hungry. In 2014, concertgoers went through 66,011 burgers; 38,202 ears of corn; 96,344 mozzarella sticks; and 181,758 mini donuts.
23. Last summer, numerous residents and even a few city officials spotted a giant cat roaming around the city. Believed to be an escaped exotic pet, the Milwaukee lion, as it came to be known, was never captured. The only casualty during the whole episode was a bulldog named Homie, who was shot by a nervous resident (and thankfully recovered).
The oldest bowling alley in America is located inside the Holler House on Lincoln Avenue. It’s a throwback experience in every sense: There are only two lanes, scoring is done by hand, and the lanes are tended by two pinsetters. There might be a wait to play, but you can always pass the time chatting with Marcy Skawronski, Holler House’s sharp-tongued 89-year-old owner/bartender. You can also marvel at the collection of bras hanging from the ceiling—a tradition Marcy herself started nearly 50 years ago.