If you have roots in Wisconsin and the upper Midwest, you need to know that there’s more to Milwaukee than beer. Yes, it’s the home of Miller Brewing (4251 W. State St., 414-931-BEER), and the sudsy legacy of Capt. Frederick Pabst lives on in such historic sites as the Pabst Theater, an 1895 Baroque historic landmark (144 E. Wells St., 414-286-3663) and the 37-room, 14-fireplace, 1892 Pabst Mansion (2000 W. Wisconsin Ave., 414-931-0808). And, sure, there are days when the perfume of brewers yeast tempts I-94 commuters to roll down their windows and take a deep sniff.
But Milwaukee also boasts a rich ethnic heritage (perhaps not unrelated to the origins of its brewing industry). Germans helped build the city in the 19th century, and it remains home to some of the nation’s best German restaurants, including Karl Ratszch’s (320 E. Mason St., 414-276-2720) and Mader’s (1037 N. Old World Third St., 414-271-3377). Milwaukee has also seen influxes of Irish, Poles and Italians (who also contributed mightily to the dining scene, such as the richly authentic Mimma’s, 1307 E. Brady St., 414-271-7337). It’s even home to one of the country’s few fine Serbian restaurants, the Old Town Serbian Gourmet House (522 W. Lincoln Ave., 414-672-0206).
Beneath the suds you’ll discover a city rich in history and genealogy resources. The best place to start, even before you go, is the online guide to genealogical collections compiled by the Library Council of Metropolitan Milwaukee www. uwm.edu/Library/arch/lcomm; just use the pull-down menus at the bottom of the page to locate the records you’re after. The site is hosted by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, whose Golda Meir Library is home to the Milwaukee Urban Archives (2311 E. Hartford Ave., 414-229-5402, www.uwm.edu/Dept/Library/arch/ genie.htm). You’ll find more than 100 series of local governmental records, plus 500-plus collections of papers and records including those of civic clubs and unions.
You’ll also want to visit the Milwaukee County Historical Society (910 N. Old World Third St., 414-273-8288, www.milwaukeecountyhistsoc.org). Its handsome old museum has exhibits as well as archives of government and naturalization records and a photo collection. The Milwaukee Public Library‘s 1898 landmark central library (814 W. Wisconsin Ave., 414-286-3000, www.mpl.org) is home to the Great Lakes Marine Collection of log books and wreck reports, plus a collection of 3,192 photos of area World War I military personnel—maybe including your ancestor.
If you have Catholic ancestors who might be buried in one of the eight cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, which covers southeastern Wisconsin, you can find them in a database at www.cemeteries.org/genealogy/genealogy01.asp. You can search for your Irish ancestors at the Irish Cultural and Heritage Center of Wisconsin (2133 W. Wisconsin Ave., 414-345-8800), located in an 1887 national historic landmark.
Other genealogical help for the region can be found from the Milwaukee County Genealogical Society (Box 27036, Milwaukee, WI 53227, www.execpc.org/~mcgs) and the Wisconsin State Genealogical Society (Box 5106, Madison, WI 53705, www.rootsweb.com/~wsgs), host of the NGS conference. You may also want to consider a field trip to Madison, just 90 Interstate minutes away, where the Wisconsin Historical Society Library (816 State St., Madison, WI 53706, 608-264-6535, www.shsw.wisc.edu/library) houses one of the nation’s finest genealogical collections.
When you start to go cross-eyed from ogling microfilm, try sampling some of the area’s ethnic and historical attractions. The Milwaukee Public Museum (800 W. Wells St., 414-278-2722, www.mpm.edu) is best known for its dinosaurs and re-creation of a tropical rain forest, but history buffs will want to walk the Streets of Old Milwaukee exhibit. This three-quarter-sized reproduction of a swath of turn-of-the-century Milwaukee includes 25 shops, restaurants, businesses and bars your ancestors might have patronized. For a different take on business way back when, tour the William F. Eisner Museum of Advertising and Design (208 N. Water St., 414-847-3290, www.eisnermuseum.org), the only museum of its kind in the country.
Milwaukee’s (and the nation’s) black heritage is preserved at the Wisconsin Black Historical Society Museum (2620 W. Center St., 414-372-7677) and America’s Black Holocaust Museum (2233 N. Fourth St., 414-264-2500).
Or, if your ancestors were clowns—literally—explore the International Clown Hall of Fame (161 W. Wisconsin Ave., 414-319-0848, www.clownmuseum.org).
Two historical attractions are worth field trips out of town. Just 35 miles west in Eagle is Old World Wisconsin (S103 W37890 Highway 67, 262-594-6300, www.shsw.wisc.edu/ sites/oww), a re-creation of a 19th-century farm village. Costumed interpreters show life the way it was for your immigrant ancestors on 600 acres little changed from the 1870s. About 80 miles north of Milwaukee, in the Lake Michigan port of Manitowoc, the Wisconsin Maritime Museum celebrates the history of Great Lakes shipping (75 Maritime Drive, 920-684-0218, www.wimaritimemuseum.org). (For more on tracing your Great Lakes roots, see page 70.)
When you’re exhausted from exploring Milwaukee’s resources and heritage, take a break with a favorite local product. No, we’re not talking about beer again—Milwaukee is also known as the “Cream City,” after Wisconsin’s dairy heritage. Sample the best of the dairy state at Kopp’s Frozen Custard (three locations, www.kopps.com). One lick and you’ll be looking for more Wisconsin ancestors, just to give you an excuse to return.
To find more on Milwaukee, see the June 2002 issue of Family Tree Magazine.