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Milwaukee legends
Beer, brats and baseball are just a few of the things that made our city famous

By LAURIE ARENDT

November 8, 2008

OK, here’s the deal. Milwaukee is a bit like that crazy aunt or odd neighbor with a penchant for cats — lots of them — and letting the front lawn go "natural." Use those two descriptors and everybody in the neighborhood knows of whom you speak.

In Milwaukee’s case, for better or worse, our adjectives are likely to always be beer, brats and baseball. And that’s not a bad thing. There’s nothing better than a juicy brat, a cold beer and a Brewers game.

But like that crazy aunt or the cat lady down the street, that’s only the beginning. Everyone has a story, and what makes Milwaukee famous just barely begins with our famous summertime trio.

The Beer Barons

In terms of our historical preference for beer, and Milwaukee’s longstanding reputation for brewing, we should all raise a cold one in a perpetual toast to Jacob Best, Johan Braun and August Krug. Though their names may not be as familiar as the men who later took over their companies — Milwaukee beer barons Capt. Frederick Pabst, Valentine Blatz and Joseph Schlitz, respectively — the hard work of these German immigrants made Milwaukee into the brewing capital of the United States.

Today, only one original brewery dating from that era remains: Miller Brewing (now MillerCoors), which evolved from the Plank Road Brewery started by Jacob Best’s son, Charles Best.

Bratwurst

It’s hard not to find a more perfect food to represent Milwaukee’s history and heritage than the humble bratwurst. Its name is actually a compound German word referencing the way that it is made and the fact that it is a sausage. Thankfully for us, the recipes used by Milwaukee’s most beloved German wurstmacher, Fred Usinger, are still in use today by fourth-generation Usingers at the family’s namesake company on Old World Third Street.

The typewriter

With our manufacturing and labor base, Milwaukee has had its share of innovations and inventions through the years, but there are few to top the practical invention of Christopher Latham Sholes in 1869. While working in the C.F. Kleinsteuber Machine Shop on State Street, Sholes and fellow co-workers perfected a prototype before receiving a patent in 1868. Sholes’ later work included the establishment of our familiar QWERTY keyboard, which is still in use today.

Baseball

After years of minor league play, Milwaukee became a Major League city in 1953, when the Braves moved here from Boston. Thanks to a team roster that included Hank Aaron and Eddie Matthews, the Milwaukee Braves won the World Series in 1957 and the National League pennant in 1958. The loss of the Braves to Atlanta was a blow to local baseball fans in 1966. Four years later, the move of the Seattle Pilots to Milwaukee to become the more appropriately named Brewers hit one out of the park for Major League baseball fans, who still dream of the day when the Brewers return to the glory of their late ’70s to early ’80s peak.

Harley-Davidson motorcycles

If Milwaukee had a signature sound, it would be the "potato-potato-potato" of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. It all started back in 1901 with a blueprint sketch from 21-year-old William Harley for an engine that could fit inside a bicycle. A few years later, Harley joined with Arthur, Walter and William Davidson to incorporate as the Harley-Davidson Motor Co. The company, still based in Milwaukee, ships more than 300,000 motorcycles out of its plants each year and its black-and-orange bar-and-shield logo is one of the most easily recognized trademarks around the world.

Socialism

Combine Milwaukee’s German heritage with its strong labor class, and it’s no wonder that Milwaukee became a socialist city in the early 20th century. Led by Austrian immigrant Victor Berger, a schoolteacher and newspaperman, Milwaukee’s socialists used political action for improvements in neighborhoods, sanitation and education and their power made Milwaukee the first socialist city in the United States. Berger became the first socialist congressman in America and Milwaukee supported three socialist mayors, Emil Seidel, Frank Zeidler and Daniel Hoan, during the socialist decades of influence in Milwaukee.

George Webb

There’s something to be said for consistency, and since 1948, George Webb is simply the right place to go for a hot cup of coffee, burger, breakfast and friendly smile in Milwaukee — at any time of the day or night. The first Webb’s hamburger parlor opened on the corner of Van Buren and Ogden streets, and has now grown to 40 restaurants throughout the state, most of which are in southeastern Wisconsin. Most Webb’s fans are avid Brewers fans as well, as the chain still makes good on its pledge of free hamburgers if the Brewers win 12 straight games. It hasn’t happened since 1987, but that doesn’t mean a winning streak couldn’t be right around the corner.

Happy Days

Was this inspiration for Arnold’s Drive-In on the ABC series "Happy Days" Leon’s Custard, the old Pig ’N‘ Whistle on Capitol Drive or the old Kopp’s drive-in on Port Washington Road? Only former Happy Days executive producer and Milwaukee boy Tom Miller knows for sure. Various sources list these three custard stands as potential candidates, though if Miller’s a true, diplomatic Milwaukeean, he likely refused to pick a favorite and simply scooped up the best elements of each one.

Summerfest

Though his inspiration may have been Munich’s Oktoberfest, former Milwaukee Mayor Henry Meier didn’t press the issue on dirndl-clad frauleins and heavy glass beer mugs, but he thought the time was right to bring a similar ethnic-themed festival to Milwaukee. It’s not right to mention Summerfest without a nod to its longtime cheerleader, go-getter and visionary Bo Black, whose 19-year tenure amped up the festival and made it what it is today. Now, more than 40 years after Meier’s idea came to fruition, "The Big Gig" is short on ethnicity, but long on entertainment as the World’s Largest Music Festival, a title certified by Guinness World Records. Summerfest’s 11 stages and 11 days host more than 700 bands. M


This story ran in the August 2008 issue of: