A foot - complete with shoe 
- in door of Waukesha’s past
Historical marker recognizes one of the city’s iconic shops

By DANIEL KURT - GM Today Staff 

August 7, 2008

Marilyn Cohn Kagan, center, along with her daughter, Ruth Mastron, and nephew, Mark Cohn, stand next to the historical marker honoring their family’s former shoe store in downtown Waukesha. The marker, located at Clinton Street and West Broadway, was dedicated by the Waukesha County Historical Society and Museum last week.

Sam Cohn, far right, Phil Cohn, second from right, and three employees are shown in this 1929 photograph of Cohn Bros. Shoe Store in Waukesha. The brothers-in-law operated the store from 1921 until 1977, when Sam’s son, Ed, took over its management. The shop closed in 1998, after 77 years in business.

WAUKESHA - Part of Marilyn Cohn Kagan’s push to commemorate her family’s former shoe shop was for personal reasons, she acknowledges.

Last week, Kagan looked on as the Waukesha County Historical Society and Museum dedicated a marker to commemorate the Cohn Bros. Shoe Store, which from 1921 to 1998 stood downtown at 342 W. Main St.

Kagan’s pride in the business is not without reason. Her father, Sam, and uncle Phil, Jewish immigrants from Belarus, overcame oppression in their homeland and - with little formal training - built a business that lasted more than seven decades. Her brother Ed ran the store from 1977 until he closed its doors in 1998.

"It was important to pay tribute to him as part of my history," she said of her father.

The marker, which lies one block north of the building - now home to Almont Gallery - also serves as a reminder of how far the Waukesha business community has changed over the years.

Prior to the 1960s, the store, which served men and women of all ages, was one of several large retailers located downtown. Before the interstate and suburban sprawl, Kagan said there was simply no place else to shop.

"Everything was downtown," she said.




Kagan, 77, said stores like her father’s would often be packed, especially on Friday nights and Saturdays.

In more recent decades, the development of shopping malls diffused from local retail establishments and left a downtown composed largely of smaller, specialty shops.

One aspect of Waukesha life that Kagan, now a California resident, remembers vividly from her childhood is the strong sense of community, a tradition today’s business owners try to carry forward.

"Everybody knew everybody else," she said. "They learned how to depend on themselves and their neighbors."

When World War II came to end, Kagan said it was natural for residents to celebrate the event together, using the shoe shop as a headquarters.

"It was a very tight-knit community," she said.

Leaving a legacy

When asked about the store’s longevity, Kagan, who spent much of her own childhood hanging out at the shop, credits her family members’ work ethic and resiliency.

The latter became especially valuable during the Great Depression, when most people simply didn’t have the money to pay for shoes. Sam and Phil managed to survive by bartering, she recalled.

In a particularly memorable transaction, her family received a live turkey in exchange for an order of shoes. Unfortunately, she remembers getting too attached to the bird in the days leading up to Thanksgiving.

"By that time me and my brother had made a pet of the thing," she said.

Her father, lacking a formal business education, also relied on his instincts in running the store. Every detail of the operation, including how to display shoes, had to be learned through trial and error.

With the historical marker as a reminder, Kagan hopes her family’s experiences will inspire current and future Waukesha residents.

"(History) is not just a bunch of dry facts," she said. "We’re talking about real people."

Daniel Kurt can be reached at dkurt@conleynet.com

This story appeared in The Freeman on August 7, 2008.