Milwaukee’s Best

After over a century, the effects that three men had on our city can still be felt today.

When Marquette University was founded in 1881, Milwaukee was undergoing a period of rapid expansion. Factories were springing up everywhere, providing jobs for immigrants and established Milwaukeeans alike. Some of the biggest motivators in this expansion were a trio of industrialists — unrelated in industry but mutually responsible for building Milwaukee from a small town into a thriving metropolis. These industrialists were Edward P. Allis, Capt. Frederick Pabst and John Plankinton.

Allis, Pabst and Plankinton are all names that would probably ring a bell to most Marquette students. The suburb of West Allis is just a short trip west on I-94. Off-campus coffee shop, Mocha, is on the corner of Wisconsin and Plankinton Avenues. Pabst lends his name to a popular tourist site, concert venue and a college party staple. While their names are still visible, their legacies become increasingly unknown to new generations of Milwaukeeans and Marquette students. While that period of rapid expansion they helped instigate happened more than 100 years ago, their fingerprints are still identifiable on our city. To better understand their impact, the clock must be turned back to before any of the industrialists got here.

Enterprise & Public Spirit
Students from the Chicagoland area sometimes jokingly (or not so jokingly) call Milwaukee a “Chicago suburb.” If things developed differently in the mid-1800s, however, it could have been the other way around.

Before the arrival of Allis, Pabst and Plankinton, Milwaukee was already beginning to boom. According to historian John Gurda’s book

“The Making of Milwaukee,” it had the largest bay and the deepest river on Lake Michigan. But when railroads made their way to the Midwest, Chicago was chosen as a main hub. Milwaukee could have easily faded into obscurity.

Alexander Mitchell, a Milwaukee railroad tycoon in the mid-1800s, wrote, “If it had not been for the enterprise and public spirit and liberality of the citizens …. Milwaukee to-day might have been no larger than Manitowoc or Sheboygan.” Mitchell speaks most directly about Milwaukee’s first railroad pioneers, but “enterprise and public spirit” also apply to the industrial pioneers that the railroads brought.

What is remarkable about these early captains of industry is that they often had an interest and great enthusiasm about the field that they were going into, but no real-world knowledge of it. Frederick Pabst was literally a “captain of industry” — his experience was as a Lake Michigan steamer captain, not a beer brewer. His father-in-law, however, ran a successful brewery in Milwaukee, and Pabst not only became fascinated by the business, but also partnered with his father-in-law to run his brewery.

“He was in the right place at the right time,” said John Eastberg, senior historian of the Captain Frederick Pabst Mansion Inc. “I don’t think he ever would have envisioned himself as a brewer.”

Pabst studied the processes involved in the brewing of beer and the running of a company, and he began to develop an affinity for the business. What he lacked in technical know-how he made up for in promoting and leadership.

“His experiences on the Great Lakes primed him for what he did at the brewing company,” Eastberg said. “As a captain moving mercantile goods around the Great Lakes … an early understanding of marketing was natural for him.”

E. P. Allis had even less of an idea what he was getting into. Seeing an increase in the market for machines, he bought the bankrupt Reliance Works machine shop.

“What made Allis unusual was that he was not a technical guy,” said Gurda, historian and Milwaukee expert. “I don’t know if he could tell a T-square from a clothes hanger.”

Like Pabst, Allis made up for his shortcomings by his aggressive market instincts.

“(Allis) bet the farm every time, and always won,” Gurda said.

Packing and Processing
John Plankinton, unlike Allis and Pabst, started out very knowledgeable in his field. He entered the meatpacking trade already as an experienced butcher. As a natural entrepreneur, he knew to strike when the iron was hot. According to Gurda’s book, the 1850s marked the beginning of a growing surplus of hogs and cattle in the Milwaukee area. This made the packing trade lucrative, and in 1852, Plankinton opened a packing house. The packing operation started with little more than a butcher shop, but soon, Plankinton had what Gurda called the “lion’s share” of the meat business.

“From small seeds you get these huge enterprises,” Gurda said.

While Plankinton had great business sensibilities of his own, his success owes a lot to the quality of the people he surrounded himself with. An associate of Plankinton’s in his later years was a young Patrick Cudahy. Cudahy was a poor immigrant who eventually worked his way up to be a manager at one of Plankinton’s packing plants.

“(Cudahy) began on the ground floor,” Gurda said. “Not someone who had advantages.” Plankinton quickly recognized Cudahy’s talent and later made him partner in the company.

While the work was often grim, the packing business attracted scores of laborers to the Milwaukee area. By 1880, meatpacking became the most important industry in the city’s economy. In that year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Milwaukee’s population topped 115,000.

Plankinton’s energy was something legendary, especially during the peak packing season. After Plankinton’s death, Cudahy wrote:

In those days, Mr. Plankinton possessed enough energy for any dozen ordinary men. He would appear at the packing house on such mornings with his trousers rolled up, a soft slouch hat on his head, and with a business fire in his eye. I was but 25 years of age, a mere boy at the time, so it is not to be wondered at that I should shrink a little in the presence of such an employer.

A hand-crafted book, commissioned by Plankinton’s daughter Elizabeth, is filled with such tributes from his friends and colleagues (the book is now in the rare books collection of the Milwaukee Public Library). The stories and anecdotes about Plankinton’s life contained within shows that it was no small wonder that Plankinton made the impact on Milwaukee that he did.

A Blue Ribbon Business
While Frederick Pabst did not start out as a brewmaster, it was only a matter of time before he became one. In 1864 he became partner in Philip Best’s Brewery, and by 1868 Pabst had made it the largest brewery in Milwaukee. In 1871, Best became the largest brewer in the nation — a title that, under the Pabst name, it would hold for several years during the 20th century.

Several chance factors played a role in Pabst’s early success. Milwaukee had attracted a large German population early on in its history. That, coupled with Milwaukee’s location made brewing beer a very lucrative business.

“You had the German population base to consume the product,” Eastberg said. “Plus they had a knowledge of brewing and materials necessary for manufacturing in the immediate area.” This meant that Pabst could easily benefit from not only customers, but also a skilled workforce.

Chance also played a role in Pabst’s dominance in the form of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The Chicago breweries knocked out by the fire eliminated Chicago as a major contender to be the era’s “Brew City.”

While Pabst seems like he might have just “gotten lucky,” it was his skill that made his streak of good luck a million dollar venture. At this time, most breweries were local-only, because before refrigerated rail cars beer easily spoiled in transport.

“It was a very seasonal kind of a business,” Gurda said. “Transportation limited how much you could ship.”

But Pabst took the initiative and became one of the first brewers to ship his product to other cities.

“The market (in Milwaukee) was too small to support the ambitions he began to harbor,” Gurda said, referring to Pabst’s decision to expand the market for his beer.

After his brand was introduced nationally, Pabst became best known for his publicity and promotional techniques.

“He was the kind of guy who would show up at the Pabst rooms in New York City and buy the place a beer,” Gurda said. “He was sort of a larger than life personality.”

The spirited promotions made Pabst a millionaire by 1880, and in 1889, the Best brewery was renamed for Pabst.

Many found jobs in the Pabst brewery during the latter part of the 19th century due to Pabst’s success. By 1890, Milwaukee’s population had jumped to more than 200,000 — a 75 percent increase from a decade before, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

While beer no longer holds the role as the most important industry to Milwaukee’s economy, it has left a mark on the city. Even after many of the major breweries left Milwaukee — including Pabst’s — the city continues to be called “brew city”.

World’s Machine Shop
If beer made Milwaukee famous, it was manufacturing that made it even more successful. Later in the 19th century, Milwaukee began to shift away from processing industries like meatpacking and brewing and move toward manufacturing and metalworking. According to Gurda, no one was more instrumental in that shift than E.P. Allis.

“He was the godfather of that shift,” Gurda said.

Even after buying the Reliance Works machine shop in 1861, Allis still did not know much about manufacturing. That was a major influence in his business principle: “Find a promising market, hire the best engineers available and get out of their way,” Gurda wrote.

The first test of that principle would come in 1871, when Milwaukee’s municipal government wanted to install the first city water system and opened up bids for contracts.

“Allis bid on the entire system without ever making a pump or a foot of pipe,” Gurda said.

Allis won the contract, and after hiring some of the best engineers available, his company completed the water system.
Reliance Works soon became one of the largest employers in Milwaukee, and began building things like the Milwaukee River Flushing Station (now Alterra on the Lake) and some of the largest steam engines of the time. When Allis died in 1889, he left one of the largest and most successful companies in Wisconsin.

In 1901, Allis’ company merged with two Chicago firms and a Pennsylvania firm to become Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Co., which later became one of the largest names in farm equipment manufacturing.

By 1900, manufacturing had surpassed both meatpacking and brewing to become Milwaukee’s most economically important industry, and the city’s population topped 285,000. Milwaukee for years became known as the “Machine Shop of the World.” While Allis never lived to see the turn of the century, it was his contributions to the Allis company that made Milwaukee’s manufacturing industry possible.

Building a City
Industry brought in the masses, but without buildings, roads and other features of a city, Milwaukee could not serve its new public.

That’s where industrialists like Allis, Pabst and Plankinton stepped in.

Pabst especially was a builder. In addition to his mansion, which still stands at 2000 W. Wisconsin Ave., Pabst built Milwaukee’s first skyscraper, the Pabst Building, in 1893 on the corner of what is now Water Street and Wisconsin Avenue.

“It was an icon,” said Gurda, explaining that companies would even make coin jars in the shape of the Pabst Building.

Pabst also built the Pabst Theatre in 1895 after the Nunnemacher Grand Opera House burned down. The Pabst Theatre was famous in its early days for bringing some of the best German-language stage shows to Milwaukee — a popular attraction for many of the city’s German-born residents. The Pabst Theater was a major contributor to Milwaukee becoming, as historian Eastberg described it, “the German Athens of the West”.

Pabst even built a permanent amusement park, the “Whitefish Bay Resort,” in 1889. Located in the neighboring suburb of Whitefish Bay, it attracted as many as 15,000 people on a popular Sunday.

Plankinton was also quite the builder. He funded the first Milwaukee Public Library building in 1880, the city’s Industrial Exposition Building in 1881 and built the Plankinton House, a luxury hotel, in 1884. He and his family also built their luxurious homes along what is now Wisconsin Avenue. Most notable of these homes was the Elizabeth Plankinton mansion, which John built for his daughter as a wedding gift. Elizabeth’s wedding was called off, however, and she became disenchanted with the house, never actually living there.

Unlike Plankinton and Pabst, E.P. Allis never built much outside of his own factory buildings and the homes in which he and his family lived. Most notable is the home of his son Charles, on Prospect Avenue. The building is now the Charles Allis Art Museum, which is open to the public.

Although several of these buildings were of great importance to Milwaukee’s history, many did not survive. The public library Plankinton helped found moved to its current location in 1898. The Industrial Exposition Building burned to the ground in 1905, and the Milwaukee Auditorium (now the Milwaukee Theatre) was built in its place four years later. Pabst’s Whitefish Bay Resort was torn down in 1914 due to a steady decline in popularity. Plankinton’s hotel was demolished a year later to make way for Milwaukee’s first “shopping center,” the Plankinton Arcade — better known now as the older section of Grand Avenue Mall.

Both John Plankinton’s home and his son William’s home were purchased by Marquette University in 1918, according to the University Archives. William’s mansion served first as the Trinity Hospital Annex and then the Alumni and Athletic Office. Following America’s trend of urban renewal, the building was torn down in 1970. John Plankinton’s mansion housed the College of Music, but was demolished in 1975.

That same year, urban renewal came very close to claiming the famed Pabst Mansion as well. After Frederick Pabst and his wife died, the family sold the mansion to the Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee, who used the mansion as the home of the Milwaukee Archbishops for several years. When the building was sold in 1975, its buyers intended to demolish it and build a parking structure in its place. The plan would have gone through if a new historic preservation group had not stepped in. Wisconsin Heritages Inc. raised funds and purchased the home, opening it up for tours. Tours are still available, and the mansion is a familiar site for students living on the west side of campus.

“Milwaukee is fortunate the Pabst Mansion survived and weathered the 20th century,” Eastberg said. “It is the only house of the period that survived with its original function and interiors intact.”

The year 1980 was a terrible blow to Milwaukee’s architectural heritage, as both the historic Pabst Building and the final remaining Plankinton mansion were torn down. The Pabst Building was purchased by the Carley Capital Group in Madison and was torn down, with no building taking its place until the 100 East building was constructed in 1989. The motive for the demolition seemed to be simply to increase the property value for a new build.

“It was largely a developer trying to make a bigger buck,” Gurda said.

The Plankinton Mansion met a similar end. The building, having housed the Knights of Columbus for many years (fittingly, the address was 1492 W. Wisconsin Ave.) was purchased by the city’s Redevelopment Authority and resold to Marquette on the grounds that it be demolished. According to Thomas Jablonsky, associate professor of History, Marquette encountered several lawsuits by historic preservationist groups after they acquired the land.

Jablonsky said there was also neighborhood opposition, as some did not favor the idea of Marquette owning all the property on Wisconsin Avenue between 12th Street and 16th Street. Once the courts filed in favor of Marquette, preservationists had no time to fight back.

“I think it was done on a Sunday night,” Gurda said. “They were trying to not do anything that would call attention to the fact they were tearing it down.”

Jablonsky explained that Marquette’s reasoning for quick action was to prevent the university from wasting more time and money.
“Marquette … did send a bulldozer in to take the building down quickly … because it had dragged on for years,” Jablonsky said.

Milwaukee’s Royalty
When Allis died in 1889, Plankinton in 1891 and Pabst in 1904, Milwaukee lost what could be called three of its finest entrepreneurs. Without them, the city may not have built itself as well or as quickly as it did.

They weren’t the only people making a difference, however.

“What really stands out is that you had a critical mass of entreprenuers,” Gurda said. “Milwaukee really got more than its proportional share of the entreprenuers and enterprises, so what that obviously did was create all sorts of employment opportunities.”

There were always other brewers, packers and manufacturers — in Pabst’s case, he consistently had Schlitz, Blatz and Miller to contend with.

“Had Frederick Pabst not been here, there would have been beer royalty in Milwaukee, but he was still the king of kings, the brightest of the luminaries,” Gurda said.

Also, according to Jablonsky, Marquette’s initial successes at the end of the 1800s cannot not be directly attributed to the Plankinton, Allis or Pabst influences.

“Marquette almost could have been in the cornfields and it wouldn’t have mattered,” said Jablonsky.

But at the turn of the century, the growing population in Milwaukee began to affect the way Marquette taught its students.

“Now you’re beginning to see a city getting very complex and demanding all sorts of specializations … that begins (Marquette’s) introduction into the broader urban economy and the professions that uphold a complex urban economy,” said Jablonsky.

That complex urban economy is what makes Milwaukee more than just Marquette’s location. It also becomes a place to work and a place to have fun. The work of the industrialists Allis, Pabst and Plankinton created a job market in Milwaukee and consequently built the city that made Marquette into a university.

Perhaps Gurda put it best. “Cities start with jobs — they start as economic entities and become so much more.”

Sara J. Martinez contributed to this story.

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