Photo courtesy of Historic Milwaukee, Inc.
Gary Kulas walks from his car to the Plankinton building on a Saturday afternoon without a coat, ready to greet 45 strangers and tell them stories of Gertie the duck, historic facts and the time when he was investigated for murder.
Kulas is one of more than 40 tour guides for Historic Milwaukee Inc. The company’s Skywaukee tours, which Kulas leads, take place Saturdays at 1 p.m. from Jan. 9 through May 7. These tours are given inside of Milwaukee’s skywalks.
The skywalk was originally constructed for employees downtown to have an easy time moving among buildings and businesses while avoiding brutal Milwaukee winters. The skywalk itself is warm due to the sunlight pouring through its glass windows all day.
Aside from being in a skywalk, there are other aspects that make Skywaukee unique. Most tours in downtown Milwaukee focus on things like food, beer, the mansions or shopping. Skywaukee is one of the only tours that covers in-depth history and architecture.
Christianna Niemiec, program manager for Historic Milwaukee Inc., said that one of the most popular stories people hear on tour is the Gertie the duck story. The story took place in 1945, and follows a mother duck and her nine ducklings who were continuously moved off of the street for safety concerns. However, she kept bringing her ducklings back because the street was her home.
The story went viral at the time, and was covered by Life Magazine.
“People related to her because of her cuteness and persistence,” Niemiec said.
Kulas agrees that this is a crowd favorite story, but he enjoys telling personal stories as well.
“The unique story I tell is the night I was investigated for murder down in the Plankinton arcade,” Kulas said.
Kulas said he was questioned simply because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was coming home from a party, when he remembered he had left checks out in the office. He stopped to put them away, while just down the block someone was murdered.
Skywaukee is not only geared toward tourists, but Milwaukee natives can learn something new about the history of their hometown. Visitors often include people from Chicago, but there have also been visitors from Germany.
Niemiec said she believes people decide to go on Skywaukee tours to fulfill a genuine curiosity they have for the world around them.
While learning about history, attractions and legends can make your afternoon interesting, some visitors take fun into their own hands. One visitor scheduled a tour with Kulas and enlisted him to help plot out his proposal to his girlfriend. Kulas gave that tour in a limo.
Historic Milwaukee Inc. is always looking to improve the quality of their tours. Every year, Skywaukee is updated with new content to keep audiences engaged. They also hope to implement more tour guides in order to give guests a more intimate experience. While some days there may only be one or two people on a tour, tours have totaled at 45 people.
In order to get more tour guides, Historic Milwaukee Inc. is changing its training program from every other year, to every year. Training includes taking classes on Milwaukee history, architecture and how to give tours. Kulas recalls having a mentor when he first started. Guides sign up to give tours based on their availability. Niemiec has given tours in the past.
“(Giving tours) is pretty fun because you get to incorporate a little bit of yourself into what you’re doing,” Niemiec said.
Kulas enjoys poking fun at himself, as well as making jokes about Chicago when his tour group includes someone from there. Playing on the rivalry between the two cities is all in good fun.
Kulas hopes that people learn something new about the city. He often hears the response of, “I didn’t know that.” When he sees the eyes of guests get wide, especially locals, he knows he has done his job well. The ultimate goal of Skywaukee is to educate the public, but also for people to have a good time.