"The Wisconsin Years," from
My First Eighty Years (and then some!)
Lyle Arthur Seefeld
Copyright Ralph L. Seefeld and Carol
Howman. This book may not be reproduced or copied
in any manner without the written consent of Ralph L. Seefeld
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Chapter 18: Milwaukee (1927-1930)
So, in late May or early June, 1927, for the second time that year, I found myself on the "Milwaukee" train headed for Milwaukee, another small-town job seeker going to the big city. I had an advantage over most such people, since I did know someone in Milwaukee and did have a place to stay. My cousins Herman and Otto Schmelter met me at the station, and we rode on a streetcar all the way out to the end of the line, on 35th Street. (A nickel a ride!) Just across 35th from where the streetcar stopped was a three story house, which was "our" boarding-house, run by two somewhat older than middle-aged widows. This was 185 35th Street, which will tell you it was near the south end of the street, not far from the deep valley of the Menomonee River. This was before there was a 35th Street viaduct across the valley to the south side. (More about viaducts and streets later.)
I shared a large room on the first floor with Herman and Otto, who were both automobile mechanics and worked at auto dealerships not far away. There were about five or six other boarders, two of whom were recent immigrants from Germany, like Herman and Otto. I immediately started scanning the "Help Wanted" ads in the Milwaukee Journal, without too much luck at first. One day I saw a notice listing the evening courses available at the Milwaukee Extension School of the University of Wisconsin. Two of them caught my eye, so I went downtown and enrolled in Radio Theory and Radio Laboratory. Each class met once a week for about three hours. More about these classes later.
Then I saw an ad by one of the steamship companies which ran car ferries across Lake Michigan. It turned out that they wanted an assistant purser to work aboard one of their ferries. It might have been an interesting job, but since it would have meant giving up evening school, I didn't take it. A few days later I answered an ad for a timekeeper at the Harley Davidson motorcycle plant, and was hired immediately because of my previous timekeeping experience.
Since Joyce was still at home in Tomahawk, we communicated by mail. Letter postage was only three cents, so until Joyce moved to Milwaukee early in 1928, we kept two steady streams of letters flowing, one to Tomahawk and one to Milwaukee.
Directly across 35th Street from our boarding house was the end of the line for streetcars which "turned around" here and went back down town, I think it was on Wells Street. Of course the cars didn't actually turn around, because they were double-ended. So at the end of the line, it was switched to the return track, the trolley pole on one end was taken down and hooked to the roof, while the one on the other end was placed on the overhead wire. This done, the operator walked through the car, reversing all the seat backs, and was then ready to make his return trip.
Two evenings a week I rode one of these streetcars downtown to my radio classes, one night devoted to radio theory and the other to laboratory experiments. Toward the end of these classes the instructor took the class on two field trips. One was to the transmitter of radio station WTMJ, located a quite a distance out in the country. We got to see the big transmitter and its huge water-cooled vacuum tubes at close range. Most impressive to me, though, was the pipe organ studio. Here we all crowded around the console while the organist played, and when she played the lowest notes those big pipes shook the floor! For the other field trip we were all driven to a large auditorium in downtown Milwaukee, where some engineer was going to set up a large radio he had built so we could listen to a blow-by-blow description of a boxing match in which Gene Tunney fought Jack Dempsey. So he set up his radio on a table, connected the batteries, antenna and loudspeaker, and reached for his box of tubes, which he had packed separately to avoid breakage, and, to his chagrin, discovered that he had left them at home! We quietly left the auditorium and had to read about the fight in the morning newspaper.
I think it was while I was taking these evening classes that I bought my first typewriter. In a little shop on Wisconsin Avenue (pawn-shop?) I bought a brand new Remington portable with Elite type, for twenty-five dollars. Just right for making my notes for evening school. When we came west, it came with us, and then when I bought a new machine, I gave it to the Valentines [Joyce's sister Vi's family]. Apparently they moved it back east with them, for the last I heard of it, Jody had it with him when he went to college.
Sometimes on the way home after my evening class, I strolled along Wisconsin Avenue, window shopping, and occasionally stopping at one of the many fruit stands to buy three pounds of delicious seedless green grapes for a quarter! I also spent quite a bit of time at the big library at Eighth and Wisconsin. Here I could most often be found back in the corner of the technical section where they kept the books on radio. Two floors of this building were devoted to the Milwaukee Museum. Besides their big collection of artifacts from all over the world, they had one of the earliest "horseless carriages." Most interesting to me, though, were the dioramas. These were huge glass-enclosed exhibits depicting every day activities of the Pilgrims in New England, early settlers in the west, Indian villages, and various wild animals in their natural habitat. Each diorama consisted of three dimensional figures and objects in a foreground scene which blended so well with the painted background that it gave the illusion of tremendous depth.
There were a great many things for a newcomer from a small town to see and do in Milwaukee. I often rode a streetcar down to the waterfront at Lake Park. Here there were large areas of trees and grass, and on hot summer days the temperature was always several degrees cooler than out where we lived. Milwaukee didn't have a natural harbor, so they built two mile-long breakwaters to protect ships moored there. The coolest place in summer was out on the end of one of these breakwaters where one had the full advantage of any breeze. One Saturday morning I arrived at Lake Park to find a small airplane on one of the grassy strips. The police were there, talking to the pilot, who had apparently made an emergency landing there the previous day. He was trying to talk the police into letting him take off from the park, instead of having to take his plane apart and haul it out on a truck. He apparently persuaded them, and I watched as he rolled down the open area of the park, and just cleared the trees as he flew away.
Speaking of airplanes, Charles "Lucky Lindy" Lindbergh, who had made his famous solo flight across the Atlantic earlier that year, was making his aerial tour of the country and one of his stops was at Milwaukee's Mitchell Field. So, of course, I rode the streetcars out there and, although he wasn't there, I did take a picture of his airplane.
Like all large organizations with widely scattered offices, Harley Davidson employed several young people as couriers or "mail carriers" who walked a regular route and distributed inter-office memos and other paperwork. One of these couriers was an energetic young fellow named Chester Foesch. He stopped at my office several times a day, and we got acquainted. He was a native Milwaukeean, and since I was a newcomer "from the sticks" he volunteered to go on a walking tour of the city with me. So one evening after work we met and started walking. We covered a great deal of the city north of the deep valley where the river and the railroads ran, and then crossed over the Sixteenth Street Viaduct. And to my surprise, when we got to the other side, we were on Fourteenth Street! Apparently the two parts of Milwaukee had numbered their streets separately, and nobody minded until they started building viaducts to link the two sides. This confusing system persisted as long as we lived in Milwaukee, but later maps, besides showing a new 35th Street Viaduct, indicate that the street numbers on the south side were changed to match those on the north side. Anyway, we hiked quite a while on the South Side, then crossed over one of the viaducts and concluded our hike, which I later estimated to have covered at least ten miles.
After I had lived at 185 35th Street a few months, the place was sold and taken over by a middle aged man and wife who had a son about eighteen and a daughter about ten. I don't remember any of their names, but I do remember that they had a radio. And I vividly remember one Sunday, it must have been in 1928, when we heard the first ever live radio broadcast of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. Also, in 1928, the Ford Motor Company unveiled its new Model A car, with conventional distributor ignition system, three-speed transmission, and the new proprietors of the boarding house bought one.
I don't remember whether if it was in my first or second winter in Milwaukee, that Herman, Otto and I went down to the waterfront, where we had gone many times in summer. The two long breakwaters which formed the Milwaukee harbor were encased in mountains of ice, and the harbor itself was frozen, forming a landscape (?) looking like a scene in one of the polar regions.
About this time, Henry Wohrer, one of Herman and Otto's friends, was married and set up housekeeping in an upper flat not far from the old boarding house, and within walking distance of Harley Davidson. They had a large spare room, so it was arranged that Herman, Otto and I moved from the boarding house into their flat. Henry was an engineer, and worked for the Johnson Service Company, which manufactured air conditioning and temperature control systems. He was an amateur photographer, and had a Plaubel-Makina (German, of course!) sheet film camera. He had the drug store develop his films, but he made his own contact prints. He was also a pianist, and not long after we moved into their flat, he bought an excellent used upright piano for twenty-five dollars! He enjoyed playing classical music, and I enjoyed listening to him play. One piano transcription of a classical piece frustrated him, because for part of it he needed four hands. Finally he enlisted my help, taught me to play the small part for the extra two hands, and after that we performed it "together."
I think it was early in 1928 when Joyce moved to Milwaukee the first time. She stayed with some friends until she landed a job as "nanny" with the Horst family, who had two little boys. Mr. Horst was, I think, an editor for the Milwaukee Journal, and they lived in a fashionable neighborhood on Milwaukee's East Side, near Lake Michigan. The East side was the area between the Milwaukee River and Lake Michigan. So now, when I spent an evening with Joyce, I had a long streetcar ride involving several transfers.
The next spring, March 6, 1929, to be exact, some of my co-workers at Harley Davidson, knowing I had come from Tomahawk, told me "there was no reason for going home any more, the whole town had burned!" It had been a big fire, all right, and destroyed the Mitchell Hotel and a dozen or more of Tomahawk's oldest store buildings, but most of the town was still there. Joyce went down town in the freezing weather and took some pictures of the scene.
While Herman, Otto and I were living with the Wohrers, Herman bought a new car. It was a Whippet, made by Overland. I think it had a four cylinder engine, and was about the size of a 1990's Honda. Its shape was quite streamlined for the 1920's, and it seemed to be well built and a bit more luxurious than other small cars. My car, the 1926 Ford Dale and I had driven on our Western trip, was in Tomahawk, so I looked around used car lots in Milwaukee until I found and bought one just like it.
Early in the summer of 1929, Joyce moved down to Milwaukee again, and got a job as secretary for Metal Products Company, who made neon signs. This time she stayed with a woman named Schoeppe (spelling uncertain.) I had a car now, so we got around more, and had picnics in most of Milwaukee's parks. One Sunday we drove down to Lake Geneva, a beautiful spot in southern Wisconsin, where we saw the Yerkes Observatory (from a distance.)
Late in the summer of 1929, Joyce and I decided it was time to get married., Being somewhat old fashioned, I wrote to Joyce's dad, who was in Montana at the time, asking his permission. I got a nice letter back with his OK so we started making arrangements. We had our medical exams, and then went to an office upstairs some place (not down town) and got the necessary license. We also went apartment hunting, and rented a one-room-with-kitchenette on the south side of Highland Boulevard, on the second floor of what had once been a large home, within walking distance of Harley Davidson. Joyce wanted to be married at home, and by Reverend R. G. Heddon, who had been the pastor of her church. He no longer lived in Tomahawk, but was going to be there on September 16, so it was arranged that we would be married by him on that day.
We were married on Monday, and we stayed on the farm the rest of the week, until Saturday night, which we spent with the Wileys preparing for our trip back to Milwaukee and our new apartment. So on Sunday we drove back to Milwaukee and on Monday we both went back to work at our respective jobs. Later that year, Joyce discovered she was pregnant, so we began to plan a move to a house or a flat of our own. We finally rented an upper flat on 38th Street, just south of Vliet Street and Washington Park, and not far from Harley Davidson. Because I had a good job, we were able to buy furniture for the flat, including beds and other things for our big spare room, which Herman and Otto rented from us.
Then one day in May, 1930, my boss reluctantly informed me that the depression had reduced sales so much they could no longer keep me, so I was out of a job. Since Joyce had already quit her job at Metal Products, we had no income. I scanned the help wanted ads and wrote letters, with little result. One day I thought I had landed a job. I answered an ad by the Milwaukee branch of the General Electric Supply Division, and was asked to come down for an interview. Besides all the usual questions, the man inquired as to my religion. He explained that they didn't hire Catholics, because their church services caused tardiness and absences, and because there was often friction between them and other employees. This flabbergasted me, but since I easily qualified for the job, I was told to come in again, I think it was the next day. But when I reported again, I was told that the job had been taken by a General Electric employee from Chicago, who had been laid off down there. No job!
Then on July 8, 1930, Caryl was born, and we decided that as soon as she and Joyce could travel, we would drive back to Tomahawk. So we notified the furniture store to come and get their furniture, vacated the flat and reluctantly drove back to Tomahawk.
I'm way ahead of myself again, having left out my experiences at Harley Davidson. This part of my life deserves a separate chapter, anyhow, so that's what's coming up next.