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  • Writer's pictureGregory T. Wilkins

Milwaukee, Wisconsin (2021)

Updated: Nov 29, 2021

November 25, 2021 I left on Thanksgiving from Mankato, Minnesota and drove to the historic town of Portage, Wisconsin. I could have made it all the way to Milwaukee, but I was not in a hurry. I had emailed restaurants in the area if they would be open for Thanksgiving, and everyone was closed. Some would be open until 1 p.m. I decided to keep my eyes open for a Cracker Barrel on the way. Historically, I would not eat at a Cracker Barrel because of their corporate stance on LGBTQ issues, particularly in the mid-80s and early 90s. Great thing about change is the company changed their backward views and no longer firing their employees who are part of the LGBTQ community. In 1991, Cracker Barrel had a policy allowing managers to fire LGBTQ employees. At least 11 gay and lesbian employees were fired under the policy. The New York Times explains the company's reasoning at the time:

Cracker Barrel was founded on a “concept of traditional American values.” Continued employment of those “whose sexual preference fails to demonstrate normal heterosexual values which have been the foundation of families in our society” appears inconsistent with those values and the “perceived values of our customer base,” it said.

Although the company got rid of the policy shortly after it received national attention, the company’s support for LGBTQ has remained less than perfect.

In the 2008 Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index (HRC CEI) — a measure of companies’ pro-LGBTQ policies — it received a 15 out of 100 score which then increased to 55 in 2011 after the company instated a non-discrimination policy and diversity training which included sexual orientation.

But in 2013, its HRC CEI rating dropped to 35 because it lacked transgender-inclusive benefits, non-discrimination policies for gender identity, and health benefits for partners of LGBT employees.

In 2018, Cracker Barrel had an HRC CEI rating of 65 out of 100. The company lacked equal employment policies based on gender identity, trans-inclusive healthcare, no clear-cut data collection on LGBTQ employees nor did it have guidelines for supporting gender transitioning employees. In 2019, they got an HRC CEI rating of 80 out of 100. They lost points for lacking equivalency in same- and different-sex domestic partner benefits and trans-inclusive healthcare. 2021, things continue to improve, though they are far from perfect and remain at an 80 out of 100 on the HRC CEI. That said, it shows you can teach an old dog new tricks. I keep waiting for Chick-fil-A to catch-up and get their act together.

I stopped in the Wisconsin Dells for a late afternoon meal at a Cracker Barrel. For approximately $15 I ate a traditional meal of three slices of turkey, green beans, mashed sweet potatoes, corn bread, biscuit, cranberry sauce, a drink, and a slice of pie while in the Wisconsin Dells. Good thing I doubled checked the bill before I paid because I saw they charged for the drink ($2.29). I brought it to the attention at the counter, and as soon as I did, the staff it said it was because of the drink. It was rectified, but I wonder how many people over paid even when the staff knew it was an error and if the guest did not bring it to their attention? My tummy was full, I was filled to capacity, and I then continued my drive to Portage. Portage, Wisconsin is a tiny town of approximately 10,000 people. It's slogan "Where the North Begins" rang true as the wind swept across the plains across the waterway and chilled me to the bones. I was glad I brought my Icelandic wool, turtleneck sweater that Bear and I got when we visited there a few years ago. Brrrr.... The town of Portage got its name because of where it sits with the Fox River and the Wisconsin River. It received its namesake back in 1673 when White folks came through. Indigenous people had been here long before settlers pushed their way onto the land. This is reflected in indigenous names for the town, such as the Menominee name Kahkāmohnakaneh, which means "at the short cut".

I stayed the evening at a Super 8. On their website, rooms are traditionally $70+ plus tax. I found a single room on Priceline for $41 plus tax. Growing up, I always had this idea that a Super 8 was not so super. Well, times have changed. The hotel is now part of the Wyndham family, and several improvements have been made. While it is not super fancy, it sure beat my conjured, historical ideas of a run down space filled with truckers and dollar conscious salesmen. I was at first concerned when the front desk person only wore their upper dentures in their mouth. I feared for the worse. Once I got check-in, things were okay -- not fancy but decent. The bathroom sink was granite, furnishings were ticked up a notch, and the towels and bedding were satisfactory -- though the bed comforter could have had more umph to it. I settled in for the late afternoon, got into my PJs, and snuggled in for the evening checking my email, and then watching HGTV before calling it quits. Another win was the place was quiet, and I never heard another guest the entire evening. Winning! My stay also came with free breakfast -- waffles, cereal, milk, juice, coffee, hard boiled eggs, fruit, toast, etc. While I would not pay $70+ to stay here, it met more-or-less (more less than more) my $50 expectation. November 26, 2021

Wisconsin drivers do not obey traffic laws. Hwy 90 is great because you can drive 70 MPH. In WI, it seems to mean you can drive 80+ MPH. Not me! I put my speed control at 75 and stayed that way, even if folks were getting antsy with me. My goal was to arrive alive. Add wind and bridges to the equation, I have no plans on becoming Cadillac soup. I had purchased tickets last week for the Pabst mansion for $16 (student rate) to see it all decked out for Christmas. Tickets sell out quickly and was excited to see the house. It is a Flemish-Renaissance style built in 1892 for Frederick Pabst, the founder of Pabst Brewing Company. He immigrated in 1848 with his family from Germany to Chicago, IL. When he was 14 he became a cabin boy on a boat, and by the time he was 21 he earned his ship pilot's license. He moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin and married Maria Best whose family owed Best and Company, a large brewery. He bought a half interest in the company and over 25 years turned that interest into the largest producer of lager beer. He hired well known architects of the time to build his house. It was built for $250,000 which would be approximately $7 million today. It is one of a few remaining prominent houses on Wisconsin Avenue also know back in the day as Grand Avenue (now not so grand). The Pabst family lived in the house from 1892 to 1908. The family sold the mansion to the Catholic Archdiocese. The church moved the Pabst conservatory and made it into a chapel for the Catholic Bishop. Today, the space is used as a gift shop and where you buy your tickets to see the house. Catholic priests and nuns lived there for another 67 years. the church put it up for sale in 1975 and in 1978 Wisconsin Heritage bought the house. Fortunately, the house was saved because the city had planned to demolish it and turn the land into a parking deck! The house remained closed to the public during the height of Covid-19. They used that time to make renovations, which included a million dollar electricity upgrade because it still had old wiring. One thing which was particularly interesting is the Pabst family had put in an elevator into the house when they lived there. Can you image doing that back in the day? They also had both electric and gas lights because they thought electricity was going to be a passing fad. If they only knew... The city has grown up around the house. For ex., in 1928, the Shriners built their temple several blocks away. The neighborhood today is a bit sketchy. You can see where the grand houses and apartments were as some of them remain today. While others have been demolished and made way for tacky 1950s-70s architecture, which I view as a true eyesore. Think about how much grandeur and craft was lost to the wrecking ball. It makes my heart ache.

The other place I visited was Forest Home Cemetery. It was established in 1850 by the St. Paul's Episcopal Church. It was the in place for Milwaukee's famous to rest forever -- 26 mayors, more than 1,000 Civil War veterans, artists, and writers. When developed, the property was one of the first landscaped sites in Milwaukee by a person named Increase A. Lapham (Wisconsin's first naturalist) and was considered one of the finest examples of rural garden cemeteries in the Upper Midwest. Sadly, many of the historic trees have died to old age, rot, and the natural elements. I only hope the current management will put time and money in returning it to its former grandeur. In 1892, the grounds were graced with an English Gothic chapel made from Lake Superior sandstone. It was the same architect that build the Milwaukee Central Library and the Pabst Mansion. One bit of history that is interesting is the basement housed the first crematory in the Upper Midwest and was in use for more than 100 years -- 1896 to 1998. Folks came all the way from Minnesota to be cremated here and then transported back by train back in the old days.

Some famous folks that rest here are:

  • Ezekiel Gillespie (1818-1892) -- a freed slave from Tennessee who won a court case after being denied the right to vote. In 1866, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in his favor which in turn provided all Black men in Wisconsin the right to vote. He also founded the first Black church in Milwaukee, St. Mark Methodist Episcopal. Sadly, his cemetery marker is worse for wear. I would hope the Milwaukee community would pull their money to create a new marker.

  • Capt. Frederick Pabst (1836-1901)-- the man of beer fame who by the end of the 19th century was the largest producer of lager beer in the United States at more than 1 million barrels annually.

  • Joseph Schlitz (1831-1875) -- another beer man. He died when his ship sank going over to Germany and his body was not recovered. The boat is carved into the cenotaph.

  • Edward P. Allis (1842-1889) -- industrialist. He company supplied water pipes and pumping engines for Milwaukee's first water system. The Allis family mausoleum is the second largest in the cemetery.

  • Robert Nunnemacher (1854-1912) -- In the 1890s through the turn of the century he was one of the top 20 wealthiest businessmen in the United States.

  • The Davidson brothers (Arthur, Walter, William -- 1870-1937) -- these brothers founded the Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Company with their friend William Harley.

  • Alice Miller Chester (1893-1972) -- was involved with the Girl Scouts for more than 50 years. She served as a national vice president alongside Herbert Hoover's wife (Lou Hoover) who was the national president.

  • Laura Ross Wolcott (1834-1915) -- the first woman physician in Wisconsin and the third woman in the United States to earn a medical degree. She helped found the Wisconsin Women's Suffrage Association.

  • A couple of other headstones that are famous here were designed by two famous artists, Paul Manship and Daniel Chester French. French created the Lincoln sculpture in Washington, DC for the Lincoln Monument. The artist created a stone for T. A. Chapman, a high-end department store that closed in the 1970s. The Manship stone was created for Gertrude Nunnemacher Schuchardt who shot herself in a downtown Los Angeles hotel. One of Manship's most famous pieces is the Promethus fountain at Rockefeller Center in New York City.

I have always been fond of cemeteries. They are the final resting place for so many and have a rich history that is often forgotten. Some things I like about them are they reflect a time in history with the tombstone markers which can be viewed in their art, script, font, verse, etc. They are often a quiet, green space where a city grows up around them. They are a place for reflection.

Some symbols on the markers many folks do not know are:

  • Book - represents a person's life or, if open, symbolizes a human heart open to God as well as the deeds of a person's life being recorded.

  • Draped Urn - very common in the 19th century funerary depicts the veil of life and death.

  • Hands point Up & Obelisks - indicates that the soul has risen to Heaven.

  • Ivy - symbolizes attachment, friendship, and undying affection. Its three-pointed leaves also symbolizes the trinity -- Father, Son, Holy Ghost.

  • Laurel Wreath - emphasizes a spiritual victory. It is associated with immortality because its leaves never fade or wilt.

  • Torch - upright, it represents eternal life and inverted a life cut short.

  • Three Stones next to each other (often looking like a tree) - is derived from the Victorian movement. It was a popular design that reflected a desire to return to nature. If the tree is broke, it refers to a life cut short.

27 November 2021

Eating breakfast at Fairfield Inn in West Milwaukee by the stadium, I put a piece of fruit and a peanut bar in my bag for an afternoon snack. I was ahead of schedule and decided to see the Basilica of Saint Josaphat in the morning versus the afternoon. I pulled into the parking lot, and the doors would not open until 10 a.m. I decided to take some outside building pictures as well as some of the street art I saw on the neighborhood buildings. Before doing that a tradesman asked if I would help him hang a wooden sign on a building next to the basilica, and I cheerfully obliged. Saint Josaphat was a Polish-Lithuanian monk (later an archbishop) who was murdered by an angry mob in 1623. His death reflected anger between Catholic and Orthodox Christians after the Ruthenian Orthodox Church (Kiev Metropolitanate) confirmed its communion with the Roman Catholic Church in 1596. He supported unifying Christiandom, and the people at the time were not at all happy with the idea -- hence he was killed. The people attached the Archbishop's house. Masses of people killed his servants and assistants. The populace broke into his room, he was hit with sticks and kicked, and his head was split open with an axe. His naked body was dragged through the streets where the towns people spit upon his corpse and was continually kicked and hit. His body was attached with ropes and stones and later thrown into the river.

Poles who came to live in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the 1840s grew in number after the U.S. Civil War. After the Germans, they were the second largest group of immigrants living in the city. The community built a church, and it burned down. The second one was too small for the growing Polish community soon after they moved into it. After the 1870s, Poles were the largest immigrant community in Milwaukee, and by 1900 had grown to over 60,000. At this time there were seven Polish Catholic churches each with its own school. A new church was started when land was broken in 1896. Father Wilhelm Grutza ministered to the people and was in charge of building the new church. He heard from a congregant that the Chicago Post Office and Custom House needed to be razed because it was not stable and was sinking. He was able to purchase it for $20,000. It was dismantled and 500 railroad cars full of stone made its way to Milwaukee. The church was completed in 1901. At the time of completion, the only building in the country with a larger dome was the United States Capitol. In 1929, St. Josaphat Church was named the third basilica in the United States, the first being in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Today, there are over sixty in the United States. It is the largest church in Milwaukee, with a seating capacity of over 1,000 on the main floor, hundreds more can be accommodated in the upper galleries. The Basilica of St. Josaphat has been owned and administered by the Conventual Franciscans since 1910. In 1991, the building was in danger of shutting its doors because of wear, tear, and neglect. Local business leaders came together to rally around in restoring it. Since then more than $18 million has been spent to restore an1d preserve the building. The St. Josaphat Basilica Foundation is a chartered non-profit, non-sectarian organization. If you are ever in the area, I would strongly encourage you to visit this magnificent structure. ****************

I parked in the U.S. Bank parking structure down the street from the Milwaukee Art Museum because I heard that street parking was chaotic with only a 2 hour limit on Saturday. After I parked my vehicle, I observed a street sign that said it was 5 hours. On well... The Milwaukee Art Museum is a sight to behold as you approach. The museum had a roller coaster ride from its early days as it tried to find a footing in the city. The current space was formed when the Milwaukee Art Institute and Layton Art Gallery merged their collections in 1957 and moved into its new home, a modern structure that looks like it's about to set sail. The pavilion slowly opens as it cantilevers outward over the course of the day with a wingspan of 217 feet. Once inside, the main atrium is spectacular when you look up as well as the very space-age like hallway leading to the galleries. The museum houses nearly 25,000 works of art housed on four floors, with works from antiquity to the present (many of which are in storage). (In comparison, Minneapolis Institute of Art [Mia] has over 90,000 works and the 10th largest collection in the US.) Included in Milwaukee's collection are 15th- to 20th-century European and 17th- to 20th-century American paintings, sculpture, prints, drawings, decorative arts, photographs, and folk and self-taught art. Among the best in the collection are the museum's holding of American decorative arts, folk and Haitian works, art by Georgia O'Keeffe (a WI native) as well as modern pieces post 1960s. It was particularly nice to see to see my second Kehinde Wiley, the first of which I saw at Mia. The collection hosts the usual suspects (Monet, Picasso, Degas, Homer, Miro, Rothko, Renoir, Morris, Benton, Remington, Warhol, etc.), and I was introduced to others I had not seen. Of particular note was Wyeth's Afternoon, Pietschmann's Study of a Model, Leger's Study of Three Portraits, Richter's Breathe as well as the glass collection, quilts, and furniture holdings. The space is expansive. I walked through it leisurely, spent 3+ hours there, and barely got through the space without being exhausted. Thank goodness for the benches to rest. I wish I had more time and energy. One of the questions that went through my mind is I wonder how often they move new work into view? One thing I love about Mia is the galleries are continuously being updated with new images on the wall for viewers. The other thing I appreciate about Mia is that it is free. The Milwaukee Art Museum costs $22 for adults and $17 for students; Minnesota is blessed to have an arts culture that is supported by tax revenue as well as corporate and private giving.

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