Urban Life and Economy

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Wisconsin’s growing towns and cities offered opportunities for German immigrant artisans, tradespeople, innkeepers, artists, professionals, and many others.

For a generation or more, families lived in neighborhoods where German was spoken at home, and English and/or German were used in the larger community as needed. In the bigger cities, especially in Milwaukee, ethnic neighborhoods emerged, and German speakers clustered around those from their own European home region. For many Germans, their social circles were also determined by whether they belonged to Catholic, Lutheran, Jewish, other congregations, or no congregation at all.

German businesses ran the gamut from small family shops to factories that employed hundreds of people. Charles Weisse (1866–1919) operated a tanning business for forty years in Sheboygan Falls and was also a Democratic member of the US House of Representatives. Annie Graumann (1865–1935) had her own dressmaker shop in Manitowoc. George P. Pfeffer (1821–1894) cultivated the Pewaukee apple by crossing the Duchess of Oldenburg with the Northern Spy variety. The Fromm brothers made rural Marathon County the national center for silver fox and ginseng production. Oscar Mayer (1859–1955) turned his meat production company in Madison into a market leader. And Milwaukee became America’s beer capital. Furthermore, Anglo-American businesses in towns with large German-speaking populations adapted and served their customers in German.

By the 1880s, with industrialization in full swing, many German Americans worked in factories alongside laborers of other ethnic backgrounds, often in harsh environments. As elsewhere in the nation and the world, workers in Wisconsin organized, formed unions, and fought for better pay and work conditions. Prominent labor leaders included Robert Schilling (1843–1922), an immigrant from Saxony, and Paul Grottkau (1848–1898), born in Berlin. Tragically, in May 1886, amidst nationwide strikes for the eight-hour workday, five demonstrators were killed at the North Chicago Railroad Rolling Mills Steel Foundry in Bay View by National Guardsmen in what has since been known as the Bay View Massacre. The shocking event was one reason Milwaukee labor activism sought more political outlets and became the backbone of the state’s Socialist Party.

As towns and cities grew, German citizens contributed to the ever-changing cityscapes.  German-American architects designed some of the most prominent buildings. German community groups added natural areas and parks, such as the Eau Claire Schützenverein (German marksmen club) which in 1884 purchased a large tract of land on the Eau Claire River for an amusement park. The overall look and feel of Wisconsin’s urban areas, however, remained uniquely American.

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Additional Reading on “Urban Life and Economy”

Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, website maintained by the German Historical Institute, Washington, DC