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Exploring MPM’s Streets of Old Milwaukee through history, a taxidermy cat & a poem

Streets of Old Milwaukee
Audrey Nowakowski
The Streets of Old Milwaukee exhibit has been a part of the Milwaukee Public Museum since 1965, and Granny has been sitting on her porch since 1988.

If you’ve gone to the Milwaukee Public Museum, you have probably wandered through the cobblestone Streets of Old Milwaukee exhibit. You may even have a favorite display or have waved to Granny, who has sat on her porch since 1988.

The exhibit showcasing Milwaukee at the turn of the century has been part of the museum since 1965, and to help celebrate 414 Day, poet and MPM Education Programs Coordinator Richard Hedderman shares more insight and a poem inspired by the Streets of Old Milwaukee.

"[The exhibit] generally covers the era 1890 to 1917, right before the U.S. entered the first World War," he notes. Hedderman says that the conditions in Milwaukee during this time was of economic prosperity, aided by the expansion of industry and the rail systems.

"There was a dramatic expansion of heavy industry in Milwaukee, and that was in part due to an influx of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, especially," he notes.

The renovation that took place in 2015 was mostly cosmetic. "One of the big additions was the street car ... as well as the Fauk building that's right inside the exhibit as you enter from the street car. So that represents the boom in heavy industry and the street car also represents the ability of Milwaukee as a city to begin to expand," Hedderman shares.

Audrey Nowakowski
The entrance to Milwaukee Public Museum's "Streets of Old Milwaukee" exhibit. To the left is the streetcar that was added to the exhibit in 2015, taking visitors through the period of booming industry Milwaukee experienced before the U.S. entered World War I.

The dark, gaslit lanes in the exhibit allow visitors to stroll and look into the windows of about 30 shops, businesses, bars and houses. Each house has so many details and objects, Hedderman says, you'll probably notice something new each time you walk through the streets.

Richard Hedderman
Abby the alleycat was someone's personal pet. After the cat passed away, the owner donated it to the museum and it sits between the barber shop and apothecary in the Streets of Old Milwaukee. The cat is triggered to meow with the movement of visitors passing by.

One particular object that's his favorite is an alley cat named Abby that's between the barber shop and apothecary in a small, vertical space. The cat is triggered to meow with the movement of visitors passing by.

"The owner [of the cat that passed away] offered it to Wendy [our taxidermist] at a time when she was looking for a special Easter egg to plug into the exhibit. She taxidermied the cat, and she had to go as far as a company in Russia to get the eyes," he says. "I think that's the one I never get tired of, it's amazing."

Hedderman's poem inspired by the exhibit takes place in the fall of 1916, anticipating the arrival of America's involvement in World War I. In Milwaukee especially, there was a growing anti-German sentiment on top of the general apprehension on whether the U.S. should get involved. Here's the poem:


                                    --Milwaukee Public Museum

It is endless, the early October dusk, smelling of smoke,
And lit in the flare of gaslight. The butterfly in the Mason jar
Folds its wings as if under the weight of dust,

And the draft horses haul their shadows back to the stables.
In the alley, the black cat tilts his head in the dark, listening
For a rat in the grate, a spider on the wall, or something else

We may never hear. Even the films in the Nickelodeon
Unspool silently in black, silver and silken gray, the actors
Gesturing as though signaling for help. The kite, torn by rain,

Hangs snagged in the wires. The streetcar reaches its vanishing
Point, and the barber summons his final customer, beckoning
With his gleaming razor. In the saloon the cards,

Face down upon the table, enfold their cache of prophecies.
The Western Union messenger leans his cycle against the fence;
The gate is locked, the dead leaves scattered. Winter

Is coming, and so, too, a war that will strew telegrams from here
To Belleau Wood. Then the apothecary hoards his bottles stoppered
With the vapor of poppies, and the bells summon the clerk,

the newsboy, the schoolmaster, to The Somme, The Marne, and Amiens.
So where, then, is the funeral parlor, its windows shut,
the thick drapes pulled tight against the gathering dark?

And where, too, the undertaker with his heavy gloves
to lay us all to rest?

Audrey Nowakowski hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM in 2014.
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