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PBS documentary 'People of the Port' shares the history of Milwaukee's Jones Island

Milwaukee PBS

Milwaukeeans might know about Jones Island because of its smell or maybe because it's home to the city's smallest park. But there's much more to the peninsula you pass over on the Hoan Bridge. The history of Jones Island is the subject of a new PBS documentary People of the Port: A Jones Island Documentary.

John Gurda is a Milwaukee historian who worked on the documentary and he explains what Jones Island is like today, "It is the home of Milwaukee sewage treatment plant so you get that when you're crossing the Hoan Bridge. It's also where all our road salt comes in, so you have these salt mountains as well as what they call tank farms, petroleum products, freight yards. Nobody lives there, but it's a very non-residential landscape," Gurda says.

Gurda says Jones Island was home to the largest Native American village in Milwaukee and the first identifiable record of Milwaukee is 1679.

"So it's been a site of human habitation for a very long time, but probably 500 people, up to 1,000 people in Native times, right at the tip of the peninsula."

By the 1850s, ships were being built on the island. Claudia Looze is the director, co-producer and editor of the documentary and she explains how that led to Jones Island getting its name, "It was Captain Jones, who was the schooner builder, and they could build a schooner in 60 days, and they were doing that on the island ... and they pumped out these schooners and they are absolute beauties."

Jones Island is home to Kaszube Park, the city's smallest park. Gurda explains that's that Kaszube's are an ethnic subgroup from Poland who often worked as fishers near the Baltic Sea Coast.

"They came to Milwaukee back in around 1872 ... and they found this opportunity — where everybody else was working in factories — to continue the way of life that they've known for for centuries back in Poland. So it's really, really unusual. For 50 years that community lasted, so it's an urban village in the truest sense of the word," Gurda says.

The documentary tells the story of how Jones Island transformed over the years into what it is today.

"There are few landscapes in Milwaukee or anywhere that have been through so many transformations. You go from an Indian village, to a trading post, to a shipyard, to a fishing village, to urban infrastructure. That just shows you how easy it is for us to transform the landscape and how easy it is to forget what was there before," Gurda says.

The documentary premieres on Milwaukee's PBS on Nov. 17 at 7:00 p.m.


Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
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