Lake Effect On-Site: Oak Creek
For the inaugural Lake Effect On-Site, the team headed to the Rafters Room at Three Cellars in Oak Creek. The conversation focused on this southern Milwaukee County community's rapid growth.
Looking around modern Oak Creek, the huge developments taking place would have come as a surprise to the people who called the area home a hundred years ago. In fact, Oak Creek wasn’t even incorporated as a city until the 1950s.
So we start with Larry Rowe, the person who wrote the book on where Oak Creek has been - or co-wrote it, anyway. Rowe is the president of the Oak Creek Historical Society and co-author of Images of Oak Creek.
"It’s hard to believe now when you take a look out, but Oak Creek was very much a farming community well into the 1950s, so not anywhere near as many houses, lots of big farm field," he says.
Rowe says that for decades, what is now known as Oak Creek was really more of a group of small farming communities. The main attractions in the area were taverns and places like The Rafters Supper Club, which once boasted celebrity clientele like Frank Sinatra.
"The gentleman on my right here has all the facts, and I'm the one who's trying to find all the stories about the place."
Three Cellars, founded by Shawn Vollmer, is located at the site of the former supper club. Vollmer says he's heard a lot of stories about what went on at The Rafters Supper Club, and jokes, "The gentleman on my right here has all the facts, and I’m the one who’s trying to find all the stories about the place."
Many of the stories feature a cast of risque characters, including mobsters and the like, who once frequented The Rafters Supper Club. While much has changed in Oak Creek since those days, Vollmer says the Rafters Room and Three Cellars will still be there, even as the IKEA grows on the horizon.
At last count, nearly 36,000 people call Oak Creek home. One of those is a musician making his way in the local scene despite some challenges he faces. The Eric Look Band has been featured on stages around the region, including Summerfest earlier this year.
Look has classic autism, which caused him some issues in pursuing his career. Like many people with autism, Look has issues with some sounds.
"I was afraid of loud noises like sirens, smoke alarms and car horns. Sometimes I have trouble focusing on my music with so much sound sensitivity. I think playing my music helps me to relax more and not let so much noise get in the way of my concentration," he says.
Look performs with backup vocalist Michele McCormack, who joined the band after covering it as a journalist. She explains that while Look does have some issues with auditory stimulation, he's a good partner to work with because he's patient and understanding. Look also writes some of his own music, including the song A Better Place.
"His message in A Better Place, in particular - [it's] just a song about perspective and trying to achieve... meaningful connections, acceptance, understanding," says McCormack.
There is a very large blue building rising from a field just a few hundred yards from The Rafters Room. If work goes on schedule, by the end of next year, it will be the Milwaukee area’s first IKEA and it will likely attract many people to shop in Oak Creek who might otherwise just drive past on their way to Chicago or other points south.
It’s a big juncture in the history of this community, which has seen rapid growth in recent years and stands to grow even more in the years to come.
In the middle of all this is the city’s director of community development, Doug Seymour, who says he has to balance the need for growth with trying to preserve Oak Creek's unique history.
"Certainly, there can be some win-lose decisions that are made, and it’s important that we consider the overall community in making those decisions, so that we preserve the areas that are worth preserving, and we develop the areas that probably make sense to develop," he explains.