The History of South Milwaukee

South Milwaukee, which is located about fifteen minutes away from the City of Milwaukee along the shores of Lake Michigan, has a proud ethnic past and a promising future for growth.

This community of some 21,000 people from numerous ethnic backgrounds is proud of its accomplishments, heritages and hopes to bring memories of the past and continue a bright outlook to a promising future.

This area before the 1800’s was known as the Northwest Territory, visited by traders, trappers, and Native Americans, who came to better hunting and fishing grounds.

The only means of travel was by foot or horseback, oxen or horse drawn vehicle. There were only rough trails which followed the lake shore from Fort Dearborn (now known as Chicago) to Fort Howard (now known as Green Bay), known as the Military Road which led around stumps of cut trees, through swamps, over ravines and hills; slow tedious travel at best. The Potawatomi and Menominee tribes had moved freely from the lakeshore to the inland depending on weather and food supply.

Credit must be given to the adventuresome men and women who were looking for more interesting places to live and make a living. As the Erie Canal was built connecting Lake Erie to Lake Huron, water travel opened up considerably, becoming faster than land travel by foot, ox teams or horses. Remember, no hotels or motels; a covered wagon at best and the ground under the stars at night. Meals were by the campfire if meat was available for the taking or hunting. No restaurants or fast food places like Taco Bell, Burger King, McDonald’s, Hardee’s, KFC or Pizza Hut existed.

Word had reached the communities along the east coast that the government was opening up land in the Northwest Territory for sale at $1.25 per acre in 1838, under the Pre-emption Act. Information was out that this was rich, fertile ground, prairie-like and forested in part with good water supply. Men began leaving their families to explore. A few of those who came were Elihu Higgins, John Fowle and family, Dibley and family and the McCreedy family. Elihu sent word back to his father-in-law, Oliver Rawson, to bring his family of eleven. These pioneers claimed great areas of land along the creek and along the lakeshore and built homes, cleared land to farm and began foundations of a settlement. Population grew at a tremendous rate in the southwestern part of Wisconsin in the 1840’s and 1850’s.

Milwaukee County was the governing unit made up of townships. This area was part of the Lake Township, which was too large for the board members to travel to meetings and do town business in one day. In 1841, the area was divided. As the area was around a deep beautiful stream with an abundance of white oak trees, they decided to name the settlement Oak Creek.

By 1846, there was evidence of a school, town officers and churches for worship. The early settlers found the land good for farming, raising livestock, and numerous businesses flourished in the area. There were gristmills by Higgins and Fowle, which were mills where wheat, oats, corn, and barley were ground for food for people and cattle. John Fowle also ran a sawmill to cut the oak trees into lumber for homes, barns and businesses. The settlement with a post office and general stores was located near the First Congregational Church and School on Pine Street and Hawthorne Avenue, which was on the road to market. The mill was located on the east side of Mill Road and Oak Creek Parkway across from the lagoon spillway which was near the site of the Mill dam that provided water power for the sawmill and gristmill.

The first houses and buildings were built of logs cut in the area. In a few years, more sawmills were operating and lumber was available. The red clay found along the creek banks and lake bluffs was good material for making bricks. When baked in a large oven or kiln, the red clay turned a creamy yellow color and was known as “Cream City Brick.” There were several brickyards in the vicinity in the 1850’s, 1860’s and 1870’s. Quantities of cream city brick were shipped by scows and tugboats from the harbor at the mouth of the creek to markets in Michigan and to towns along the lake shore. You can see evidence of the use of cream city brick here and in many surrounding communities. Discarded bricks and remains of the brickyards are often found when residents landscape property or excavate for a new building.

Memorabilia of the past and possibly the oldest man-made helpers in the city are the grinding stones from the John Fowle grist mill, built in 1840, located on either side of the spillway of the lagoon. John Fowle, a wheelwright and millwright, with the help of William Sivyer, a mason who came to Milwaukee as a chimney builder for Solomon Juneau, made the grinding stones from granite boulders found in the creek.