We love old photographs, don’t we? Those glimpses into a past we may or may not have experienced first-hand, with the faces of those who walked the streets of Milwaukee before we did.
This batch of photographs – shared by Adam Levin of the Old Milwaukee Facebook group – is especially interesting for its look at the 1957 South Shore Water Frolics in Bay View, a longstanding tradition that came to an end in 2018, due to financial struggles, and inside the Wisconsin Gas Light Company building, a Downtown landmark.
South Shore Water Frolics was launched in 1948 by the Inter-Organization Council of Bay View – which still exists – and included the usual food and music, family fun, an art exhibit, a classic car show and the two best-remembered features: the lakefront fireworks at South Shore Park and the parade along Kinnickinnic Avenue.
In its boom era, upwards of 200,000 Milwaukeeans converged on Bay View for the early July festivities, though in later years it drew a more modest 50,000-60,000 visitors.
The Bay View Lions Club hosted the event from 1995 to 2017, though in its waning years, the parade was canceled a couple times, due to the same financial strains that ended it, at least for now.
Living in Bay View in the late 1990s, I still remember attending the parade and cheering the floats as they passed by tossing candy to kids lining the sidewalks.
Whether or not it will return someday remains to be seen, but in the meantime, thanks to Shawn Smith and great-aunt Ethel Smith, we have these stunning peeks into the neighborhood festival during its heyday.
The photos were taken by Ethel Smith (pictured at right in a photo by an unknown street photographer), who Shawn says Grandpa Smith’s sister, born in 1899 in Bay View to Alfred and Margaret Smith, who lived at 1707 E. Rusk St., a home the family kept until 1966.
“Ethel was the eldest of five children and was never married or had children of her own,” says Shawn..” Instead, she was a very supportive matriarch to her siblings, nieces and nephews. Although not many of my family members who knew her are still alive, all spoke highly of her and her generosity Ethyl died due to complications from surgery in 1962.”
According to an obituary in the Milwaukee Sentinel in November of that year, Smith, 64, had, since January, been the assistant to Nicholas J. Lesselyoung, the vice president and secretary of the Milwaukee Gas Light Company.
In her 45 years with the company, she has served as secretary to five vice presidents before Lesselyoung.
“Born in Milwaukee, Miss Smith was graduated from South Division High School in 1917,” the paper reported. “She began work immediately for the gas company as a stenographer. Within two years, Miss Smith was named secretary to Ewald Haase, vice president, secretary and treasurer of the utility.
“Miss Smith was a member of the American Records Management Association, of which she was past historian and publicity director, and the Nature Club of Milwaukee.”
This long tenure at Wisconsin Gas Co. explains Smith’s photographs at the Gas Light Building, including shots of women, who were presumably her colleagues.
You can read more about the history of the beautiful Art Deco Eschweiler-designed Gas Light Building in this Urban Spelunking story.
Ethel, who never learned to drive, had many hobbies, according to Shawn, including photography.
“She had a good camera for the time,” says Shawn. “Most of her pics are of family, family holiday gatherings, fish – she liked fishing – and botany.
“The South Shore Water Frolics were an important event in the neighborhood and she took photos of the parades and related events throughout the years. I'm not sure she would've ever imagined the time capsule they would later become.”
A time capsule they are and we’re thrilled she took them, that the Smith family preserved them and that Shawn is sharing them here.
Enjoy this colorful photographic walk – or parade – back to 1950s Milwaukee.
South Shore Water Frolics
Wisconsin Gas Company
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.