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There was a time when Jones Island was more than salt piles, industrial sheds and train tracks. There were homes for the fisherfolk, taverns, a lifesaving station, a school, and a way of life that was unique in the area.
It’s all captured in a 1960s painting that now hangs in the commission room at Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, 260 W. Seeboth St., in Walker’s Point.
“It was commissioned by a gentleman who grew up on Jones Island when it was a fishing village and he was a Kaszube,” says MMSD’s Bill Graffin of the painting. “He ended up owning a bar called the Tug Inn and he paid an artist to paint it. It’s pretty big. It’s eight feet wide.
“It hung in the bar for a while, and it hung in South Shore Yacht Club for years and then the gentleman’s son, who donated it us, wanted it to be displayed somewhere in honor of his dad and the Kashubs (ethnic Slavs from Pomerania who settled on the island). So he called and asked if we were interested and we said, ‘heck yeah.’”
The painting – which was made by artist Alexander Gill from an aerial photograph during 1963 and early 1964 – was dedicated in its new spot last week.
It was donated by Laurence Muzia, whose parents, Henry and Dorothea Muzia, operated the Tug Inn, at 2378 S. Howell Ave. – which is now home to Lazy Susan – from 1961 until about 1965.
Thanks to Milwaukee Sentinel writer H.E. "Jamie" Jamison, who covered the painting in a number of his “Jaunts with Jamie” columns, we know quite a bit about the work.
In November 1963, Jamison wrote that a visiting Kaszube, then living in Anaheim, shared the aerial photo with Gill in order to make the painting that was to hang behind the bar of the Tug Inn, which was a gathering place for former Jones Island residents.
“I gave Alex Gill an old photograph of Jones Island taken in about 1915,” said Edwin W. Peters, who was born in Milwaukee and raised on Jones Island, before moving west in 1941.
A few months later, when the painting was being unveiled at the Bay View bar, Jamison – who then attributed the source of the photograph not as Peters, but as commercial fisherman Frank Adrian, also born on the island – described it:
“Starting from left to right, the ‘straight cut’ from the outer to inner harbor is shown. To the left of the cut is the garbage incinerator plant, still in operation. Just east of this plant is the house where the lighthouse keeper then lived. Steaming through the entrance is an old Chicago-Milwaukee excursion steamer, the whaleback Christopher Columbus. Across the harbor entrance is the old lifesaving station.
“Just south of the station is the beginning of the sewage disposal plant. Half hidden in the trees is the schoolhouse where Lucy Brunkhorst taught just after the turn of the century. Then there are the homes of the fishermen and the fish shanties. Some of the old timers have already picked out the places where they were born.
“In the right background are the stacks and buildings of the Illinois steel plant. With pardonable artistic license, Alex moved some of the fish tugs from the island shore to a dock in the foreground so that they might be identified. Pictured are the fish tugs H.C. Beck, Ana and the Two Brothers.”
Gill was born in Germany in 1881 and arrived in Milwaukee with his parents when he was 8 years old.
According to Jamison, Gill’s mother was French and during a visit by her brother – an artist – when Alex was about 17, the brother noted his nephew’s abilities and offered to take him back to France to help expand his artistic skills.
But, Jamison wrote, “Alex found to his dismay that he was expected to help with the farming in the daytime and study art art night. In three years he’d had enough, came home and went into construction and did art as a hobby.”
Later, taking a job at Allen-Bradley, Gill put his artistic skills to use painting portraits of company brass, designing cover art for the A-B magazine and decorating some of the rooms in the company offices.
Gill retired in the mid-1940s and began focusing on art.
In 1945, his painting of Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane was donated to Grace Evangelical Church on North 24th Street, and he also painted a Good Shepherd scene for a church in Fond du Lac around the same time.
At the start of the 1960s, he painted the 12 apostles for Christ Church on Oklahoma Avenue, across from Humboldt Park.
According to Jamison, Gill’s work adorned a number of churches around the state. He also decorated residential basement rec rooms with murals and painted the pipes and posts to resemble vines and trees.
At the time he painted the Jones Island scene, Gill was living with his second wife, Anna, on Howell Avenue, just a few blocks from the Tug Inn.
The painting, signed by Gill in the lower left corner, was unveiled on Feb. 8, 1964 – the night before The Beatles changed the world with their first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” – at the Tug. Laurence Muzia recalls being there.
The 4x8-foot scene was part of a tableau behind the bar, where there were other maritime objects, including a model of a tug boat made by Mike “Schultzy” Ciskowski, who retired from a career on the tugs and spent his retirement making models.
The model was of a sister tug to the Aubrey, on which Henry Muzia – known to all as “Spud” – worked for many years.
“Former Jones Islanders have been especially impatient for the day of the unveiling,” wrote Jamison, promising a “gala party.”
“None is more excited than Henry and Dorothea Muzia, whose daughter Lorelei and her husband Dick Osinski run the tavern. When Henry (Spud) isn’t working on Gillen Company tugs, he tends bar and Dorothea, who formerly worked for the Marshall and Illsley bank, takes care of the bookkeeping and the business end of the tavern.”
That the unveiling was a big success.
“We moved the pool table against the wall and used it for the free lunch,” Spud told Jamie. “There must have been 200 people in and out of the place. There were more ex-Jones Islanders than you see at a funeral.”
The Tug Inn moved to 6th and Cleveland around 1965 and the painting came along. It hung there until the location closed about four years later.
"After that bar closed due to health issues and the painting was displayed at a marine diesel repair shop owned by a friend of my dad, for several years," recalls Muzia, who followed in his father's maritime footsteps.
"My dad would sometimes sneak me aboard (the Aubrey) for a day during the summer," he recalls. "Coming from a seafaring family I became a crew member in the Merchant Marine traveling the world for over seven years. It was during this time the painting was displayed in the upstairs dining room at South Shore."
Muzia was a member of the yacht club, where the painting remained on view until about 1983.
"After leaving South Shore Yacht Club it was stored in my niece's garage in Milwaukee until I had it sent to my home in Florida about 2003 where it hung in my home office room."
From there, it went to its new home at the MMSD.
"MMSD was the first and only entity I offered the picture to," says Muzia. "I chose MMSD because of the long history of their presence on Jones Island."
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.