By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published May 19, 2022 at 3:25 PM

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Whenever I visit Jones Island, I try to picture it in my mind the way it looks in those turn of the 20th century images, like the famous 1915 photo that served as a basis for Milwaukee artist Alexander Gill’s painting, recently donated to MMSD.

It’s not easy to do and part of the reason is that the land configuration has changed. Compare the 1910 Sanborn map image of the island with Jones Island today and you’ll see that some of today’s island was under water back then and some of the island as it was in 1910 is underwater now.

That includes a fair-sized chunk of land with streets and homes and more.

1910
The 1910 Sanborn map showing the school.
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No surprise because I’m a schoolhouse geek, one of the most intriguing buildings for me is the old school, which on the 1910 map occupies five connected barracks buildings. One of the water reclamation plant buildings now sits on the site.

The school was dubbed District 5-3 by Milwaukee Public Schools when it opened in 1896 on land that MPS leased from the Illinois Steel Company.

Initially, there was a single 23x30-foot barracks building.

“By 1896 the number of children on the island had swollen to such proportions that the city had to act,” wrote Ruth Kriehn in her landmark book, “The Fisherfolk of Jones Island," published by Milwaukee County Historical Society.

“One-third of several hundred children of school age had never set foot in either a parochial or a public school.”

The school was led by principal Mary Flanders, who began teaching in MPS in 1876 and she ended up teaching for nine years on the island.

Calling her “an exceptionally innovative teacher,” Kriehn wrote that she, “was known for dedication to her work and for her excellent rapport with parents and students. She accepted the position of principal of the new school. She aptly called herself a pioneer.”

Kriehn writes that Flanders had total control over the organization of the school, which served kindergarteners through fourth graders.

Older children traveled to the mainland for school at places like Walter Allen and Park Street or at parochial schools like St. Stanislaus and Holy Trinity.

Flanders lived on Jackson Street, between Wisconsin and Mason and was ferried to work by two pumping station employees who picked her up in the morning at the National Avenue pier.

The school itself, Kriehn writes, was located about 50 feet from the lake and about a block from the pumping station and had a small porch up six steps. There was no running water, no lights and heat from a stove – all of which was still true in 1910 – and the bathroom was an outhouse.

1903
Jones Island School class. (PHOTO: Courtesy of Milwaukee PBS)
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As was the case with mainland schools of the era, there was never enough space.

During its first week of operation, enrollment at the school jumped from 110 to 145 and by the end of the first month there were 164. And so, MPS added a second barracks. A third barracks was added, as was a third teacher, in time for the spring semester.

At least two more barracks would arrive later.

The barracks buildings were built by MPS workers, including Louis Pieron, who had started working for the district in 1893 and recounted his memories to the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1959.

“These structures were built in sections at 10th and Highland Streets – still home to MPS' Facilities and Maintenance Division – and carried by team and wagon to the island via Bay Street,” wrote “Jamie” Jamison. “While this road was little more than a fill over the marshland at the south end of the island, it would seem that even way back then this historic section of Milwaukee was not an island, but a peninsula.

“Louis says that it was quite a chore getting the sections of the buildings through the narrow, winding streets on the island that they had to continually shift their cargo to squeeze by trees and houses.”

Jamison also mentioned the school’s near waterside location.

“The breakwater had not yet been built,” he wrote. “When storms blew in from the lake the schoolyard would be awash and waves would snarl and snip at the edges of the school buildings.”

The reason for this unpleasant siting?

“The fishermen moored their boats on the sheltered, of river side of the island,” Jamison wrote. Their houses, of course, built as close to their boats and fish shanties as possible, occupying all of the desirable space, leaving only the exposed, lake side for a school location.

“Life was indeed rugged for the children,” Jamison added, “but we’ve yet to heard anyone raised on the island complain about it.”

Mary Leard was Flanders’ assistant when the school opened in 1896. The assignment was her first and she stayed two years before being transferred to Maryland Avenue School, where she remained for 34 years. Later, she was a vice principal at Fifth Street School before being named principal of Wright Street School and, later, Silver Spring and Bartlett Avenue.

“The children were normal, youngsters,” said Leard, who died in 1958, in a quotation included in the "Fisherfolk" book. “They liked to sing, of course. They had accumulated a lot of knowledge of birds and animals and the waves and winds in the course of their open-air life. I was the one who was ‘different.’ I remember having to steel myself to walk unflinchingly to the boat with the wild dogs at my heels.”

1903
Kindergarten class, 1903. (PHOTO: Courtesy of Milwaukee County Historical Society)
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Lucy Brunkhorst, who taught kindergarten on the island from 1903 until 1906 – by which time there were seven teachers, earning $40 a month, $5 above the normal salary in recognition of the remoteness, and a fifth grade had been added – remembered the trek to the island, which took 90 minutes from her home on 36th Street.

“We took the streetcar to National and tramped six blocks over vacant property to the river,” she’s quoted by Kriehn as recalling. “There two ferryment from the pumping station picked us up. It was rugged in winter when the ice clogged the river. Carferries usually kept the ice broken.

“One ferryman stood in the stern of the skiff and fended off ice floes with a pike pole. When the weather was particularly rough Captain Olsen from the lifesaving station took us across in a lifeboat. And when a storm howled the firement enjoyed taking us across in a fire tug.”

The trip was not without its drama.

“There was the time, for example, when a frightened young school teacher stood up in the boat, lost her balance and fell across the gunwale, causing the boat to ship water and founder,” wrote Jamison in 1951. “Fortunately this accident occurred right in front of the lifesaving station so that the ladies got off with nothing more than a serious dunking.”

After freezing her fingers – those digits still caused her pain in cold weather, according to Jamison – Brunkhorst had had enough and transferred to 37th Street School – much closer to home, and with brick walls and indoor plumbing – where she stayed until her retirement in 1946.

By 1912, the school was renamed Jones Island School and it had become annexed to Park Street School, which stood next to Boys’ Tech, and children fourth grade and up attended the mainland school.

By 1916, the Jones Island school had been scaled back even more, ending at second grade, as many families had now left the island.

The school closed in 1919 and any children remaining on the island now attended school on the mainland, and an era had ended.

George Treu, a Park Street student whose family had fished on Jones Island for decades remembered the school fondly.

playground
The play area described by George Treu. (PHOTO: Courtesy of Milwaukee County Historical Society)
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“A visit to the kindergarten of the school is one of my most pleasant memories,” he’s quoted as saying in “Fisherfolk.” “The buildings are located against the beautiful Lake Michigan shore. One looks over the blue lake and sky for miles on this clear day, when in majestic flight the sea gulls swoop down to bathe.

“The play area is the shore – pure white sand – where fresh sea air prevails and the soft slap of waves sing gentle fish melodies. It hurts us to think that soon all this will be gone – destroyed – because of the growth of the city. Let’s hope the fisherfolk will find an equally natural and sympathetic home.”

Decades later, in 1951, the Sentinel’s Jamison had a suggestion.

“Sometime when our city fathers are looking for a mural idea for one of our public buildings,” he wrote, “why not use those Jones Island School teachers as a subject? It would remind us how much we owe our pioneer school teachers.”

 

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

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.