Most Milwaukeeans know names like Ben Marcus, Nathaniel Zelazo and the Kohl Family. But what about Irving Solomon, Spencer Frank and Lee Lewis?
If you’re curious about these lesser-known – but equally important – pillars of the Milwaukee business community, head to the Jewish Museum Milwaukee, 1360 N. Prospect Ave., for a new exhibit opening this Sunday.
"Pushcarts to Professionals: The Evolution of Jewish Business in Milwaukee" showcases the impact of Jewish business on Milwaukee’s culture and economy over the past 170 years – from the large companies like Kohl's and the Marcus Corporation to the small family businesses that were often the lifeblood of the community.
"This particular exhibit has actually been, I think, in the back of people’s minds for several years," said Molly Dubin, curator at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee. "The history of Jewish businesses in Milwaukee was just one of those topics that had particular relevance to a large cross-section of people."
The museum, which is now celebrating its fifth year, boasts an impressive collection of permanent exhibits detailing Milwaukee Jewish history – and really, Milwaukee history in general – but also tries to incorporate a changing exhibit two to four times throughout the year.
When it came to creating a narrative for "Pushcarts to Professionals," involving the community was key, said Dubin.
"We try to do a community-based changing exhibit every year where we can put out a call say share your story, share your experiences. Because we’re not only a history museum, we’re a living museum."
The public was quick and eager to provide artifacts and oral histories to help with the exhibit. The Jewish Museum Milwaukee also drew from its extensive archives, made possible by private donations from families to ensure the preservation of heirlooms. The result is a diverse collection of memorabilia, photographs, stories, products and documents that trace the impressive evolution of a tenacious immigrant group who had an unusual amount of roadblocks.
"There was this entrepreneurial spirit – this idea about being able to be independent and pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and I think part of that comes from the fact that Jewish populations have, to a certain extent, always had to watch out for themselves because they were not readily accepted or they were limited in the types of things they could do," said Dubin.
The exhibit explores the various industries in which Jewish immigrants to Milwaukee – and their descendents – made a name for themselves. Often, instead of letting anti-semitism restrict their prospects for success, said Dubin, they turned their own self-sufficiency into an advantage. Trades like junk collecting, scrap metal and recycling developed because Jewish peddlers had to think innovatively.
"It was a natural outgrowth of peddling," said Dubin. "Once they had sold whatever they had gotten down at the Old Commission Row, why go back with an empty wagon when you could pick up scraps or recycled things along the way? They realized quickly that they could gain a little extra money or income this way."
Peddling itself was an attractive industry for Jewish immigrants because of the low overhead and the ease of traveling and getting to know a strange new land. Many peddlers were later able to grow their businesses into large retail endeavors, and the exhibit also examines outside factors like the G.I. Bill, which allowed for wider access to education and the opportunity for subsequent generations to modernize the family businesses.
Dubin said she was surprised, in researching the exhibit, by how many businesses had their beginnings in the Great Depression. "There were people that opened new businesses or were trying their luck in new things, or businesses that were able to remain vital because their services or products were a mainstay in the community," she said.
One such daring entrepreneur was Irving Solomon, whose daughter, Jane Chester, donated to the exhibit a framed 1934 article from the Milwaukee Journal about her father’s new gourmet popcorn business.
"I love that he felt that he could – regardless of the possible challenges ahead, that he was going to push through and do something a little different," said Dubin.
"In talking with Jane I learned that Irving was really the one who, after developing his recipe and opening his popcorn business, went to all the area taverns and pubs and said ‘What you need to do is take some of my popcorn and keep it on bowls on the bars, and the salt will make patrons thirsty and that will encourage them to buy more beverages.’"
Solomon’s business was successful through the Depression and World War II, until rationing meant that he was unable to get access to the natural oils his popcorn recipes required.
Another local entrepreneurial family profiled in the exhibit are the Franks. Spencer Frank opened Spencer Frank Food Service and put the first cafe in the Milwaukee Public Museum; his daughter-in-law Carol also had a business-minded family, the Weichers, who owned Weicher Grocery. Carol Frank loaned a photograph framed in an antique cookie tin of her grandmother, Ida Weicher, at the counter of the family mom-and-pop grocery store. In the 1942 photograph, a countertop sign reads "We have cigarettes today." Frank also donated an antique child's chair from the Weicher Grocery's ice cream counter.
The exhibit also explores the stories behind famous Milwaukee businesses. One artifact displayed is a celebratory statue given to Ben Marcus on the 50th anniversary of the Marc’s Big Boy franchise. The Marcus Corporation is, of course, a Milwaukee business icon, owning the most prominent chain of theaters in the area as well as hotels and resorts throughout the nation (including The Pfister Hotel).
Like Irving Solomon, Ben Marcus also began his business in the thick of the Great Depression, purchasing a single movie theater in Ripon in 1935. His success is not just evidence of the perseverance of the Jewish community, but of American immigrants as a whole – and that, truly, is what "Pushcarts to Professionals" seeks to illustrate.
"This exhibit tells the story of where we come from and where we’re going," said Dubin.
When visitors finish at the exhibit, they can peruse the rest of the Jewish Museum Milwaukee’s permanent collection, which includes displays on the Jewish immigrant experience, the Holocaust and prominent members of the Milwaukee Jewish community like Golda Meir and Lizzie Kander. In fact, a few months ago the museum acquired two rare handwritten postcards from Golda Meir to her lifelong friend Regina Hamburger.
The museum has also scheduled special programming to coincide with the exhibit, including a Milwaukee Jewish Businesses Bus Tour with John Gurda on Monday, Sept. 16 at 9 a.m. and "Built on Scrap," a lecture by Jonathan Pollack on Friday, Oct. 11 at 11:30 a.m.
"Pushcarts to Professionals" runs Aug. 18 through Dec. 1. For more information, visit jewishmuseummilwaukee.org.
Colleen Jurkiewicz is a Milwaukee native with a degree in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and she loves having a job where she learns something new about the Cream City every day. Her previous incarnations have included stints as a waitress, a barista, a writing tutor, a medical transcriptionist, a freelance journalist, and now this lovely gig at the best online magazine in Milwaukee.