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The infamous "witch house" on Beach Drive in Fox Point has been a source of wicked curiosity for Milwaukeeans since the 1950s. (PHOTO: Molly Snyder )

Milwaukee's urban legends debunked, part one

Living in Milwaukee, you hear about urban legends all the time. Every city has them -- rumors and gossip that seem just too good to be true. Fortunately, the Milwaukee experts at OnMilwaukee.com took the time to track down the scoop on a bunch of these tall tales, but the list is too long for just one article. Here's part one of a series on the real, fake and unconfirmed Milwaukee urban legends debunked.

The Witch House: False
The infamous "witch house" on Beach Drive in Fox Point has been a source of wicked curiosity for Milwaukeeans since the 1950s. Although our "witch," the late Mary Nohl, was really just a painter, sculptor and silversmith who chose to convert her yard into a gallery, the somewhat creepy concrete sculptures of people and animals she created lead many to view her as dark and sinister. The fact that she was an aging woman who lived alone and lined her yard with barbed wire didn't abate that reputation, but what else are you going to do when teenagers keep ripping off your life's work?

The "legend" has it that Nohl's husband and son had drowned in Lake Michigan, making her a very sad and bitter woman who never wished to be bothered. The believers say that the sculptures in the yard were actually kids who were caught trespassing by the witch and subsequently turned to stone.

The not-nearly-as-exciting truth is that Nohl never married, nor had children, thus obliterating even the most believable aspect of the myth. Nohl was many things, including prolific artist and teacher, but not a witch. Since her death at the age of 87 in 2001, the Kohler Foundation, Inc. has been preserving her work and her home, which was originally built by her parents in 1925. According to Nancy Moulton, preservation coordinator for the Foundation, Nohl's property is not yet open to the public.

Pabst Brewery employees could drink on the job: True
Back in the day, you could do almost anything you wanted at the old Pabst Brewery, according to a career brewery employee (who, for obvious reasons, didn't want us to use his name). The rumor about abundant drinking on the job is quite true, at least up until 1983, when management cracked down on this dicey practice.

In addition to free beer in the lunchrooms, brewery employees used to take their cups to the cellars and literally tap the fresh kegs of Pabst. In the filter cellars, they even rigged holding tanks to bubblers in the hallways using plastic tubing. That's right, the bubblers at Pabst dispensed beer - at least until the foreman would catch them about a day later. According to our brewery source, who worked at Pabst from 1968 to 1997, and at Miller from 1999 to 2005, guys certainly got drunk at work and they certainly stole a lot of beer - he remembers watching a foreman loading 20 cases of beer into his trunk. But, he says, it rarely got too out of hand.

If it sounds like working at Pabst was a big frat party, get this: Employees actually used to go under the building and shoot guns, as well as crossbows. The complex was enormous, with tunnels leading all over downtown, a church, restaurant and more inside this original "Pabst City." Homeless people used the caverns for shelter, and our source even walked in on a naked man named Ray, giving himself a sponge bath in the sink.

Most of the time, management would never hear a peep. Other times, it wasn't so well concealed. This ex-employee says he even saw a co-worker testing out his new chainsaw in the lunch room, cutting a wooden bench in half.

None of this goes on anymore at Miller, however, though he's heard crazy stories about how it used to be there, too. "You get caught drinking on the job, you get fired," he says. Ah, those were the days.

Milwaukee has an underground clothing-optional spa: True
For more than 25 years, the Riverwest neighborhood has housed a clothing-alternative spa known as "The Tubs." Sources would not disclose the exact location, but said the underground spa has roughly 100 members who pay monthly dues, and that the space includes a hot tub, sauna, cold water tank and sensory deprivation tank.

Stringent rules, weekly cleaning sessions and a tight member selection process ensure that The Tubs are about relaxation and rejuvenation, and nothing else.

"Even though most of the people hang out at The Tubs naked, there is absolutely nothing sexual about it," says a member who wished to remain anonymous. "This is not like the old bath houses."

Milwaukee is the fattest city: False
In an episode of "The Simpsons," the Duff Book of Records reveals that Springfield is now the fattest city in the U.S., to which Homer replies, "In your face, Milwaukee!"

Who knows if that is where the myth started, or if it was assumed Milwaukee was chubbiest because of our large consumption of beer and cheese. Either way, Homer was wrong. Milwaukee is not the fattest city.

Each year Men's Fitness magazine does a survey and ranks the top 25 fattest cities, along with the 25 fittest. The rankings are based on many different factors of each city such as healthy habits, risk factors, environment and urban attributes.

This year, Milwaukee was actually the 15th fittest, up from last year's 21st fittest. Our fine city was not always fit and trim though. In 2003, we were ranked 21st fattest while in 2002, Milwaukee was ranked 22nd fattest. Not the fattest. Houston was branded fattest this year and in 2003; Detroit got the fat award last year.

Brew City (not Chubby City) is shaping up nicely. Areas that still need improvement are alcohol consumption and nutritional habits. But being the top beer-drinking city, the first one may not change too much. Be proud, Milwaukeeans, as we are definitely not the fattest city!

UWM students dissected corpses in the Kenilworth Building: False
For a number of years during the 1980s rumors circulated at UW-Milwaukee that biology students dissected corpses for research in the university's Kenilworth Building, which is now being renovated into student housing and retail space.

Art professor Leslie Vansen, who long had a studio space in the building doesn't remember hearing the rumors.

"I've never heard of the human dissections done by students at the Kenilworth building," she told OnMilwaukee.com. " We did have a life drawing instructor who took her students to Lapham Hall's biology labs to study anatomy but that is as close as I can get to the Kenilworth legend. There was a grad student in the mid 1980s who built her installation structures in Kenilworth using skeletal remains from the meat packing companies in the industrial valley."

Meanwhile, Andrew J. Petto, who arrived in the Department of Biological Sciences in August 2004, said that these kinds of rumors are not uncommon on campuses.

"This sort of urban legend is pretty common around any university or research facility," he wrote in an e-mail. "I heard stories like it as long as 30 years ago in Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Alberta and so on --- in other words, wherever a university conducted research."

As best as we can tell, this one's false. Sorry, folks.

Talkbacks

Jrskow | March 31, 2011 at 3:42 a.m. (report)

A feature film on the Witch's house is currently in production! Check out the Facebook page for more information... http://www.facebook.com/PilgrimageToTheWitchsHouse

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OMCreader | Nov. 14, 2006 at 2:48 p.m. (report)

Mike said: I'm sorry to be the bringer of bad news to potential thrillseekers and haunchy hunters, but the fact is that the legend and allure of Haunchyville, is coming to its inevitable end. How do I know this? I live in that area. As many know, at the end of Mystic, the road goes off in 3 directions. Mystic continues straight down the gravel road, while the left path and right path lead off to private drives. I live down the left path. If anyone has been down there lately, they'd notice that the left private drive is being expanded into a regular road. This is because my mother-in-law and grandfather-in-law who own almost everything down there including all 3 roads and all the cornfields, are beginning to sell the land. 2 lots were sold down the left path and that's why the road is being expanded. I'd say that in the next 2 years, you'll see new houses and subdivisions popping up all over the cornfields out there. My in-laws also have naming rights to the roads. As of right now, I hear that the expanded road on the left will become Cheryl Court after my wife, and Mystic (the gravel road) will become Erin Drive. She's naming them after her 2 daughters. I'll be sorry to see all that wide open space go. Also, to Haunchy hunters as of late, the Muskego police have been patroling out there more often lately. I know because they shine their damn lights in my windows!

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OMCreader | Nov. 14, 2006 at 8:19 a.m. (report)

maggie said: okk i really want to know where this place is. so someone wanna give me directions?! i wanna go there n' see if all this is true. it sounds believable but yeah you never know. so can someone give me exact directions?! thanks.

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OMCreader | Nov. 9, 2006 at 8:58 p.m. (report)

mark said: My brother went to Haunchyville in the 70's. He told me, he and his friends went to Mukwonago late one night in the summer. They drove down a dirt road and started seeing odd sights, like signs that stood about 4 to 5 feet off the ground (stop signs, crossing signs, etc.)and small houses. They left scared because of the weirdness of the whole scene; they thought that something might happen to them. He told me the story with such conviction, that there's some truth to what he saw. Haunchyville legend goes that it was a refuge for midgets and other small circus freaks; if you think about it, Wisconsin was a big Circus state (Barnum and Bailey, Circus Parades and Museums) Everybody is trying to debunk the truth about the place...maybe it was there at one time and they quietly disbanded because of being discovered. I remember being in France and almost stepping on a pair of dwarfs, because I couldn't see them (they were that small!) I think some little people have to live in their own community like the elderly and the handicapped. It would be challenging for little people living to the standards of our society (higher beds, furniture, road signs, etc.) Doesn't that make sense?

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OMCreader | Oct. 28, 2006 at 2:07 a.m. (report)

KT said: Actually, part of that story is true. There was a car with 4 teens in it driving down Fitzsimmons road in winter. As they neared the end, they hit a patch of ice and skidded over the cliff. Two of the kids died (each male) and one male and one female survived. Sometime in the early 90's, the Milwaukee JS published a story about the accident on the anniversary. Check out old newspaper archives and see for yourself. I don't remember what year the published it, but I has in highschool, so it was between 1990-1994.

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