I’m sure Grandpa Dodge’s influence is felt by others in my family in different ways, some of which I maybe haven’t considered and some of which may not be entirely positive. I thought about asking some of my cousins about some of their memories of Grandpa but decided that, in the end, this blog is intended to communicate my family history to my kids. I’d rather have them see Grandpa Dodge through my eyes.
Dodge was born to George and Katie (Dachs) Niesl on August 6, 1909. George and Katie had 5 children who died shortly after childbirth, two of them also named George. Born in 1905, John would be the first of the 7 Niesl kids to survive. They lived in Milwaukee roughly on 20th and Vliet.
My grandpa’s fondness of giving us nicknames must have been a tradition he learned from his dad. In the Niesl family, there were nicknames like “Hans”, “Mutz”, “Katzie”, and “Happy” and
His ability to coin nicknames wouldn’t be the only thing passed down from his dad. His dad was a painter, a devout Catholic hired to create artwork in Catholic churches all over the Midwest. Dodge would inherit many of his father’s artistic abilities. My uncle George has a collection of post cards sent from George Sr. to his son throughout the years while he was on the road painting churches. Despite having what to me would be a prestigious job, the Niesl family didn’t have a lot of money so Grandpa was forced to leave school at an early age to get a job. One of his first jobs was riding a horse drawn beer wagon, delivering Schitz beer to saloons in Milwaukee, one of them owned by his grandfather, Alois Dachs.
Early in his career, Grandpa earned a reputation as an excellent sign painter and specialized in Gold Leaf Letteringf signs. I remember my mom telling me how Grandpa could identify different types of paints and finishes by their smell.
Because he left school early, education would become a priority throughout his life. Not only formal education, but informal. Shortly after I got my first “real job”, Grandpa recognized my opportunity and told me, “just make sure you keep your eyes and ears open, and keep your damn mouth shut.” Despite not having a lot of money, my grandparents made sure there was a set of encyclopedias in the house. Whenever any of us had a question about history or science, Grandpa (while he probably could have just given us the answer) always told us to look it up. Knowledge was power.
Three more kids would come out of their marriage, George in 1936, Sandie in 1939, and my mom, Kitty, in 1944. All of the kids would tell you their dad was a great dad, but that his
I’m very fortunate in that I lived with my grandparents for a while when I was 5 and 6. Shortly after my parents divorced, my mom and I went to live with Dodge and Emma on 37th and Lloyd on Milwaukee’s north side. My aunt and uncle owned the house and lived with my 7 cousins downstairs. The period when everyone lived in this house may be the happiest period of my life. Never before, and not since have I been so close to family. I have vivid memories of watching Lawrence Welk on Saturday nights, The Wonderful World of Disney Sunday nights. Most of my cousins were my age, plus or minus a few years. I learned how to ride a bike while we lived here. We played baseball in the alley. We walked to school. We laughed to hard, I peed my pants more than once.
When we got our report cards, we all stood in line waiting for Grandpa to look them over and give us his blessings. We craved his approval, because we knew that if he complimented us, we had done something good. But we were also afraid of him. Grandpa had his workshop in one half of the basement. We were strictly forbidden to enter his shop, but boys being boys, my cousin Matt and I would dare each other to go into this forbidden land. I remember one time, both of us in his shop, hearing Grandpa’s footsteps. Matt and I literally hid under his workbench while Grandpa looked for one of his tools. A minute or two seemed like an hour or two.
It’s amazing what he could do with those tools, many of them home-made. I don’t think he ever bought a new tool. There was nothing he couldn’t either find at a rummage sale or make himself. He made his own table saw. He made his own templates for making various pieces of furniture. Later in his life when Dodge and Emma lived outside of Huburtus in their trailer park, his workshop was a 6 x 6 metal shed. He lived to make things for his kids and his grandkids, the boys getting toy boxes, the girls getting elaborate doll houses, and later, jewelry boxes or music boxes. He turned rough basements into rec rooms, knocked out walls, and reconstructed interiors of entire houses. He hand-crafted cabinets and vanities for bathrooms. Late in his life, he made beautiful hutches for each of his kids. And then there was his Rosmaling. It was amazing that a man who could be so big, intimidating and sometimes gruff could create art like this. But as I said, he was a walking paradox.
When I was making drums, there literally wasn’t a single time I stepped foot in my shop that I didn’t think about him. I knew he’d be proud of what I was doing, and whenever I was doing the tedious work of sanding and rubbing out a finish, I’d have to chuckle, remembering when as kids, we’d bring home a shop project and he’d say, “You’re gonna sand that a little more, right?” He was meticulous and he wanted us to be too.
In 1984, at Dodge and Emma’s 50th wedding anniversary my Grandpa shocked me. The whole night was probably just like any other 50th wedding anniversary. But at one point of the night, my grandparents were sitting at their table and started singing together. Maybe I’m alone in this, but I had never, ever seen my Grandpa sing and never knew that such beautiful music could come from inside this man. But I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. He was a walking paradox.
During times in my life when I don’t know which side is up, I wonder if he ever felt like that. Even though he was paradoxical, things in his world were black and white, at least to us as observers. He was stubborn and opinionated, but had a lifelong thirst for knowledge. He was stern and sometimes gruff, but he always had time for his grand kids, showing us the RIGHT way to hold a paint brush. He could be as bigoted as Archie Bunker, but then a day later tell you why and how the Mexican Americans were going to use their work ethic to make a permanent home for themselves in Milwaukee. He was John Wayne. He got his teeth knocked out in a bar brawl, but could sing like a bird. I miss him.