Rathkamp Brothers Dominate Samson

For as long as I can remember, family get-togethers on the Rathkamp side of my family have been gut-busting experiences.  Every time we get together, somebody reminds me of the time one of the dogs crapped on my brand new white tennis shoes.  My dad, Bill, and my Uncle Dave are both really funny guys on their own, but together it’s almost like being on the set with Abbott & Costello.  Easters in our family are spent at my cousin Tim and his wife Gloria’s house.  This past Easter Bill & Dave were in a story telling mood and held court for us.

I think the best story is the last audio clip, where they reminisce about their hooliganism at the Washington Park Zoo in Milwaukee.  For a little background, Samson was a Lowland Gorilla who came to the Milwaukee Zoo, then in Washington Park, in 1950.  Every kindergartener in Milwaukee from the 1950’s until 1981 when Samson died took field trips to the zoo.  The only thing we wanted to see though was Samson.  At his peak weight Samson tipped the scales at 652lbs.  He was both feared and loved so hearing this story was akin to hearing that your dad and uncle once had a squirt gun fight with General George Patton.


Coal or Ice


Bob and Bummy’s Piggybank


The Rathkamp Hooligans Meet Samson

Circuses and Beer Wagons

I found this gem last night searching through the Google News Archives.  The “young lad” is my grandfather, my dad’s dad.  The article is from June 15, 1915.  While it states my grandfather’s age is 10, he was actually soon to turn 6.

You can almost imagine Dr. Farrell telling his parents, “Ahhh, just rub some dirt on his face and give the lad a beer!  And while you’re at it, get ‘im a haircut.  He looks like a damn girl!”

Willy & Olive, What’s Your Story?

You have not been telling the truth and I’m calling you out.  You’ve also been holding out on me, and I want information.  Now.

My last post about Esther Rathkamp got me thinking about all the discrepancies and mysteries surrounding her parents William & Olive Rathkamp, my great grandparents.  Genealogists are used to dealing with inconsistencies, usually attributed to misspellings of surnames.  But Willy & Olive are off the charts.

How and why did Olive move from Iron Mountain, Michigan/ Florence, Wisconsin to Milwaukee?  At some point, her sister Albina also moved to Milwaukee, marrying Albert Klatt.

Where and when did they get married? Willy’s first wife, Sophie, died in early 1906.  Willy & Olives first daughter, Esther was born March 12, 1908, this leaves a window of about 18 months for them to get married, provided they were married before conception.  I’ve searched online records from Wisconsin and Michigan, and visited the Milwaukee County Courthouse and have found nothing.

My grandfather’s birth certificate. William Rathkamp, my grandfather, was born in 1909.  His last name is shown as “Redcamp”.  There are all kinds of cases where surnames are incorrectly documented (phonetically), usually because the person verbally giving the last name is a recent immigrant.  Neither Willy or Olive was a recent immigrant and it’s doubtful either had an accent.  Willy was born in Milwaukee in 1878 and Olive more than likely was born in Sweden around 1886, and moved to Michigan when she was a baby.  Even if they did speak with an accent, you’d think the person filling out the birth certificate would ask for the correct spelling of the last name.  1909 is well before WWI when many Germans anglicized their last names.  In 1973, my grandfather had this “mistake” corrected.

Olive’s last name is also misspelled as “Hessell” instead of Hassell.

1910 US Census. Olive states her place of birth is Michigan, and that the birthplace of her parents is Norway.  I believe her place of birth is Sweden, and I’m 99.999% sure her parents were also born in Sweden.

1930 US Census. William states that his parents were born in Hamburg, Germany.  They were actually born south of Bremen, in what was then Hanover.

William’s WWI Registration Card states that he is paralyzed on his left side.

Olive died in 1926 at the age of 40, leaving 3 kids, including 10 year old Ann to her husband to care for.  Family lore has it that she was a member of the Church of Christ, Scientist who eschewed medical care which ultimately led to her death at a young age.  How and why would she have gravitated to such a radical religion?

William died in 1930 at the age of 53, leaving 3 kids, including a 14 year old Ann orphans.  William’s death will be the topic for a future post.

No pictures. Of of my 8 great grandparents, William and Olive are the only ones for whom I have no pictures.


[singlepic id=35 w=320 h=240 float=left]My maternal grandfather, George Joseph Niesl was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  It’s hard to write about my grandpa, not only because I miss him, but also because he was a walking paradox; the original Renaissance man.  There is no single human being who has touched me in more ways than he has.

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[singlepic id=37 w=320 h=240 float=right] of course “Dodge”.   We learned that Grandpa got his nickname because of the way one of his younger sisters pronounced George.  Most of my siblings and cousins had nicknames given to us by Grandpa.  There was “Moe”, “Mugs”, “Dynamite”, “Missy”, “Rump Roast”, and “Loud Mouth” to name a few.  I was “Beans”.  My daughter Betsie was one of the last to get a nickname, “Liza”.  Besides Liza, my kids now have nicknames that I’ve given them.  Korey is Boris and Nate is Knuckles.

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.

[singlepic id=36 w=320 h=240 float=left]Grandpa and his brothers were known as brawlers, this brawling most certainly being fueled by beer and their Bavarian sense of Gemuklichheit.  Grandpa met my grandmother after a night of drinking when he and his brothers stopped at the diner where my grandma was working.  As the story goes, they tore the place up, pulling the stools right out of the floor.  He must have had some charm to go with the bravado because he won Emma over.  She was going through some hard times, having recently had my Aunt Doreen out of wedlock and coming to terms with the reality that she would probably never marry Doreen’s father who was going to school to be a Draftsman and who was also Catholic.  Marriage to Emma, a Lutheran, while their son Peter was in school just wasn’t in the Diller family’s plans.  Grandpa, knowing full well what was going on finally said to Emma, “What are you doing wasting your time waiting for that jerk, he’s never going to marry you.  Why don’t you marry me?”.  Grandma always said, “That’s all I needed to hear”.

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[singlepic id=40 w=320 h=240 float=right] drinking could make their lives very uncomfortable.  The Gemuklichheit was out of hand.  Grandma was always known for her cooking, and always made home made bread.  When Wonder Bread first came out, she thought she’d give it a whirl.  While at the dinner table that night, Dodge grabbed the stack of bread on the plate, mushed it into a ball with his hands, and threw it saying, “This isn’t bread.  Don’t ever put this on the table again.”  Grandpa would try several times to quit drinking, but it wasn’t until the late ’50’s when, basically on his death bed with cirrhosis of the liver, his doctor told him, “George, let’s be honest with each other.  I won’t waste your time, and please don’t waste mine.  If you don’t stop drinking, you’re going to kill yourself.”  That was it.  He never drank again, until the last year or two of his life, when I remember him having a “good German beer” every once in a while with my uncle.  I still have visions of Kingsbury near beer in their refrigerator.

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.

[singlepic id=41 w=320 h=240 float=left]In the late ’50’s, Dodge and Emma, along with his sister Gertie and her husband Stanley, bought a cottage on Two Sister’s lake hear Lake Tomahawk, Wisconsin.  The memories all of us kids have from our time “up north” could fill a book.

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.

[singlepic id=42 w=320 h=240 float=right]During high school, when I was really pouring myself into my drumming, I thought music was something he just couldn’t relate to.  Unlike my Grandma, who was always singing or whistling,  I had just never seen his interest in music, aside from watching Lawrence Welk with my Grandma.  I remember between my junior and senior years of high school, I saw Buddy Rich play with his big band at Summerfest.  After Buddy finished playing, there was a crowd near the stage door waiting for autographs.  I’ve never been much of an autograph person, but this was one of my drumming heroes.  I didn’t have anything for Buddy to sign, so I had him sign my forearm.  The next day I showed my Grandpa, thinking Grandpa lived through the big band era, he should know Buddy Rich.  My Grandpa looked at me and said, “What the hell would you have a hop head like that son of a bitch sign your arm for?”  Evidently hop head was the term for pot head back in the day, and evidently my Grandpa knew about Buddy’s rap sheet.  He told me Gene Krupa was no better, and that Gene was a druggie 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.

[singlepic id=39 w=320 h=240 float=left]Dodge and Emma took regular trips to Sacramento where they spent winters with my California relatives.  1987 would be Dodge’s last trip.  While in California that year, cancer swept over him like locusts over the prairie.  He came home to die and I got to see him one last time in the hospital.  As I entered his room, he tried waving me off.  He didn’t want me to see him in this weakened state.  But it didn’t matter to me.  I had so many other memories of him, that there was no way this last memory would have a negative effect.  I just wanted to say good bye.

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.

Of Sound Mind in a Sound Body

[singlepic id=23 w=320 h=240 float=left]This past Sunday being Valentines Day, my wife and I ventured to Milwaukee where we were fortunate to see a great concert:  Dawes opening up for Cory Chisel.  Both of us came away feeling the state of American song writing is in good hands with either of these acts.  But the other thing that gave me goose bumps was the venue-  The Ballroom at Turner Hall on 4th Street, across from the Bradley Center in Milwaukee.  I’ve written briefly about Turner Hall, but Sunday we got to spend some time looking around and that time just whetted my appetite.

When I was 10 or 12, I remember going to Turner Hall with my dad a few times for a fish fry prior to Bucks games.  I also seem to remember a couple friends of mine from school who went there on Saturday mornings for gymnastics.  For all these years, I’ve known of it’s existence but never knew Turner Hall even had a ballroom.  Nor did I know about the origin of the Turners or what influence they had over Milwaukee’s early history.[singlepic id=21 w=320 h=240 float=right]

The Turners (Turn Verein in German) were founded in 1811 by Friedrich Ludwig Jahn as a means of conditioning Germany’s young men both mentally and physically so that they may be better prepared to fight off Napoleon.  The organization was eventually crushed in Germany, with many of its members fleeing and settling here where the organization thrived.    The Turners not only valued physical fitness, but also took on several progressive social causes, including Women’s Suffrage.  According to the Turner website, their “mission statement” included the following:  “Liberty, against all oppression; Tolerance, against all fanaticism; Reason, against all superstition; Justice, against all exploitation!”.  In the early 20th century, the Turners of Milwaukee became proponents of clean and transparent governance.  According to the Milwaukee Turner website, six of Milwaukee’s mayors have been Turners.

Turner Hall was built in 1882.  My Great Grandfather, Wm. J. Rathkamp would have been five years old at the building’s dedication.  The building was designed by H.C. Koch who also designed Milwaukee’s City Hall.  It is currently the only original building on 4th street, between Highland and State.  It is surrounded by parking lots and sits across from the Bradley Center.[singlepic id=22 w=320 h=240 float=left]

Turner Hall was added to the list of National Historic Landmarks in 1996.  Until its recent role as a venue for concerts, the ballroom sat vacant.  If you use your imagination, you can see glimpses of what it once was.  However, its current condition would have to be referred to as a state of decay.  There is netting which spans all four corners of the room, presumably to shield patrons from the falling rotting ceiling.  The condition of the paint makes the interior look like some sort of archaeological find.

Although I can’t say this as absolute fact, I’m fairly certain my Milwaukee ancestors, the Rathkamps, Niesls, and Dachs, attended events at Turner Hall.  Turner Hall was the epicenter of German society at a time when Milwaukee was known as the “German Athens” of America.  My Rathkamp ancestors lived a block away.  Fritz Rathkamp, my Great Great Grandfather was a carpenter.  Did he work on this building?  George Niesl, my great grandfather, was an artist who painted murals in churches all over the midwest.  Is his work present in the murals at Turner Hall?

I wonder what the future holds for Turner Hall.  The website includes a list of current board members and I intend to contact them.  There is a “Preservation Trust” currently working on renovating the facility.  I’d really hate to lose the value this building holds for future generations and if there is anything I can do to help secure it’s future, I intend to.  I need another hobby.

Fun With Google Maps, Part 1

When people visit downtown Milwaukee, a lot of them comment on how many old buildings they see.  Actually, what they see is a fraction of what once was.  Milwaukee has managed to replace its history with parking structures, sports venues, and bland concrete buildings.  I still love my home town, but the remaining buildings only give you a slight feel for what it must have been like in the late 1800’s.

I’ve often tried to imagine what it was really like.  There are some photo collections on the websites of the Milwaukee Public Library and the UWM Library.  There are literally thousands of pictures to look at, but for this post I was only interested in pictures from the 2nd ward, specifically within a 2 or 3 block radius from where my 2nd great grandparents Fritz & Dora Rathkamp lived.  The thing that really caught me off guard were the pictures of the Exposition Building which was built in 1881 and destroyed by fire in 1905.  I had no idea this building was part of Milwaukee’s past.

Shown below is an embedded Google Map. If you click on the blue balloons, you will see pictures of buildings that are long gone positioned over the corresponding locations.  The map is interactive, so go ahead and click on some of the balloons, zoom in and out, and move the map around.  If you click the link below the map, you will be taken to the actual Google Maps page where you can drag the “little man” onto a street to enter into Google’s street view.  Have fun!

View Milwaukee’s 2nd Ward, Late 1800’s in a larger map


It’s amazing what you find when [singlepic id=1 w=320 h=240 float=right] really look closely at a census sheet. The genealogy software I use is Family Tree Maker which is owned and developed by Ancestry.com.   One of the nice things about this software is the “shaking leaf” it shows on a family member when it thinks it has information you’d be interested in.  My grandfather, George Niesl had one of these shaking leafs tonight and even though I was pretty confident there was nothing new that I’d find, I clicked on the link anyway.   FTM then took me to its search window where there was a link to view the 1920 census.  Again, I was pretty sure I already had this record, but I clicked on it again.

It took 2 seconds to notice that my great grand aunt, Johanna (Rathkamp) Wetenkamp and her daughter Dorothy lived next door to my grandfather and his family on 20th and Vliet in Milwaukee.  How many times had I looked at this record before?

Note also my grandfather is listed as “daughter”.  Guess George wasn’t a masculine enough name.

The interactive map below shows what 20th and Vliet looks like today.

View Larger Map

Fritz & Dora Have Courtside Seats

A few weeks ago I visited the Milwaukee Public Library and found they had a variety of “fire insurance” maps going back to the 1880’s.  These maps were produced by the Sanborn Company in order to provide insurance underwriters detailed information relative to the construction and fire risks of buildings in designated areas.[singlepic id=2 w=320 h=240 float=right]

The maps are too large to makes copies, but I did snap some pictures with my iPhone.  The picture below shows an overlay of my great great grandparent’s block in 1894 on top of the current view taken from Google Earth.  The large building is the Bradley Center, home of the Milwaukee Bucks.  I wonder if Milwaukeeans have a feel for how much their city has changed over time.  I’m not a Luddite, but I’ve seen pictures of Milwaukee’s second ward from the late 1800’s and I don’t know that we’ve improved the city by tearing those buildings down only to replace them with parking structures.

Within a two block radius, the only remaining buildings from their era are Turner Hall and some buildings on Old World 3rd Street.

I wonder what Fritz & Dora would think about seeing the Bucks and Metallica.

View Larger Map