When our noses smelled Milwaukee’s prosperity!

There was a time when you could tell by your nose where you were in Milwaukee.

When you felt the sour, sweet odors of animal renderings impregnate your senses you knew you were likely crossing the old 6th Street viaduct; scattered across the acres under the bridge and to either side stood Milwaukee’s thriving packinghouse industry with names like Plankinton and Armour.

If the rotten egg scent entered your head, you might be driving along S. First Street at about Greenfield Avenue, created by the old Milwaukee Solvay Coke Works that was cooking up fuel for foundries and other manufacturers or for residences that burned the fuel.  Maybe, too, the sharp scent of foundries stung your nostrils as you wandered  along South First or along Greenfield Ave. in West Allis.

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A 1954 photo shows smoke emanating during manufacturing process.

Also emanating from the Industrial Valley that rimmed the Menomonee River to about 50th Street were foul scents of tanneries like Pfister and Vogel; similar scents arose from along North Water Street from Gallun and around N.32nd Street and West Hampton Ave. and South Greeley Street in Bay View from the two Greenebaum tanneries.

Driving along West St. Paul Avenue about 20th Street you’d likely find a yeasty odor in the air brought on by the old Red Star Yeast Co.

At about South 43rd and West Mitchell Streets, you’re suddenly hit with the malty smell from the huge silos of Froedtert Malt preparing the goodies that filled Milwaukee’s four major breweries, Schlitz (the largest brewery in the USA in the late 1940s), Schlitz, Miller, Blatz and Pabst and two popular secondary brewers, Gettleman and Braumeister.

Gone from downtown is the sweet scent of Ambrosia Chocolate plant that brought smiles to the workers and lawyers entering the Courthouse or the students at Milwaukee Area Technical College.

As a child of the Great Depression and a teen during World War II, these were the smells that permeated my senses and all of Milwaukeeans then.

Some of the scents were downright nauseating – such as what occurred on stuffy summer nights when it was necessary to open windows to get priceless breaths of air, only to be greeted by a combination of all the scents.

The scents are gone from the city today, along with the jobs that created those scents as well as a comfortable standard of living for so many Milwaukee families.  At one time, Milwaukee was called the “machine shop of the world” and there’s no doubt that the industrious spirit of workers and ingenuity of many of the entrepreneurs were critical to the production of U.S. industries to help win World War II.

In addition, the city often ranked among the top three communities in the country for production in leather, beer, shoes, hosiery, machine tools and other areas.

We don’t wish the foul and intrusive odors to come back, though we’d welcome them again if it meant the jobs that created them were still here.  Ironically, with a mix of EPA regulations and modern technology such production could return nearly odorless.

No doubt about it, Milwaukee is a changed city.  Somehow all of our leaders and citizens need to figure out how to thrive in the new odor-free environment. November 16, 2013.

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5 thoughts on “When our noses smelled Milwaukee’s prosperity!

  1. The industrial odors, many of which were toxic, have been replaced by less noticeable pollution. But not less deadly. Carbon emissions from cars and trucks in Milwaukee and everywhere are enormous. My father, a farmer and worker in small town Wisconsin factories, died in 1975 of emphysema. He’d begun his adult work life at Kohler porcelain in Sheboygan Falls in the 1930s, worked at Fred Rueping Tannery in Fond du Lac, and later at the alfalfa dehydrator at Mammoth Spring Cannery, Oakfield. The smells of Milwaukee over the decades define the critical need to clean up the air and water without which life is doomed. Thanks for reminding us, Ken.

    • David: You are correct, of course. The smells of the day, in many cases, were deadly. Just as with your father, mine died of colon cancer in 1953 at age 53, which likely developed from going to work in a she factory at age 16 and then to a tannery, where he first sloshed around in toxic chemicals in the hide house. When he died, we failed to make the connection with his work; years later as I became aware of occupational safety and health dangers, I finally realized he, too, was likely a victim of his workplace.

      I wished not to glorify those old smells, but only to point out it was a product of a more prosperous time for working people in Milwaukee, even though that prosperity came with environmental and occupational hazards.

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