Milwaukee’s new streetcars won’t have the same magic!

Exactly sixty years ago this past March, I boarded the ancient No. 10 (Wells Street) streetcar for one of the final runs of a streetcar on Milwaukee streets.

It was a nostalgic run for me that day – then a 28-year-old reporter for the former Milwaukee Sentinel – sent to do a feature story on Milwaukee’s last streetcar; the final run would come later that night, but for morning newspaper deadlines my feature story had to be based upon an earlier trip.

Now sometime later this year, streetcars will again run down Milwaukee streets, an initiative spurred on by generous Federal grants and a belief that modern streetcars will lead to a revitalization of the city – a belief certainly not shared by all Milwaukeeans.  Its success remains to be seen.

I will certainly make an effort to board one of the first runs of the new streetcar, even though it will hardly be much of a service for me, due to its limited scope.  Of course, I’ll be riding the modern, new streetcars, definitely more comfortable than the streetcrs of more than sixty years earlier. Strictly for nostalgia!



1938 Map of Milwaukee transit lines.  Streetcar routes shown in orange. Photo courtesy of Dan Steininge

Streetcars once were key to Milwaukee’s early development as a city.  For the first 20 years of my life, they were the means by which mom took us kids to the doctors and dentists; they took me and my classmates and neighborhood buddies to movies and trips downtown; they took mom and us three boys to Schusters on Third and Garfield for school clothes, and they took me on dates through much of high school. Early in his years as Milwaukee mayor (1948-1960), Frank Zeidler rode the No. 19 car from his home near N. 2ndand W. Locust Streets to City Hall. 

But it was the No. 10 streetcar that remains most vividly in my memory.  Throughout my childhood, the No. 10 took us from its westernmost terminal, a narrow station in the Wauwatosa village (Harwood Ave. and W. State St), along a right-of-way adjacent to the Milwaukee Road tracks, turning S. on N. 68thSt., and then east on Wells, where it continued into downtown, usually to a doctor’s, dentist’s or optometrist’s office, all of which were downtown.

In my early years, I turned into a pathetic scaredy-cat as the car approached the rickety Wells Street trestle that ran from approximately N. 41ststreet, over the Menomonee River industrial valley (including Piggsville) to N. 37thSt.  The ancient structure, composed of spindly struts, swayed in the wind and I was certain the streetcar would topple off, plunging mom, my two brothers and me into oblivion. Of course, it never happened and in later, more mischievous years I remember going with a bunch of kids and trying to


No. 10 eastbound on Wells Street

challenge gravity by swaying in unison as the streetcar crossed the creaking, precarious trestle.

The streetcars were hardly carriers of luxury.  To enter, one had to climb up steep portable stairs that dropped down when the motorman (there were no women driving the units then) stopped and opened the doors. I have no recollection of what disabled or older folks did to enter the car.

Cold and drafty in winter, there were heating units placed under several seats, which meant a passenger faced two choices, getting a hot seat or shivering.  The seats were of a lacquered wicker.  Summertime was no better; there was no air conditioning, of course, and thus windows were usually open, letting all sorts of bugs to enter, along with the stink of then-industrial Milwaukee from the tanneries, packinghouses, foundries and Red Star Yeast.


Wells Street Viaduct made for scary ride.


What was most fun for mischievous kids, the streetcars had fronts on both ends.  When a streetcar hit the end of its line, there was no way to turn the car around, so the motorman merely unattached the control handles from what had been the front end of the car and carried them back to the other end, latching them in, making the rear now the front.  Then he’d walk back, switching the seat backs so they reversed direction.

The more daring of us kids would often hightail it to the rear of the car, sitting on the motorman’s seat (now at the rear).  There, a kid could ring the dinger, hitting a button on the floor, angering the motorman. (Streetcars had no horn, but the motorman would use the dinger to warn autos or pedestrians of its presence, though such warning was hardly necessary due to the noisy nature of a streetcar’s run.)

Both ends of the car were equipped with a “cow-catcher,” a devise that could be dropped to clear the tracks of any debris.  I was told some kids, playing the rear of the car, might drop it, forcing the motorman to stop and raise the unit in order to continue.  I never did that!  That was really being naughty.

From what we’ve seen of the new streetcars, they’ll afford a comfortable ride, most likely smooth and quiet.  I’ll make sure to be one of its first riders.

I may enjoy it, I suppose, but it won’t be the same. — Ken Germanson, March 31, 2018



Confessions of a soda jerk; or life’s embarrassing moments

Being a soda jerk could be educational.  Well, at least it was for me, a rather naïve teenager who spent three school nights a week and every Saturday and Sunday working at the neighborhood pharmacy, Whipp Drugs.  (For those familiar with the Milwaukee area, it was located at N. 72nd Street and W. North Ave. in the same building now occupied by the Chinese Pagoda.  The exterior looks much like it did in my teen years.) 

imagesI started in 1944, the summer I turned fifteen, when the mysteries of women and sex were still a fearful wonder, partly due to my mother who raised us under the strictest rules a Catholic child of the era could face.  She had lost her own mother at age eleven and by her high school years she had been shunted off by her father and stepmother to a convent to instill her with every rule in the Pope’s religion.  Thus, for example, under penalty of sin, you were not to eat or drink anything after midnight on the Sunday when you were to receive communion . . . and then, you couldn’t eat anything after receiving the host until you drank a glass of water.  God was watching and would penalize. 

Also, Waldemar Whipp, who owned the drugstore and lived above it with his wife, believed in the same strict rules of the Church. 

As excited as I was about being a soda jerk (and particularly with Mr. Whipp’s astounding suggestion that I could eat as much ice cream and drink as many Cokes as I wanted), I quickly learned that I was also a clerk, stocker and floor cleaner.  Usually I was the only employee in the store with Mr. Whipp; occasionally, he’d leave me alone while he went up to eat dinner with his wife.  (I even filled simple prescriptions!) 

My lack of understanding about sex was tested early on when a man aged about thirty asked for a strange item I had never heard of before.  My ignorance was testing his patience and he asked for the pharmacist; he was disappointed when I said he was not available (he was eating dinner).  Finally, he leaned over the counter and said, “You know, rubbers.”  Finally, thanks to boy talk at school, I knew that “rubbers” had something to do with sex, though I wasn’t sure what.  I knew it wasn’t something the Lord would approve.  Nor would Mr. Whipp who refused to stock them due to his Catholic beliefs. 

I told him we didn’t stock such things.  “You’re sure,” he thundered.  “I never heard of a drugstore not selling rubbers.”  He stormed out of the store. 

One dinner time, I was again alone in the store, jabbering at the soda fountain with a buddy who was enjoying a lime phosphate.ii  In walked an older lady, tiny and shy-acting.  She looked furtively around the store and I greeted her at the counter where we had the cash register. 

“I need a box of sanitary napkins,” she said. 

I pictured paper table napkins; I swear I’d seen a package of such dinnertime use labelled “200 Sanitary Napkins.” 

“Oh ma’am, we haven’t had those since Pearl Harbor,” I replied.  (Paper goods of all sorts were largely off the shelves by the early years of World War II.) 

The woman couldn’t have been more shocked.  “No, they can’t be.  I’ve bought them here before.” 

“You couldn’t have.  We can’t even get them from our supplier.” 

In the corner of my eye, I could see my friend (who was more knowledgeable in the mysteries of life) snickering. 

The woman leaned over the counter and in a very soft, almost whispery tone said, “Kotex.” 

“Oh Kotex,” I said out loud, causing her no end of embarrassment I’m certain.  My buddy bursted into outright guffaws. 

I knew Kotex, of course.  Mom had boxes of the stuff; also, one of my chores at the store had been to put the Kotex and Modess boxes into special brown paper bags made specifically for the purpose off hiding these female items from the public eye.  (I always wondered how they could find paper for such a purpose, when goods like toilet paper and facial tissues were always in short supply during the war.) 

Whipp Drugs – even though the strict Catholic Waldemar Whipp might not have wanted it that way – helped educate a simple boy into the ways of life.  – Ken Germanson.  Aug. 26, 2017. 

Lament about chocolate sodas

A recent New York Times obituary of a prominent member of the arts community brought forth a weird recollection.

During my high school years (1943-47), I worked at the corner drug store*, employed as a soda jerk, clerk and stockboy.  If you’re under 40 you may not know what a soda jerk was, but he was the equivalent of the neighborhood bartender, only for high school kids; we dispensed soda and ice cream from drug store counters, complete with barstools.

Anyway, every night we closed the fountain at 10 p.m.  As anyone who has worked restaurant jobs knows, when you get near closing time, you begin cleaning up so that you can leave work on time.

It just so happened that this family (a dad, mom and boy about 12) came in about twice a week just about ten minutes before ten, at a time when I’d have the fountain nearly totally cleaned.  Right on cue, they’d order three chocolate sodas.  How I grew to hate the sight of that family and their son that would force me to clean up a second time.

The memory of that family popped into my head when I opened the New York Times on Feb. 21st to see a large obituary (a full half-page with picture) for Richard Schickel, longtime movie critic for Time Magazine and one of the nation’s most respected, who died at age 84.

Schickel not only reviewed movies; he wrote and directed them.  He also authored 37 books mainly about the movies.  This esteemed person was indeed the little boy who frustrated me many nights in my youth when his family arrived just before closing time for their chocolate sodas. Ken Germanson, Feb. 23, 2017.

  • For those familiar with Milwaukee, the drug store, Whipp’s, was located at N. 72nd St. and W. North Ave.  For years the building has housed the Chinese Pagoda restaurant.