“Swimming pool, Bronzeville swimming show, trailer camp (15 trailers), shower facilities, public baptisms” 1950 Milwaukee Park Commission report listing special attractions at Carver Park¹
At Carver Park, the city makes itself known even when you stand in the center of it’s broad grassy fields. I-43 cuts the northern edge of the park at an angle and traffic forms a low undercurrent of noise.
This encroachment is not new; Carver Park has always been pressing up against and fending off the sounds of the city. Seventy-five years ago, a 1940 Milwaukee Journal article describing Carver Park’s new pool notes “the shouts and laughter of the swimmers are in competition with the clanging of streetcars, the honking of impatient motorists, the shuffle of pedestrians feet.”
But Carver Park was never really designed to be a pastoral retreat with elaborate tree-lined paths, shady cool ponds or wildlife habitats creating a buffered enclave from the city.
Instead, it has has served an equally important purpose throughout its 106 year existence as a public park. In contrast to urban parks whose function is primarily to create a “nature space,” Carver Park has been busy creating a community space in the midst of a historically overcrowded and economically disadvantaged neighborhood.
Make a space for me
Throughout the late 19th century and into the 20th century, the packed square mile around Carver Park was home to waves of new arrivals to Milwaukee. First, Eastern European & Russian Jewish immigrants between the 1880s and1920s and later, southern African-Americans moving north for post-WWI opportunities.
These indvidiuals had to contend not only with limitations in physical space – overcrowded housing, congested neighborhoods – but also limitations in the spaces they were allowed to access. Socio-economic status, language barriers, discriminatory housing practices and segregated job opportunities all functioned to constrain the spaces these residents could live, work and play in.
So while Carver Park has always certainly provided an actual physical space for residents – light, air and grass providing relief from city overcrowding – there are many examples of the park stepping in to create space & amenities for individuals shut out of other opportunities.
Further, there are several instances where the park has expanded welcoming doors to residents outside of the neighborhood. Starting in the 1910s, it hosted the first school for children with disabilities, and after WWII, the park became the literal home to dozens of veteran’s families living in an emergency trailer camp on park grounds.
Notes before digging in
I am only focusing on the park’s origins (1850-1909), and the first 40 years after becoming a Milwaukee public park (1910-1950). The area has a fascinating history from 1950-today, which includes “urban renewal” programs and the development of the highway system, both of which had a drastic effect on the neighborhood and the park. However, I was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information about Carver Park, and decided to focus on a limited time frame.
To avoid confusion, let me note that Carver Park has had a steady stream of names over the past 150+ years. All of the names below refer to the general land area of “Carver Park” throughout history:
- Pre-1880 – Quentin’s Park (named for the original owner of the parcel of land)
- 1880-1910 – Schlitz Beer Garden
- 1910-1956 - Lapham Park
- 1956-current – Carver Park (named for George Washington Carver)
- 2013-current – The northern section of the park was renamed Beckum Park, for James Beckum, founder and tireless champion of the Beckum-Stapleton Little League.
Private park years: Quentin’s Park & Schlitz Beer Garden
Despite residents’ calls for public park creation, the City of Milwaukee was sluggish to respond in any kind of organized way until the forming of the Park Commission in 1889. Filling that vacuum in the half century prior – and some could say unintendedly delaying the urgency for public parks – were private parks.
One such was Carver Park’s predecessor, Quentin’s Park, later renamed the Schlitz Beer Garden after it’s purchase by August Uihlen around 1880. Keeping up with competition from other beer gardens dotted across the city, the park at various times featured a small zoo, dance hall, bowling alley, performance theater and seating for 5000.
This dreamy description of Schlitz Beer Garden had me aching for that perfect July night:
“Did you ever, on a mild summer evening, sit in the half darkness of the Schlitz garden, listening to the songs of the ‘Mikado’ or the ‘Pirates of Penzance,” feeling the July air on your cheeks, sniffing the fragrance of green leaves, freshly drawn lager beer and sweet scent that was your partner’s particular kind of perfume?” – The Milwaukee Sentinel, February 20, 1932
A growing city & the creation of Lapham Park
Between 1909 and 1910, the Schlitz Beer Garden land was purchased by the Milwaukee Park Commission and christened Lapham Park, after Wisconsin’s favorite natural scientist and first-name winner, Increase Lapham.
Twenty years prior to the purchase of Lapham Park, the Milwaukee Park Commission had retained renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted in 1890 to “ ‘paint with lakes and wood slopes; with lawns and banks and forest covered hills’ ”Lapham Park Social Center, built in 1910.
Lapham Park’s plans must certainly have been a reaction to growing density and poverty of the neighborhood around the park, which by that time was home to an increasing population of Eastern European & Russian Jewish immigrants. This group was generally from a more rural background than Milwaukee’s Western European Jewish population, who had arrived earlier and settled on the east side of the city. The new immigrants also tended to have fewer financial resources, and often made their living in the trades.
A (rather dramatic and patronizing) 1910 Sentinel article describes the area: overcrowded rooming houses, “dusty streets…unpainted houses..tiny and forlorn backyards.”
The park and social center quickly became an anchor for the neighborhood. Children who had been “carefully suppressed” indoors by overworked and exhausted parents where now able to “frolic in the outdoor air” at Lapham Park.
A further example of Lapham Park providing outdoor space for children who had no space at home was the 1917 “fresh air camp” for neighborhood babies.
During sweltering days, working or overwhelmed mothers could drop their infants off at Lapham Park where they were deposited in white bassinets covered in mosquito netting. They were bathed and fed and kept cool by employees of the Milwaukee child welfare division of the health department.
Said one mother, “we haven’t any yard so I can’t leave it out-of-doors in its buggy.”²
While I’m sure it was a welcome relief, the image of baby cradles lined up and tended by authoritative women is all very Brave New World.
Providing less disturbing imagery is the Lapham Park Open Air School, which also opened in 1917. The school was one of the first accessible to children who had long-term illness. “Open air” is in reference to the school’s large windows facing Lapham Park, which could be opened wide to let in invigorating and healing air.
In time, the school also enrolled children who had physical disabilities. Prior to its creation, all of these children would have been confined to learning at home.
Immigrants & emigrants: shifting neighborhood demographics
Lapham Park Open Air School was not the only spot in the park welcoming students who could not be accomodated at public schools. In the early 1920s, Lapham Park Social Center was in use as an educational facility for recently arrived Russian Jewish immigrants who were unable to speak English.
A 1921 Milwaukee Journal article writes: “until they have learned at least a little English, they cannot enter regular classes.” Educators at Lapham Park Social Center not only prepared these students to matrictulate into public school, but they the facility’s kitchen also made hearty meals for the children, many of whom had come from war-torn areas and were suffering from malnutrition.
The article goes on to describe the educational needs of recently arrived African-American children from the south, “where it has been impossible for them to go to school.”
These references highlight the post-WWI population shifts of the neighborhood around Lapham Park. By 1918, Milwaukee’s Eastern European and Russian Jewish population was concentrated between 6th and 12th Streets and Walnut and North Avenues. However, during and after WWI, many southern African-American families were drawn to northern cities like Milwaukee for job opportunities, and to escape the severe segregation of the south. They settled into the neighborhood around Lapham Park (which previously had been home to a much smaller black population.)
The new African-American residents created a thriving Bronzeville neighborhood filled with black-owned stores, clubs and restaurants in an area that covered the previous Jewish enclave – roughly 3rd to 12th Streets and State to North Avenues.
Throughout the population shift, Lapham Park continued its role as a social and recreational hub for the neighborhood.
All African-American baseball and basketball league games were organized and played at the park fields. The Lapham Park Social Center and Lapham Park Library hosted programs highlighting African-American achievements in literature and culture and hosted special guests like Major George Spencer Roberts, a black WWII pilot and war hero. The swimming pool built in 1940 was home to the Bronzeville Swimming & Diving Meet.
Though African-Americans were creating a strong cultural community in the area around Lapham Park, it still remained an overcrowded area with substandard housing. Furthermore, residents found themselves limited by discriminatory housing practices from moving to parts of town that were less crowded and had better housing stock.
A tangible outcome of this segregation and overcrowding is on display in a 1941 Milwaukee Journal article describing a neighborhood tuberculosis prevention effort which kicked off in Lapham Park. The article notes that the the overall death rate for Milwaukee black residents (the majority of whom lived in the Bronzeville neighborhood near Lapham Park) was five times greater than whites.
Veteran trailer camps in the park
In the mid and late 1940s, Lapham Park opened up to create a different kind of space for residents who had nowhere else to go. Milwaukee, like much of the country, was facing a serious post-war housing shortage. As a stopgap, trailer camps for veterans and their families were set up in parks across the county starting in 1946.
Lapham Park had one of the smallest capacities, with only about 20 trailers, in contrast with larger parks like Greenfield and Lincoln which housed 470 and 125, respectively.
While veterans expressed gratitude for the housing, which was considered affordable at $27-35 a month, it sounded incredibly cramped and trying. The trailers were just 18-23 feet long and often were home to husband, wife and several children. Laundry and bathroom facilities were communal, and there were allegations of price gouging at some camp stores. Some veterans were still struggling with post-war illness or disability.
At Lapham Park, an infant died in a trailer after a fire inadvertently was accidentally set by his older brother. The children were in the care of a neighbor who had gone to do laundry. Both the children’s parents were in hospital.
A series of 1949 Milwaukee Journal advice columns highlights some of the community perceptions of trailer camps, as well as the challenges trailer housewives lived with. 4
“Trailerites” reacted with furor after one woman wrote to columnist Ms. Iona Quinby Griggs that she disliked the trailer camp two blocks from her house: “And let me tell you…of all the lazy folks you’ll ever see, you’ll find them there. What work can it be for these women? They only have one room apiece to take care of.”
Ms. Quinby Griggs needed to dedicate several subsequent columns to the responses from furious trailer camp residents, who wrote back that they had to maintain their home with limited washing facilities, no running water, parked in a “muddy, treeless, grassless, vacant area,” sometimes 5-6 children in one room, and the pity of relatives and strangers: ”when we would tell people where we lived we couldn’t help seeing the looks that came across their faces.”
One writer gave this description:
“We don’t live here because we chose this type of home. Any of us would trade a trailer for a house. We live here because we have no other place to go…our trailers are so small we are constantly cleaning and scrubbing. …we have to carry all of our water from the service buildings and take back the dirty water.”
By 1955, housing was more available in Milwaukee and all but one of the trailer camps was disbanded and park land was restored.
Carver Park today
While the park still sits in the heart of the city, it is not surrounded by the choking density of earlier years. Years of “urban renewal” and highway expansion clear-cut many of the neighborhoods’ homes.
When I visited Carver Park on a recent June day, it was full of people – picnickers, walkers, children rolling down Carver Park’s one hill and making full use of the playground.
An adult kickball league game on one of the Beckum Park fields drew a large crowd and food trucks. The game announcer was not doing so much of a play-by-play, but was immensely encouraging, with a “there you go!” after every successful run.
On the south end of the park, a teen baseball league practiced. Just beyond their field was the old Lapham Park Open Air School (now Roosevelt Middle School) and Lapham Park Social Center, now a fetching baby blue. The Social Center is now an MPS charter school called The Alliance School.
I was interested to read the mission of the Alliance School, in light of the park’s long history of creating space for those pushed out of other locations: ”The Alliance School is a place where it’s okay to be black, white, gay, straight, gothic, Buddhist, Christian, or just plain unique!… The Alliance School was the first school in the nation to start with a mission of reducing bullying. It was also the first to start a gay-friendly middle school.”
In researching the park, I thought a lot about the idea of creating spaces for people who were limited in physical space or were shut out of opportunities. In some cases, unique communities are built and fostered, but in others, it seems as though space-creating can turn into separation and segregation. For example, creating a school for disabled children ensured their specific needs were met, but what was lost by keeping them in separate facilities from other students?
I was also interested in the way Carver Park became a surrogate and and a stopgap for residents living in difficult situations. For example, the “fresh air” camp for babies on hot days became a surrogate yard for families who had none and surrogate mothers for those whose own were overwhelmed. The veteran camps were stopgap housing measures in a crisis.
What are a public park’s limits, boundaries and responsibilites?
911 W. Brown St.
Milwaukee WI 53205
Selected Sources, Further Reading & Miscellania
¹ Milwaukee County Park Commission and Milwaukee County Regional Planning Board Quadrecennial Report 1937 – 1950 Inclusive (find at Milwaukee Historical Society)
Side note: I became interested in Carver Park about reading that one line about “public baptisms.” I’ll tell you right now, I searched and searched but could not find any other reference.
² “Quiet Hovers O’er the Ghetto All Day and at Night Comes Relaxation and Romping” The Milwaukee Sentinel, August 26, 1910
³ “When Music Reigned at Lake Park” The Milwaukee Journal, July 22, 1950
4 “Grateful for Letter, Hangs it in Kitchen” The Milwaukee Journal, March 15, 1949
“These Trailerites Tell ‘Lizzie’ a Few Facts” The Milwaukee Journal, March 22, 1949
“Trailer Wives Offer Exchange with ‘Lizzie’‘The Milwaukee Journal, March 26, 1949
Topic: Early Years Milwaukee Private Parks & Beer Gardens
- The Milwaukee Park Movement: A History of It’s Origins and Development. Master’s Thesis. UW-Milwaukee. Marvin L. Christian, August, 1967 (find at Milwaukee Public Library)
- 20th Annual Report of the Park Commissioners of the City of Milwaukee, 1920 (find at Milwaukee Public Library)
- Milwaukee Public Library Photo Collection. Additional photos of Schlitz Beer Garden here and here.
- 1889 Map of Milwaukee, with sketch of Schlitz Park at top. Binner Engraving Co.
- “Proposition to Name Schlitz Park for the Late Dr. Lapham Earnestly Indorsed.” Milwaukee Sentinel, August 29, 1909.
Topic: Lapham Park Open Air School
- Lapham Park Open Air School/ WAA architectural record, Wisconsin Historical Society
- “Smoothing Life’s Pathway for the Handicapped,” The Milwaukee Sentinel. March 1, 1928
- “Potter’s Legacy Lives on at Gaenslen School,” Bobby Tanzilo. Feb 12, 2012.
Topic: Jewish Immigration in Milwaukee & Bronzeville
- Picturing Milwaukee’s Neighborhoods, Judith T. Kenny, March 2004
- “Milwaukee landmark, Jewish ghetto, may soon pass away“, Milwaukee Leader, May 22, 1918
- Milwaukee Jewish Timeline, Jewish Museum Milwaukee
- “The old heart of Milwaukee’s African America could beat again“, Urban Milwaukee, August 18, 2013
- “The Golden Age of Bronzeville Milwaukee’s African-American Heritage“, Shepard Express, August 26, 2009.
- Bronzeville: A Milwaukee Lifestlyle. Ivory Abena Black, 2006 (find at Milwaukee Public Library)
Topic: Veteran Trailer Camps
- “Trailer Sites Needed“, The Milwaukee Journal, Dec 28, 1946
- “County Veterans Glad to Get Trailer ‘Home of Our Own,’” The Milwaukee Journal, Jan 5, 1947