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My Mother Growing up as a Child in the 1920s of Milwaukee & Okauchee, Wisconsin

I live in Houston and have worked as a nurse. I have a lifelong passion for traveling, nature, and photography (preferably all together!).

The cute little type in the wash barrel is my mother.

The cute little type in the wash barrel is my mother.

My Sweet Mother

The cute little tyke in the wash barrel getting a bath is a photo of my sweet mother as a youngster.

My mother was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the mid-1920s. She had two older siblings. Her sister was 5 years older and she had a brother who was 7 years older. With her parents, this family of 5 lived on 40th street in Milwaukee during her younger years.

The family home was a duplex. My grandparents who owned the entire house rented out the upper floor to tenants who happily lived there for many years. They were a couple of "old maid" school teachers. That was the terminology used back then for older women who had not ever married.

There was an attic in the house that was divided so both families could have access to private attic space as well as one floor of the house. In addition to the divided attic, there was a divided basement as well where each family had their wash kitchens, commode, furnaces, and all-important cabinets or shelving for the canned goods. The attic and basement spaces were entirely private with separate entrances.

Early years spent in this home on 40th Street in Milwaukee

Early years spent in this home on 40th Street in Milwaukee

It was common back then for houses built like this to enable giving privacy to two families or extended families. In this case it provided an extra source of income for my grandparents who lived on the lower level plus had 1/2 of the attic and basement space.

The room in the attic facing the street was dedicated to be the bedroom that my fraternal great-grandparents used in the spring and fall of the year when they would come to Milwaukee from their home in California. They utilized it prior to going out to their larger cottage on Okauchee Lake where they spent the summers once the weather was warm enough to enjoy the lake. They left their personal belongings in their space in the attic year round and it was "off limits" to the kids in the house.

My maternal great-grandfather who was a widower lived with my grandparents during his older years until he died. My mother as a small child was instructed to walk around the block with her grandpa and hold his hand so that he "would not get lost." This was just accepted by her as normal and she often took her grandpa for walks when she was a little girl.

Washington Park

Washington Park was behind the house and provided endless pleasure for growing kids who wanted to play and run off some energy. It was a huge city park built in 1891 on 124 acres and included a zoo, playgrounds, wading pools in the summer, ice skating rinks and snow covered hills for sledding and tobogganing in the winter, etc.

Bubblers (or water fountains as they are called in the South) were scattered throughout the park and ran continuously to quench the thirst of anyone enjoying the various activities within the park.

Famous landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmstead designed Washington Park. He also helped create Central Park in New York City.

The original home of the Milwaukee County Zoo was in Washington Park and operated from 1928 to 1946 when it was moved to a larger location. It was originated on a small scale housing miniature mammals and had a bird display.

Copy of a color lithograph titled "No. 140 Goethe-Schiller Monument, Washington Park, Milwaukee, Wis.". 1914 postcard (M. L. Annenberg)

Copy of a color lithograph titled "No. 140 Goethe-Schiller Monument, Washington Park, Milwaukee, Wis.". 1914 postcard (M. L. Annenberg)

Safer Times Back Then

Those were the days when house doors were seldom locked or if they were locked everyone knew that the key would be under the doormat or in an adjacent flower pot. Windows could be left open during the day and at night and children could safely play outside without an adult always having to look after them.

The park was a big giant and safe playground which provided many fun memories related to me by my mother. Of course neighbors knew one another and also looked out for each other's children in that era.

My mother's parents also had their cottage on Okauchee Lake which was about 30 miles west of the city of Milwaukee. Most of the summer activities when the kids were out of school took place there.

My grandfather would go in to the city and work during the day and come back out to the lake to be with the rest of the family at night. He used the train to go back and forth between the city and country during the war when there was a gasoline shortage.

My mother grew up knowing how to swim and was an excellent and strong swimmer. My grandfather had a sailboat. Before he would let any of the kids take it out by themselves he wanted to know that they were capable of being able to save themselves if the boat capsized as happened on occasion. There was also a rowboat that was less tipsy. No problem for my mother with her swimming ability as she was like a fish in the water.

My mother water skiing

My mother water skiing


At an early age she began babysitting and earned extra money doing that.

She was very responsible and when her fraternal grandfather died she was the one who was elected to stay with her grandma at the cottage to "keep her company" until the rest of the family moved out to their cottage for the summer. This was a short interval of time.

While this was not necessarily fun for her she admitted to me that she learned many things from her grandmother. Her grandmother was very self disciplined and had her daily schedule. Prior to breakfast each day one would be expected to be fully dressed with the bed made. After breakfast chores would be done and only after that one could swim in the lake.

Chores would depend upon the day and time of the week. On a daily basis floors would be swept, bed pots emptied and cleaned, dishes washed and dried and put back in the cabinets and the house dusted.

If it was spring cleaning time additional chores might include airing out the mattresses and rugs, cleaning windows, etc.

At least once a week (in the city) the laundry would be done. It was not as simple a chore as it is nowadays with our washers and dryers.

Everybody had clotheslines back then and after the clothes would be washed and hand-cranked through the wringer which was like two cylinders that would express most of the water from the garments, they would then be carried outside in big baskets and hung out to dry on the clotheslines in the wind and (hopefully) sunlight. When dry they would be taken off of the lines, taken back inside and most everything had to be ironed.

In the country bathing suits and other small items of clothing would be hand washed and dried on the lines.

The older version of a washing machine in the country was a wooden one which had a lever which had to be hand cranked back and forth to move the blades which would swish the cloths back and forth inside the machine. It was much more labor intensive. After sheets would be dried on the lines outside they were put right back on to the beds.


Summer Days

My mother was very happy that year to return to her own family's cottage when the rest of the family moved there for the summer. She was then allowed to invite a girlfriend every so often and her siblings were allowed to do the same on an alternating basis.

It was a busy and happy household. During the summer once the weather was warm enough she and her siblings and invited friends often lived in their bathing suits.

There was a garden in the backyard of the house in the city as well as in the country. So during the time of the year when things could be grown and harvested in Wisconsin there were always fresh vegetables available.

Canning was done in both places when the harvested produce outpaced what could be eaten.

Both my mother's maternal grandfather as well as her father loved gardening. Her mother did all the canning and preserving of the food which helped feed the growing family all year long. Naturally as my mother became old enough she started helping with the canning process and it served her well in later years.

Their faithful dog Jiggs accompanied them everywhere and added to the family frivolity. He was quite the dog!

My mother being the youngest and also being separated by a number of years from her older siblings spent a lot of time listening to family stories that her mother related and became the family historian of sorts in her older years.

When she was high school age her parents moved to Whitefish Bay, a suburb of Milwaukee. She developed good friendships that lasted a lifetime with some of those high school buddies she met there.

Home in Whitefish Bay, Milwaukee

Home in Whitefish Bay, Milwaukee

Working & Volunteer Years

After high school my mother went to business college and ended up working for the Louis Allis Company in Milwaukee in a secretarial position. From that point on she would ride back and forth with her dad to their summer cottage during that time of the year.

During the war years companies were needing much extra help because so many of the men who would usually hold down the jobs were off soldiering. So after her day job was finished at Louis Allis Company she walked to the U.S. Rubber Company and put in a few extra hours.

What they did there was to wrap little pieces of things that would be assembled elsewhere. The idea was that if an airplane or ship would go down the important pieces that were sealed would also float in the water and could be recovered. She and the other workers never knew what these small pieces of metal would ultimately become but obviously they were important to the war effort.

My mother also took a Red Cross Home Nursing course. With that training she volunteered her services at the Milwaukee Hospital. At the hospital all sorts of jobs were done but one she particularly remembers is transporting patients back and forth to sessions of hydrotherapy. She would be responsible for getting them out of bed into wheelchairs and taking them to their therapy sessions and afterwards returning them to their rooms. She had been trained in how to safely lift patients so as not to injure them or herself.

My mother had a great interest in nursing and actually would have enjoyed becoming one. Her father discouraged her from that endeavor as nursing did not have the status it has this many years later.

My mother with her muskrat fur coat and dog Tuffy draped over her shoulder.

My mother with her muskrat fur coat and dog Tuffy draped over her shoulder.

Stamp on envelope from that day and time.

Stamp on envelope from that day and time.

Once she was earning her own money she purchased her clothing and bought the muskrat fur coat that she is pictured wearing in the photo above. Years later she donated that coat to an Indian tribe and she would not be caught dead wearing animal fur today.

The dog draped over her shoulder was the family dog named Tuffy.

My mother met my dad at Okauchee Lake where he lived with his mother. He was a paratrooper during World War 2 and was back home from the war.

My mother had a very interesting and fun childhood which she remembered fondly.

I hope that you enjoyed this look at my sweet mother who was born in the mid-1920s in Wisconsin and where portions of her early years were spent in the City of Milwaukee and town of Okauchee, Wisconsin.

For Further Reading:

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2009 Peggy Woods

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