Finding Your Roots in Milwaukee

08 Oct, 2011

by Stacie Williams

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Joe, the newest addition to the lobby bartending staff, is standing behind the green marble countertop, polishing a glass; his black pants, stiff white tuxedo shirt and black vest with gold-threaded “ThePfister” monogram crisp in its newness.  “I just had the best calamari in the city,” he says, “at Umami Moto.”

The female half of a couple, seated nearby, jumps in, “We’re from Seattle, we can’t do sushi anywhere else.  Where does it come from out here?”

Joe, with his earnest smile, ever striving for perfection, giving his all to this new position (previously he was a food runner), replies with enthusiasm, “They ship it in fresh from Hawaii daily!”

“How old are you?,” the mustachioed man asks, as he gestures for Joe to refill his drink, noting Joe’s young appearance.

“Old enough,” he laughs, confirming the man’s cocktail choice and delivering it with speed and grace.

The couple introduces themselves as Fred and Anita, of Whidbey Island.  Anita is shorter than her husband, her curly hair a perfect complement to her bubbly, chatty nature.  She turns towards me and says, “the customer service here is impressive. I feel like if I wanted a wheatgrass shot, someone here would go grow the wheat, cut it, seed the grass, and press it.”

Fred, tall with glasses, has the air of a reserved, distinguished gentleman, but who quickly becomes easy to tease – clearly the jocular sort that is always good for a story.

Though they’d just come from watching the Packers game at a pub down the street, Fred and Anita spent the majority of their day among tombstones at Forest Home Cemetery.  As it turns out, the reason this pair, married for over 30 years and widely traveled, is in Milwaukee for the first time, is because of genealogy research that Fred is doing, begun over two years ago.  While tracing the lineage of his mother, he found a link to the Pfister – in his own family!  His maternal line, worked its way through the Falk family, directly into the Vogels, and the Pfisters  The link was distant, and a little labyrinthine, but worth noting as it firmly placed his generational history into footprints that have left indelible marks on the Cream City.

Branching Out

The tree looks a little like this:  Guido Pfister and Frederick Vogel, cousins, moved to Milwaukee and started a leather goods company together, incorporating in 1872 as Pfister & Vogel.  Guido’s vision for a “grand hotel of the West” was seen to fruition thanks to his son, Charles.  Guido’s daughter, Louise, married cousin Frederick’s son, Frederick Jr. Their daughter Elizabeth married Otto H. Falk, of The Falk Brewing Co.  Otto’s brother Frank married Margaret Jacobs whose sister, Mathilde, married Dr. Edgar Neymann.  Their daughter was Fred’s mother, Margaret Eleanor Neyman Smyth.

Not only do the branches sweep over some of Milwaukee’s most historic institutions, but also drops leaves at the corner of 27th & National where Margaret Jacobs’ father, William H. – a Colonel and commanding officer of the 26th Wisconsin Infantry (the Sigel Regiment) during the Civil War – built a columned mansion referred to as “The House That Rang With Music.”  A nod to the grand southern plantation houses, featuring an artesian well, greenhouses, orchards and stables, its fame was in the rooms within that provided both home and performance space for Milwaukee’s musicians.  A musician in his own right, Col. Jacob’s daughter Emma married Eugene Leuning, an orchestral and choral conductor.  The Leuning’s son, Otto went on to become a composer and music professor at Columbia University in NYC.

They’ll head out the next day for a family reunion in one of the adjoining counties, to meet people they never knew existed before this week.  Anita tells me, “we were going to visit Chicago for a few days, after the reunion, but we’re extending our stay here because we just love it in Milwaukee!  The attitude here – everyone is so warm and welcoming.  We were in Hartland yesterday to meet some cousins and some old guys at the bar shouted to us while we were leaving, ‘Come back again! The first drinks are on us!’”

Speaking of drinks: the three of us order a round of drinks, Joe delivers beautifully, and we toast the Smyth’s new home, Milwaukee.

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About the author

Stacie Williams

With a love of stories and storytelling, Stacie Williams has worked at a local Milwaukee bookstore for six years, and has experience in travel writing and blogging. In 1998, she moved from California to study theater at University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee, and stayed.

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