Finding Your Roots in Milwaukee

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.

The Turk’s Head

Turk's Head Knot bracelet1

Jimmy McManus sits at a table in the lobby bar, having a beer.  He’s heavily bearded, gruff and scruffy, in a t-shirt featuring a skull & crossbones, drinking a nice pint of beer.  His appearance indicate you might not want to run into him in a dark alley, but he has the biggest, friendliest smile on his face.  Jimmy is a regular visitor to the Pfister, but only for beer because his home, at least for the summer and early Fall, is the S/V Denis Sullivan, the world’s only re-creation of a 19th century three-masted Great Lakes schooner, where he serves as 2nd Mate.  Peter, who introduced us, explains that the 1st Mate is the one putting the banana peel under the Captain while elbowing the 2nd Mate out of the way.

Having grown up sailing 14′ Hobey Cats in the San Diego Bay, Jimmy was 20 yrs old when he saw an advertisement for a “cannon battle.”  Intrigued, he checked it out.  In it, tall ships try to outmaneuver each other as they sail in a manner that mimics a high seas battle.  Drawn in, Jimmy started out as a volunteer, provided only with room and board.  Within a week and a half, he knew it was what he wanted to do: six years later, he got his Captain’s License.  Since then, he’s served as mate of Lady Washington, mate of the Lynx (where he sailed from San Diego to Florida by way of the Panama Canal), and as synchronicity would have it, as Captain of the Hawaiian Chieftain, the tall ship on which I celebrated by 18th birthday (a good number of years ago).

Most tall ships travel from port to port, upwards of three per week, but the Denis Sullivan parks in Milwaukee all season.  Its home is Discovery World, where there’s an entire workshop in the basement devoted to sails, supplies, repairs and work needed to keep the Denis Sullivan in tip-top shape.

A recent shipboard tour with Jimmy–where he regaled us with stories of a German count who served as a raider, of old clocks and compasses used on newer ships–gave us a glimpse into life on a tall ship.  Bunks below deck don’t offer much more than a simple place to sleep, which is fine when there is so much work to be done.  Whether you’re the Helmsman, assisting the Captain at the helm; or the “Idler,” not responsible for much more than delivering coffee, grabbing supplies, etc.; or serving on Bow Watch, standing at the bow, keeping a wary eye out for whatever might be missed by those at the back of the boat, where the wheel is but with a very limited perspective: all this is primary to the demands of cleaning, cooking, maintaining engines or plotting courses.  Deckhands may sit around, appearing to relax, but closer examination reveals minor, vital work, such as braiding large knots for use in hauling lines and sails (ten of them, with a total of 4300 square feet of rigging).  The floors are wood, waterproofed with cotton and “oakem” underneath pitch that must be re-applied every few years.  Even with all the new technology available, navigation of large bodies of water still relies heavily on traditional methods of work: the steering uses a King’s Spoke, string & weight rigging that helps the Captain line up the 3 ton rudder accurately every time.  The GPS may go askew, or stop working, but the boat will still run true.

Mostly an educational tool, the Denis Sullivan does day and sunset sails for the public, but concentrates its work with school groups.  Captain Tiffany Krihwan is especially proud of their program, which is essentially an “introduction to field science,” giving kids an opportunity to drop specialized containers into the water to examine the health of Lake Michigan via water quality and sediment examination.  Their extended trips teach first-hand energy conservation as the kids must eye up how much fresh water they have available, or amount of electricity they use each day, and how to ration each resource.  Jimmy has great stories from these overnight trips.  Like the time they were anchored offshore of Port Washington and motored to shore via dinghy for “emergency” cheese curds, or when an unexpected stop in Kewaunee meant a hike into town for peanut butter custard.

Jimmy lives an old life that we may be unconnected to in our modern age, his is encompassed by the humbling experience of being hundreds of miles offshore, where 23,000 lives have been lost to the ravages of nature, leading to a feeling of insignificance.  But in that feeling there is a sense of wonder that can only occur in such isolation and vulnerability.

One recent weekend, as the Denis Sullivan was making its way back from Sturgeon Bay, a thunderstorm having already delayed their departure once, the ship encountered a late-evening storm developing around them as they reached the precarious middle of Lake Michigan.  At the last minute, the storm split around them, going both North and South, revealing a clear, moonless sky above them.  The storm surrounded on all sides, but directly above was the brilliant sparkle of the entire Milky Way.


Don’t just take my word for it!  You can visit the Denis Sullivan for FREE, as a part of Historic Milwaukee’s upcoming event, Doors Open Milwaukee, on Saturday, September 24th.  Take a tour of the ship, and hear the stories of 19th century Great Lakes life.

1The “Turks’ Head Knot” is an intricate, ornamental knot woven seamlessly from a single line of rope, braided to resemble a Turkish headband.  Jimmy got his from the first boat he worked on and has worn it ever since.

History in the Air (Pt. 2)

<continued from Part 1>

“Every Sunday – it was a must – they’d take walks together, down to the lake.  There wasn’t a house or building there, it was all grass.  Just imagine how beautiful that was.  One time they were walking through an alley together, as a group, joking and having fun – and my mother said, ‘Oh, look at the red light there, isn’t that pretty?’  It was kind of high up on the building and one of the guys laughed and laughed and said, ‘Don’t you know what’s that for?’ and my mother said ‘No, no, it’s so pretty up there.’ Of course, they were talking about the red light district.  I’ve often gone down there, walking around, looking at the buildings and wondering which one it was.

“One day Teddy Roosevelt was in town, having lunch there, and he asked the waitress, ‘who made this beautiful, this wonderful salad?’  He said ‘I’m a salad person and this is the best salad I ever had, I have to meet whoever made it.’  So my mom came out of the kitchen to meet him.  They shook hands; he gave her a kiss and congratulated her on her salad.”

The photo, with Blanche's handkerchief and gold bracelet stamped with her initials

“She went on to be a nanny for a Doctor’s family before getting married and starting her family.  She was always a good cook – her food was delicious, very delicate – she would bake cookies for us to take to school.  Then people in the neighborhood started getting laid off – during the Depression.  I remember so many sad people. My folks’ nature was: ‘We have to feed these people.’ And so my mother was cooking day and night, making meals for so and so and so and so, and my sister and I would deliver on the coaster just like the snowstorms. But, that’s how we were brought up and it’s still that way in the family. You got to take care of people.”

I stayed for two more hours while El told me more stories about her life in Bay View – working for Bucyrus during WWII and waiting for the bus in the snow when her shift ended after Midnight; about marrying her childhood sweetheart (Dan, the butcher’s son with whom she attended elementary school and “did everything together – played together, fought together); all the garden clubs she worked with; going on a fishing trip to Canada for her 25th wedding anniversary; her kids and grand-kids and five great grand-kids (“One is going to be a writer!”).

We wandered around her yard, as she gathered dirt and a spare pot to send me home with wild onion bulbs to grow in my apartment.  She showed me the banners hanging in her yard, which lie in the flight path of the airport, honoring the 128th Air Refueling Wing and the 440th Airlift Wing – her husband, Dan, served in the war with the signal corps – and every time the signature sound of those military planes is heard, El rushes out to her backyard to salute them.

So this weekend, as jets and bombers buzz the shores of Lake Michigan for the Milwaukee Air Show, I’ll be thinking about Eleanore Hinich and her husband Dan’s service during WWII, as well as her mother’s kindness and generosity and how El so warmly embodies that nature and spirit.

I’m certain Teddy Roosevelt would have been pleased to find out that years later, Blanche was still making delicious food, only this time to feed the hungry mouths of families in Bay View who were forging through the Great Depression.

As for that onion bulb in the little ceramic pot?  It’s already sprouted up, getting ready to be chopped up and added to a delicious meal which I’ll be sure to make for a friend.

“Let us remember that, as much has been given us, much will be expected from us, and that true homage comes from the heart as well as from the lips, and shows itself in deeds.”  -Theodore Roosevelt


History in the Air (Pt. 1)

“Let us remember that, as much has been given us, much will be expected from us, and that true homage comes from the heart as well as from the lips, and shows itself in deeds.”  -Theodore Roosevelt

I park in front of the Bay View home of Eleanore Hinich, admiring her vast garden of butterfly plants and wildflowers as I approach to ring the doorbell.  She’s expecting me, because she has a story to tell me.  I’m meeting her at her home because, at 93-years-old, she doesn’t drive anymore.  The door opens and a very slight woman greets me in khaki shorts, tennies and a Bucyrus Museum shirt with “Eleanor” stitched on it.  Her shirt is tucked into her shorts, and a brown leather belt is cinched tight to the last possible hole.  She blinks at me through her dainty metal-rimmed glasses, runs a hand through her cropped hair and, upon my introducing myself, flings wide her door, “Come in!  Come in!”

She apologizes for her attire, as she’s been working on her garden.  We talk briefly about how hot it’s been, and then she says, “So, you’re here to ask me about my mother?” as she escorts me into the kitchen, offering me a seat at her table where a milk jar holds an array of wildflowers from her yard.  The walls are painted a sunny yellow, and the window is framed by white eyelet lace curtains, overlooking the backyard where there’s a pool and some banners hung on the fence.  I nod, explaining that one of the security managers at the Pfister had told me about meeting Eleanore (‘El’) some time ago when she came in with some family members and an old photograph.


El jumps up.  “I’ll get the photo.”  She zips out of the room, reappears within moments, a folder in her hand.  She places a photograph on the table.  It’s 8.5 x 11, glossy, and black & white capturing three lines of people in kitchen whites and serving aprons.  Printed at the bottom are the words “Pfister Hotel” and the year – 1914.  Seated in the front row is a woman whose face is circled.  Her ankles are crossed, her hands clasped in her lap.

“She’s so beautiful,” I say.

El nods, “she was a beauty – auburn hair, more chestnut than auburn.  She was very fussy about everything.”  She pauses.  “So, what do you want to know?”

I pull out my notebook and pen, ask, “What was her name?”  And so we begin.

Blanche Mrowinski (nee Rykowski) was born around 1892.  For a brief time she worked as a salad girl for the Pfister Hotel.  As El told me stories, she rarely sat still, getting up to make coffee, set out chocolate chip cookies, and work at getting the ground out from under her fingernails (“not coffee grounds, real earth, from outside!”).

“I think she stayed at the Pfister when she first started – they had rooms – instead of walking or taking the streetcar, because she lived on the South Side.  One of those ladies [in the photo] was her best friend. She talked about this friend of hers a lot. They were very close.  They were all like sisters and brothers –a big family, there. They were kind of nice to each other, setting each other up on dates. She had boyfriends from there – she’d tell us about the dates, and where he lived – this one and that one… They had so much fun together.

“Some of the girls who worked in the dining room would come home with blue ribbons, from the beers, and one girl would collect the blue ribbons and make pretty little things out of them.”

(Me:”Actual blue ribbons came with the Pabst Blue Ribbon beer?”  El: “Yes!  Do we still have a Pabst Blue Ribbon?”  Me: “Yes, they still make it, but I don’t think they’ve actually won a blue ribbon in a long time.  I think the first one was the only one.”  We both burst out in laughter over this bit.)

<to be continued…>

Tune in tomorrow for Part Two…


Capture and Share your Pfister Memories

Capturing special moments and sharing them with family and friends has never been so simple. Let us take the moments you’ve captured and turn them into treasured memories.

  1. Check out one of The Pfister’s digital cameras at the front desk
  2. Take photos of your time in Milwaukee and at The Pfister
  3. Turn in the camera before you depart
  4. A Pfister associate will use your top 10 photos to create a personalized photo website, available to you the very next day
  5. Share with family and friends via email, Facebook, Twitter and more

If you prefer to use your own camera to take your photos, you can email your top 10 photos to us at or allow a Pfister associate to download the pictures directly from your camera during your stay.

Your personalized photo website is a simple and creative way to share the memories you make with us, so be sure to take advantage of this complimentary service.

Visit the front desk fro details.

Ryan Seacrest on 99.1 The Mix [AUDIO]

On January 26 on 99.1 The Mix, Ryan Seacrest reflected about his stay in Milwaukee and how much he enjoyed his time at the Pfister Hotel.

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN: The Pfister: 1.26 Ryan Seacrest

Did you watch American Idol’s visit to Milwaukee?

The Pfister Holiday Tree

The holiday tree is our exquisite tradition at The Pfister. Every year, store we look forward to the holiday season, where we turn our lobby into a winter wonderland.

But we could not do it alone. All of this is made possible because of our friends at Interiorscapes. Their elves work to makes sure our lobby is magical, thumb festive and full of holiday cheer. Stacy will take you behinds the scenes and show you where all holiday preperations begin.

For more information about holiday activities at The Pfister please visit our holiday page.

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The Pfister Holiday Tree from PfisterHotel on Vimeo.

Meet Julie Ferris: The Pfister Narrator

The Pfister Hotel is proud to introduce Julie Ferris as our first-ever Pfister Narrator. Julie is a wonderful talent and we are glad to have her capture some of the wonderful stories that take place within our hotel each day. So if you see Julie in the lobby, search please say hi and start up a conversation. Julie will be posting her stories on the Pfister blog twice-per-week over the next six-months. Check back often and see what exciting and unique experiences she shares with the rest of Milwaukee and beyond.

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Meet Julie Ferris: The Pfister Narrator from PfisterHotel on Vimeo.

The Pfister Narrator: Historic Hotel Selects First-Ever In-House Journalist

The historic Pfister Hotel in downtown Milwaukee has named Julie Ferris as its first-ever Pfister Narrator. In the role, she will spend time in the hotel’s lobby, interviewing visitors and guests and sharing their stories on the Pfister’s blog. As Pfister Narrator, she will be posting blog entries twice-per-week over a six-month period.

“I am truly honored to have been chosen for the position and am very eager to begin,” Ferris says. “I look forward to all the meaningful opportunities before me to really experience both visitors and natives of our city, all linked to this one iconic space. I know everyone has a story to share and I’m ready to grow from each and every one of them.”

An established blogger, Ferris also has experience in teaching, management, public relations and media writing. She holds a Ph.D. in mass communications and journalism from The University of Iowa.

Ferris was chosen to serve as narrator from a significant pool of qualified applicants by a review panel, which included Jeff Sherman, president of; Judith Moriarty, a longtime local writer; and several representatives from the hotel.

“The success we’ve seen with our Artist-In-Residence program has encouraged us to focus even more on the interactive experiences guests enjoy at our hotel,” says Joe Kurth, general manager of The Pfister Hotel. “Our guests have a special connection to The Pfister and interesting stories to tell—we’re excited to share their unique experiences and backgrounds with the rest of Milwaukee and beyond.

“We’re confident the narrator program will be a huge success,” adds Kurth. “In fact, we’ve already received interest from writers from across the country who are interested in duplicating the concept of the Pfister Narrator in their hometowns.”

More information about the Pfister Narrator program and an application form for the next narrator position—due March 1, 2011—can be found at

The Pfister Narrator: Historic Hotel Selects First-Ever In-House Journalist from PfisterHotel on Vimeo.

Search for Next Artist-In-Residence

Tradition inspires tradition at Milwaukee’s Pfister Hotel. Home to more Victorian Art than any other hotel in the world, medicine The Pfister is currently seeking its next Artist-in-Residence.

Entering its third year, The Pfister’s Artist-in-Residence program features a working art studio and gallery that is open to hotel guests and visitors. The program encourages the public to interact with the artist and witness the evolution of each piece first-hand.

Since its inception, cialis the program has gained significant popularity and attracted national attention. Rocco Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, visited the program during a recent trip to Milwaukee.

“The Pfister Hotel is the only hotel I know of that has an artist in residence,” Landesman said. “We met the artist—painter Katie Musolff—and she is a very accomplished young woman. She actually works at the hotel, so you can go into her studio there and watch her work and see the finished product. She keeps certain office hours so people can come in and observe what she’s doing. It’s a pretty neat thing to see a hotel make that kind of commitment to the arts.”

“For decades, The Pfister has hosted the much acclaimed Victorian Art Collection,” adds Joe Kurth, general manager of The Pfister. “We want to expand on our reputation as a destination hotel for art connoisseurs by offering our guests and the public a glimpse into the world of art as it is being created – in real time, by amazingly talented artists.”

Each year, The Pfister’s Artist-In-Residence is chosen to fill the role from a pool of highly qualified candidates based on artistic process, personality and a public vote. The next artist, replacing Musolff, will move into the studio space April 1, 2011 and will continue working at the hotel for a one-year period.

The deadline to apply for the program is Dec. 1, 2010. Interested artists can download the application form at