Head over heels for Detroit’s (and Milwaukee’s) “Hidden History”

By - Jan 11th, 2012 04:00 am

This is a love story.

It starts when I lived in Milwaukee. I loved Milwaukee. I live in Detroit now, and I love Detroit too, but I love Detroit like family — it’s a complicated, warts-and-all, God-you-can-be-so-stupid-sometimes love. My love for Milwaukee was a meant-to-be love, a tipsy first love. It would snow six inches every day for three straight days and I would sigh and smile and call someone just to say how much I loved Milwaukee.

Then I fell in love. For-real-with-a-person love. And the person I loved lived in Detroit. Conveniently, I am from Detroit, my entire gigantic family was still in Detroit, and I was going broke in Milwaukee. In short, it was time to go home. But before I moved home, I fell for someone else. And in my heart I believe this brief infatuation made it possible for me to start what I started when I got there.

Captain Frederick Pabst

When the cool kids starting drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon (I admit, I was one of them), few sought to understand the real-life mustachioed sea-faring German behind the working-class swill brew: Captain Frederick Pabst. Captain Pabst deserves to be a hipster folk hero, wheatpasted on street corners, screenprinted on tea towels, and sold on Etsy.

Captain Pabst was a real captain. In 1848, at age 12, he moved from Germany to Milwaukee. Striking out here, the family moved to Chicago, where Frederick’s mother died from cholera. Frederick Pabst had to find work. After odd jobs at hotels and restaurants, he landed (no pun intended) as a cabin boy on a Great Lakes steamer.

It was his job to collect tickets from passengers as they disembarked the ship. One day, the story goes, a passenger claiming to be a certain Captain E. B. Ward tried to leave the ship without handing over a ticket. Frederick Pabst stopped him. Captain Ward protested on the basis that he owned the ship. Pabst made him go back to his cabin and wait until his identity could be confirmed. Ward was impressed, not disgruntled. (OK, maybe he was also disgruntled. But hopefully just a little.) Pabst had composure. He showed some pluck. Some resolve.

Captain Ward knew something about that. Born in Canada in 1811, Eber Brock Ward came to Detroit with his family in 1821. The frontier port town was muddy, provincial, and had yet to recover from a devastating 1805 fire. Just a few rickety boats, mostly British-owned, plied the Great Lakes, and whenever one of them sailed into Detroit’s harbor — announcing her arrival with a booming report of the cannon — the entire town wandered to the river to watch.

Detroit in 1820. In 1818, the Walk-in-the-Water was the first steamboat to sail the Great Lakes.

Ward, too, worked as a cabin boy on the Great Lakes, and eventually clerked in the warehouse of his uncle Sam, a shipbuilder in Marine City, Michigan. In 1835, E.B. Ward bought his first share of a ship, the steamer General Harrison. In 1840, Sam made his nephew captain of the steamer Huron. Over the next decade or so, the Wards built a shipping empire that became the largest and most lucrative on the inland seas.

By the time he was 20, Frederick Pabst had become a captain, too — of the Huron. It wasn’t the same Huron that Captain Ward had sailed as a young man, but Captain Ward built it, and he named it for his first craft.

As a steamer Captain, Frederick Pabst made a name for himself. (He even rescued survivors from the burning wreck of the Niagara, which still lies in 55 feet of shallow water near Sheboygan. You can dive it, which I wrote about for this publication in 2007.) It was as a sailor that he met the woman who would become his wife — and his fate. She was Maria Best, daughter of brewer Philip Best, and after a scare in a storm near Whitefish Bay, Pabst left the shipping life for land legs and a leading role in a little German beer company with big potential. People continued to call him the Captain, which is totally fair; even today you can look around Milwaukee and see so much of what Captain Pabst created, directly (the Pabst Theater, which was state-of-the-art in its day; Pabst loved technology) and indirectly (City Hall, built in a Flemish style to complement the landscape of Flemish buildings popping up around town — such as the Pabst Theater).

Back in Detroit, Captain Eber Brock Ward gradually divested from the shipping industry and shifted his already-massive capital to other pursuits. When he dropped dead on the downtown streets in 1875, Eber Brock Ward was unquestionably the richest man in Michigan and by some accounts its first multi-millionaire, with holdings in lumber, precious metal mines, railroads, plate glass, a newspaper or two, and steel, including the Bay View Rolling Mill. (His daughter, Clara, went on to marry a Belgian prince, then run away with a gypsy in Paris. But that is another story. Which is in my book.)

I don’t remember when I first became curious about Captain Pabst. I think it was just one of those things where you’ve seen something normal and routine a thousand times, then on the thousand and first time you ask yourself: This Pabst guy was a captain? Of what? Did this beer really win a blue ribbon? Wasn’t 1844 kind of a long time ago?

What I know for sure, though, is that I was so enchanted with his story (and his wife, and his house with the antler chandelier, and his pleasure gardens in Whitefish Bay) that I got in the habit of asking myself questions like: Who was that guy with the statue? Was this street named after someone interesting? Where is this person buried? Is the family house still standing? And in my free time (I had lots of it when I first moved back to Michigan because I had no job!) I wrote about the answers (or, more commonly, the further questions that such questions tend to lead to, such as: Wait, this guy was a General in the War of 1812? What the hell happened during the War of 1812?) on a dorky little blog I call The Night Train.

And now I have written a book full of stories like this one. (It is called Hidden History of Detroit and you can learn more about it here.) People always ask me why. I usually get tongue-tied and make something up on the spot about the importance of understanding Detroit history beyond the auto industry; after all, there are 310 years of it, and it is very amusing.

Author and former TCD editor Amy Elliot Bragg.

But the real reason is very simple. I am in love with this stuff, the way I was in love with Milwaukee when I first got there in 2006. It makes me happy, and I figure there is a good chance it will make other people happy too.

I will be at Sugar Maple this Thursday, January 12, to share the love, to sign some books, and to shake tailfeathers to soul music (provided by Aaron Schleicher). It will be fun and we can dance, just like we used to. I can’t wait to see you again, dear Milwaukee, and wonder about where you have been, where you are going, and who used to wander your shores.



For more information on the event, click over to the listing in TCD’s Events Calendar (yet another Amy Elliott Bragg byline) or visit the event’s facebook page. The poster for the event (and the image on our home page) is by Dwellephant and you can purchase Hidden History of Detroit here.

0 thoughts on “Head over heels for Detroit’s (and Milwaukee’s) “Hidden History””

  1. Anonymous says:

    Way to go, Amy — congratulations!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Nice style and a new story related to Eber Brock Ward, the subject of my current research and writing. EB Ward was the one individual most responsible for converting the agrarian midwest into a thriving industrial region – making of the “rust belt”. And he had a lot of fun along the way. We should trade stories.

  3. Anonymous says:

    […] You can read the whole essay here. […]

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