This Week in Wisconsin History

Schlitz’s beer garden shuts its doors

By - Mar 5th, 2012 04:00 am

The Schlitz Palm Garden, circa 1907, from a well-known postcard of the time. This viewpoint looks west along “Grand” Avenue, now known as Wisconsin Avenue.

After 25 years of serving “the beer that made Milwaukee famous,” the Schlitz Palm Garden closed its doors on March 6, 1921. Since the 18th Amendment had gone into effect a year earlier, prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcohol, the Palm Garden, believed to be first of its kind in the United States, struggled to survive. It would re-open as a movie theater the next year and operate until 1960, then was razed in 1964.

The garden, housed next to the Schlitz Hotel on Grand Avenue, was not only known for its nickel pints, but for its entertaining music. The lavishly decorated beer hall often served as a concert hall, accommodating local and internationally known orchestras and musicians. It was a place for generations to meet on a Friday night, which has been resurrected in part during modern times for fish fries at the Lakefront Brewery’s Palm Garden room on Commerce Street.

Interior of the Schlitz Palm Garden, from the UWM Digital Archives.

The Schlitz Palm Garden was a staple tourist attraction in Milwaukee, as a mandatory stop for passengers aboard excursion boats on the river. The beer garden also attracted members of royal families as well as prominent businessmen and politicians, including visits from William McKinley and Woodrow Wilson — though, as the Milwaukee Journal pointed out, Wilson declined to partake in a pint.

Milwaukee’s beer industry had long been under attack by early temperance movements. Carrie Nation, on a visit to Milwaukee in 1902 to promote temperance, was quoted in the Milwaukee Journal saying, “If there is any place that is hell on earth, it is Milwaukee. You say that beer made Milwaukee famous, but I say that it made it infamous.”

On that same visit, a group of young boys tricked Nation into entering the Schlitz Palm Garden, prompting her to warn the pranksters to stay away from such establishments, calling the beer garden “a foretaste of hell.”

Prohibition impacted not only the local cultural scene, but also the local economy. At the time of Prohibition, brewing represented the fourth largest industry in Milwaukee with an annual output of over $25 million.

While the Schlitz Palm Garden and nearly all of Milwaukee’s 2,000 saloons met their demise, most breweries in Milwaukee managed to stay open during Prohibition, producing “near beer,” malt syrup, and soda pop.  Some breweries turned to unusual ventures: Schlitz Brewing Company churned out chocolate bars, Gettelman Brewing made snowplows, and Pabst Brewing Company manufactured cheese.

Thirteen years later, the dry spell came to a close with the passing of the Cullen-Harrison Act, allowing the sale of beer with an alcohol content of 3.2%.  At midnight on April 7, 1933, over 100,000 Milwaukeeans celebrated in the streets outside the seven main breweries to send off the first legal shipments of beer since the Prohibition, including a delivery to President Roosevelt with two cases of beer from each Milwaukee brewery.

This week in Wisconsin history: March 4-10

March 4, 1996: A freight train carrying hazardous material, including 900 tons of liquefied petroleum gas, derails in Weyauwega and immediately catches fire, shooting flames as high as 300 feet in the air.  The accident required an emergency evacuation of 2,300 people in the area.  Though the evacuation lasted over two weeks, residents were allowed a five-minute return to their homes four days after the accident to retrieve their pets.

March 9, 1853: The Wisconsin State Assembly passes the Death Penalty Repeal Act.  The movement against capital punishment in Wisconsin was prompted by the public execution in Kenosha in 1851 of John McCaffary who was found guilty of murdering his wife.  Over 2000 people witnessed McCaffary’s hanging, which lasted 15 minutes.  Among them was Christopher Sholes, a newspaper editor who was later elected to the State Assembly and campaigned against the death penalty.

The Rescue of Joshua Glover, as seen at the Fond du Lac underpass in Milwaukee. (Artist: Ammar Nsoroma, photo: Jimmywayne on flickr)

March 9, 1987:  Chrysler Corporation announces plans to buy American Motors Corporation, which employs 6,200 Wisconsin residents at plants in Kenosha and Milwaukee. The news is met with relief and optimism from state officials, local union leaders, and AMC employees who had been uncertain about the future of the financially troubled company. Kenosha Mayor John D. Bilotti called the sale “a dream come true” while Governor Tommy Thompson said it would be “a golden opportunity” for the state. The excitement was short-lived. In January of 1988, Chrysler announced that it would close the Kenosha assembly plant, wiping out 5,500 jobs.

March 10, 1854: Joshua Glover, a fugitive slave who escaped from Missouri in 1852, is captured by his owner and federal marshals in Racine.  Glover was arrested and thrown in a Milwaukee jail.  The next day, Sherman Booth, a newspaper editor, organized a mob to storm the jail in protest.  Glover successfully escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad, while Booth was arrested and charged for violating the Fugitive Slave Law.  The decision was overturned after the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the law was unconstitutional in Wisconsin.

[Editor’s note: A caption in a previous version of this story said what was Grand Avenue is now Michigan St., and has been corrected to reflect accurate information]

5 thoughts on “This Week in Wisconsin History: Schlitz’s beer garden shuts its doors”

  1. Anonymous says:

    “Grand Avenue” is now known as Wisconsin, not Michigan.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Christopher: Thanks for bringing this to our attention. The correction has been noted.

  3. Jack Plasterer says:

    What was the reason for tearing the palm garden down? I understand the socialist mayors who ruled Milwaukee in the mid-60s made some stupid urban planning decisions, but what exactly caused it then?

  4. Tom D says:

    Milwaukee’s last Socialist mayor, Frank Zeidler, left office in the spring of 1960. There were no Socialist mayors in the mid-1960s.

  5. Gary says:

    In reference to the Palm Garden, I know there statistics on how many people were put out of work, but how about estimates on destroyed working class families, or how many deaths from violence or bootleg alcohol poisoning were caused by the incessant conservative religious movement that finally became known as Prohibition? How about estimates on how much organized crime benefited from thier efforts?
    My ancestor Peter Schumacher was fighting the ‘blue laws’ and the intemperant Temperance movement in Milwaukee in the late 1870s & 1880s: rocks thrown through the window of his tavern and police harassment that twice got as far as the courts (he won). His tavern was on S. Kinnickinnic where the Bay View Library stands. I think he finally sold the tavern to Schlitz, late 1880s.

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