Saturday, February 11, 2012

Brady Street Blooms

Things were looking up on Brady Street and for the surrounding area in the late 1960's and early 1970's.
The Hippies were establishing themselves as upstart businessmen/women. What started out as a countercultural movement was fast becoming a part of the mainstream of America. Tourist or gawkers who use to ride down Brady Street with their windows rolled up to catch a glimpse of these wild eyed, long haired, bell bottom, patchouli smelling hippies were now actually stopping and shopping. Fueled by the success of the Brady Street festival, other small business's were springing up. Stores like The Silver Shop, The Age of Man, Pot Pourri, 1812 Overture and Joynt Venture became established on Brady Street. Some of these stores became legendary and made a huge impact on the way we still live today. And I'm not just talking about scoring some incense or rolling papers but stores that had an impact on the way we would live and shop in the future.

A few blocks from Brady Street is Kane Street. A local band of Hippies known as the Kane Street Tribe had an idea for homegrown, organic food. This merry band of hipsters approached several of us merchants on Brady Street for donations to help them start a small co-op. They wanted to sell organically grown produce, natural honey, seeds, beans something called soy and eggs from cage free chickens. What a bizarre concept I thought but I decided to help them out. Several weeks later, one of the members of the KST came into my Leather Shop looking like a hippie farmer. He was a tall lanky fellow with bib overalls, no shirt and a red bandana tied around his sweat stained forehead. From a large burlap bag he pulled out a HUGE bunch of carrots. Not the carrots I was so used to see being sold in tidy little plastic bags but carrots with the untrimmed green tops still on and a vast amount of dirt hanging from the roots. This was my payback for the money I planted with this loose group. I ate carrots for weeks.

This seed money and the hard work and vision of the Kane Street Tribe had established a small co-op and called it the Kane Street Co-Op. Before long, people from all over the community were flocking to this store to buy their goods. After several successful years at this location, the Kane Street Tribe moved the entire operation over to Holton Street and renamed the store to Outpost Co-Op. This new location was much bigger and business for them was booming. Eventually they moved off of Holton Street to Capitol Drive and again renamed the store to Outpost Natural Foods. Two more stores were added and to think, this all started with a band of hippies with a good idea. Whenever I visit one of their stores, the check out clerk asks me if I am an owner and I dutifully answer, why yes I am and I'm a founder too!

Brady Street and this hippie movement also had a large impact on the way we enjoyed music. 1812 Overture was a small record store that sprung up on Brady Street. This record store provided people with new music that radio stations weren't playing at the time. Even the way we saw music was being changed by us young entrepreneurs. A fellow named Randy Mc Elrath formed a company he called Day Dream Productions. In July of 1969, Randy and Day Dream Production had a vision for a rock concert. Milwaukee and the midwest were often overlooked by touring bands but that was going to change. Bands were booked and a venue was selected. Merchants like myself were asked to display an announcement poster and sell tickets. Here is the actual poster I displayed in my Leather Shop. I still have it.

Midwest Rock Festival Poster - 1969
This Midwest Rock Festival was held at the State Fair Grounds in West Allis. A large flatbed truck was the stage and we all sat in the bleachers of the race track area. Bands that played were Led Zeppelin, Blind Faith, John Mayall and Joe Cocker. The smell of pot smoking and patchouli oil wafted in the air.
Here is an advertisement that was published in several newspapers:

Advertisement from The Milwaukee Journal - 1969

During this new beginning, I wasn't totally aware that I was transitioning from a very laid back young fellow to one that was fast becoming a fixture on both sides of the cultures we were living in. I always considered myself a hippie first who just love to be making leather goods. Making a living by doing this thing I loved was just the icing on the cake. Running a business on Brady Street allowed me to open doors to the establishment that I might not ever had an opportunity to do. I could now walk into tanneries, conduct my business and receive a warm welcome and a strong handshake. Even the mayor of Milwaukee, Henry Maier sought out my advice on his fledgling project Summerfest. Being a hippie also gave me credentials with the hippie movement.

Hippies have always been peace loving by nature but when provoked by mean spirited police they could become violent. The Water Tower Fountain near St. Mary's Hospital was a favorite gathering place for this fun loving bunch of people we all knew as hippies. These gatherings were spontaneous "be-ins" or "happenings" that sprung up. The neighbors around the Water Tower were unhappy with this group using their fountain so the police were urged to clear this unsavory group. One warm summer night as the peaceful hippies gathered at the Water Tower, the police charged the crowd with swinging clubs they attempted to disperse the crowd. The large group that had peacefully gathered were now being chased by the police. Most people ran away but some ran down Farwell Avenue and eventually ended up on Brady Street. The crowd mentality took over and many a store window was smashed on their retreat from the pursuing police. That early evening, I stood in front of my Leather Shop and witnessed the crowd descending on the street. Many of the established stores windows were broken. The grocery store A&P had it's windows broken and food was looted. My store was not damaged, overlooked by the crowd as I was not seen as part of the establishment. The police came by and wrapped their clubs on the concrete steps I was standing on and snarled for me to get inside. It was an ugly night that would change the way us hippies were viewed by the police and the general public.

In the days, weeks, months and years to come this event would mark a new beginning of the hippie movement in Milwaukee. At first the news media condemned the violence but soon saw that it was provoked by the police who started it. The police knew exactly what they wanted to do and with forethought they had removed their badges to prevent being identified. Once this revelation came to light, the news media shined a more favorable light on why the hippies acted the way they did. A young lawyer named James Woods successfully sued the city of Milwaukee's Police Department and to this day, it is illegal for any Milwaukee cop to remove their badges. A law was passed that all police had to have their badge numbers sewn to their uniform to prevent them from ever again hiding who they are. 

Hippies had found their voice and they were not going to take the abuse anymore!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Milwaukee Tanneries 1901 - 2001

As this poster from 1901 illustrates, Milwaukee Feeds and Supplies the World.

Poster Promoting Milwaukee which "Feeds and Supplies the World" - 1901

This was true for many companies, including the tanning industry. Milwaukee was an area that was settled by many German immigrants and with them they brought their passions and knowledge of the tanning business. Being so very close to the huge stock yards in Chicago gave the Milwaukee tanners an ability to have a constant source of raw materials. The hides from Chicago would be shipped by train to Milwaukee and the process of breathing a new life back into these hides would begin. A large labor force was needed to complete the job of turning what was a raw piece of flesh into something that could be used not only in industrial and farm application but in everyday use by the average person. There was not a lot of science to tanning at first so the tanners had to use all their senses to create a beautiful piece of leather. Hides were soaked in putrid smelling vats of urine, lime and dung to rid them of hair and to stop the natural bacteria from rotting the hides. The "head" tanner had to have a "nose" for the condition of the "bath" these hides had to travel through so as not to burn or destroy the hides. This lower end tanning used to preserve the hides was often referred to as "bottom tanning". Once the hides had been neutralized, the hair was scraped off, the hides were cut in half along the animals backbone and the fat and webbing on the undersides were removed.

Two Hardworking Tannery Workers

Depending on what the hide final use would be, the tanning process was followed various steps as the hide made it's way through the tannery. Huge wooden vats were used for soaking and washing the hides. These vats would rotate and agitate the hides so they would accept the compounds of chemicals needed to be infused into the leather. These vats would be filled from the top via one floor and emptied on the bottom from another floor. It was vey messy, heavy and dangerous work. Following a specific flow chart through the tannery, the hides would go through coloring, finishing and plating. Basic colors would be drummed into the hides and a finish or top coat would be used. A plating machine is like a big hot iron press with either a smooth plate or a textured plate that was used to simulate an animals grain. The sequence for tanning leather is long and arduous but at the end the leather would have a beauty and durable quality that is unequaled to this day.

For more then 100 years, Milwaukee was known for it's vast tanning industry. The size of these tanneries ranged from small to very large. Niche tanners, such as W.B. Place made their mark with specializing in tanning deer skin as well as cowhide. A tanner like General Split just used the part of the cowhide that came from the leather that was split off the very thick hides. Huge tanneries like Pfister & Vogel employed thousands of people at various locations across Milwaukee. A.F. Gallun Tannery used just calfskin in their operation. A.L. Gebhardt Company was a leader in many different types of leather needed for the shoe, garment and upholstery business. The list of Milwaukee tanneries is very long and most are no longer in business in Milwaukee.

When I started out in the leather business in 1968, I literally could walk from my Leather Shop at 1316 E. Brady Street to three large tanners. If I couldn't find what I needed at these three, all I had to do is drive a short distance and more then a dozen tanners were open for business. Along with the plethora of tanners, Milwaukee had a very vibrant manufacturing trade that was associated with all things leather. There were many companies that made the machines used in the tanning industry plus companies that made the machines needed to produce finished leather goods for consumers. There was a large presence of shoe makers, wallet makers, luggage and handbag makers. One of the very close tanners near me was Western Leather Products Corporation. This combination tannery and manufacturer was formed in 1910 by the Pfister & Vogel Company just to process the scrap that P&V generated form their tannery. Western Leather would put the small pieces of scrap leather together to make leather heels, toe caps and counters for the shoe industry. Back in the 1950's, when transistor radios were first introduced. Western Leather made the millions of leather cases that came with each radio.

It would have been hard to imagine in 1968 that this leather presence in Milwaukee would fade away.
With each year passing, the tanners survived by innovations of new machines and refined techniques in the now science of tanning. Instead of using more natural ingredients in this process such as extracts from trees and vegetables, the tanners turned to science. The bottom tanning process evolved from putrid baths to scientific alkaline and acid baths to ensure a more uniform tan. The oils needed to lubricate the leather became more synthetic and the sprayed on finish to the hides became more durable. What was once an old world way of making finished leather by many individuals was fast becoming a modern and mechanized industry. The labor force now needed to produce the leather was minimal but the new chemicals used were environmentally unfriendly. The tanners had to refit all their procedures to reduce the effluent being discharged back into the environment. The newly formed government agency, The Environmental Protection Agency mandated to the industry to clean up their act.  All this cost huge sums of money and with any business, the bottom line has to be considered. By 2001, the majority of tanners either closed up because of declining profits or moved their operation overseas to avoid the additional charge from the EPA regulations.

The bottom line is this: It is more profitable to tan leather off shore. The hides can be salted down to preserve them as container ships carry them to distant shores were the machines and labor needed will be there. These hosting countries will allow more pollution to be emitted then the EPA here would allow, so the bottom line of profit is increased. I've heard that some large tanning conglomerates actually ship the salted raw hides to the west coast where they are loaded on big ocean going ships. Once onboard, the hides are bottom tanned and the effluent is thrown in the ocean. Arriving at it's destination, the hides can be further finished and most times, used by manufactures there to cut, sew and assemble the leather item finished goods that are shipped back to us here in the USA.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

From Warren Avenue to Brady Street

Several of us young merchants had attended the block party on Warren Avenue that was organized by the YIPPIE's. We saw the crowds and the excitement that formed that day and decided to have a festival on Brady Street. Being young and new to the street, we needed to enlist the older merchants to make this successful. An ally was found in Joe Glorioso from the Glorioso's Brothers Italian Delicatessen. Joe saw the potential for promoting Brady Street and with his blessing we set out to create an event. A local man named Bert Stitt, who was active in the community, signed on to organize this event. Meetings among the merchants were held and ideas were exchanged. We decided on a festival that would include arts, crafts, a flea market, food and beverage. A music venue was not included as we felt that the music would not attract the clientele we were interested in having in our community. Plus Summerfest was taking shape on the lakefront and we needed the alderman and the mayor to okay the necessary street permit. I remember being in Mayor Maier's office at city hall as we delivered our sales pitch. The mayor looked at us as competition to the fledgling Summerfest and even asked if we would consider holding our festival at the lakefront grounds. We stood firm as we knew the alderman had already given their blessing so with some trepidation, the mayor signed off on our festival. With permits in hand the work began.

Picture of Me and Joe Glorioso - 1969
The city of Milwaukee had never seen a festival like the Brady Street Festivals of the 1970's. As merchants we were able to pool some resources, advertise for artist, craftsman and flea market vendors. Food and beverage would be supplied by the local taverns and restaurants. The Eagle Scouts were enlisted to maintain the barricaded intersection. As dawn broke on that first festival morning, a line of cars and vans were allowed onto the street. Displays were set up, merchandise was arranged and hopes ran high that the festival would be successful. What fears we had were never to materialize. As the sun rose in the east, a crowd of festival goers arrived on the street. The party lasted all day until the sun set in the west. An event had just taken place that to this very day, still remains as one of the most exciting and well attended street events Milwaukee ever encountered.

A Montage of Posters Used to Promote The Brady Street Festivals - 1968 to 1978

The Brady Street Festival of the 1970's endured for many years and finally in 1978, we saw the last festival of that era. Over those eight years, each festival became bigger and bigger. The impact on the neighborhood was taking it's toll. Residents were very unhappy with being held almost captive by the size and scale of this event. Merchants like myself were thrilled with the monetary benefits but in 1978 the festival ended. The alderwoman in 1978 was Sandra Lyon-Hoeh and she was comfortable with the festival, even though her office was taking the heat from the neighbors who were adversely affected by the festival. She told me that as long as I remained on Brady Street, she would consider allowing us to hold the festival. The winds of change were in the air. My once thriving leather business was slowing down, the street was adrift and competition from other retail areas was pressuring us all. 

It was time for a change.

Here's a picture taken by George Lottermoser of the last Brady Street Festival in 1978.
The view is looking west and the camera was used on the top of the apartment
on the corner of Brady and Prospect.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The 70's Came Roaring In

As the winter of 1969-70 wore on, my heart was healing from the break up with my girlfriend. The leather business was strong and we added a few new employees to replace the departed. Louise Rice was a very talented artist who lent her special touch to all our new creations. Gloria Beebe brought in a strong work ethic and great sense of humor. We were all learning to craft leather, listening to our clients and making a brave new world out of it all. Others in the community were doing their thing too. A group of hippies who called themselves the Kane Street Tribe, decided to open a first of it's kind health store on Kane Place. They called it the Kane Street Co-Op. Us being somewhat successful merchants, they approached us for some start up business. They asked if we would buy produce from them that was more natural then what you could but at the A & P Grocery store down the block. I remember the first bit of produce they delivered to us was a HUGE bunch of carrots with dirt still on them and the greenest tops I ever saw. The carrots were so fresh you could almost hear them squeak. Turns out they had the right idea, the Kane Street Tribe went on to establish the Outpost Natural Foods store. When I shop there now and I am asked if I am a member, I chuckle and say: "Why yes! I am a founder too".

Another event was on the horizon that still resonates to this day. It was early spring when this took place. The YIPPIES had a house on Warren Avenue, just north of Brady Street. In their political agenda must have been some creed or oath to unite the people in song and dance by having a block party. Now mind you, this was not a thing that ever happened in the city of Milwaukee, unless it was organized by a church. The YIP's somehow convinced city hall, Mayor Maier and Police Chief Brier to allow them to block off Warren Avenue for one day early in the spring of 1970. I'm sure no city official new the YIP's were behind this as they stood a snow balls chance in hell of ever being allowed to play rock n roll in the middle of a street. They asked me to allow them to store the wood needed for the makeshift stage in the back of my shop. Remember, I had a couple of the underground group living above me.

The morning of the event came and all hands helped carry the lumber to Warren Ave. and a small stage was set up. Young and old hippies, beatniks and curiosity seekers started to arrive. The word had gotten out that  an "Event" was going to "Happen". The street filled up with people, a band played, we danced and swayed to the beat. The weather was warm and love for one another was in the air. I had attended some love ins and be ins in the past few years but this was so different. Here was a neighborhood, coming together in song and celebration. A first of its kind for good old Milwaukee. But trouble was brewing, Chief Harold Brier hated us long hairs. He must have gotten wind of the event as he had narcs in the crowd. Narcs were hated by the hippies because narcs were usually people who gained your trust and then had you busted. As the festivities continued, a small presence of police were seen in the distance. When the YIP's decided to start handing out some hand rolled joints to the crowd, the police moved in. The crowd scattered as the police tried to arrest anyone they could. At that time, the police were not the restrained professional we see today. This was Brier's handpicked goon squad and they laid into us with a force that was brutal and overpowering. People were injured and arrested.

This street festival ended but an idea was born. 

More festivals were in the future.

All Leather Belt Buckle Hand Drawn by Lois Reitman - 1969

A Pre-Cut Outsole Was Used to Explain the Sandal Buying Process.
Customers Would Actually Have Their Feet Traced Onto A Piece of Leather Like This.
I Would Then Build Them a Pair of Sandals from this Tracing.
Drawing by Lois Reitman - 1969

This View of The Leather Shop was Drawn by Lois Reitman - 1969

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Everything Fringe, Top Hats and Freak Flags

While I was learning to master the art of making sandals, the women who worked at the Leather Shop were busy with the fine art of making clothes. In the beginning, there was Chris Young, Elfie Milling and Ilze Heider. Customers who wanted stylish leather clothes would commission us to make unique and one of a kind jackets, vests or pants. I had invested in an industrial sewing machine that was capable of sewing through the thickness of several layers of leather. The local tanneries supplied us with an unending supply of top grain cowhide. We studied all the current fashion magazines for tips and trends. We looked very closely at the west coast as it seemed like that area was fast becoming a leather hippie enclave. Business was good and money was available for advertising. We decided an ad should be procured in the local hippie rag, The Bugle American. and have us as the models. Here is me in the center, Chris to my right, Elfie at my left and Ilze reclining on the floor. The dog belonged to me and Chris. Her name was Heather:

The Leather Shop - 1968 to 1978

Besides making sandals, belts, watchbands and garments, we made a large selection of purses. Many of the purses were weighted heavily with hand cut fringe. To cut the fringe, I bought what looked like butcher block tables that were constructed with many pieces of wood glued together. The cutting surface was actually the end grain of the wood. We would treat the wood with linseed oil and sand the surface as it wore from all the repeated strokes of the knife along a straight edge. Another labor of love and a source of a few nasty cuts if one was not careful. My thumb still has a permanent nick in it.

By the end of 1969, my girlfriend decided to move to Colorado and Elfie went off to Paris. Ilze stayed at the shop until it's end in 1978. We were good friends and had a great working relationship. To this very day, Ilze is still doing leather and has remained very vibrant with her designs and style.

The end of the 1960's seemed to be an end of innocence in a way. The war was dragging on, protests were becoming more frequent and definitely more violent. Love-ins, be-ins were all being monitored by the police and the dreaded "Narcs". Woodstock had come and gone with no major change in our society. The establishment was still in control.

As a merchant, I represented the "Establishment"  but by some I was seen as a bonafide "Hippie". I was accepted by the underground radicals. The Youth International Party or YIPPIE'S were hell bent of protesting the Vietnam War. I was on their side and they knew it. Several of Milwaukee's underground YIPPIE radicals lived above the Leather Shop. 

They gave me this iconic flag. I still have it to this day.

An Original YIPPIE Flag - 1968

On the inside of front door at The Leather Shop hung a handmade open and closed sign made out of leather. It was glued and nailed together. Some accents were added by burning a pattern around the letters edges.

The Original Open and Closed Sign for The Leather Shop - 1968 to 1978

Monday, February 6, 2012

Trial and Error

In the USA, we do not have a school system for leather crafting. At the downtown technical school, a person could learn to repair shoes but if you wanted to learn how to make them, forget about that. At that time in Europe, trade schools were available to those who wanted to learn the art of making shoes, luggage and all accessories. Here in the good old USA, a person would have to work for an established company to learn the ins and outs of leather bending. My natural curiosity and love of leather would have to suffice and see me through this new learning curve. Studying other purses, sandals and various other leather items, I was able to gain a sense of what I needed to do. My girl friend, Chris Y. worked in the shop with me and brought a much needed female perspective. We attempted to make garments but styled them with the fashion flair that was popular at the time. Fringe leather was the rage and spread from the west coast to the east and back. When it flew over us here in the midwest, we took notice and carved a new niche with our name on it.

Here's one example of what we were making in fringe.

A Suede Leather Fringe Bag We Made - Circa 1970

A customer had brought in several pairs of handmade sandals they bought while visiting the Greek islands. I remember the story they told me how this old man sat on the beach with leather in hand, a pencil and a knife. A person wanting a pair of sandals would stand on the leather and he would draw the shape of their foot. Taking up just his knife, he would cut the shape of the upper and lower soles out, cut straps to insert in the upper soles. I could see by examining his work that he would just cut small slits in the upper soles to insert the straps at strategic places. The lower sole was nailed to the upper and the edges were trimmed to match. A few quick pulls on the straps and sandals were complete. I looked at these sandals and could see the history of sandal making right before my eyes. This same style and skill was undoubtedly passed from person to person for many ages.

It would take me the better part of the summer of 1968 and 1969 to become proficient with making custom made sandals. The equipment I had at my disposal allowed me to make sandals at a faster rate and better quality. The knife was replaced with a machine that I turned with a crank to cut the heavy leather for the soles. Think of a can opener with a wide set of jaws and a handle to match. Instead of following a tin edge, I followed the trace of the pencil. The slits in the leather were replaced with whacks from an oblong punch to locate the straps. And the soles were sewn together by a large straight needle stitcher that came along with the old shoe repairman's remnants. Remember going into a shoe repair shop and smelling the dyes and glues being used? My shop was not only smelling like this but the sound of the line of buffing and sanding wheels still ring in my head. A central motor drove old leather belts that clicked and clacked away as I sanded and finished the edges of the sandals. A sandal customer could expect to wait only a few days to be presented with a custom made pair of sandals to their individual feet. By the end of the summer of 1969, I had mastered the art of making sandals and the best part was that I was  doing what I loved to do. Customers were very happy and the money was good too!

Two Bracelets and One Watchband. The Braided Bracelet is a Mystery Braid

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Times They Were A Changing

With the draft behind me, I approached my partner, Ron Raffey and offered to buy him out. At first he was reluctant but a persuasive pitch and the lure of money won him over. My first task was to change the name of the shop from One If By Land to The Leather Shop. The second task was to rid the place of the incense, candles and posters that cluttered the place. My third task was to start building an inventory of leather items to fit the new name.

One machine that I obtained in this process was an American straight needle stitcher. It served me very well for many years in making sandals and shoes. The old shoe repairman's long finishing line was replaced by a more modern and powerful machine in 1970.

Here is the American Straight Needle Stitcher and
Sanding/Finishing Machine in My Basement - 2012

Milwaukee has always been a leather city with numerous tanneries,leather related manufacturers and suppliers. I was blessed with the abundance of resources right here in my birth city. I could literally walk to several tanneries to obtain supplies. Here I was, almost in the middle of Brady Street, twenty one years old and an inspiring entrepreneur. I had left my job at the Mental Health Complex, ended my seventeen year career as a student and stepped boldly into the world of business. Nothing in my life seemed to equip me with the skills I would need to succeed but because I loved the process of making leather goods, I would survive, flourish and lead.