Milwaukee Industrial School for Girls

An Evident Need – Citizens Responded

By Cynthia Sommer

Original campus buildings were located at the site of the new Columbia St. Mary's Hospital on Milwaukee's East Side

Original campus buildings were located at the site of the new Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital on Milwaukee’s East Side

Volunteerism and donations usually increase during times of disaster, such as hurricanes, fires, floods, tornadoes or recession, because citizens can see the “why” of the need. A similar human hardship occurred in Milwaukee in the winter of 1874-75 that was addressed by a meaningful, caring response by some of its citizens. A “perfect storm” of harsh economic times and a brutal winter occurred that resulted in a significant number of “beggar children,” ranging from five to twelve years of age, on the streets of the City—a beacon at the time of many social needs. A response by a group of benevolent women was the establishment of a secure residence and the Milwaukee Industrial School for Girls that serviced boys (under 10 years of age) and girls (under 18) near Northpoint between Lake Drive (2385 N. Lake Drive) and Prospect Avenue.

The current safety nets of government and nonprofit institutions can make it difficult to understand the hardships of life at that early time in Milwaukee’s history. Family stories, photographs and presentations have made us aware of the poverty and misery of the Great Depression in the US in the 1930s. However, the hardship of the “Long Depression of 1873-79,” originally called the Great Depression, is less known. After the Panic of 1873, ten states, hundreds of banks, 18,000 businesses and 89 railroads went bankrupt, resulting in significant unemployment and poverty in the US.

The very cold winter in 1874-75 added to the misery of the citizens of Milwaukee during this Depression. Records documented minimum temperatures for 35 days of below zero degrees (0 to -25) with 17 nights having minimums of -10 degrees or lower. Coal and wood-burning stoves used for heating, drafty, non-insulated homes, significant unemployment and poverty along with little support from a young government were the norms for many citizens. The State of Wisconsin, at that time, had no home or school for the dependent, neglected and delinquent small children or older girls.

Girls perform laundry duty

Girls perform laundry duty

A group of noble-hearted, compassionate women founded a private-public institution for these wayward children. A starting four room tenement grew into nine modern and well-equipped buildings that became the Milwaukee Industrial School for Girls. The name of the school was later changed to the Wisconsin Industrial School for Girls when it started to receive wards from various counties in the state. The school was controlled for many years by a Board of Directors consisting of all women. A State legislative bill in 1875 incorporated the school for “custody, discipline and instruction of its wards. The restraints of the school are parental, not punitive; a home and school and not a prison.”

With the rapid increase in the number of needy children, the Board pursued with pressure to get the State legislature in 1878 to appropriate $15,000 for the building of the school and for the City of Milwaukee to provide eight acres situated at Northpoint that was worth $16,000. The site was described as “high and healthful commanding a fine view of the beautiful bay of Milwaukee.” Each county paid $2.50 per week toward the board, clothing and academics of each ward. The state made small appropriations for instructions in household duties, repair of buildings and care of ground.

Girl attended culinary classes

Girls attended culinary classes

In their mission statement, the “proper subjects” admitted to the school included “viciously inclined girls under 18 and boys under 10 years of age; the stubborn and unruly, who refused to obey those who properly have care of them; truants, vagrants and beggars; those found in circumstances of manifest danger of falling into habits of vice and immorality; those who have committed any offense punishable by fine or imprisonment or both, other than imprisonment for life. …The aim is to provide its inmates not only a fair English education and a full knowledge of housekeeping, but with such industrial training as will enable them to earn honest living in respectable and useful callings.”

Girls living at the Milwaukee Industrial School for Girls prepare a meal in the late 1800s

Girls living at the Milwaukee Industrial School for Girls prepare a meal in the late 1800s

The girls’ days were divided into work, study, and play. They received instructions in cooking, dress-making, millinery, weaving, cane-seating, sewing, crocheting, housekeeping and laundry. Academics were presented in accordance with the City Public School system and a girl may have completed her education up to the eighth grade. Brighter girls went to state normal schools or business colleges.

Based on a merit system for good behavior, a girl may have earned the grade of “Trust” which placed them in a “Model House;” a cottage that was as open and free as a private home but with support and supervision. The group home was smaller and with more opportunities for selfreliance, independence and final “finishing.” A ward could be given up for adoption, released to her original home or transferred to some well-selected home to become self-supporting. A small percentage of “borderline girls” would stay at the school until they reached majority at the age of 21. The Wisconsin Industrial School for Girls changed to the Oregon School for Girls, when it moved to Oregon, Wisconsin in 1941. The institution was finally closed in 1976.

Even with more Federal, State and City agencies and institutions, citizens are still needed today to address the gaps in social needs not supported by government. Public-serving or charitable organizations and private foundations have been aided by tax legislation that was primarily established from 1894-1964 to designate non-profit and tax-free status. It is important to remember that volunteers are the foundation of these nonprofit organizations that contribute millions of donated hours and billions of dollars in services rendered. We can be proud that Wisconsin and the greater Milwaukee area has ranked in the top five for volunteerism and civic engagement for several years (2015 National Community and Service Corporation ranking of the top three volunteer states with rates was UT- 43.23%; MN- 35.43%; WI-35.34%). A community leader from Wisconsin recently prodded citizens to consider volunteering by noting that “If one in three people are volunteering, that means two of us aren’t…we can still do better.”

The needs in our community, nation and world are evident. Whatever your age and interests, consider sharing what you can of your time, talents and support.