Taxis, Downer and Hertz
By Cynthia Sommer
The establishment of the early taxi business in Milwaukee has an interesting link to Downer Avenue and John D. Hertz. Horse drawn cabs at the turn of 1900’s were slowly replaced by the automobiles as autos became a more reliable means of transportation. In 1903, Frank and Mary Boynton’s horse livery business on Milwaukee Street purchased four luxury vehicles (Packard, Cadillac, Cunningham and Pierce Arrow autos) to provide chauffeured automobile transportation for their upper class clients. But a big change occurred in the taxi business in 1916 when John D. Hertz, a Chicago entrepreneur, expanded his Yellow Cab Company to Milwaukee. Hertz creatively used the auto trade-ins from his auto dealership to form a competitive cab company with low prices. He subsequently manufactured his own taxicabs and expanded into the Hertz Drive UR-Self (rental car) System.
The Boynton’s were first contacted by Hertz but showed little interest in his taxi franchise, assuming incorrectly that taxis were not practical in Milwaukee with its hills and that the general public was not accepting of such “new ideas”. He also did not foresee that some of his former wealthy clients could soon afford their own cars when the Model-T Ford car cost only $360 in 1916. But entrepreneur, Frank Mulkern, who owned an auto service and storage garage at 2620-50 N. Downer Avenue (opposite Sendik’s Market; Downer Avenue is historically known as “Automobile Row”) agreed to Hertz’s offer.
Frank Mulkern established the Yellow Cab Co in Milwaukee with a fleet of 35 Hertz-built cars in 1916. Hertz originally choose the yellow color for his cabs based on a University of Chicago study stating that the yellow color was the most visible from a distance, especially among the common black automobile. Hertz also got into the business of building sturdier, custom taxis to alleviate the common breakdown problems associated with the “new technology”. The taxi business continued to expand with other cab companies competing with the Yellow Cab Company. There was still only one car per 15 residents in Milwaukee in 1920 (Remember that Milwaukee did have an extensive city and interurban streetcar system at this time). By 1923, a more progressive owner of Boynton Co bought out the Yellow Cab Co. from John D. Hertz and Frank Mulkern and moved to an expanded downtown garage located on N. Edison near E. Knapp. While the Milwaukee cab businesses continued an interesting history after leaving Downer Avenue with price wars, city regulations, metered or zone charges, we still see the entrepreneur spirit of Frank Mulkern being integral to the attitude of the present day cooperative cab owners.