Old Milwaukee Lives, Dies in Adolph’s Little Red Book

Article that appeared in the Sunday, September 28, 1941 edition of the Milwaukee Journal.

Of The Journal Staff


Adolph Wagner
At work, Adolph uses black sleeve protectors

He sits there expectantly, a smile beaming on his round, ruddy face. The man who keeps a red book of death. He also raises blue kohlrabis, strawberries, currants, raspberries and tomatoes. Goateed and very much alive Adolph F. Wagner, the architectural iron works man.


If you want to know how much it rained – say on your thirteenth, birthday – ask Adolph. If you want to know how cold it really was the day Auntie Annie left your house because she woke up with her teeth frozen solid in the glass of water beside her bed – ask Adolph.

For Adolph knows. He’s got it listed in the diary he has been keeping without a slip for 40 years. Adolph, among other things, is a weather man. He jots down the temperature, precipitation and cloud conditions every day.

Born on City Hall Site

Thursday he noted: “Fired the boiler (at home) the first time today.” Friday he wrote: “Fired the “boiler the second time today.”

Homey little things that make Adolph’s life big and full.

And full it has been for the man who was born on the north end of the present site of the city hall, and later helped build it. He watched and helped Milwaukee grow from a mule trolley town to streamliner metropolis. At 83, he believes he is the oldest living iron works man in town. He is probably the oldest member of the Milwaukee Builders’ Exchange club of which he has been an active member.

Three days a week – Monday, Wednesday and Friday – he can be found in his office at the A. F. Wagner Architectural Iron Works, of which he is president. The other days he spends at home, fixing things up, and in the summer time, hoeing, weeding and nursing his large. garden from. morning to night.

Youthful and Bright

He is more comfortable. perhaps, when his back is bent. But now and then he stretches himself to his full height as if to throw off the tons of iron he has lifted through the years.

But his smile is as youthful and bright as the times he sailed kites tied to his leg, “without ever bringing them down to add to the tail or take some off.”

Adolph was born on Sept. 5, 1858, above the cabinet shop his grandfather, Francis Joseph Hoffmann, ran on old Biddle st. (now E. Kilbourn av.) on the present site of the city hall. His grandfather haggled with wood peddlers for the lowest prices. A German. immigrant, Hoffmann had built grand stairways in the biggest hotels throughout the country before coming to Milwaukee.

The Women Gossiped

It was not long before Adolph’s father, who ran a feed and grain shop, moved to Washington st. on the south side. But Adolph was a familiar figure at his grandfather’s shop and in the fascinating bustle of activity east of the Milwaukee River.

Every morning woodcutters gathered around the city hall triangle and bargained for their services with businessmen and housewives. From the well opposite the city hall, in the triangle now bounded by E. Wells/N. Water and Market sts., housewives drew water to wash their clothes.

Along E. Water st., women leaned out of windows above the stores and shops to gossip. It was a day, Adolph says, “when there wasn’t anything you could do, without everybody knowing it.”

Streetcars on Runners

Milwaukee’s public transport system began with a streetcar line on old E. Water st. from Wisconsin st. now E. Wisconsin av.) south to the present N. Water st. bridge. The old Cream City trolley on the east side was drawn by mules. There were no stoves in streetcars and hay on the floors helped keep stamping feet warm. In winter, because it was considered too costly to shovel snow off the tracks, the streetcars were put on runners.

The young bucks sat their sweethearts on chairs and pushed them on the ice down the Milwaukee river, which, Adolph says, was covered: with ice three feet thick in the “coldest winter we had, in 1864.”

Adolph melted snow for his mother for washing in winter – one pail of water from 10″ of snow.

Those were the days National park stretched from National av. To Greenfield av., across the street from where Adolph later built his home on S. Layton blvd., a gay scene of horse races, wild west shows and circuses.

Knew the “Giants”

The days when young Milwaukee started its career to industrial fame and young Adolph began his, rubbing elbows with the giants of industry.

Edward P. Allis started in a frame shop on old Clinton st. the company, later the Aallis-Chalmers Manufacturing Co., “crawled and sprawled” it’s way, first in frame buildings, then in brick structures from Florida st. to National av.

Henry Harnischfeger and Alonzo Pawling opened up shop on Florida st. and later then inventive Finish born genius, Bruno V. Nordberg, left Allis-Chalmers to manufacture for himself. And Ferdinand Schlesinger, the mining man, passed Adolph almost daily as both walked to work, Schlessinger at the Filer & Stowell Co., and Adolph at his Uncle Julius G. Wagner’s Iron works, on Market st., near Biddle st.

Adoph knew the “big men,” including William and Alfred Uihlein, who, without fail, daily donned heavy leather boots and big coats and inspected the dripping, dank beer cellars at the Schlitz brewery.

Worked on City Hall

There is a part of Adolph in many Milwaukee buildings, fancy iron fences and scrolled wrought iron work in mansions. Adolph’s iron has gone into bridge railings all over the state, fire escapes, jail cells, fancy entrance doors, bank window guards and flag poles.

His craftsmen installed the iron work in the T. A. Chapman, Marshall, Beger, Enterprise, Loan & Trust, Pereles, Kroeger and Mariner buildings. They put bronze and ornamental iron doors in the Marshall and Ilsley bank, and did iron work in South and Lincoln high schools, the house of correction and the new Schiltz brew house.

Adolph provided and helped install the ornamental iron work in the city hall and worked on the iron stairways, grill work and shelves in the register or deeds office of the old courthouse, when was working with his uncle.

Back was Strong

When his back was straight and strong, and he weighed only 145 pounds, Adolph could make a scale register 800 pounds by standing on it and, bending down, pulling up on a bar attached to the stationary part of the scale. “No one I knew,” Adolph beams, “could do that.”

Adolph and another man piled up 700 pound iron beams for 10 hours at a stretch, he says, when his uncle furnished iron work for a Schlitz brew house.

Adolph’s first job was for C. A. Buttles, a hardware dealer on old E. Water st. He can’t understand to this day how one of the men could install ranges in homes – “bricking them in and everything” – and remain immaculate, in white shirt and tie on.

Later Adolph worked for Buttles’ brother, Fred, a tinner, and then joined his uncle, who was a partner in the firm of Hornbach & Wagner. In 1890, Adolph too over the business, and in 1908 he moved the iron works from Market st. to its present location at 1483 N. Water st. His son, Adolph A., manages the iron works now.

Book of Death

But Adolph isn’t through yet, “not until I drop.” Now and then he opens his desk drawer and jots in that little red book. In it he has listed the births and deaths of relatives and 300 – he counted them – friends and business associates.

The name of Henry Fink, former revenue collector here, and other members of the old Excelsior bowling club, to which Adolph belonged for more than 30 years, is there. So is Edward’s (sic), Adolph’s son, who died under the wheels of a freight train as he hitched a ride with other boys Mar. 13, 1915. And Adolph’s daughter, Viola and his wife, Dorothea.

Some day – and Adolph isn’t worried – someone will add this entry: “Adolph F. Wagner, born Sept. 5, 1858, died _____.”


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