'Chronicles of Whitefish Bay' takes readers back to village's beginnings

The Pabst Whitefish Bay Resort, perched atop a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan, with its iconic Ferris wheel in the background.

The Pabst Whitefish Bay Resort, perched atop a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan, with its iconic Ferris wheel in the background. Photo By Courtesy of History Press Inc.

Dec. 11, 2013

Whitefish Bay — Did you know that Whitefish Bay was incorporated so that children of the Bay wouldn't have to schlep — uphill both ways, presumably — miles north to the two area schoolhouses run by the town of Milwaukee?

Or that, in order to have the 300 residents needed for incorporation, the census-taker had to fudge the village's boundary and create the L-shaped bend along the southern border?

Those fun little tidbits, alongside a wealth of facts, commentaries and personal stories fill 'Chronicles of Whitefish Bay Wisconsin,' a 206-page compendium told mostly through the eyes of historical Bay residents and edited together by Bay historian Tom Fehring.

"To me, it provides some of the fabric of what it is to be from Whitefish Bay," says Fehring, a 40-year Bay resident. "It all becomes part of our heritage."

All of the proceeds from sales of the book, which is available in print and digital formats, will go toward the Whitefish Bay Historical Preservation Commission and its efforts to catalog and commemorate historical properties throughout the village.

Entrusted with memories

A career engineer who is now semi-retired, Fehring recalls that when he was a student he had an interest in history, but not the classroom setting.

He loved Steinbeck, but hated memorization.

Fehring got his start in history in the late 1970s when he was appointed chairman of a historical committee at the American Society of Engineers. As the years went on, he was enthralled by the stories of local manufacturing companies like Briggs and Stratton or Harley-Davidson.

The historical acumen Fehring built in those years came in handy when he was included among the founding members of the Historical Preservation Commission, which was formed in 2005.

"It wasn't industrial history, but I had developed an interest in history," Fehring says. "I kind of gravitated into the historical guy."

Since then Fehring has penned dozens of entries in a recurring online feature "Preserving our Past," which tells the stories of historically and architecturally unique properties throughout Bay.

In 2010, Fehring edited his first book on Bay history, a pictorial in Arcadia Publishing's "Images of America" series.

Ever since the book was published, residents young and old have been contacting Fehring to tell the stories of the people and places in those images.

"I would get these letters saying, 'I know who these people are,'" Fehring says, "and all of a sudden I think, what should I do with these things? People have entrusted me with their memories."

And so he got to work on the "Chronicles."

Incredible stories

In his journey through those letters and some dozens of boxes of dusty records from Village Hall and the public library, Fehring met a remarkable cast of characters who tell the story of Whitefish Bay's formative years and beyond.

Take, for instance, Gloria Rockwood Houghton, whose memoir "In the 1930s, I Was A Latchkey Kid" recounts her childhood exploits in Bay's business district. Her father's business, Ott's Pharmacy, would later become Fitzgerald's Pharmacy, which is still in business today on Silver Spring.

Or the more dramatic, present-day recounting of one of Bay's few recorded murders, a grisly affair which ran in grim spectacle across the front pages of Milwaukee and national newspapers in 1923. Robert Clover Johnson, whose grandfather murdered his grandmother in a still-standing apartment building on what is now Chateau Place, recounts how he came to learn of the tragedy and came to terms with it.

"It was cathartic," Fehring says of Johnson's contribution to the book. "It helped him tell the story."

On a lighter note, the "Chronicles" also tells the story of the long gone Pabst Whitefish Bay Resort, which drew Milwaukeeans out of the city in the late 19th century and precipitated some of the first interest in developing what was then a farming and fishing community — and what would become Milwaukee's first suburb.

"To me, history shouldn't just be dates," Fehring says. "It should be getting into the minds of the people. What they did. How they survived. Just about every house in the village has these incredible stories captured within them."


WHAT: Presentation and book signing with author Tom Fehring, who will divulge several extra stories which didn't make the final cut of the "Chronicles"

WHEN: 7 p.m. Monday

WHERE: Whitefish Bay Public Library, 5420 N. Marlborough Drive


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