Category Archives: History

Old Buildings

I spent the better part of the week on a last minute work trip to Amsterdam and London. You know one thing that’s cool about Europe? There are buildings that are centuries old and are still in active, vibrant use. The West Bend School District could learn a thing or two.


Revisiting the Holocaust

Perhaps this would be a good time to revisit these masterpieces.

This year is the centenary of Levi’s birth, and a fine moment to revisit his three Holocaust memoirs. If This Is a Man, written almost as soon as he returned home after the war, describes his time in Auschwitz. The Truce, written over a decade later, describes the odyssey between leaving Auschwitz and returning to Turin. Three decades after that, and shortly before he died, Levi wrote The Drowned and the Saved, a polemic in which he took on the myths that had gathered around the Holocaust in his lifetime.

“It was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944,” wrote Levi. At that point, late in the war, the Nazis had decided to extend the lifespan of valuable Jewish labourers and no longer executed them on a whim. That improved the odds. Still, of the 650 Italians that arrived on the same train as Levi, only 20 survived.

It took some time before Levi realised what the camps were. For the Jews, they were neither extermination camps, nor labour camps. They were designed for “the demolition of a man”. On arrival, the newcomers were herded into two groups – useful or not – and Levi, though not a formidable man, found himself in the first. They were stripped, shaved and tattooed: Levi became 174517. The language, by turns heroic, indignant and fearful on the opening pages, changes to the present tense.

From then on, Levi’s account is neither a philosophical nor historical treatment of his experience. It does not explore the roots of Nazism, nor the origins and nature of evil. Instead, it focuses on details of life in the camp. Levi liked to say, wryly, that he modelled his writing on a chemist’s lab report. Here, his telling is so matter of fact that there are even moments of bone-dry comedy. But mostly it is eerie and disturbing, and unmistakably real.

JFK Papers Released

Well, I know what I’m doing for the next few days

Thousands of documents from the Kennedy have just been released.One of the documents included a transcript of a Nov. 24, 1963, conversation with then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. The conversation describes a threat against Lee Harvey Oswald, the gunman suspected of assassinating the President Kennedy. Oswald was killed by Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner on Nov. 24, 1963.

“There is nothing further on the Oswald case except that he is dead. Last night, we received a call in our Dallas office from a man talking in a calm voice and saying he was a member of a committee organized to kill Oswald.”

He described how they called the chief of police that night and again the next morning. “He again assured us adequate protection would be given. However, this was not done,” Hoover said.

When Oswald died, Hoover said, “We had an agent at the hospital in the hope that he might make some kind of a confession before he died, but he did not do so.”

The Fallen of WWII

Here’s a very enlightening perspective.

The Fallen of World War II from Neil Halloran on Vimeo.

America’s Titanic

150 years ago today.

The worst maritime disaster in American history occurred 150 years ago on April 27, 1865. Unlike the Titanic disaster, however, odds are you may never have heard about the Sultana wreck, which claimed over 1,800 lives.

At 2 A.M., three of the overloaded steamboat’s boilers suddenly exploded. The blast blew gaping holes into the decks and killed hundreds instantly. “The explosion came with a report exceeding any artillery that I had ever heard, and I had heard some that were very heavy at Gettysburg,” Union Private Benjamin Johnston recalled. Hot coals rained down on the steamship, which erupted into a floating inferno.

Those unable to swim—which were most of the passengers—were forced to make split-second decisions between burning or drowning. The struggle to stay alive became a survival of the fittest among a bunch of very unfit men. Already weakened passengers desperately fought the strong currents and exposure as they clung to wooden debris, mattresses and the charred carcasses of army mules floating in the freezing river. As soon as Sultana’s sole lifeboat hit the Mississippi, dozens of flailing men clawed to climb aboard, and the collective weight took all of them down to the river’s murky bottom. A soldier even attacked a woman in an attempt to rip off her life belt. “The animal nature of man came to the surface in the desperate struggle to save himself regardless of the life of others,” wrote Union Private John Walker.

For days afterward, rescuers plucked bodies from trees near the blast zone and pulled them from the river as far south as Vicksburg, 200 miles away. Historians believe that more than 1,800 of the paddle wheeler’s passengers perished. Although called “America’s Titanic,” the Sultana disaster actually claimed 300 more lives than the famed 1912 shipwreck and still remains the greatest maritime disaster in American history.

General Lee Surrenders at Appomattox Courthouse

150 years ago today.

The two generals talked a bit more about Mexico and moved on to a discussion of the terms of the surrender when Lee asked Grant to commit the terms to paper:

“‘Very well,’ replied General Grant, ‘I will write them out.’ And calling for his manifold order-book, he opened it on the table before him and proceeded to write the terms. The leaves had been so prepared that three impressions of the writing were made. He wrote very rapidly, and did not pause until he had finished the sentence ending with ‘officers appointed by me to receive them.’ Then he looked toward Lee, and his eyes seemed to be resting on the handsome sword that hung at that officer’s side. He said afterward that this set him to thinking that it would be an unnecessary humiliation to require officers to surrender their swords, and a great hardship to deprive them of their personal baggage and horses, and after a short pause he wrote the sentence: ‘This will not embrace the side-arms of the officers, nor their private horses or baggage.’

Grant handed the document to Lee. After reviewing it, Lee informed Grant that the Cavalry men and Artillery men in the Confederate Army owned their horses and asked that they keep them. Grant agreed and Lee wrote a letter formally accepting the surrender. Lee then made his exit:

General Lee leaves
From a contemporary sketch.

“At a little before 4 o’clock General Lee shook hands with General Grant, bowed to the other officers, and with Colonel Marshall left the room. One after another we followed, and passed out to the porch. Lee signaled to his orderly to bring up his horse, and while the animal was being bridled the general stood on the lowest step and gazed sadly in the direction of the valley beyond where his army lay – now an army of prisoners. He smote his hands together a number of times in an absent sort of way; seemed not to see the group of Union officers in the yard who rose respectfully at his approach, and appeared unconscious of everything about him. All appreciated the sadness that overwhelmed him, and he had the personal sympathy of every one who beheld him at this supreme moment of trial. The approach of his horse seemed to recall him from his reverie, and he at once mounted. General Grant now stepped down from the porch, and, moving toward him, saluted him by raising his hat. He was followed in this act of courtesy by all our officers present; Lee raised his hat respectfully, and rode off to break the sad news to the brave fellows whom he had so long commanded.”

Paul Allen Finds the Musashi

Very cool.

Manila (AFP) – Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen said Wednesday he had found one of Japan’s biggest and most famous battleships on a Philippine seabed, some 70 years after American forces sank it during World War II.

Excited historians likened the discovery, if verified, to finding the Titanic, as they hailed the American billionaire for his high-tech mission that apparently succeeded after so many failed search attempts by others.

Allen posted photos and video online of parts of what he said was the battleship Musashi, found by his M/Y Octopus exploration vessel one kilometre (1.6 miles) deep on the floor of the Sibuyan Sea.

“World War II battleship Musashi sank 1944 is found,” Allen announced in a Twitter post that has been re-tweeted close to 19,000 times.

Divers Find Lost Thermonuclear Bomb

What a vacation story! Thankfully they found it before the Iranians did.

Savannah| A couple of tourists from Canada made a surprising discovery while scuba diving  in Wassaw Sound, a small bay  located on the shores of Georgia. Jason Sutter and Christina Murray were admiring the marine life of the area when they stumbled upon a Mark 15 thermonuclear bomb that had been lost by the United States Air Force more than 50 years ago.

UPDATE: This story is just that… a story. It’s false according to Snopes.

Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart

What a story. Go read the whole thing.

Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart was a one-eyed, one-handed war hero who fought in three major conflicts across six decades, surviving plane crashes and PoW camps. His story is like something out of a Boy’s Own comic.

Carton de Wiart served in the Boer War, World War One and World War Two. In the process he was shot in the face, losing his left eye, and was also shot through the skull, hip, leg, ankle and ear.

In WW1 he was severely wounded on eight occasions and mentioned in despatches six times.

Having previously lost an eye and a hand in battle, Carton de Wiart, as commanding officer, was seen by his men pulling the pins of grenades out with his teeth and hurling them with his one good arm during the Battle of the Somme, winning the Victoria Cross.

Thank a vet

My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. It felt good to turn away from politics for a moment. Here it is.

Thank a vet

Election Day gives way to Veterans Day

Now that the hostilities of the election season have just about come to an end, we can turn our attention to the things that unify us as a nation and remind us of how blessed we are to be Americans. Ninety-six years ago on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the booming guns of “The War to End All Wars” fell silent.

A year after the end of hostilities in The Great War, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the first commemoration of Armistice Day by saying, “To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations.”

Since then, a grateful nation has broadened the scope of Armistice Day to include all veterans who served either in war or peace, and renamed the day Veterans Day. Americans set aside Nov. 11 each year to look back, and look around, to thank veterans for their sacrifices in service to our liberty. It is a fitting day for such a remembrance. That Nov. 11 in 1918 was a day that began with the roar of guns and cries of the dying, but ended with the serene silence of peace. While liberty too often requires the shedding of blood in order to be preserved, it is the fervent prayer of a free people that the sun should always set upon a peaceful planet so that no more sacrifices will be needed from our brave veterans.

On Veterans Day this year, the Milwaukee Children’s Choir will perform “American Homeland: A Veterans Day Concert,” to honor veterans. The concert will be performed at the Kettle Moraine Lutheran High School Performing Arts Center in Jackson at 7 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at Jeff’s Spirits on Main in West Bend, or at the door.

Thanks to a generous sponsorship by Delta Defense LLC of West Bend, 100 percent of the proceeds from the concert will be donated to Fisher House Wisconsin, which provides a free “home away from home” for veterans’ families who are receiving treatment at the Clement J. Zablocki Veterans Administration Medical Center in Milwaukee.

Due to the high number of veterans who receive treatment in Milwaukee – including more than 8,000 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — Fisher House is planning to build a 13,000-square-foot facility that will be able to house 128 family members of veterans so that they can be near their loved ones at no cost during their course of treatment. There are few more enjoyable ways to help veterans and their families than by listening to the renowned Milwaukee Children’s Choir sing tributes to honor our veterans.

There are more than 20 million veterans in America who served our nation with honor and pride. On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of this year, please take a moment to stop and think of the sacrifices they have made to protect and preserve the freedom that we all enjoy. And whether by thought, word, or deed, thank a vet.

(Owen Robinson’s column runs Tuesdays in the Daily News.)


Time capsule discovered at former Schwai’s

Here’s a cool local story from Judy Steffes. I think these little history nuggets are awesome.


Time capsule discovered at former Schwai’s                                  By Judy Steffes

It’s like a Nancy Drew / Hardy Boys mystery: The case of the message in a bottle.

Earlier this week a time capsule was discovered at the old Schwai’s restaurant on Cedar Creek Road. “It was Monday afternoon and we just started to demo the wall,” building owner Kevin Zimmer said.  “We were peeling it back to the original structure and as soon as I found it I thought that’s not insulation.”

Nestled behind four various layers of wall, next to a beam, about waist high was a small package, about the size of a loaf of raisin bread. Wrapped tightly in stiff, gnarly, white wallpaper was a 12-ounce glass jar with a screw-top lid.

“When I opened the jar I figured it was something pretty cool,” Zimmer said.

The white lid was stamped in green writing; Marie’s Blue Cheese Dressing – 59 cents. Inside, six sheets of rolled up note paper dated April 24, 1972 and a message written in cursive by long-time store owner Lu Ann Schwai.

“It’s a lovely letter,” said Zimmer.

The note begins, “Hi! We are remodeling this place to make it larger for our tavern and bottle goods business. The store was no longer profitable so therefore we are using this space for bottle goods. The reason we are discontinuing the store is because the large chain stores are open on Sunday. We will keep on with our homemade sausage until the State Health Dept. would close us up.”

The note provides detail of the Schwai family business, “making baloney, summer sausage, ring blood, and head cheese.” Prices included, “pork sausage is $1.09 per pound, ham sandwiches are ¼ lb. and sell for 75cents, 16 oz. tub of beer is 35 cents.”

There’s a paragraph on the history of the building and business which dates to 1941 when “Mr. and Mrs. Joe Schwai, Sr. bought the place …and sold it to their son Joe in 1957. Joe’s dad died in 1950 and Marie the mother with sons Bob & Joe ran it until 1955. Then Joe’s Marie ran it and on July 1, 1957 Joe and Lu Ann bought it.”

Zimmer has rehabbed quite a few old buildings. He’s found personal artifacts like jewelry and birth certificates but said there’s nothing like finding something intentionally put into a wall that was meant to be discovered later.

“It was neat how she (Lu Ann Schwai) mentioned all the kids by name,” Zimmer said. “The note shows the Schwai’s have a very strong family bond. They were passionate about what they were doing, they were passionate about the building but more importantly they were a family that was making changes and decisions that they thought was right for the day.”

Tommy Schwai, owner of Schwai’s Meat & Sausage in Fredonia, sold the Cedar Creek building in 2005. “That sounds like something ma would do,” said Schwai about the note in the glass jar. “She always said when you do that you should put something in it because when they rip up the wall and find it they can read about what happened. Too bad she didn’t put any money in there.”

Schwai remembered the extensive remodeling of the store in 1972. “They tore all that out, then I really had to work,” joked Schwai who, at the time, was just a freshman in high school.

Over 64 years, three generations of Schwai’s ran the Schwai’s Country Store Tavern & Hall. There were baptisms, weddings, funerals, fish fries, St. Patrick’s Day blasts, and tiddlywinks tournaments. Lu Ann Schwai died in June 2008.

Archives at the Washington County Historical Society Research Center show the building dated to the 1800s and was normally home to a saloon, dance hall, and/or hotel. Some of the early names associated with the property include the Bibinger family (1846), A.B. Mueller Hotel and Sample Room (early 1920s), Albert Heidtke (who built a slaughterhouse) and previous owner Peter Gruehl (some spelled it Gruel) who then sold to Joe Schwai Sr.

At the end of the note Lu Ann Schwai adds a P.S.  She wrote about the remodel of the store with a service elevator and walk-in cooler. How they remodeled the tavern and had “2 stools in the womens” toilet.

At the close she writes, “Now we must put in a new bar and we are finished with all we wanted to do. Then we must save for retirement. The Schwai’s from God’s Country. The center of the world where all good friends meet.”

Today in History – 1 September 1939

75 years ago today, Germany launched Fall Weiß (Plan White), the invasion of Poland, beginning the European phase of WWII.

On 17 September, the Russians would enter Poland from the East.  The combination of the Wehrmacht in the west and the Red Army in the east was too much for the Polish forces to counter, and by 6 October, the September Campaign was over, and Poland had fallen.

invasion_poland_1 invasion_poland_2 invasion_poland_3