Rrrags, Rrrags!

Dad and I spent the day at St. Joseph’s Hospital last week while he had the battery  in his pacemaker changed. He felt good enough while the anesthetic was wearing off to talk about growing up with the Rag Man and Knife Sharpener — along with a few other things. I camped out in the chair beside his bed with my iPad while the nurses and aides worked around us.  They have a great staff at St. Joe’s!  –Debbie

Your Grandpa and Grandma Wenzler only had 8th grade educations which was pretty common in those days.  I was born on Feb 9, 1929 — the end of the big era of the roaring 20s.  We lived in the lower duplex on Booth off Burleigh.  My Grandpa’s brother Eugene lived right across the street.  He always seemed to want to be close to my Dad.  His sister Olga lived upstairs from my Grandparents on Boothe and Wright with her husband Charlie a city fireman.  He became a captain.

My Grandmother served as a midwife. When I was about to be born my Uncle Eugene’s wife Lillian saw the lights on in our house early in the morning and called Mom.

“Birds, whats going on over there?”  (Mom’s full name was Bertha Rosa Marta Froemming Wenzler and often went by Birdie.)

“I think we are going to have a baby.”

The doctor came with his black bag and said, “Get me newspapers and warm water.”  This would have been to soak up the blood and wash the baby.

Eventually, I was born and my Dad brought me out to present me to my brother Gordy who was five.

“Here is your new brother!”

“Where did he come from,” Gordy asked.

The Dr. said, “Didn’t you see that black bag I brought in with me?  I brought him in that bag.”

So much for sex education in the 20s!

When we moved to Pierce just off Townsend a few years later, we were close to where my Dad worked – Andres Stone and Marble Company.  When Dad finished 8th grade, he went to Business School to become a stenographer.  He learned short hand.  He was good at it.  He was with Andres for years when they moved him into the estimating department.  They did the State Capital and the Milwaukee County Courthouse.  So Dad estimated and moved a step up from stenography.  When I think back to how much my Dad did with that 8th grade education, it astounds me.

The depression started October 1929, and then everything was different. One of the fixtures of this era was the rag man with his horse drawn cart saying, “Rrrags! Rrrags!” as he walked down the alleys.  He had so many different things on his wagon — things people had gotten rid of and he would take them and find a buyer.  I remember so well him coming down our alley and Mom saying,

“Do you have a bed?”

“Why, yes I do!”

He got a bed-spring out along with an old mattress.  So Mom settled up with the rag man and then my Grandmother said,

“Get out the turpentine.”

“What do we need that for?” Mom asked.

“To kill the bedbugs!”

So after the bed was soaked, scrubbed, dried and aired it was moved upstairs to the front bedroom Gordy and I shared overlooking Pierce Street.

Dad and Gordy

Dad and Gordy

When we got a little older, there was a roof out the bedroom window we could climb unto. Gordy had a crystal set.  He would string an antennae out over the roof.  There was a little handle over the crystal and you could move it around and pick up radio stations.  We would take turns listening on our headphone set.

Gordy had a Journal route and the Sunday paper was always so heavy Dad would help him by driving the car around.  Many times after the papers were delivered, Dad would go to see his folks on Booth and Wright.  Grandpa worked at Milwaukee Drug Company on St. Paul downtown.  The building is still there.  He was the night watchman; he carried a 32 pistol and was also the fireman that kept the stokers full of coal to heat the building.  I remember being along with Dad and Gordy on one of the visits and seeing Grandpa with this huge scoop coal shovel, filling the stokers.

Gordy asked if he could try and after three shovelfuls he handed it back.  Dad took it and did better than Gordy but he handed it back too.  Grandpa was really strong.  He always walked to work on St. Paul and Milwaukee Street.  Uncle Eugene worked at Kiekhefer Elevator close to 27th and Clyborne. He walked to work too.

On Sunday, my Dad would take Gordy and me to visit his parents on Booth and Wright.  Dad’s sister and husband lived upstairs in that house with their four girls.  My Dad’s brother Eugene and his wife would frequently visit also and bring their son Don.  Then we would have the seven grandchildren all together.

My grandfather would typically reach into his pocket and pull out 70 cents which was enough to buy seven tickets to the movies.  There were two theaters nearby — the Grand on Holton St. and the Peerless on Center.

In the late 30s, Dad was still at Andres Stone and Marble and Mom found a house for sale on Humboldt Ave.  She always wanted to live on Humboldt.  So Dad went to talk to his two bosses — they were brothers.  They told him it was a good idea and asked how much he had to pay down?


“How do you expect to buy a house?”

“That’s why I’m meeting with you.  I wanted to ask if I could borrow some money.”

So they agreed and he borrowed the down-payment from his company, got a mortgage and bought the house.

When WWII started in 41, Andres Stone sold their plant to Cleaver Brooks who had government contracts for the war.  When they sold, they called my Dad in to tell him that he would have to find another job.  They also told him the balance on his house down-payment was cancelled.

It ended up Dad stayed on in his same office with Cleaver Brooks.  By now he had become an accountant. I think of how he worked alongside college graduate accountants and held his own with that 8th grade education.

Okay, finally, let’s talk about the knife sharpeners.  One of the things I liked about living on Humboldt was the man who pushed his cart down the street and sharpened knives and scissors. He would call out like the rag man but I don’t remember what he said.  I do remember Mom would bring ours out to him and he would sharpen them.

Our garage on Humboldt was right straight at the end of the alley from our house on Pierce where I gave that horse the carrot on my way to Fratney Street School.

I think that horse instigated what was to become a lifelong fascination with the animal.  I remember one of my classmates had an uncle who was a garbage man for the city. The garbage men kept their horses which pulled the garbage carts in their garages where they had made stalls for them.  I always had an interest in horses, so talking to my friend about it, he said,

“Would you like to ride?”

“You bet!”

“Well, I’m sure my uncle will let me take a horse out.”


Dad feeding the horse

The next Saturday he got one of those horses out and we road bareback all around what is now called Riverwest.



The Riverwest Coal Man

The coal man was a lot similar to the ice man — you’d have to order your coal, they’d carry it in on their shoulder.  Every house had a coal bin under a window in the basement.  The coal man would go to the window and there’ would be walls inside so the coal would be restrained and not go all over the basement.

The coal truck was interesting.  It had a mechanical system which would raise the bed of the truck to get the coal up to the height of the shoulder of the coal man.  So then he’d put on his shoulder pad and take his canvas bushel bag and fill it with coal.   He’d get just enough to fill the canvas bags.  He’d open a basement window and put a canvas protector around the window so he wouldn’t get the house all dirty.  Then he’d place a shoot into the coal bin. He’d get that set up then he’d dump the coal in so it would slide down into the coal bin.

On the inside, there was a hopper and you could take a coal shovel which had a large scoop on it and fill it up.  Originally, you’d throw a shovelful in the furnace but then we got real modern and got a stoker.  A stoker had a worm gear that went from the hopper into the furnace. So now you’d fill the hopper and the worm gear would feed the fire.


It’s a steel rod and it’s got metal that is like a spiral so as it turns it just keeps pushing the coal forward.  When we moved to Humboldt, we didn’t have a stoker.  You’d have to take a shovel-full of coal and throw it in.  First though, you’d have to open the furnace door and take the clinkers out.


The fire would burn and form into big clumps called clinkers.  You’d get some tongs and take the clinkers out and put them in the ash bin.  Now the ash bin, like we still have downstairs here, is a concrete wall which was there for the ashes and the clinkers.  It doesn’t come out like sifted ashes but comes out in big chunks. You’d break them up and use the tongs to get them out and put them in the ash bin.

When your Mom and I were newly married, our rent was…oh I don’t remember what our rent was, it wasn’t a lot.  I got a 25/mo credit each month if I’d take care of the furnace.  That was my job when we first got married while I was still in school.  I’d take care of the stoker and clean up the clinkers.  I got 10/mo for that.  From the back of our house on 4th St over to Green St, the two houses were very close.  It was a women’s house owned by a friend of our landlady.  Your Mom’s good friend Bennie lived there.  I got hired by our landlady to take care of their furnace too so I got 20 bucks/mo taking care of the two furnaces.

So 20/mo would be equivalent to what now, Dad?

Oh, I don’t know.  I could check it if I was still at the office.  We had a chart that showed the basic increase in cost of living starting starting at 1900. They’d get an index out of that so you could see what the changes were.  We could make estimates out of that.  If we had a job we had done in 1955 and now it’s 1975, say, we could look at the cost in 55 and use the multiplier to find the original cost by that.  It was a way to keep track of inflation.

Hmm…what would 20/week cover then….?

I think Mom made 120 a week or month, I don’t remember.  Oh honey, I wish you were here to tell me.

It must have been 120/month, Dad.  Dancers can live on 120/week today.

The Ice Man

I want to tell you about the coal men and the ice men.  They’re really two stories so I’ll start with the ice men.  When I was a little kid, there weren’t any refrigerators – we had ice boxes. They were kept in the hall so the icemen wouldn’t have to come into the houses to fill the icebox.  Everybody had an ice card — which had a front and a back, a top and a bottom — that you could turn over and around to let the iceman know how much ice you wanted. We usually got a 50-60 pound chunk which would last us the week.  The iceman had his route, he’d look for his customers and know how much ice to bring in.  He used big tongs to pull the ice out of his truck.  He’d put a pad on his shoulder and throw that ice up on top.  I remember it would start melting as he carried it in and up the stairs.  I don’t remember how he got paid but he always kept the icebox full.

So, it was a simple process.  The ice-house was on the east side of the river and the north side of North Avenue – now there’s a dormitory there – Northwestern Coal and Ice.  Originally, they would cut the ice out of the river and then store it there.  We had an ice pick and when we wanted some, we’d just pick it off.

Washington Island did that up until recently.  They would cut blocks of ice out of the Lake and put it in the ice house.  They had big beds of sawdust to put the ice on so it wouldn’t melt.

Dad, I remember always having an icepick around when we were growing up.  You would use it to make an extra hole in our belts.

Right, later on when we moved from Humboldt to the farm, I got a hole punch to use when I needed to tighten up the horses bridles.  After that, I used it on our belts. It made a much cleaner hole.

The Filling Station

The first in the series of stories about Dad’s childhood started on my husband’s birthday this past March.  The three of us had gone to a new restaurant in Riverwest called the Filling Station.  It’s on Pierce and Keefe, just down the block from where Dad lived as a little tyke at 3341 N. Pierce in Milwaukee.  Dad had been born in a house on Booth and Burleigh.  When he was very small, they moved in with his mother’s mother, Gramdma Froemming, to the house on Pierce.  This was during the depression so it helped both his grandmother and his folks to live together.

The Filling Station was called Charlie’s back then and he and the family would go there for Friday fish fries. So there we were, on that Friday in March, and Dad told the story of how the horse-drawn carriages would deliver milk to the homes in the neighborhood.  WIlke’s Dairy stood where the Holton Youth Center now stands.  My friend Cathy Costantini told me that when the Center first opened its doors, the basketball court still had floors that sloped toward the center of the room, since that is how the dairy’s spilled milk would flow into the center drain.  The floors were redone very quickly so that the kids wouldn’t keep running into the center of the court.

Wilke’s horse-barn was across the street on the southwest corner of Burleigh and Booth.  The police horses were also kept there.  The horses drawing the dairy carriages would automatically know which houses to make the stops at as they made their way down Weil Street.  One day, as Dad was on his way to Fratney Street School, he gave one of the horses a carrot.  The horse learned very quickly and after that would stop at the same spot each day and look around.  The dairy closed the barn when they quit using horses for delivery and switched to motorized trucks.

The street curbs were made out of lannon stone back then and our great Grandpa Froemming laid the stone for the curbs.  He caught pneumonia and died young.

Anyway, if you plan to go to the Filling Station for a fish fry, call first.  They don’t have them every Friday.  Dad had an 8 oz hamburger instead.  The waiter looked at me when Dad asked if their hamburger came from one steer.  If it didn’t, he said, he’d have his cooked medium rather than medium-rare.  Dinner was great.  We’ll be going back for their fish fry.

So, I wrote this story down the next  morning and posted it on Facebook —  which was a big step for someone who has to hold her breath and count to three before making a post. I rarely posted  for anything other than work.  I  wasn’t comfortable making my private life that available to so many eyes.  But it was time I moved on —  my job thrives on  social media and in the words of Eleanor Roosevelt which I spout off all the time — unless you do something each day you’re  afraid of you’re not really living. 

I read my post  to Dad after church on Sunday.  He had a few corrections to make —  it had to be accurate —  and then he told us about the ash man.   –Debbie

“The city would come with a mac truck tractor and pull four garbage dumpster wagons to drop off in the neighborhood.  The horses would pull the dumpster wagons to collect from the garbage cans in alleys behind the homes.  That’s one of the main reasons we have alleys.  It was only later on that garages entered off the street. There were two types  of city pick ups – garbage and ashes.  Most homes were heated by coal-burning furnaces.  The ash men would go into the basements and collect the ashes from the ash bins, usually concrete enclosures. Grandpa always gave the ash men a beer.”  –Dad

His stories continue with  the coal man, ice man, scissor sharpener man and rag man.  It’s no wonder unemployment has skyrocketed with the loss of all these positions.