Timeless Island

Washington Island is a little piece of heaven–packed full of memories. Kids have grown up, some have passed on. Each year I come back, I am older but the Island never changes and when I’m here, it has a way of feeling like we’re all together again.

Sam and me at the Ferry dock

Sam and me at the Ferry dock

On a clear blue day in June, my husband, Todd and I drove up from Milwaukee for a long weekend with my parents. We would be celebrating their 60th anniversary, and two birthdays–Mom’s and mine. After a three and a half hour drive you get on the Ferry. Sitting on the deck, the wind whips at your face and the waves either rock stress out of you or puts it into you, depending on the weather. In summers long gone, the old red Ford truck would be waiting with family greeters.

Gang hangin’

We had spent many summers on the waterfront having a great time with little more than a foldout camper, canoe, picnic table, port-a potty and make-shift shower. As my siblings, Ed, John, Joan and I got married and had kids of our own, additional tents would be set up at strategic points on the property, turning the landscape into a magical mansion of sorts.  Eventually, Dad designed a cabin for Mom.

Camper and the shell

Camper and the shell

Because of the shore-land and wetland setback laws on the Island, the build-able part of the land was a small area shaped like a triangle. Marsh was on one side and the lake on the other. Dad designed the house to fit into the land perfectly with open aired closed-in porches on two of the three corners and a deck across the front facing the water. By the time he was finishing the house, the lake had moved away about 50 yards. The area that had been beach was now sand, rock and wild grass. The water became harder and harder to get to from the house, particularly for my parents. The views were still beautiful but the lake just wasn’t quite as welcoming as it had once been.

Cabin complete

The cabin

We woke up on Saturday morning to perfect weather and sat on the deck drinking coffee.  The temperature was close to 80 but Dad sat with a sweatshirt and jacket on, shivering.  He had, had heart surgery two years before and his lungs had been weakened by the procedure. His doctor told him if he ever got pneumonia it would be over. When he couldn’t get up out of his chair, Todd transferred him to his desk chair, wheeled him inside and we convinced him to go with us to the hospital in Sturgeon Bay. The diagnosis was just that– pneumonia. He was there for days while we feared the worst but prayed for the best.

Dad checking out his pills

Dad checking out his pills

Dad’s pneumonia began to improve with antibiotics, he returned to the Island and everybody else had to get back to work. I stayed on, cooking and making sure he took the right pills at the right time. He had become unnervingly weak and I lived each day with the fear of losing him.

As Dad and I sat on the couch after dinner one evening, light danced across the living room, teasing for my attention. I looked out at the water and wasn’t sure if what I saw was a sunrise or a sunset. An enormous globe was edging its way up from the horizon, transforming in color and size from a fiery magenta to a big golden ball before finally becoming its bright white face staring down at us. “Moonrise,” Dad said, “that’s the moonrise.”  I had never seen one before. Most breathtaking, was the reflection created by the light on the water. Unlike the reflection of the sunrise which prances across the water’s surface, the moonrise creates a straight path from the shore to the sky, leading you to a place unknown.

I spent the next days on the beach resurrecting a path Dad had once made, hauling and laying rocks that lead from the top of the sandy beach to the edge of the rocky shore– reminding me of the moonrise. The path eventually covered all 50 yards of the rocky brush and filled in where the water had once been. By August, Dad was doing better and Mom had joined him back on the Island. They would walk up and down my path together. When the sun would set and the moon got ready to rise, they were often there at the water–side by side. I came home from work one night and Dad had left me a voicemail saying the path had connected them back to the water.

“We carried chairs down and sat at the water’s edge this evening.  We just love it!”



the path


You Gotta Have Faith

If I had waited until I had enough money in my life, I would not have gotten very far.  I call it the Red Sea rule. You have to step into the water before the sea will part.

I work at a nonprofit and there is never enough money.  My first year, I taped a quote by Eleanor Roosevelt on an old computer my husband’s office had donated for me to work on: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are”. My parents had taught me this long before I read the words but it was a good reminder. 

What they taught me was to have faith — the kind of faith that provides courage when you doubt and humility if you start to get too full of yourself.  At church on Sunday, Pastor Matt said faith is believing in and helping others believe in what looks to be impossible.  Mom and Dad started out their marriage with a little second-hand furniture and a truckload of faith. If they had waited until they had enough money, I probably wouldn’t be here. –Debbie


Mom and Dad in 1950 or so

I had been looking for a job in Champagne before we got married but was unable to find one.  I knew I could return to my job with Mr. Haeuser in Milwaukee so after the honeymoon, we ended up spending that first summer with my folks.

After we finished paying for the wedding and everything, Dolores had managed to save $300, which was quite a bit of money. She had a doctor’s appointment and I went along with her. She checked out just fine but the doctor took a look at me and said, “You don’t look very good. How do you feel?”

“Not so good. I have a backache.”

He examined me and would you believe it?  I had appendicitis.  He wanted me in the hospital immediately.  I had insurance in school and insurance from my Dad but lost them both after we got married. There went the $300.

We had enough money saved by the end of that summer to rent a house when we got back to school–well, half a house really.  We had to share the bathroom with the landlady.  So we had the first months’ rent paid and $35 left over.  Dolores’ Mother and Dad came down with groceries. We put them all away and Dad just shook his head and said,  “I don’t know how you’re going to make it. What if you need a dentist? How will you pay for it?”

I said, “I don’t know, Dad.  We just think this is what the Lord wants us to do and we’re trusting Him.”

We really enjoyed our little “house”. The only problem we had was that when you used the bathroom you had to hook the second door so the landlady wouldn’t surprise you. You had to remember to unhook it. If we forgot, she would pound on the door and start yelling “R R R R,” in the middle of the night.  Our rent was $50.  I got $10 off taking care of the stoker. So I wrote the check for $40 each month through the winter. When spring came the landlady said, “Wait a minute, you’re $10 short.”  So I found out that $10 deduction only applied during the cold weather.

I’d always pick Dolores up after work at the Institute of Aviation on my bike and we’d go to the grocery store. She would pick out what we needed to make supper. There was no shopping for the week in those days. We did it one meal at a time.

We joined a fellowship group at the church which met once a week. They were studying the C.S. Lewis book, Mere Christianity. Along the way, we decided to join the choir — we both liked to sing. One choir rehearsal the pianist wasn’t there.  We sang through some hymns then got to the anthem and the choir director asked if anyone could play the piano. Dolores said she could. She went up there and banged that baby out. She was excellent at sight reading. When we finished rehearsal, the choir director said, “Don’t you leave. Don’t you ever leave!”

That’s the way I felt about her too.

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 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.