by Ellen C.Warren, photograph by Kurt Johnson
Jim Albrecht

If Riverwest ever starts its own historical society, they may find Jim Albrecht’s memory to be their greatest asset. Talking with him is like taking several giant steps back into a time when life was simpler, but brimming over. The streets of his youth were lined with flourishing factories, shops, lumber yards, and lots and lots of railroad tracks. Everyone had jobs because everything was right here in their own backyards.

Jim was born in Pittsburgh in 1942 to native Milwaukee parents. “I was the only member of my entire clan not born in Milwaukee,” he says.

As soon as his father’s job in Pennsylvania ended the family was back and looking for a home to buy while living with his grandma at 2nd and Burleigh. By the beginning of 1944 they’d purchased the house in the 3300 block of Weil that would be Jim’s home for 40 years. He sold the home two years ago, after his mother passed away, and currently shares an apartment near the river.

“I miss having a front porch to sit on,” he says with some sadness in his voice, but he’s happy to be only two blocks away. It makes visiting his old neighbors, something he loves to do, very convenient.

Jim was fascinated by trains in his youth. The area factory whistles were his morning alarm clock, but the trains kept time throughout the day. His knowledge of the railroads, the routes, cargo, and old tracks is impressive and incredibly informative.

“Fratney Street had tracks all over the place,” he says. “There was a track that went right through where the Gordon Park Pavilion is now.”

The area now called Riverwest had factories, lumberyards, even car manufacturers (“The biggest employer in the neighborhood was American Motors which stood where Walmart is now,” Jim recalled). And it was teeming with railroad activity. Products were loaded and unloaded from train cars every day all over Riverwest.

Jim went nearly every day to watch the switching at the Gibson yard at Keefe and Richards. He was there in July of 1963 to see the first Circus Parade train pull in, and in 2004 to see it arrive for the last time.

During his grade school years at Fratney School Jim was a shy youngster, but found he could make friends by sharing his hobbies. One of his favorite pastimes was hunting trilobite fossils. Trilobites are a class of extinct marine anthropod found as fossils in Paleozoic rock. Jim also hunted minerals, particularly iron and gold pyrite. The pyrite he would find in a bluish-colored clay. His greatest trophy was a “football-sized piece of gold pyrite” (commonly known as Fool’s Gold.)

The trilobites were painstakingly removed with hammer and chisel from the limestone “facing rock” along the river in Estabrook Park near Bradford and McKinley beaches. All that rock came from the Hartung Quarry, then located near 99th and Burleigh.

“I didn’t actually have to go to the quarry,” he explains “I could find the rock at the park or the lakefront.” He and his buddy would sometimes “reduce some of those boulders to rubble” in their search for specimens.

Jim doesn’t hunt fossils anymore, but he still walks through Estabrook Park, enjoying the “bugs and butterflies,” often on his way to Bayshore. He walks everywhere, has never owned a car, and takes the bus only in the most extreme weather. Zero and 95 degrees are not too extreme for walking.

From the “good old days” when the 4th of July activities took place at Kern Park, until the current Gordon Park celebration, Jim has walked in every 4th of July parade since he was 3 or 4 years old. He’s the guy marching alongside the band, carrying the American flag.

Two or three days a week his feet follow a winding path to the Milwaukee Public Museum where he volunteers as a guide in the Butterfly Garden and “Bugs Alive” exhibit.

“Oh, I love it! I just love that stuff! It’s so much fun!” he exclaims with unbridled enthusiasm. “I have live Walking Sticks, Madagascar Cockroaches, and Bess Beetles all on display for kids to handle.”

Jim answers questions and shares bug experiences with museum visitors, telling tales of being stung by a bee or catching elusive Carolina locusts in the field where Lena’s now sits.

He puts out a warm welcome, through this article, for all you readers to come see him and the bugs. He’s always there on Mondays.

“I’m here to say ‘hi!’ to people and meet people,” Jim reflects. And he’s here to stay.

Riverwest Currents online edition – August, 2006