by Jackie Reid Dettloff

When Tom Tolan wrote his community history of Riverwest, he began by focusing on the Milwaukee River: “Today, many people think of it as little more than a boundary between neighborhoods, a basement for bridges…but I …want to give the river its proper due as the most important constant in the lives of the people who lived on its borders.”

This is the story of a family that has lived on the banks of the Milwaukee River for more than 100 years. As the curtain goes up on 2006, Earl and Dolores Lazenby wonder how much longer they can remain on the beloved stretch of riverbank they have called home.

At their place at 2134 North Riverboat Road, Earl and Dolores now wake up to the sound of power drills, front-end loaders and construction crews that work from 6 am to 3 pm. Gone are the days when they were surrounded by cardinals and blue jays, when they lived on a gravel road shrouded by trees. Nowadays the Lazenbys are surrounded to the north by the Rivercrest development built by Mandel and Co., to the west by a massive 3-story structure that thrusts up a scant 100 feet from their front door, and soon enough they will have more condos at their back door to the east as the property connected with the Wheel House is developed. “Hemmed in!” says Earl. “We’re surrounded on three sides!”

The connection between the Lazenbys and the Milwaukee River goes way back to the 19th century when Dolores’ paternal grandparents came over from Bohemia and settled near Weil and Garfield. Their name was Kasal and they raised five sons. Two of their boys, Eddie and Bill, chose to settle close to their parents alongside the river. They bought adjacent lots near the Humboldt bridge and raised their families in the seclusion of the riverbank. Dolores remembers growing up with her sister and two girl cousins, and tells the story of how she learned to swim at an early age. Her father took her to Rohn’s Swimming School, which used to operate near the North Avenue dam. “In those days it was the sink or swim method. They just threw me in the river and I learned to swim the hard way!”

Her father ran a successful business selling live bait. In the days before fly-casting and artificial lures, most fishing was done with minnows. Eddie Kasal could harvest plenty of those right from the river. He sold wholesale to customers in northern Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota; he sold retail right from the front of his house. For more than five decades, Eddie Kasal supported his family from the bounty of the river.

Dolores went to Holy Rosary School near Oakland Avenue. St. Hedwig’s and St. Casimir’s were both closer, but those parishes were mostly Polish and her mother identified more with the Irish enclave on the East Side. Graduating from Messmer High School, she joined the Navy in 1943 and met Earl while she was in the service. The couple was married in November 1945.

After they left the Navy, Earl and Dolores settled in the Kasal family compound by the river. He found work in the Milwaukee Police Department and in 1957 they built a new house on land that was adjacent to Eddie Kasal’s place. Dolores stayed home to raise their two children, Nancy and Dale. She was a lot more cautious than her parents had been. She didn’t want her kids playing near the water, so she warned them that the alligators might eat them up. “That worked pretty darn well to keep them out of the river,” she says with a smile. “It works for the grandchildren too.”

In their ranch-style house built with large bay windows to take in the scenery in three directions, Earl and Dolores raised their family in an idyllic spot. The riverbank was not without its own particular dramas, though. They remember how bodies would float down when the ice thawed every spring and when there were drownings. Their driveway would be jammed with investigators and rescue squads trying to drag the river and remove and identify the bodies. Earl took steps to widen his driveway so as to allow more room for the rescue vehicles that needed access to the water.

Always there was the fishing. Perch had been abundant in Eddie Kasal’s youth, but they began to die off when the DNR introduced salmon to the lake. At first people would come in droves for the salmon, not for the meat so much as for the eggs. They would park their campers all along the riverbank and snag hundreds of fish as they swam upriver in the fall. This was before there were regulations that prohibited snagging. Earl recalls seeing the riverbank and parking lot behind their house covered with fish entrails, as people from as far away as Iowa and Tennessee would gut the fish and strip out the eggs, which they could then sell as premium fish bait on inland lakes.

And then there was the pollution. Over the decades, Earl and Dolores noticed a definite decline in the number of fish. They lay the blame on alewives that infiltrated from Lake Michigan as well as contamination from paper factories, canneries and run-off from fertilizers upriver. Dolores tells of one year when the pollution was especially bad just above the North Avenue dam. “ There was so much vegetation that you couldn’t get a boat across. It was a solid mass of weeds.”

One scheme for controlling pollution was to flush the river. Way back in the late 1880s, before there was any system for treating wastewater, the river was “visibly polluted.” The City of Milwaukee funded an ambitious flushing project that consisted of an enormous pump at the intake site along Lake Michigan – now the site of Alterra Coffee on Lake Drive –, which connected through a tunnel to an outlet just downriver from East Kane Place. This system operated until 1985. The Lazenbys remember watching as the relatively clean lake water would flush the contaminated river water that flowed past their house. “It would look so pretty and blue!” Dolores remembers. As far as they recall, the flushing was done regularly throughout the warm months, and especially when city officials wanted to show off the river to out-of-town visitors.

In the 1990s the Lazenbys made a decision which in hindsight they now regret. After Dolores’ Uncle Bill and his wife died, their property was sold to Thomas Terris, who was owner of the Riverboat Restaurant to the east of them. After Terris died, Dolores says that she and Earl considered buying the property but “there was so much damage done to that house that we didn’t want it.” The foundation had been damaged because so much ground water had been removed and so much dynamiting had been done as part of the deep tunnel sewer project. So the Lazenbys passed on the chance to buy the property and it eventually went instead to John Chowanec owner of Melanec’s Wheel House Dinner Theater. Records show that John Chowanec bought Bill Kasal’s property at 2060 N. Humboldt for $120,000 in 2002. After three years he sold it for $545,000 to the Riovivo Company that is now developing it. This company is a group of local investors with a downtown mailing address. Interestingly enough, the name they chose for their company is Spanish for “lively river.”

So as this new year begins, Earl and Dolores have a huge condominium going up in their front yard. Next year they expect another condo development in their back yard. Where the land around them used to be a wooded riverbank, there will soon be pavement, cedar chips and pre-fab landscaping.

Now in their 80s, the Lazenbys are fuming. “We’ve got squatters’ rights!” Earl says. “They’re not going to force us out. They might have us hemmed in, but we’re not leaving! We are adamant about staying. Who are these people to force us out of our house? I’m fighting this! I’m staying!”

But both he and Dolores are realistic about the pressures that are bearing down on them. They are alarmed at how their taxes are going up – $70,000 was the increase in last year’s assessment. “We’re afraid we’re going to get taxed off our land,” they admit.

They are horrified by the development along Commerce Street. “They’re cutting down all the trees. The grass is gone and those apartments along the hillside look like jail cells.”

Lately Earl and Dolores find themselves thinking a lot about the Native Americans. They have a new understanding of how the natives might have felt when they were surrounded by a wave of aggressive newcomers, how disheartening it must have been for them to watch helplessly as their traditional habitat was destroyed.

It is no comfort whatsoever to the Lazenbys to hear how they are sitting on a gold mine.

They are not looking for some developer to come along and offer them a bundle. They’d much rather have the peaceful seclusion they were used to. They took it for granted that they could live out their days at the river’s edge just as their parents and grandparents did.

Dolores says she doesn’t want to be a whiner, but she doesn’t like the changes she sees. She has lived quietly for more than eighty years on the edge of the Milwaukee River, but now she finds that she and her husband are at the very epicenter of the demographic shift taking place in the Riverwest neighborhood. Talk about development or gentrification or the spike in real estate prices that have characterized our local economy over the past decade. Down by the riverside, Earl and Dolores Lazenby are dealing with it all.

Looking out past bare trees to the ice that has crusted over the river, Dolores hears the churning of a cement mixer in the background. She wonders about the future.

“Where would we go?” she asks. “Where would we go and have all this? We could never duplicate what we have now.”

Riverwest Currents online edition – January, 2006