Neighbor Spotlight – John Poznanski


Neighbor Spotlight John Poznanski by Janice Christensen

Riverwest is justly proud and fiercely protective of our river. We love to walk the river paths and enjoy the feeling of being in a wild place in the midst of our urban neighborhood. Can you imagine what an enchanted place that river valley must be for a child?



John Poznanski remembers what the river was like during his childhood some seven decades ago. He took some time to reminisce about his enchanted childhood along the banks of the river.

John was born on Buffum and Auer in 1938. He remembers the adventures and fun he had with his neighborhood grade school friends during the 1940s.

“The neighborhood kids spent a lot of time on the river. There was a bunch of boys, about six of us, between seven and 12 or 14 years old,” he remembers.

“We would walk down Concordia, then down to the river. On the way to the river, on the corner of Concordia and Weil there’s a red brick building that used to be Nesbitt’s Orange Soda company. We would stop over there and talk to the guys in the warehouse and they would give us each a bottle of soda.

“’Now you be sure to bring them bottles back,’ they told us. ‘If you don’t bring them bottles back we won’t give you any more soda.’ You can bet we brought those bottles back to the plant.”

He remembers long days full of fun for lots of people in the neighborhood. “Sometimes we would go down there crabbing. There was a little grocery store on Richard and Auer. One of us would walk over and ask the butcher for some scrap liver or chicken parts and he would give us some. We would tie a piece of that chicken gut to a string on a stick and throw it in the river. In a few minutes there’s a crab hanging on there. We would end up with a half a five gallon bucket of crabs. Nice big ones too. Probably five six inches long.

“We’d come home and my mother would have a kettle of boiling water on the stove, she’d throw the seasoning in and dump the bucket of crabs into the boiling water. All the guys that were crabbing and all the mothers would sit in our backyard and eat crabtails.

“All the parents knew each other. Word would spread – the kids are going crabbing. Sometimes we had four or five parents and 10 kids in the back yard sucking crab tails.”

What did crabs taste like? “Up here they’re crabs, down in Louisiana they’re called crawfish. I bet you didn’t know what I was talking about,” he grins.

“We would have other summer adventure, too,” he continues. “We would ride our bikes down a curvy road that went down to the river. There was a path that went all along the river from Concordia to Capital Drive. We would ride that back and forth with our bikes. When we got to Capital Drive, we’d come up the hill and come out on Capital Drive and Richard. We rode up Richard past the Humane Society to the Big Blue Hole and go swimming there.

“Sometimes we would go further north on the same road to the Little Blue Hole. We used to fish in that one. The Little Blue Hole was about 150 feet across 200 long and deep – probably 80 to 100 feet. We used to catch little bluegills – the biggest were probably about four and a half inches.

“The Big Blue Hole was probably four times the size of the Little Blue Hole. We would always swim in the Big Blue Hole. The Little Blue Hole was too deep.”

Fun was simple, and the kids had a lot of things they liked to do. “Another time we’d take our bikes to the Little Blue Hole, and there was a little footpath that went up to the train trestle – we’d ride the train trestle across to Estabrook Park.

“We would ride around in Estabrook Park, then come down to the river, where there was a little shallow bay. We went there for our picnic lunch. Somebody would bring bread and somebody would bring cheese. There were wild onions growing along the river. We had a favorite flat rock that we pulled out of the river. We would build a fire and put the rock on top of it, then put our sandwiches on there. We would climb trees while the rock was heating up. It got warm enough to melt the cheese, and we would have toasted cheese and wild onions sandwiches for our lunch.”

There was always lots of things for kids to do along the river, and friendly grown-ups ready to have some fun with them. “Sometimes in the summertime we would ride bikes to Gordon Park. Down below Gordon Park there was a boathouse that was run by the Milwaukee Police Department. They had a Chris-Craft in there. We got to know the police that ran the place, and they would take us in the boat down to the North Avenue dam, then up to Capital Drive, then back to the boat house.”

In the summertime, the river was the place to be. “All summer we practically lived by the river. My mother never knew where we were. ‘Where you going?’ she would ask. The answer was always, ‘Down by the river.’

“If anything happened to us, my mother never knew. She didn’t drive, and we didn’t even have a phone until 1957. We would be on our own all day, all summer long. We only came home to sleep. And we never got

in trouble.

“Dad worked days – he was a truck driver for J.W. Cartage. My mother was at home when my brother and I were little, then she worked second shift after we were older. She worked for AC Spark Plug on North Avenue. Later she worked for Delco down in Oak Creek. She worked in a clean room assembling bomb sights for the US government.”

The fun wasn’t just in the summertime.

“We had winter adventures, too. We used to walk to Gordon Park, and next to police boat house was a warming house for ice skaters. They had one whole wall on the inside with pigeonholes for you to put your boots and change into skates. They had fires going in there to keep it warm. We would skate from the North Avenue dam to Capital Drive when there wasn’t a lot of snow on the ice. They would clear the snow from Locust Street all the way down, and all the way across the river. We had about a three square block skating rink.

“On the east side of the river was Wisconsin Ice and Coal, a company that made ice. There was a big hill on that side of the river, and they built a toboggan slide. There was a wooden walkway where you could walk up and they made a toboggan slide that you’d put your toboggan on. They made the slide out of blocks of ice that they made. The blocks were crystal clear ice when they first made it. That slide would take us completely across the river. Then we would walk all the way back and do it over again.”

All of a sudden John has mischief in his as eyes. “Do you want to know the daredevil part?” he asks. “We used to go down that toboggan slide on skates. They were figure skates with the teeth on the front. If there was a blip in the ice, we would go down face first.”

There were hockey rinks with nets on either side of the toboggan run. The river in winter was a big open playground.

“If I remember right there were a lot of times on Friday, Saturday and Sunday when there would be 200 kids down there ice skating – girls and boys, all ages. Some grown-ups were there, too. We never had any problems. We called the ambulance a few times if somebody fell on the ice and hurt themselves, but that was the most serious trouble we had.”

Fishing was a winter activity, too. “There was a paper company on the east side of river called Cornell. Down below Cornell there was a water discharge area. It never froze over there, and we would go down there spearfishing. We would have a spear on an 18 to 20 foot pole. We speared carp, suckers and redhorse. The fish would come up for air where the ice was melted and we would spear them. We would sell them to people who wanted them for smoked fish. We had a good part time job in the wintertime. Fifty cents a fish would have been a lot them days.”

Kids didn’t need a lot of equipment to have a lot of fun. “We didn’t have much,” John remembers. We had ice skates, a bicycle and probably a baseball glove. We made scooters out of orange crates. The scooters were just a two-by-four with an orange crate on front of it, and a roller skate broken in two with half in front half in back. Everybody had one roller skate – the other one was on your scooter.”

His adventures along the river took place from about 1943 to 1953. “By the time I was five years old I was down by the river.”

John went to St. Mary of Czestochowa Grade School, then to Notre Dame High School on Fifth and Mitchell. “That was the end of all the fun,” he states matter-of-factly. “Then you had to do high school stuff.”

But a childhood along the river is something special. “I have memories that my kid will never have,” he says with some regret.

“I had a childhood I wouldn’t trade for anybody’s.”