Enjoying a brief interlude of spring

Chris Hardie
Standing water, mud and dirty snow from an early February thaw.

The sun was shining, the birds were singing and the rocking chair on the porch beckoned me.

It was barely above freezing, but I succumbed to the temptation, sipping my morning coffee and enjoyed the brief interlude of spring. 

Such a day in early February is a treat to be enjoyed, as Old Man Winter has surely not yet gone to sleep. But Mother Nature can provide a seasonal intermezzo, with a little taste of spring in between the relentless weather of winter.

By seasonal standards, it’s been a warm winter so far, according to the National Weather Service. January temperatures in La Crosse averaged 24.4 degrees, which is 5.5 degrees above normal. The average low temperature was 18.9 degrees, which is 8.4 degrees warmer than normal.

By seasonal standards, it’s been a warm winter so far, according to the National Weather Service.

There were still a couple of days in January where we had minus 20 or colder, but so far we’ve avoided those long cold stretches like the polar vortex of 2019. 

It’s the same story in Milwaukee, where the January average temperature was 36.6 degrees, 7.9 degrees above normal. The warmest January ever was back in 1880 – even before my time – when the temperature averaged 33.5 degrees.

Speaking of Milwaukee, it’s been a few years since I’ve been to the city where I was born. My parents lived in Hales Corners until the spring of 1970, when we moved to the family farm in Jackson County. 

The Milwaukee County Historical Society building is in the forefront of this view of downtown Milwaukee.

I was in downtown Milwaukee for a state economic development conference and visited the Milwaukee County Historical Society building for a social event. The former Second Ward Savings Bank is an absolute gem, with its jaw-dropping vault and massive door frame that weighs a combined 27.5 tons.

I appreciate history as much as any other man, so I did a little research on the building. According to a post from a Milwaukee History blog, the bank was founded in 1855 and reorganized in 1866 when it became known as the Brewers Bank because it was patronized by Valentine Blatz, Joseph Schiltz, Philip Best, Emil Schandein and August Uihlein.

This vault and door weighs an incredible 27.5 tons.

Any old beer drinker – yes, I am referring to myself – will recognize the names of Blatz and Schlitz. Best and Schandein were part of the Pabst Brewery.

The German born Uihlein joined Schiltz in 1867 – which was formerly the Krug Brewery founded by his uncle. When Joseph Schlitz died in 1875, the Uihlein family took control of the company. One of Uihlein’s daughters – Ida –  married Frederick Pabst Jr.

The wealthy Uihlein became the bank’s largest stockholder and served as its president until he died in 1911. His son Joseph then built the new building that stands today at a cost of $400,000 – which would be $11.8 million today if adjusting for inflation. 

The bank merged with First Wisconsin National Bank in 1928 and in 1965 the building was donated to the county to be used by the Milwaukee County Historical Society. 

The inside of the Milwaukee County Historical Society, which was a former bank.

The building – listed on the National Register of Historic Places – has seven vaults and more than 600 pilings to support the weight of not just the vaults but the massive marble pillars and accents. In 2008 the inside of the building was used to film a bank robbery for the movie Public Enemies starring Johnny Depp as John Dillinger. 

Fittingly enough the museum was just finishing a display on the city’s brewery history when I visited and from the windows of my hotel room, I could see the iconic red Pabst sign that spans Juneau Avenue at 10th Street in what is now the Milwaukee Beer District.

Pabst, Schlitz and Blatz are all gone now – Pabst came back to the city to brew beer for a few years but left again in 2020. Schlitz, Blatz and beers from the former G. Heileman Brewing Co. in La Crosse are all under the control of Pabst, which is headquartered in San Antonio, TX.

The beer companies may be gone, but the legacy is still strong today.

Chris Hardie

Chris Hardie spent more than 30 years as a reporter, editor and publisher. He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and won dozens of state and national journalism awards. He is a former president of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association. Contact him at