Monday, October 1, 2012

Milwaukee's Black Cowboys


In fall 2011, I had the great pleasure of meeting members of one of Milwaukee's most unique cultural organizations, the Buffalo Soldiers and Black Cowboys Association. Their headquarters, stationed at the N.E. intersection of 31st & Brown, is a bustling center of social activity in the Walnut Hill neighborhood. The organization initially attracted my attention with its brightly colored facade, beautiful mural and its Cowgirl Kitchen chuck wagon-style trailer parked outside, selling a variety of foods on a spring day in 2010. Headed by Mr. Isaac Steele (proprietor of Steele's Professional Welding at the same location), the group is positioned in the heart of an area self-defined as "Milwaukee's ghetto" to implement an affective mentorship program that reaches young males in the community. As part of this long-term project to document their history and relationship to Milwaukee's complex urban environment, I spoke with member Kenneth Petty (pictured below) about how he came to be a member of the organization and the relevant role he feels it plays in his community. Please listen below to hear more about the neighborhood and Kenneth's story, expressed in his own words.

(This is the first installment of the project. There is more to come!)

Kenneth: Black Cowboys Member Portrait by edorbs

Buffalo Soldiers & Black Cowboys Members Pictured L-R: Rockney and Hard Time, Kenneth and Red Dog. While the horses are stabled at a ranch in Franklin, the cowboys work and hold gatherings at Mr. Isaac Steele's welding business at the intersection of 31st & Brown in Milwaukee.
Kenneth walks Red Dog through the neighborhood of Walnut Hill while attracting residents out of their homes to get a closer look.

Photos courtesy of Erik Ljung Photography.


Below is a recent article published in the Shepherd Express by historian and project partner Matthew J. Prigge:

Of all the things one might expect to find in the Walnut Hill neighborhood, a narrow strip of Milwaukee's severely blighted West Side, a band of rugged and ready men on horseback is probably not one of them. But to Walnut Hill residents, these cowboys are a familiar and welcome sight. Headquartered at a Western-themed welding shop at 31st and Brown, the Wisconsin Black Cowboys and Buffalo Soldiers Association is carrying on the little-known legacy of the black West in the unlikeliest of settings. But while these cowboys might seem out of place in the heart of Milwaukee's inner city, it is there where they are needed most.

Walnut Hill sits along what was once a great industrial corridor in the city. Up and down the old Wisconsin & Southern rail line that borders the neighborhood, factories once dotted the landscape. Metal polishing shops, sawmills, even dairy co-ops were all once within walking distance of the area, providing jobs and security for the community. But over the past 40 years, nearly all of these plants have been closed and their jobs lost. During that time, the area's poverty rate has spiked, today nearing 50%, while the percentage of Walnut Hill adults with a high-school diploma has plummeted, now standing at just half of the city's average.

But against this backdrop, one man sees hope. Isaac Steele cuts a classic cowboy figure in his open-collared Western shirt and low-slung, coal-colored Stetson. Steele is a third-generation member and president of the Black Cowboys and Buffalo Soldiers Association. His grandfather founded the groups nearly 100 years ago as a way to honor African-American contributions to the history of the American West and the fabled Buffalo Soldiers, the all-black regiments in the U.S. Army. Steele brought the association north with him when he moved from his hometown of Greenwood, Miss., to Milwaukee in the 1970s. While the environment in which he practices his cowboy lifestyle is far different from that of his ancestors, his cowboy ways of hard work, justice and community betterment are essentially the same.

Steele seeks to instill personal responsibility and leadership skills in the young people of the neighborhood through the rugged work of the ranch. With so many of the area's young men growing up without a male role model, the cowboys offer guidance and the chance to return to their culture's agrarian roots. Beyond offering them the chance to work at their rural Milwaukee County stables, the cowboys preach an anti-drug and anti-gang message to the area's young people. They also thrill them with tales of the black West, often opening up doors to an aspect of black culture people never knew existed.

Although they use stables outside of the city, the cowboys bring their horses into the neighborhood several times a year, often giving local kids their first close-up experience with the animals. In recent years, after a girl had gone missing in the area, the cowboys mounted more than 20 members on horseback to help in the search. By foot, the cowboys work with local police to keep drug pushers and deadbeat landlords from Walnut Hill. This past summer, a group of cowboys chased down a man who had stolen a van from the welding shop, even tying him up until the police arrived.

Neighborhood children experience their first encounters with rural life, horses and cowboys in fall 2011 when Mr. Steele, Kenneth and Rockney transport their horses Hard Time and Red Dog into Walnut Hill for a visit.
Those who have embraced the Black Cowboy ways could not imagine themselves without it. Kenneth Petty is one of the newer members of the Black Cowboys. "I was one of the young people running the neighborhood when Mr. Steele gave me an opportunity," Petty says of coming to the association. Petty's grandparents grew up around horses in the rural South and their stories of the ranch inspired him as a child. But Petty sees the association as more than just indulging his love of horses. "I want my kids to see their dad as doing something positive," he says. "We want to give the young people of this community someone to look up to."

"I've spent 20 years cleaning up the neighborhood," Steele says. "We've had trouble, but we've gotten a lot done." Steele says he once almost left the city for the relative peace and quiet of rural living. He was ready to go, even had his things packed up. "But I couldn't do it. I felt guilty about leaving," he says. "Milwaukee still needs me. The ghetto still needs me."

Matthew J. Prigge is a historian and co-founder of Hey Man, Cool! Digital History Productions (HMC). HMC is at work on a multimedia documentary on the Black Cowboys that will debut in 2012.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Minnehaha Liquors, Minneapolis, MN.

Interior of Minnehaha Liquor Store, Minneapolis
(Photo courtesy of Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest)
In July 2010, I made my way back to Minneapolis, MN for the first time since May 2006. I had lived in the Twin Cities from 2001-2006 and seriously missed them the five years I'd been away. While I was taking a road trip to Northern Minnesota to see Dwight Yoakam (also for the first time!), I made a stop over in Minneapolis to break up the ten-hour drive and to see my favorite Midwestern city once again. Driving down Lake Street, I saw many things that had changed, yet several that had (luckily) stayed the same. When I came across one of my favorite local landmarks, the Minnehaha Liquor sign at 2613 E. Lake St., I noticed that it was receiving a touch-up. I enthusiastically took this opportunity to obtain some more information.
sign painter dipping brush
sign painter 2
According to the above historic photo, Minnehaha Liquors has been around since the 1920s. According to the man repairing the sign (why didn't I get his name?!), the original porcelain-fronted neon sign is currently maintained by Skyline Neon at 451 Taft St. N.E. in Minneapolis. He also discussed how all of the signs once lit by neon are now lit by LED, like the Payless Shoes sign across the street. He takes great care and pride in his work to keep these signs alive and continuously illuminating Minneapolis' streetscape. I'm thankful I had this chance to return to the city and spend this time with him finding out more information on this local architectural icon that always managed to capture my attention along Lake Street the countless times I'd passed it.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

History & Identity As Told Through the Historic Taverns of Bay View, WI

Spring 2010:

Last winter I moved to Milwaukee, WI. To get to know the area better I set out with a few cameras and my Zoom H2 to explore Wisconsin's very ummmm, unique, drinking culture. The result is this documentary that focuses on the experience and history of Lee’s Luxury Lounge at 2988 S Kinnickinnic Avenue, Milwaukee, WI. You’ll hear both residents and patrons express what they feel gives shape to and defines their distinctive Bay View identity.

Special thanks to Lee's owner, Deanne Wecker. Sadly, I found that Deanne sold the bar shortly after I completed this piece.

For more photos of Bay View's historic taverns visit

Lee's Luxury Buffalo

(Interior view of Lee's Luxury Lounge)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Route 20 Documentary!!

America's Mainstreets: Can We Make Travel Part of the Destination Again? from Erin Dorbin on Vimeo.

This documentary is the result of a collaborative student project undertaken by undergraduate and graduate students Erin Dorbin (M.A. History and Media), Eric LaGrange (M.A. Fine Arts), Dale Mattison and Greg Pruden at the University at Albany in the Spring of 2009.

The group set out to explore the histories of routes 20 & 9 in New York state as case studies to explain how America's changing travel patterns in the second half of the 20th century altered the landscapes along the country's two-lane highways. We were also interested in exploring how these changes in travel adversely impacted the small localized economies along these routes that had once been dependent on tourism dollars to sustain themselves.

Erin Dorbin and Eric LaGrange are responsible for the completion of the Route 20 portion of the project, while Dale Mattison and Greg Pruden completed the Route 9/Frontier Town section of the documentary. Erin and Eric also have plans to continue the Route 20 portion of the documentary over the coming year.

This video is our first edit at 22 minutes for the purposes of our final class assignment. Three of us in the group had never worked with Final Cut Pro before and one of us had no idea how to use a video camera, but we figured it out (for the most part) and made it happen! Enjoy!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Howdy Folks! The Story of the Chuck Wagon Diner

Photo copyright Gale Weatherby.

I recently completed a thirty-minute audio documentary on the restoration of the Chuck Wagon Diner in Princetown, NY. I was drawn to the project during our research for our video documentary on the history of travel and tourism along Route 20 in NY state. In the process, I found a newspaper article about a current restoration project headed by Tom Ketchum to reopen the diner on his property along Route 20. I grabbed my recently acquired Zoom H2 and set out to collect the stories of those whose lives became interwoven as a result of this project and to tell the story of this historic American icon. Please take a listen and see how this amazing story unfolded.

Special thanks to Gale Weatherby, Tom Ketchum, John Blatz, Bill and the Miss Albany Diner, JR Cooke and Steve Cadalso for their contributions. They were all just incredible to work with. I wish them the best of luck in seeing this project through to completion.

For more photos of the Chuck Wagon from the 1970s (prior to its initial closing and relocation) please see Gale's photos. You can also see the documentation of her meeting with Tom and Steve when they drove to Chicago to pick up the original Chuck Wagon sign here.

See you at the diner!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective

The Sol LeWitt show at Mass-MoCA was less of a museum exhibit, and more of a circus. I admit, my first priority was to see the Anselm Keifer pieces in the adjacent building where I was able to spend the first hour of my visit sitting and contemplating A.E.I.O.U. and turning around to breathe in the space surrounding Narrow Are the Vessels in peace and quiet. Walking through the next room and into the Sol LeWitt exhibit was like walking out of a church and onto a city street.

I was immediately swarmed by children, with one particular little girl running between the bright walls screaming, “Colors! Colors! Colors!” I glanced over the first predictably geometric wall and came around the corner to the next where two middle-aged women turned to me and flashed peace signs with cheesy grins and tie-dye shirts. One woman rambled something off to me about the meaning of life which I don’t quite remember as being anything more than gibberish, but it ended with, “I don’t know what it means, but it means something, right? Ah, you didn’t grow up in the seventies, you wouldn’t understand.” And I didn’t. But I smiled as she turned away, dancing a dance that I’ve seen before which I commonly refer to as “The Hippie Shuffle.” Her friend then shouted joyously, “I didn’t go to work today, I went to MoCA!” I didn’t like the paintings any better, but I suddenly felt like I was a part of something really exciting, and glad to be there.

In LeWitt’s defense, I don’t believe that he intended his work to be a mystical journey into the unknown, leading us to a higher plane of existence to discover the meaning of life. I think his ideas were more influenced by mathematical logic, and finding any way of making some sense of the big, flat, open spaces we call “walls.” They’re not much more than simple geometric experiments, finding all possible ways of combining vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines, or blocks of color. These ideas, I’m sure, have been discussed and illustrated in mathematical literature dating well before LeWitt’s time. I suppose that taking those ideas and combining them with the tradition of mural painting is the original idea. It definitely has its place in the broader scope of art history as a response to abstract expressionism in the minimalist tradition. 

Their value may also lie in the simple pleasure of communicating a set of instructions, and seeing how well those instructions are carried out by others. In my mind, LeWitt lies parallel to my ideas about the programmers of the first computers, creating codes for execution that can be used anywhere. But these codes are awfully simple. Early computers and Sol LeWitts seem dated in a world of high-definition video games and intricate paint-by-numbers. And that seems like a terribly sick pleasure. I imagine LeWitt getting the same satisfaction and sense of power that Jim Jones had as he watched his followers carry out his idea of revolutionary suicide. Better to paint it on the wall, I suppose. I would have been more interested in a show of the first personal computers. (I actually saw a shop along the road on the way to the museum that had many very old computers in the storefront window, aptly named, “Computers.” I should have stopped.)

As I worked my way through the second floor, I decided to follow discreetly behind some fellow viewers and eavesdrop on their reactions, which became the most enjoyable experience of the show. Two distinct reactions prevailed. In all cases, people seemed lost, either in joy or in fear. Expressions of childlike glee were contrasted with awkward attempts to find something intelligent to say for fear of losing their reputation as an intellectual.  

I stopped to watch the film in the second floor reading room, which documented the process of creating the retrospective. Two more elderly women watched joyously at the craftsmen, draftsmen, painters and scribblers duteously carrying out LeWitt’s master plans. As the film concluded, the ladies seemed enthusiastic and inspired. “That looks like a fun art project!” And it did. I found that LeWitt’s art seems most easily accessible to elderly women, young children, or other subscribers to Arts and Crafts magazine. They seemed to be the only ones who were able to enjoy it for what it is, bright colors painted on a wall, which I say with the highest respect for them as the most honest, unpretentious viewers. 

Continuing through the exhibit, I found myself turning my gaze more and more toward the brick walls of the old mill building instead of the freshly painted walls of LeWitt. At some point I stopped, after a quick glance at a wall covered in pencil lines, and turned my back to it, to stare at the peeling paint and stains on the bricks left from an old staircase no longer there. I began to see the LeWitt walls as mere contrast, the backdrop to the art that is Mass-MoCA Building #7. I was also thankful for the windows. By the time I reached the third floor, my eyes were exhausted, and coming around that last wall in the back corner to finish the show with the bang of Loopy Doopy (orange and green,) it was a relief to turn away from the retina-burning colors, and peer out the window to the gray sky and snow covered grounds of the old mill.

 LeWitt’s work might have been the exception to the rule that one must see a work in person to fully appreciate it. Flat shapes and lines on a wall don’t provide much more to enjoy than a photograph of them, other than mere scale. We don’t even get to leave with the satisfaction that we’ve seen the hand of the artist. I admit, however, that it was a pleasure to be surrounded by them, feeling like a child in a funhouse. Perhaps this is the only way of truly appreciating LeWitt. It was also satisfying to experience the work as a chronological progression which, from the nineteen-sixties to the early twenty-first century, is so consistently steady, that it seems as though his entire artistic career was planned out from beginning to end. And perhaps it was. Maybe one day we’ll find a set of detailed instructions for a lifelong career as an artist that LeWitt brilliantly carried out over the course of his lifetime with exact precision.
 As the museum was about to close and I began making my way for the exit, I crossed paths again with my new hippie friends, flowing gently between two colorful walls. One was still dancing, the other exclaiming freely, “This is groovy! This is Austin Powers!”
 LeWitt’s work is something you’ll either love or hate, and those who love it, REALLY love it. As for myself, I left with the desperation of someone trying to find his way out of a hall of mirrors. My only regret is not having access to the rest of the Mass-MoCA complex. The buildings are easy to fall in love with, and in a show of wall paintings, the time-worn and stained bricks of Building #7 stole the show.