A brief history of Slovenians in Milwaukee
Slovenes in Milwaukee – A Brief History
By Brian Mueller, with updates from Jeff Martinka
The earliest Slovenes arrived in Wisconsin in the 1870s when Slovenia was part of the Austro-Hungarian (Hapsburg) Empire and that first migration continued into the early twentieth century. The majority settled in the Milwaukee area, with smaller migrations to Sheboygan, Kenosha, and other rural regions in Northwestern Wisconsin. The Patrick Cudahy meat packing plant and Allis-Chalmers Corporation both employed many Slovenes, as did Pfister & Vogel and other tanneries in Milwaukee. Based on an individual’s mother tongue, the number of foreign-borne Slovenians residing in Milwaukee totaled between 2,000 and 3,000 between 1910 and 1940.
Living in tight-knit communities on Milwaukee’s southside, West Allis, West Milwaukee and Cudahy, Slovenian immigrants constructed an assortment of churches, fraternal orders, and cultural institutions that preserved their traditions, while they also adapted to their new lives in America.
Slovene immigrants settled in geographically specific areas, as evidenced by the clustered location of many of their business, cultural and religious establishments. In Milwaukee, for instance, Slovenians lived near 6th Street and National Avenue and near 9th and Mineral Streets. The former served as the initial location of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, a main religious center for Slovenes. The original St. John’s building was a former synagogue. (That parish’s former church hall remains as part of the United Community Center to this day. The parish itself relocated to 84th and Coldspring as the Slovenian community migrated west years later and the synagogue’s former cornerstone, in Hebrew, remains in the new edifice’s facade) Milwaukee’s first Slovenian-constructed church was built in 1908 as St. Mary’s Help of Christians, at 62nd and Madison Streets in West Allis.
Slovenes also opened various recreational and social clubs near 6th Street and National Avenue, including South Side Turn Hall, Harmonie Hall, and Llidia Hall. Lily Lodge was a Slovenian establishment created in 1912 as a place for single men to congregate. That lodge, as well as many others, joined the Slovenian National Benefit Society (SNPJ), which beginning in the mid-1950s, owned a tavern with a hall and a large 20-acre plot of land (Arcadia Park) near 136th Street and Greenfield in Brookfield. Dinners, dances, and picnics, along with other forms of entertainment, were held at this location.
Like many immigrant groups, Slovenes faced economic difficulties upon their arrival in Milwaukee and West Allis, and they responded by forming fraternal organizations like SNPJ or KSKJ. Another example, called Sloga (Unity) Lodge formed on Milwaukee south side with a building that still exists on Lincoln Avenue. Like its SNPJ and KSKJ counterparts, the group provided cultural and sporting activities and health, burial, and educational support to its members.
After World War I, the wave of Slovenians arriving in the US slowed to and halt and Slovenia became part of Yugoslavia. At the conclusion of World War II, a second much smaller wave of Slovenian immigrants arrived in the Milwaukee area. Families from that later migration formed the Cultural Society Triglav, which continues to host public picnic and cultural events at its facilities and grounds in nearby Wind Lake, WI. By the end of the 20th Century, persons of Slovenian ancestry living in Wisconsin totaled around 4,000, with the majority living in Milwaukee and Waukesha Counties.In 1982, the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee’s Peck School of the Arts received a bequest from the Ermenc Family that allowed for the creation of the UWM Slovenian Arts Program. Working in tandem with the program, the volunteers of the UWM Slovenian Arts Council have organized a long series of concerts, performances, lectures, and exhibitions promoting Slovenian arts and culture. As part of this initiative, in 1990, the UWM’s Gold Meir Library reached an agreement whereby all the scores housed in the Slovenian National Ethnomusic Collection would be copied for UWM, making the library’s Slovenian Music Collection a significant resource for musicians and scholars alike across North America.
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