The closure of the South Milwaukee Dairy Queen this weekend got me thinking about change — specifically, about how iconic community businesses and institutions come and go, and how properties find new life from the old.
“Time marches on,” someone reminded me this week.
My family and I will miss Dairy Queen, and based on feedback I’ve seen, we are far from alone. South Milwaukeeans grew up patronizing this restaurant, and made memories here. It was iconic in many ways, as was the Hartley family who owned it for more than 40 years.
I know closing the store was an agonizing decision for them, as Kathy Hartley-Lorisch shared in a letter to me last week (reprinted with her permission here.) Long story short, as explained to me: DQ was requiring a significant in the building that was simply too much to make.
I wish her nothing but the best, as another chapter in her life begins, and as another chapter in the life of that building ends.
The story of that property actually began in the 1920s, when it was home to a Ray’s Service Station, historian Nels Monson tells me, and it stayed a service station for decades …
Two generations, two entirely different uses. From gas pumps to Dilly Bars. Will a new chapter be written? We’ll see.
As we wait, the story continues to evolve with properties across the city, from the former Bucyrus campus to small, independent businesses.
Last week, for example, I met with Humayun Khan, owner of Borak Entertainment — the next generation of the building at 1912 12th. He has already brought new life to the facility — including a fashion show tomorrow — and has exciting plans to make this a truly unique regional dance destination, one that has big potential for our downtown and city.
It will be the latest use of property with a really cool history. This was South Milwaukee’s first factory. Nels tells me it was owned by the Shutz Bros., who made extension tables there. Around 1908 it became Racine Fire Truck Co. until Bucyrus-Erie bought it around 1911. It became the Bucyrus Employee Club, then the South Milwaukee Community Center, then Papa Luigi’s.
Six generations, six unique uses. From tables and fire trucks to Salsa. How will this next chapter be written? We’ll see.
Here is another one: the parking lot on 11 and Milwaukee. Soon to be home to Da Crusher statue, it is home to community events throughout the summer, from the Rotary Club’s Food Truck Sunday to the South Milwaukee Downtown Market to Crusherfest.
For many years, this was Depot Park, a community gathering spot that housed the city Christmas tree and a farmers’ market almost 100 years ago, before making way for a Bucyrus parking lot. The city bought it in 2018, and we’re proud to turn it back to the community.
Three generations, three uses. From a Christmas tree to Da Crusher, and cucumbers.
One more example: the now-closed Scrappy’s BBQ. For decades this was Lloyd’s lunch, where I remember getting ridiculously low-priced soup as recently as 2003. It closed, only to be replaced by a Mediterranean grocery store and then Mike Hintz’s terrific barbecue restaurant.
Three generations, three uses. From lunch counter to burek to burnt ends.
By now, I hope you see where I am going with this … that this is nothing new. This is how communities develop.
Does that make the closure of an institution like Dairy Queen any easier? No. Do we root for this to happen? No way.
But I also know this: This story is playing out across South Milwaukee, across America for that matter: Sites finding second, third-, fourth and fifth-generation uses (sometimes more), often in ways no one could have ever imagined. And we must embrace it.
Decades ago, who would have thought a gas station would become an ice cream shop? Similarly, who would have thought a former hotel and then a drug store (which burned down in 1963) would become a martial arts studio (Sorce Martial Arts), or that a truck factory and tannery would be home to a Walmart, or that a former baseball field, later a shopping center, would become home to senior apartments (Marquette Manor)? Or that a former elementary school would become City Hall and a police station?
The list goes on and on and on.
So it goes for the former Bucyrus campus. Our city was born by the Mill Pond, but grew up around this factory, which is headed for second-generation reuse soon. What will come of it? Stay tuned.
We as a city must help shape this change when and where we can. We’re doing that with the Bucyrus campus, just as we’re actively working to breathe new life into properties across South Milwaukee. It’s work that brings some pain. Losing businesses like this hurts.
But I can still check out Ferch’s Beachside Grill at Grant Park Beach this summer – located where early resident John Fowle built a schooner and a scow 170 years ago, with the bath house coming in 1935 — or AM Ice Cream at 1232 Milwaukee Ave., itself a former tavern.
This is the new normal. Either we adapt, or we don’t. What we can’t do is ignore it or fight against it, nor dwell on the disappointment.
The next generation is coming. And we’ll be ready. I just wish the Hartley family was a part of it.
As they leave, I thank them for their longstanding commitment to this city, and for the countless memories they helped make by being a part of it.
Good luck, Kathy. Your next Cotton Candy Blizzard is on me.