Amidst the stories of experimental surgeries and a community of artists and musicians, the narrative of the West Side Bank would seem dry and horribly uninteresting. However, on further research of the bank and the men that worked for its founding, I found myself in the midst of well known, first generation German-American’s dedicated to the prosperity of a burgeoning Milwaukee and west side community.
The introduction of interstates and freeways has marred our perception of the neighborhoods that our current city lies upon. Freeways transected neighborhoods like the Third Ward and Bronzeville, and wiped out large portions of once thriving commercial centers as in the Park East corridor. Standing at the corner of Third and Juneau, surrounded by vast expanses of concrete, new hotels, and parking structures, it’s hard to imagine this intersection as a bustling epicenter of the west side comprised primarily of German immigrants and their children. At the time of Milwaukee’s incorporation, the city was comprised of three competitive settlements each complete with their own commercial center and residential districts. In Kilbourntown later referred to as the west side, business radiated outward from Third and Juneau, then Third and Chestnut.
It is at this intersection which our own current community struggles for an icon of culture and history, that Milwaukee’s west side German community once struggled for their own symbol of prosperity and success. In 1891, George Koch purchased the Nicholas Senn Block following the surgeon’s relocation to Chicago. George H. Koch was born in Milwaukee in 1863. His father, John Koch, was among the German immigrants that arrived in Milwaukee in 1848 and is said to have “laid the foundation for Milwaukee’s prosperity.” (History of Milwaukee, City and County, Bruce, p. 628) George Koch had previously worked at Frankfurth Hardware, which relatively encompassed the Nicholas Senn Building with storefronts on both Third Street and Juneau Avenue. According to the Milwaukee Sentinel, at the time of Mr. Koch’s purchase the Senn Block was comprised of, “a number of stores, offices and assembly halls, and is the most prominent building in that part of Third Street.” A similar article refers to the corner as one of the busiest on the west side. (The Milwaukee Sentinel, Wednesday, July 15, 1891;pg. 3; col A)
At the time of purchase, Mr. Koch was employed at the Merchants’ Exchange Bank. The former surgeon’s building would soon house the new West Side bank, a branch of the Merchants’ Exchange, and George Koch would be the manager. The Milwaukee Journal describes the financial institution as, “one of the most important additions of the year to the business institutions of that rapidly growing part of the city. It will be known as the West Side bank, branch of the Merchants’ Exchange bank…It will be opened in the building on Third and Chestnut streets. The directors will be Rudolph Nunnemacher, Chas. Pfister, Fred Vogel, Frank Kipp and J. Goll…” In order to prepare for the new bank’s opening in May 1893 the building underwent, “extensive repairs and has been partially rebuilt. The front has been remodeled and the first floor, which will be occupied by the bank, has been elaborately fixed up and supplied with all modern banking facilities.” (The Milwaukee Journal, Saturday, April 29, 1893; pg. 3; column A)
However, the West Side branch of the Merchants’ Exchange Bank would be a short-lived endeavor. The 1890s was a time of acquisition and consolidation of small businesses into large conglomerates. In this manner, the Merchants’ Exchange Bank was consolidated with First National Bank. As national banks were not to have branches, the West Side bank was being shut out by First National bank’s acquisition of the Merchants’ Exchange. By 1894, a group of men sought control of the branch in order to establish an independent banking institution to serve the west side community. Among these gentlemen were Adam Gettleman of Gettelman Brewing Co., George H. Koch, Charles Pittelkow of Pittelkow & Siegert, O.J. Flebing, Henry J. Killilea, Fred Usinger of Usinger Sausage Co., Gustav Wollaeger, Otto Schorse of Schorse & Co. drug store, Otto J. Schoenleber of Ambrosia Chocolate Company, and Bernhard Uhrig of B. Uhrig & Son. The successor of the short lived Merchants’ branch, opened for business on July 2, 1894 under the same name, the West Side Bank until 1967.
The men involved in the founding of the West Side Bank were largely first generation German-Americans having grown up and worked in the industries of their immigrant fathers, which lined the neighboring streets of the west side. Adam Gettelman served as bank president, O.J. Fiebing as vice-president, George Koch as cashier, and Alfred G. Schultz as assistant cashier. In Bruce’s History of Milwaukee, City and County these men are described as, “natives not only of Wisconsin, but of Milwaukee interested in the welfare of the city and ready at all times to cooperate in anything that will contribute to Milwaukee’s upbuilding…Mr. Koch like his associates, was keenly interested in all public affairs and matters of general concern and his influence was ever on the side of progress and improvement.”
The complete list of stockholders included O.J. Fiebing, George H. Koch, A.G. Schultz (son of pioneer, Daniel Schultz) , V.J. Schoenecker (V. Schoenecker Boot & Shoe Company), F.W. Schroeder (F.Schroeder & CO), A. C. Zinn (Milwaukee Malt & Grain Company), Chas. Pittelkow (Pittlekow & Siegert), H.J. Killilea, Udo Dorestan, W.J. Fiebrantz, O.H. Schomberg, Geo. T. Schluze, Victor Schlitz (nephew of Joseph Schlitz), Otto J. Schoenleber, William Schmidt, Geo. P. Mayer (F. Mayer Boot & Shoe Company), Chas Polacheck, Ernst Hahn, F. Richter, Fred Usinger, C. W. Milbrath, Otto Schorse, J. Winkler, William Earles, John Koch, Adam Gettelman, A.C. Krez, F. L. Schmitz, George Schweickhart (Adam Gettelman’s father-in-law and founder of Menomonee Brewing company later named A. Gettelman Brewing Co.), Charles Manegold.