Milwaukee’s Outdoor Outfitters
Laacke & Joys supplied the city’s early shipbuilders
When Milwaukee was
little more than a trading post in the wilderness, it was recognized as
one of the best harbors on the Great Lakes. The confluence of the
Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic rivers gave calm and ample shelter
for craft entering the port. In addition to having a number of large
piers, the harbor also had a reputation among sailors for never closing.
The low price of water transportation (compared to that of land travel)
gave Milwaukee manufacturers and shippers a considerable advantage over
their inland competitors.
Forecasting the profitable future of lake commerce, early
settlers were quick to take advantage of the seemingly endless supply of
lumber from the surrounding forests to make ships, catapulting the
early Milwaukee shipbuilding business into one of the most prominent
industries in the area. A 22-year-old Boston native named Greenleaf D.
Norris understood that all those ships were going to need to be
supplied, and in 1844, only a year after settling in town, opened a ship
chandlery and sail loft at the corner of Water and Erie streets on the
north bank of the Milwaukee River. Under the name G.D. Norris & Co.,
Norris and his employee, a Norwegian immigrant named Andrew Joys, sold “cordage, wire
rope, tents, flags, banners, awnings, covers, oars, tackle blocks,
lubricating oils, paints, tar, pitch, oakum, derrick fittings, and other
Norris died in 1869, Joys ran the firm in partnership with Norris’s
widow, then later, her son. In 1875, Joys’ brother, Captain John Joys,
bought an interest in the company, and it became Joys, Norris & Co.
When Mrs. Norris withdrew from the business in 1885, it became Joys
Brothers and Company.
In 1887, Richard Laacke, an 18-yearold steeplejack, sign hanger
and awning maker founded the R. Laacke Co.
The business, located on Walnut Street, earned a
reputation for making quality tents, and soon found itself in the
The Joys Brothers Company adapted when Milwaukee’s shipbuilding
business declined with the rise of the railroads, swinging into the
production of canvas goods and awnings. During World War II, the company
engaged in the manufacture of a wide variety of products for the
troops, from paratroop harnesses and diving shoes to vehicles’ covers
and shower curtains.
In 1957, the Joys Brothers Company and the R. Laacke Co. merged. Four years later, the company moved to its present location at 1433 N. Water St. Now locally owned and operated by managing partner Marsha Mather, Laacke & Joys still produces sewn products for the industrial, medical, recreational and commercial industries, as well as quality gear for active outdoor recreation.