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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Last Man on Jones Island

When Milwaukee drove Captain Struck from his home

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“They say a seagull gets homesick away from the water and can’t live,” the graying old captain told the Milwaukee Journal. “I’d be the same way. Take me away from the water and I’d get homesick.”

As Captain Felix Struck spoke with the Journal, he stood behind the bar at the Old Harbor Tavern, the last business left on the little slip of lakefront land known as Jones Island (which is actually a peninsula). It was October 1943. Struck had run the Harbor Inn for the past four decades. But now, at age 74, Struck was one week away from being removed from his home. After a lifetime working on or near Lake Michigan, all Struck wanted was to die in the only place he’d called home. “I think I’d live longer if they let me spend the rest of my life here,” he told the paper.

But the city of Milwaukee was nearing the end of a long process of clearing up the muddled ownership situation of the Island property. The city’s first major shipbuilding concern opened on the land in the 1850s. The outfit’s operator, James Monroe Jones, was washed out by a storm in 1858. Over the next few decades, the land that bore his name became home to a number of German and Polish immigrants. By the 1880s, Jones Island had developed into a major part of the region’s fishing industry. Between then and the 1910s, the island peaked with a population of about 2,000 people. These settlers were, in the legal sense, squatters. In 1889, the Illinois Steel Company, operators of a mill just to the south of the island, claimed title to the land and sued to have the settlers removed. The islanders claimed 20-year squatters’ rights to the land (meaning they had occupied the land so long they now legally owned it) and refused to leave.

Meanwhile, Capt. Felix Struck was yearning to return home. Born on the island in 1870, Struck ran away to Chicago while in his early teens. There, he found himself stone-broke, hanging around South Side taverns and looking for work. It was in one of those dives that an old sailor bought him a shot of whiskey, the boy’s first. As Struck recalled, the next thing he remembered was waking up aboard the schooner Collins, Shanghaied and bound for Buffalo with a load of pig iron. Instead of fighting his captors, young Struck decided to make the best of it. He spent the better part of two decades living the hard life of a Great Lakes seaman. But around the turn of the century, Struck grew weary of the life and returned to Jones Island to operate his tavern.

Struck continued to work the lake, fishing and running his tugboat up to Sheboygan for fresh barrels of beer. His customers were the hard stock of men bred by island life. Looking back, he could only scarcely recall serving anything but beer and straight liquor. He claimed to have never served a mixed drink, although he admitted to “sometimes” serving a gin with soda water. Struck perfected a process of smoking the chub, herring and trout that the men of Jones Island pulled in with their nets. The old-world recipe took hours to complete. He proudly claimed that a Norwegian captain once visited his place and enjoyed the fish so much that he took the recipe back home and later retired on the money he made selling the fish to his countrymen.

By the 1910s, the rustic outpost of Jones Island was a stunning counterpoint to the rapidly developing modern metropolis of Milwaukee. And soon, the demands of modern life began to wipe away the antiquated ways of the islanders. The city claimed the northern tip of the area in the mid-1910s to make way for the city sewage facility that still stands there. By the ’20s, port development had removed all but a handful of families from the island. In 1939, the Journal reported that the 20 people who still lived on the land—now constrained in the area near where the peninsula met the main land—were “stubbornly clinging to life.” The islanders still had no indoor plumbing or gas for cooking or heating. The city had some time earlier acquired the right to their land from Illinois Steel, which promised to reimburse the city for any expenses incurred in removing its stubborn occupants.

Of those who remained, Struck proved the most resilient. “Fighting,” the Journal reported, “has been bred into the Captain.” In 1940, he filed suit against the city for $15,000, claiming that a 1920 railroad track laid by the city had illegally invaded his property. He swore his father had deeded the land to him, and that the original Native American occupants had deeded the land to his father. His suit was dismissed and his “Indian claim” disallowed, as he could provide no proof of such transactions. Even after the city awarded him $12,000 for his property, Struck still refused to leave, insisting that he be allowed to stay (and pay rent) long enough for him to pass away at home.

But by 1943, the Struck saga had become an unlikely matter of national security. While the city seemed intent to honor his dying wish, the U.S. Coast Guard took exception to his running a tavern within a “secure” area of the port during wartime. In December 1943, the old Captain and his wife were finally forced by a court order to vacate the island. They relocated to a little cottage on South Third Street. “And Captain Struck hates it,” the Milwaukee Sentinel reported. “For it is not home.”

It was there that the Captain died, just five months later.