A Story of Ingenuity, Perseverence and Resilience
Avast, thy poor, wondering reader. 'Tis a yarn far, far from a gilded tale of fine gentlemen retiring to the salon before the fire over a Cognac and a cigar to constitute a proper social club for their own pleasure and their own profit.
Nay that wasn't us, then or now. The adventuresome men and women who built South Shore Yacht Club came mainly from trade backgrounds and the hard world of rolling mills, forges, factories and waterfronts. Almost all lived in Bay View, the urban neighborhood to which we have remained deeply connected ever since. All possessed hands-on skills and boundless volunteer spirit. Their character continues to mold the character of SSYC as you will experience it today, more than a century later.
The year was 1913, with Milwaukee expanding explosively. To encourage recreational development of the south-side shoreline, the city fathers built a small protected anchorage between Iron and Nock Streets. A group of local residents seized the opportunity to form a corporation to be known as the South Shore Yacht Club. Their leader was William Barr, SSYC's founding commodore.
For their first clubhouse they rented a house at 342 Beulah Avenue (now South Shore Drive). But after only two years the club was forced out on April 23, 1915. That night Barr summoned everyone to his home to unveil a proposal by member Daniel B. Starkey. In Sturgeon Bay Starkey had located a derelict lumber schooner – the LILLY E – which he said could be converted to a floating clubhouse and was available free to anyone willing to take her away.
A crazy scheme? Impossible? Don't ever dare say that to SSYC people.
Using ships as yacht club clubhouses was fairly common back then. Chicago had one, and there were others in major port cities on both coasts. But the LILLY E was so decrepit that she had been consigned to the boneyard for scrapping, having been wrecked and patched together again repeatedly. One of her wrecks in fact had happened just down the beach from the site of the new SSYC.
Nonetheless Starkey worked with another key member, tugboat operator Andrew E. Gillen, to have LILLY E towed down to Milwaukee and moored inside the new south shore anchorage. There conversion commenced immediately and feverishly, with the men of SSYC doing most of the work. As for the women, they were barred from membership; the 19th Amendment giving them the vote lay five years in the future. These were times that trampled all over their basic human rights. Yet they simply refused to be left out of building the future South Shore Yacht Club.
And so In August 1915 the grandmothers, wives, sisters, daughters and granddaughters formed the SSYC Ladies' Auxiliary. They sold lunch and refreshments on holidays and catered the club's private parties with the proceeds dedicated to furnishing "the ship." Their donations included skylights, cups, saucers, plates, glasses and tablecloths. Today known simply as the SSYC Auxiliary, the organization continues to play a vital supporting part. What was unthinkable then is common now – for members in the auxiliary to also be full members of the club with equal rights.
The LILLY E project, unfortunately, didn't have all members on board. An unhappy faction split off to form the separate Steel Mills Yacht Club. That adventure lasted only five years, with the two groups reuniting in 1921 as the reconstituted South Shore Yacht Club.
A Short-Lived Rebirth
Refurbishment of the LILLY E was substantially finished by the summer of 1916. But this was to be a short-lived rebirth. The call to arms as America entered World War I so badly strained the club's wallet that the LILLY E began to fall into disrepair for lack of maintenance money. The leaky schooner's future became even more uncertain as the city announced plans to create lakeside parkland by landfilling the entire stretch of shoreline where she was moored – including her little anchorage. And then her fire insurance was cancelled.
In the end as always, nature had the last word. Throughout the fall of 1921, nor'east gale upon nor'east gale battered the floating clubhouse. Driven ashore, seams opened, she settled on the bottom and worked into the sand. It was the final, fatal wreck of the LILLY E. Discussions over disposal of the remains consumed the winter and following spring. It became clear that entombment was the best option. On a still, cloudy day in midsummer 1922, a dozen mournful members wended their way to the site, doused the wrecked ship with oil and watched her burn down to embers. Her bones became part of the new parkland, buried beneath what is now the club parking lot. Our front gate stands immediately above the final resting spot of her bow.
The demise of the LILLY E began a period of itinerant, uncertain existance for SSYC. For awhile it used the old Steel Mills Yacht Club clubhouse. When that was razed by the owner for redevelopment, a welded steel barge moored at the foot of Nock Street became the club's home. The Depression years took their terrible toll, with some members unable to pay the annual $5 dues. And yet it was during those dark days that the foundation for the modern club was built.
The pivotal year 1938 saw construction of the first true clubhouse on land reclaimed from waters which had years earlier floated the LILLY E. This structure would go on to be updated many times, but look closely today and you still will see its ghostly outlines. Also in 1938, the famous Queen's Cup trophy was deeded to South Shore Yacht Club. The club was led during this formative period by legendary commodores like Dr. Jim Blackwood, George Hanson, George Walker and Art Skelding.
1935: The SSYC Juniors are formed with the goal of opening up sailing to all young people in greater Milwaukee.
1963: The first bank of slips is built. Boating is on the cusp of a revolution thanks to the advent of molded fiberglass production. Cheap to produce and maintain, fiberglass pleasurecraft are now affordable for the masses, and it seems like everybody wants in. Suddenly, everybody also wants in as a member of SSYC. Membership numbers boom.
1988: SSYC celebrates 75 years of service. It also marks the end of the all-male club. Women can now join and are accorded full, equal rights.
1996: Helen "Cookie" Mueller becomes the first woman elected commodore.
2006: The clubhouse undergoes a major expansion and renovation. It's part of the resolution of a longstanding dispute over who owns the property. SSYC concedes ownership to Milwaukee County and signs a long-term lease agreement. This same year, the SSYC Juniors Organization dedicates its first permanent-structure clubhouse.
2012: The Queen's Cup marks its 75th sailing.
2013: South Shore Yacht Club celebrates 100 years. Starting from the slippery decks of a derelict schooner, the organization has weathered gales, world wars and economic calamity to stand fast as the Great Lakes' harbor of hospitality.