By Kristi Sanders
Tour buses come and go all summer long in the quaint village of Greendale, Wis. Little wonder; there’s plenty to see and enjoy in this small, historic suburb (population 15,000)on Milwaukee’s south side, just a stone’s throw from Lake Michigan.
Some visitors come to absorb the town’s history — it’s one of just three Greenbelt Towns in the United States. Others come for the beauty — more than 30,000 flowers are planted each spring in beds, boxes and hanging baskets in the Village Center, offering plenty of Kodak moments.
Greendale’s roots began in 1934, in the midst of the Great Depression, when the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt selected several sites across the country to construct planned communities to address the need for housing and jobs.
A scenic site near the south end of Milwaukee County was chosen for its rolling land and ponds, its strong German-Polish heritage and the area’s dire need for shelter and work.
Former Dairy Farms
More than 500 homes were built on what were previously dairy farms. When the homes were finished in 1936, families were chosen on the basis of need to occupy the residences. All were tenants, and the government was their landlord.
Visitors today find this history fascinating as step-on guides share full details of the village’s story with tour groups.
Many of the visitors comment on how Greendale has a New England look. That’s because the town’s designer, chosen by the government, was from New England. One of his favorite structures in America was the main Colonial-style building at Williamsburg, Va., and that’s why Greendale’s village hall is a direct replica of that structure, right to the crowing rooster in its tower.
Greendale is also known as the only town in America with “backward houses.” There’s a reason for that, too. The designer recognized that most of these low-income tenants likely never had their own lawn or garden before.
So he positioned the houses very close to the street to maximize the backyard, then turned each house so that its large picture window was placed at the back, thereby providing the families a clear view of their expansive backyard.
These original homes were built so sturdy that they’re still occupied today by proud owners who love the small houses. The residents also appreciate the short walk to the Village Center, where it seems something is always going on.
Visitors throughout the year also often refer to Greendale as a “Norman Rockwell town.” That’s not surprising, since it looks much like one of his paintings with its quaint store fronts — there are 27 specialty shops — the East Coast influence of its architecture, the quiet charm of its parks and the large gazebo where summer concerts are held.
Adding to that influence is the Rockwell display in the town’s visitor center. It’s easily the largest Rockwell exhibit in the Midwest, even featuring a life-size sculpture of Rockwell painting his famous “self portrait.”
Greendale is also the Barbershop Quartet Capital of the Midwest. That title is built around the Midwest Vocal Express group, which consists of more than 90 barbershop quartet members and places high in national contests year after year. A quartet can be scheduled in advance to entertain tour groups.
And, if you lunch at the Harmony Inn restaurant along Broad Street, you may catch a few songs while you dine; quartets show up there spontaneously. That’s because this is the only restaurant in the country that lets barbershoppers sing for free meals. In fact, it’s encouraged.
Greendale is also where Reiman Publications was founded, launching national magazines such as Country, Taste of Home, Country Woman, Reminisce, and Birds & Bloom. The downtown visitor center tells the interesting history of this company, started by Roy Reiman in his basement, through a brief film.
The highlight of the visitor center is its large, modern test kitchen, where recipes for Taste of Home magazine have been tested for years.
Some of more than 300 kitchen gadgets are demonstrated in the test kitchen daily, then offered for sale on the lower level of the center, along with hundreds of Taste of Home cookbooks, many of them at close-out prices.
These are only a few of the highlights of historical Greendale, a town that Norman Rockwell would have loved — and likely painted. It’s one of those places that needs to be experienced to be fully appreciated.
Kristi Sanders works at the Greendale visitor center. “If your group comes for a tour, I or one of the other staffers will gladly tell you more,” she said.