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If walls could talk…

By Steve Schneider

As a shy child growing up in a big old farmhouse built by my great-grandfather in Brillion, Wis., I quickly retreated to the safety of the large upstairs whenever neighbors dropped by after farm chores to play sheepshead.

Sheepshead, an old German card game, was designed to disrespect the Kaiser by making the king worth only four points while the one-point “peasant” card — the ace — was worth 11 points.

Original versions of the game were played on the tops of barrels by workers in the beer industry in Bavaria and Germany — known as “geklopft.”

Others referred to the game as schaffen kopf — “working the brain.”

Eventually schaffen kopf morphed into schafskopf, or literally sheep’s head.

But I stray… as we will do occasionally in “If Walls Could Talk,” your new local history column in the Press Times.

Over the coming months, please join us as we explore a jump from a balcony, secret love affairs, a murder on Main Street, a piano mechanic, a grocer, a US Air Force colonel and many other local legends as we take a deep dive into the colorful history of greater Green Bay and explore names like Mednikow, Sternberg, Rentmeester, Schuhmacher and others who built and inhabited the buildings and became the character (and characters) of our community.

…and now back to our story:

As a five- or six-year-old, to me the walls and ceilings of our farmhouse were literally talking as I positioned myself over the heat register that allowed warm air to pass up to the second floor bedrooms through a metal grate above the dining room table.

I learned how to play sheepshead by watching, but I learned about 1960s farm life and local and world politics by listening.

It was in these circumstances that I became observant of the little things — Grandpa went to the bathroom almost exactly after two beers, and Dad piled his nickels in stacks of five (still does).

I remember on one occasion, as I eavesdropped, my grandpa declared how dramatically things had changed since he was a kid in the 1910s playing cards by kerosine lamp and eating salted pork preserved for the winter without refrigeration.

“Oh, if these walls could talk,” he said.

A flame ignited
As a freshman at St. Norbert College in the 1980s, my finely honed perceptions led me to an enclave of eclectic professors.

Professors who created unconventional courses in things like humanities and business; or accounting and introduction to aviation.

Like the folks around the sheepshead table, these educators were both interesting and entertaining.
For example, one professor used his intro to business course to expand our understanding of commerce beyond the textbook to include a discussion and pop quiz about how the buildings on the St. Norbert campus got their names.

Who were the people?

What architectural style are the buildings?

How are they related?

I was intrigued to be learning architecture, local history and how local business people became successful.
And so we learned about industrialist Henry Boyle, and the papermaking Sensenbrenner family.

We learned about Victor McCormick and his mother and uncle — all namesakes of buildings on campus.
It was the passion to honor history, to connect cold bricks and mortar to their animating stories — not to mention a 100% score on the pop quiz — that launched my love affair with old buildings and what their walls have heard over the decades.

Little did I know as a freshman in 1981 that some 40 years later I would acquire the Vic Theatre, already knowing much about its namesake, Victor McCormick.

I also would end up investing in the Bellin Building — namesake of Dr. Bellin, the arch rival of John Minahan whose building stood across Walnut Street (oh, if these walls could talk) — and in whose science hall I had studied at St. Norbert.

A flame was ignited to research and explore the connectivity and history of these local leaders to the buildings that bear their names, and I am honored to have been asked to write this column.

I look forward to journeying with you every other week to explore what the walls have to say.

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