Who was John Plankinton and why is he important to Milwaukee? Arriving in Milwaukee at age 24 with about $400, he opened a butcher shop and earned $25,000 by the end of his first year. By 1847, he was buying random lots of land west of the Milwaukee River, including twenty-two acres in the Menomonee Valley and several city blocks west of Water Street, north to Wells, earning him the title, “Father of the West Side”. West Water Street, one block east of Second Avenue, was renamed Plankinton Avenue, in 1929, to honor the man. Plankinton established a series of meat-packing businesses with partners who left their own legacies, including; Frederick Layton, founder of the Layton Art Gallery, now part of the Milwaukee Art Institute; Phillip Armour, later known as one of the robber barons whose meat-packing plant still operates in Chicago; and Patrick Cudahy, Jr., whose descendants still operate the Patrick Cudahy meat-packing plant in Cudahy. At one time, his was the fourth largest meatpacking company in the country. In 1864, Plankinton paid taxes on the highest income, $104,100, in the city of Milwaukee. As part of a jest, he built the Plankinton House in 1868, a hotel he lavished with the best furnishings even though it seldom made a profit. Plankinton’s investments in real estate, meatpacking, and also railroads helped him build one the greatest fortunes in Milwaukee in his lifetime. [1]

John Plankinton was very public spirited, promoting business, culture and addressing poverty. He served on many boards and was a central figure in several Milwaukee civic projects, including building the first public library and providing significant funding for an exhibition center. [2] In 2008, Greg Shutters wrote an article that identified Plankinton as one of a trio of industrialists, “mutually responsible for building Milwaukee from a small town into a thriving metropolis.”[3]

[1] Milwaukee Sentinel, “Death Wins Him, Milwaukee Merchant Prince and Princely Merchant,” 30 Mar. 1891 A1.

[2] Howard Conrad, History of Milwaukee Co: Settlement to 1895: Vol. II ( Chicago: American Biographical Pub. Co., 1895) 301-303.

[3] Greg Shutters, “Milwaukee’s Best,” MJ: The student magazine of Marquette University, 4 Dec 2008,

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