Much of the answers are now inside the Pabst Mansion, the former home of Captain Frederick Pabsts in Milwaukee.
Now, thanks to a local student, the complex roots of the German family are better understood.
Marisa Irwin let her words sink in as she read a letter from Maria Best to her sister-in-law.
Maria is the wife of Captain Frederick Pabst.
Two families deep-rooted in every sip of Wisconsin beer.
Irwin’s German heritage helped him read the letters.
“I grew up in Milwaukee,” he said. “I have spoken German since I was three years old and the Pabst family has been mentioned many times throughout my life.”
The University of Wisconsin-Madison students hold history in their hands. One of more than 300 letters written between Pabst and the Best family from 1841 to 1887
“This handwriting style is called kolinsky and hasn’t been used since 1914 in Germany,” said Irwin. “Most Germans today don’t even know how to read it.”
Pabst Mansion curator Jocelyn Slocum recalls when these letters were discovered 15 years ago, in Oconomowoc at Pabst Farms.
“Fred Pabst Jr. started Pabst Farms at the turn of the 20th century and this was actually found in a cupboard, so it hasn’t been touched for over a century,” says Slocum.
“To get a glimpse into the history of Milwaukee when 75% of the people in the city speak German and many of them only speak German,” said teacher Irwin Viktorija Bilic, who is also a German immigrant.
The three women never thought they would have the chance to get together, helping to translate so much of Wisconsin history for future generations.
Through a partnership between UWM and Pabst Mansion, Irwin and other students have eight weeks to decipher as many letters as possible as part of the Translation and Translation Studies program.
“I have about 25 pages with letters to transcribe, research translations,” said Irwin. “So it literally took me eight whole weeks to do the full project.”
Bilic, who has dedicated most of his life to similar studies, is associate professor for the program.
“Nothing is more authentic than this, reading these letters in German – that’s even the old-fashioned style in German,” he said.
A trip to the past, nearly 200 years ago, when Milwaukee became a resting place for Germans looking for a better life. A city that welcomed the pioneers of beer in Wisconsin Germany.
“You can survive just speaking German,” said Irwin.
These letters served as glimpses of their lives, forever stored on a sheet of paper.