A duck named Gertie has a special tie to the city's history.
Advertisement
Statues of Debra and Ella in Milwaukee
Credit: Jennifer Prince

Long before folks were scrolling social media gawking over adorable kittens and watching hilarious dog antics, one animal and her brood captivated an entire city during a time when they needed it the most. 

It's true that when folks think of Milwaukee, several distinctions come to mind like beer, cheese curds, and baseball, and, yes, those aspects thrive in the city. However, what ultimately surprises visitors is that Milwaukee possesses lovely architecture and vast history. A walk downtown showcases its uniqueness via cream city brick buildings and oddly angled bridges, such as the Wisconsin Avenue Bridge, where a mallard duck decided to take up residence during World War II.

Statue honoring Gertie the duck in Milwaukee
Credit: Jennifer Prince

Gertie — a nickname given by journalist Gordon MacQuarrie, who originally called her "Wisconsin Avenue Gertie" in his articles — laid her light-colored eggs on wooden pilings just 15 feet from the bridge. Indeed, it was a strange place for a duck to claim as a nesting spot, and the feelings of the city were mixed at first. Some thought she was a nuisance, yet others found her a delight and the perfect distraction during contentious times. However, the city quickly rallied around to give the hen a safe nesting and hatching season.

Gertie, the duck's newspaper story
Credit: Milwaukee County Historical Society

Gertie's first documented appearance was on April 25, 1945, when folks were looking to focus on anything other than the war. As a special interest story, The Milwaukee Journal and Sentinel began running stories about the unlikely visitor. As newspaper coverage increased, so did the city's loyalty to Gertie. The very pilings she chose for her eggs were scheduled to be replaced, but the repair was delayed to provide Gertie with a safe environment. Even the Wisconsin Humane Society and a few local Boy Scouts got involved in policing the area to ensure her safety. 

Historic newspaper image showing crowd watching the duck, Gertie
Credit: Milwaukee County Historical Society

At the end of May, Gertie's ducklings made their way out of their tiny shell enclosures. The most notable was Black Bill, who expressed his curiosity by invariably escaping the nest. His actions led to multiple water rescues as locals got into rowboats to save Black Bill and return him to Gertie as concerned bystanders looked on. An estimated two million people came to visit the feathered family during the spring and summer of 1945.

Eventually, for the safety of the ducklings, the family was relocated to a window at a nearby department store, Gimbel's. They ultimately were escorted by motorcade to Juneau Park Lagoon, a green space on Lake Michigan and the perfect place for Gertie and her brood to call home. 

Although the original bridge was replaced in 1974, the story of Gertie lives on. She's graced the pages of Life Magazine and has a children's storybook in her honor, called The Story of Gertie. In 1997, instead of live ducks, bronze sculptures took up residence to remind folks of the temporary visitors that brought on permanent joy during a tumultuous time. The war ended in September 1945, just a few months after their visit, but Gertie and her babies still offer hope and warm the hearts of animal lovers and curious citizens alike.

Special thanks to the Milwaukee County Historical Society for their help with this piece.