Pabst family historical letters give glimpse into Wis. German beer roots

More than 300 letters written from 1841 to 1887 were discovered at the Pabst Farm
MILWAUKEE, Wis. -- It's a name steeped in Wisconsin beer history, how much do we truly know about the people behind the name Pabst?

More of those answers now lie inside the Pabst Mansion, The former Milwaukee home of Captain Frederick Pabsts.

Now, thanks to a local student, the German family's intricate roots are better understood.

Marisa Irwin lets the words sink in as she reads a letter from Maria Best to her sister-in-law.

Maria was the wife of Captain Frederick Pabst.

The two families whose roots run deep within each sip of Wisconsin beer.

Irwin's own German heritage helps her read the letters.

"I grew up in Milwaukee," she said. "I've been speaking German since I was three and the Pabst family has been mentioned so many times throughout my life."

The University of Wisconsin-Madison student holds history in her hands. One of more than 300 letters written between the Pabst and Best families from 1841 to 1887

"This handwriting style is called kolinsky and hasn't been used since 1914 in Germany," Irwin said. "Most Germans today don't even know how to read it."

Pabst Mansion curator Jocelyn Slocum recalls when these letters were found 15 years ago, in Oconomowoc at Pabst Farms.

"Fred Pabst Jr. started Pabst Farms at the turn of the 20th century and these were actually found in a closet, so these were untouched for over a century," Slocum said.

"To be able to have that glimpse into Milwaukee history when 75% of the people in the city spoke German and many of them German only," said Irwin's teacher Viktorija Bilic, who is a German immigrant herself.

The three women never thought they'd have the opportunity to come together, helping to translate so much of Wisconsin's history for future generations.

Through a partnership between UWM and the Pabst Mansion, Irwin and another student had eight weeks to decipher as many letters as they could as part of the colleges Translation and Interpreting Studies program.

"I had about 25 pages with of letters to transcribe, research translate," Irwin said. "So I definitely took the full eight weeks to do the full project."

Bilic, who has dedicated much of her life to similar studies, is an associate professor for the program.

"It doesn't get much more authentic than this, to read these letters in German -- that's even an antiquated style in German," she said.

A trip back in time, nearly 200 years ago, when Milwaukee became a respite for Germans seeking a better life. A city, welcoming the pioneers of Wisconsin German beer scene.

"You could survive speaking only German," Irwin said.
These letters serve as a glimpse into their lives, forever preserved on a single sheet of paper.