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New Gurda documentary illuminates five distinct chapters of Jones Island history

Every week on  Urban Spelunking , Radio Milwaukee’s Nate Imig and OnMilwaukee’s Bobby Tanzilo dig into the buildings and architectural features that help retain the city’s sense of history while it builds for the future.

It was an island unto itself, totally independent from the city of Milwaukee but situated along its lakeshore, less than a mile away from its downtown. And for centuries, Jones Island was home to many distinct ethnic groups, predating even the city itself. 

Now, its residents are long gone and salt piles have taken their place, but Jones Island’s history is not fading away. Instead, it's the subject of a new half-hour documentary from Milwaukee historian John Gurda and director Claudia Looze airing on Milwaukee PBS this week.

People of the Port: A Jones Island Documentary, which debuts on Milwaukee PBS channel 10.1 at 7 p.m. Nov. 17, explores five distinct chapters of the island’s history and its transformation into the infrastructure hub it is today.

The film begins by acknowledging the island’s original residents: Native American inhabitants who were forcefully removed. It then goes on to explore the arrival of French-Canadian fur traders and its history as a Kaszube settlement for Polish immigrants. 

The Kaszubes came to Milwaukee from the Baltic Sea and settled on Jones Island due to its remarkable topographic resemblance to their homeland. From the 1870s to the 1940s, the Kaszubes called the island home and built a once-in-history fishing village there until they, too, were evicted.

Through artwork and photographs brought to life with animation by Anthony Wood, the documentary offers a rare glimpse into the day-to-day life of Milwaukee’s Kaszubes, from their arrival to their removal.

This week’s Urban Spelunking episode is a special one because we invited Gurda and Looze to the podcast to discuss making the film, building the visual identity of the documentary and Gurda’s perspective as a Kaszube himself. We close out with the official toast of Jones Island, raising a glass to the island's past. Listen below and visit OnMilwaukee for more photos and history.

Director of Digital Content | Radio Milwaukee