It has been nearly 112 years since the city of Milwaukee elected a Republican mayor. Even then, Sherburn M. Becker only secured 37% of the vote, though that was enough to pass Socialist William Arnold and incumbent Democrat David Stuart Rose.
Mayor Becker did not go down in local history and major newspapers across the country because of his political affiliation. In fact, pretty much everything else about “Sherbie” is more legendary than being part of the GOP.
“I believe that generally there has been too much politics and too little business in our municipalities. … Now, (the people) seem to realize that men are of more importance than parties…” (source)
His joie de vivre was evident years before his election. Sherburn spent his twenties attending Harvard, getting married, traversing a “30,000-mile tour through the Old World” (Europe) including a trip to the North Pole; he became an expert yachtsman and whip (horseman), and even took a summer gig as a cowboy and bronco-buster in Wyoming. After returning to Milwaukee, Becker cut his political teeth as both County Supervisor and First Ward Alderman.
Sherbie was only 29 years old upon taking Milwaukee’s highest office. Referred to commonly as the “boy mayor”, Sherburn was the Millennial of his time: the 1906 edition of Bit & Spur magazine called him a “Centennial Baby”.
Setting up shop in the mayor’s office, Becker immediately started making a unique and impactful name for himself.
First order of business: a cross-country automobile tour. As a wealthy son of the head of a local bank and grandson of a railroad tycoon, Sherburn was one of the few citizens of Milwaukee with a car. He set out in his iconic Pope-Toledo, nicknamed the “Red Devil”, and ventured across the country’s dirt roads upon an invitation to speak in New York City on “The Young Man in Politics”. He made stops across the Midwest, where onlookers couldn’t miss his banner on the side of the car reading “Sherburn M. Becker, Boy Mayor of Milwaukee”. He even made a detour to visit President Roosevelt.
Though Mayor Becker had just won his office, he already had sights set on the higher plane of Governor. Perhaps a reason he never made it that far was a misguided marketing campaign that involved a short-lived sporting fad called Pedestrianism. In 1907, Sherburn joined a group of Chicago politicians and a famous long distance walker named Edward Payson Weston in attempting to walk from Milwaukee to Chicago. In the dead of winter. Mayor Becker called it quits six miles outside of town (#ClassicMillennial).
One of his more visible effects on the city involved his disdain for large clocks. At one time, Milwaukee’s streets were lined with towering two-faced clocks that often advertised the jewelry businesses they stood in front of. However, according to Mayor Becker they impeded the free passage of pedestrians. So in the middle of the night, with the help of a few firefighters and a district attorney, most of the clocks along Grand Avenue (now Wisconsin Avenue) were destroyed. One that was missed in Bay View now stands in front of the Milwaukee County Historical Society.
“I will be the people’s mayor, and any measure…or other matters will find me on the side of the people, and I promise you that at all times I will use my best efforts for a better and greater Milwaukee.” (source)
Mayor Becker did actually accomplish a few notable pieces of legislation, including breaking a telephone monopoly held by Bell, cracking down on political corruption, and reforming the fire codes and preparedness of the city (one of his passion-projects).
But ultimately his political career was short-lived: Mayor Becker did not seek a second term after two years, and left to spend the rest of his days in New York. Today, Sherburn M. Becker, the Boy Mayor, is interred at Forest Home Cemetery on the outskirts of the city that his car and youthful “Centennial” (aka today’s Millennial) disposition once set ablaze.
Featured image taken from Bit & Spur, Volume 2, Part 1 found on Google Books.