Oral history interview with John McKenna III

Dublin Core


Oral history interview with John McKenna III


Madison (Wis.)


Copyright 2015, John McKenna III and Westmorland Neighborhood Association. All rights reserved. For more information, contact Madison Public Library.


McKenna, John III


Martinelli, Tom




This is an oral history interview with Westmorland neighborhood resident John McKenna III.


Madison, Wisconsin
Dane County, Wisconsin





Sound Item Type Metadata


Interviewee: John McKenna, III
Interviewer: Tom Martinelli August 17, 2015

Today is Monday, August 17th, 2015. This is Tom Martinelli and I am interviewing John McKenna, and his recollections of his father and grandfather’s involvement with the development of Westmorland and other areas in Madison. So we’ll get started here.

Let’s start with just some of your personal information. When were you born? Where were you born?

Interviewee: I’m John McKenna, I am Jack McKenna’s oldest son, I’m the middle child, I was born in 1940, August 21st in Madison, and I lived from 1940 to 1950 on Owen Drive in the Sunset Village Subdivision, 110 South Owen Drive. It was the home of the hired help for the farm that the McKenna’s had bought in that area for a subdivision. My father though had been married in 1933, and it was a lady that came up from Chicago to go the University. My father, a matter of fact, his education was that he skipped two grades in elementary school.

So in 1926, he graduated from Central High at the age of 16 and then enrolled at the University. His birthday was in late October and he graduated from the University in 1929 with a degree in what he said was Land Economics. He went to Chicago and was a customer’s man with a stock firm in Chicago. In my later life, my mother said “Your dad did have a.....he would have been down there on June of 29 and then the Crash of ‘29 (in October); in my later life my mother said “Your father had customers that were jumping out of the windows and off the roof.”

And I think looking back, my father understood financing with his education, he understood it from what he saw in Chicago leading up to the Crash and after the Crash. He was always very careful in not over committing himself financially when in business. Now he was employed in Chicago with my mother living with him and my older sister who was born in 1934. His father asked him to come back to Madison because “you have the business brain.”

Now I think my father living in Chicago may have come up on weekends; to see what the family business was doing, and so forth. But then he came up permanently, prior to my birth being here. Stories I know about my grandfather developing Shorewood as he started with College Hills which is the eastern part of Shorewood where the roads are named after Eastern schools. My dad told me he remembers his father coming home; they were living in Shorewood and they had three homes through the course of living in Shorewood.

He remembers his father coming home at the end of the day; my dad was sitting down on the enclosed front porch, and his father threw a newspaper down the table and said “I’m ruined.” It was Wilson declaring the USA getting involved in the First World War (April 6, 1917). Of course, in real estate, interesting to me, my father in my later life told me that it wasn’t until Roosevelt’s Administration creating the FHA (Federal Housing Administration) (in 1934), that there wasn’t an instrument for purchase and expiring the principle in interest. It apparently was upfront money, and a side deal as to what was going to happen.


I know my grandfather then went in and out of......maybe not quite bankruptcy, but financial difficulties, and I know my father took care of that (for him). When my father came back to Madison, and moved us into that home, I knew my dad used FHA ability to build a home for his parents in Sunset Village, that’s at the corner Vaughn Court and Hillcrest and maintained the title to that (property) throughout the life of his mother and his father.
My father had the relationship with the western part of Westmorland, and when I look at the layout of the lots he got totally away from straight line (streets) and there’s the beauty of the curved streets. One thing he also did with his plats; one in particular that I remember are the homes that are backing up to Mineral Point Road between Midvale Boulevard and S. Owen Drive; they backed up (to the street), it caused the city to change their review criteria to prohibit what he did.

What it is, is that the homes because they back up to Mineral Point Road, they are not the (street) frontage; so any cost of construction on Mineral Point Road along their back (lot line) is picked up a hundred percent by government, and not funded back, or split with the abutting land owner. It’s kind of along that line on Midvale Boulevard, north of Mineral Point Road, you will notice that there are large mature trees that are just inside the property line. My father did that for a reason that he learned that I’ll share with you. It also caused the city to address that (issue) and say “that’s never going to happen again.”

What it was is that the developer, after the surveying and the recording of the plat, the developer was responsible for installation, rough grading the roads down to the subgrade, putting gravel on it after he pays to install water and sewer. After a certain number of lots were sold, the city sold “B-bonds” to finance the full improvement on the road; the developer also had to plant shade trees, one per lot.

Well, what he found from past experience was that when the city would led the contract for full improvements on that road....the contractor doing the work under the city contract, if he damaged or destroyed any of the trees that the developer had planted, the city came back, saying “it’s your time, you have to replace the tree.” Well, knowing that those trees he planted were just inside the property line, and he did tell me that, the city came to him and said “You need to replace some trees.” He said “Let’s sit down (and talk) because that’s on private property.”

So the city replaced the trees, and then changed to where shade trees had to be planted out on the road right of away, in the terrace area.

As to the background of the family, my father, in subdivision work and so forth, and it shows up in this portion of Westmorland, always desired to create a new, professionally created neighbourhood, to create a site that had a demand for people that wished to build their own homes. He said to me, the aspect was that the individuals buying the lot sorted out who their builder would be, and then they worked with the builder to design what they wished. Not track housing, he said. This gave a community, neighbourhood feeling.

Interviewer: Was there any kind of architectural review at that time that was required?


Interviewee: Not at all. Not to my knowledge, no.

Interviewer: Because you do see a great variety of residential architecture in this neighbourhood, which is good.

Interviewee: I know it didn’t happen in this subdivision, but when he shortly after, prior to that, started Sunset Village, north Regent Street, the homes along Regent Street that are bricked, it was because they were built at the time when wood was still under rationing. The brick was not and the design that they used was designed towards the married GI with one child coming back, and would possibly want be expand (the home) and so the first floor had one bedroom, but there was a closet on the first floor that you could remove the closet and put a stairway up to (the second floor) to develop the attic and put another bedroom up there.

Interviewer: Interesting! Let’s talk a little bit about Dorothy Jones Frautschi and her relationship with your father and the property that she owned in Westmorland.

Interviewee: Yeah. I have not looked at the title chain for all of the land in this westerly part of Westmorland, but I did see at the Midvale School site that she had conveyed it to the school board. I believe that a title search would show that it was her money that purchased all of this land, and she was then in a business relationship with my father to develop it. Also, about the same time, what is known as the Hillcrest Apartments, my father developed that for her. So it was a business relationship.

Interviewer: What was the source of Mrs. Frautschi’s income so that she could buy this property?

Interviewee: My understanding it was personal wealth that came down to her from her father through his will. He had been a banker out in the area south of Madison and it was through him then that the money came.

Interviewer: We should mention that Dorothy Jones Frautschi was the mother of Jerry Frautschi, benefactor for a number of public facilities in Madison.

Interviewee: And the family business was Webcrafters Printing. Incidentally, downtown at the Top of the Park Hotel, that twisted (addition)....do you know the origin of that?

Interviewer: No.

Interviewee: The Frautschi brothers, when their parents started to become very senior, built that for them. And the story always was that....well, if you didn’t want to cook dinner tonight, you just called the kitchen down in the Hotel. How it is utilized today, I have no idea.

Interviewer: Your father had a relationship with the Olson family. Paul Olson who became the principal at Midvale School in the 1950’s ...

Interviewee: Well, family members, like my sister, had Mr. Olson for science class, maybe it was in sixth grade at Randall School, and the funny story, in our adult years, that everybody would laugh at, was that Mr. Olson was talking about human’s pregnancy and births, and my sister raised her hand and said “Mr. Olson, I believe we come from storks.” Mr. Olson said “I suggest you go home and talk to your parents.”


But Paul Olson was very instrumental in education, and his quality was just the tops. Mr Olson wrote his master’s thesis while he was principal at Midvale. The result of that (paper) may have also caused the friendship between Mr. Olson and my father. Again, my father was always developing neighborhoods. Mr. Olson’s thesis came to the conclusion.... he analysed the achievement of the student bodies at all the elementary schools in Madison, and came to the conclusion that the reason Midvale School was exceeding all of them was because of the diversity of the families that are in the “catchment” area. That just amplified my father’s feeling about neighborhoods.

Interviewer: And Paul Olson became principal at Midvale on the recommendation of your father?

Interviewee: My father had told me that he was in a position to be able to recommend (Mr.Olson).

Interviewer: Let’s go back in time and maybe talk some more about your grandfather, when he came over here from Ireland.

Interviewee: No, his father did.

Interviewer: Your great grandfather when he came over from Ireland?

Interviewee: Yes.

Interviewer: Where did he settle and what did he do when he got here?

Interviewee: He was six when they came in 1842, and they settled on the family farm, south of Hollandale, that was 1,300 acres. His father, Francis McKenna, is written up in the history of that area as being very prominent. He created the Town of Waldwick; like the Town of Madison, the Town of Middleton, it’s west of Mineral Point. This was after statehood, that he created it, and then in the late 1860’s, they divided off the eastern portion, and created the Town of Moscow, and that’s where the farm was.

Why Moscow, I actually have no idea. But there were a lot of Norwegians, so the little Village of Moscow was developed there; without a railroad going through it, it kind of declined. And maybe 15 years ago, a lady moved in to the area from northern Illinois, a Chicago suburb, bought the last building, which was a log cabin, added on to it, and then she had a big gathering for the public, and I went down to it with my wife Mary Ann, and most of those that showed up were Norwegians from New Glarus and Monroe that came because they know the Norwegians that had gone (to settle) there, and that’s obviously how my grandfather picked up Norwegian as a language.

Interviewer: And you mentioned that your great grandfather had a relationship with James Doty?

Interviewee: Not my grandfather. It was my great grandmother’s brother, John Falls O’Neil. Down in Mineral Point, when he had his business there. It’s a building that’s still utilized; it’s called the Stand now. He purchased a lot of bulk commodities and food and so forth for the miners there. And there is a historical plaque there that the state has put up across from where his stand was, and it has his name on it. With the Black Hawk war, a fort was built there for protection in the Mineral Point area and he was in-charge of the fort.

But then he was appointed with Doty to look for a state capital site and that’s when, as you read in history, they conned everybody by giving lots and so the Capital would be Madison. Recently on the Internet, on the appropriate Federal website, you can get into the website and get copies of the original buyers of land that was conveyed by the government. I did that in the Madison area for Doty and O’Neil. One of the locations that popped up at that time was at the western end of Lake Mendota. They had bought all of the land that was at the westerly end (of Lake Mendota).


Interviewer: In addition to the land on the Isthmus area where the capital is now; that was in the late 1850’s.

Interviewee: Yeah, when it started.

Interviewer: And then your great grandfather moved the family to Madison?

Interviewee: Yeah. I think he got involved.... I think the year he came up was 1901; he got involved with real estate in the eastside (of Madison); developing and so forth and his kids then finished high school at Central (High School).

Interviewer: And then your grandfather worked with his father and learned the real estate and development trade.

Interviewee: Yeah. Kind of interesting my grandfather....one of the things written up is that in University Heights, there is what is called the Bradley House that Louie Sullivan designed under contract. And the Bradley’s were totally dissatisfied with the house. My grandfather approached them knowing that.....he said “I have a buyer for your house, and I have a subdivision called Shorewood Hills. There would be an appropriate parcel there for you to build what you want.” So the deal was made and that is the Fraternity that is still there, and then their house was on the easterly side of Shorewood.

Interviewer: So going back to Westmorland development in the mid 1920’s, the Westmorland Development Company was organized by your grandfather and Mr. A. O. Paunack, the banker, was the first president, and then for a period of time your grandfather was president, and then a gentleman by the name of Joseph Riley took over as the president, and I think the company was one of the development companies that existed into the mid-1930s. It was then taken over by the Westmorland Realty Company. The term that was used was that it was “forfeited” on January 1st 1936. I imagine that had something to do with Depression. Have you ever any heard stories about any of that?

Interviewee: No.

Interviewer: Your grandfather and your father did a lot of other development in the Madison area like Sunset Village, Orchard Ridge, Frost Woods on the east side, that’s in Monona. You recall any stories about any of that?

Interviewee: I remember as a kid my father got involved in owning the Quaker Oats farm which was on the east side of Monona Drive. I remember as a kid going with him in the car and the barn was there and the silos, and things of that nature. What I also remember.... you see when my grandfather died in ‘49. The village in Monona, in recognition, named one of the long residential streets, McKenna Road, in his remembrance.

A couple of years ago, in that area, with the activities of my grandfather..... It was written up in a state magazine, a historical magazine, that there was land down on the lake; there was a big dispute about the promise that the land would always be hunting land for the Native Americans. So how could it be sold and subdivided? I don’t know the specifics, but I think with your background like mine, you would laugh....down on the lake the Owens family ended up with several consecutive lots.


I have to bring to your attention who Owen was. Ray Owen, he was a Professor in the University Engineering Department; he was a Professor in Civil Engineering in land surveying. Some of those plots down there were done with his land surveying stamp, when I found that out in my adult life, I kind of laughed to myself for several things. Perhaps the fee was paid in lots and not cash. Also, I could hear the professor telling his students “I got a class project that you are going to do.”

Interviewer: If I remember correctly, Ray Owen was also involved in the Park and Pleasure Drive Group. Hoyt Park was originally called Owen Parkway and he donated that land which eventually became Hoyt Park, where they created that park area.

How about your Uncle Don McKenna? I have a copy of his obituary. He was a member of Queen of Peace Parish. From what I read he was a devoted Catholic. He was also in development with your dad and your grandfather. Any stories you recall?

Interviewee: He was in with my grandfather. My father did share with me two stories that brought to light.....there was an understanding that he is my brother but I don’t want to do business with him. At some time before my father was involved with the company, Don sold a piece of real estate, and he took the fee for doing it, and didn’t deposit it into the Escrow account. But a good lifetime friend of his was Gunner Jackson, of the Jackson Clinic, and the two of them went to Hawaii.

Now I knew Don when I was a kid. He wasn’t so much involved in real estate. He had a detail production firm that went for a while, and then he got off with other things. But the last thing he did in real estate was the platting of land in southwestern Madison. My dad never named a road McKenna, but Don named that road McKenna Boulevard.

Interviewer: And you recall the name of that development?

Interviewee: Not right now. No. He named the public park there; it is Houston Park and that’s his wife’s maiden name.

Interviewer: The McKenna family, and especially your Uncle Don, where known as golfers at Blackhawk Country Club over the years; any stories about Blackhawk Golf Course?

Interviewee: Yes, he was an excellent golfer, and as a teenager, they had a national driving contest held down in Chicago at Soldier’s Field, and for two years in a row, he was runner-up. He was a long ball hitter.

Interviewer: And even your grandmother was a pretty good golfer.

Interviewee: Yes, she was the first club champion at Blackhawk.

Interviewer: I know we touched on it a little bit earlier, but the Depression years were tough on real estate and development. Any other stories you recall about how the family went through that era?

Interviewee: No, I really don’t.

Interviewer: Is there anything else that you would like to share with us today?


Interviewee: The development here on the western part of Westmorland.....I’m sure my father worked with the school district to get them to build Midvale School, because at that time it would be Randall or Dudgeon (School). Also working with the Diocese (of Milwaukee) for the Queen of Peace Parish, because that would be.....the nearest one was Blessed Sacrament. I remember being in the car when he drove on the property that’s now Queen of Peace.

It was up toward the northwest corner of that parcel, at the corner of Holly Avenue and Mineral Point Road, and he was looking around for whatever reason, but that was there.....I remember the starter’s hut (for the Westmorland Golf Course) was there. But when the school started, he built our home in Orchard Ridge because he was developing Orchard Ridge. Our neighbour out there was on the professional staff at Forest Products (Lab) so he was my ride to Queen of Peace (School). I went to fourth, fifth and sixth grade there; my picture is in the (Westmorland History) book of the students.

Interviewer: The Christmas of 1949 photo?

Interviewee: The students of the Queen of Peace class with the nun; that’s Sister Eileen. In the early ‘70s, I was going on a business trip for the day down to Dubuque, and for whatever reason it hit me, I’ve never been to Sinsinawa. I bought a flowering azalea, and several pounds of Frago mints, and I stopped by there, and asked “Is Sister Eileen here? “Oh you mean Alice Burke.” She came down, and she was, you know, a very short lady.

Now I never did get anointed to be an altar boy, although she tried hard, and you know Latin (prayers), and when studying religion through the Baltimore Catechism, apparently I ask questions, I can’t remember what the subject was. She would say to me “John, when you sit at the right hand of God, you will know the answer to your questions.” And they must have been working on my mother that I should go to Edgewood, but because the ride was so convenient, my father one night at dinner said “John is going to West High.”; so that’s where I went.

Interviewer: So you would have graduated from West High in ‘58?

Interviewee: Yeah, at Queen of Peace....I don’t specifically remember, but obviously Mass started every day, and the church at that time was in the basement (of the school) and the altar was on the west wall of the basement, and I remember you came in, and got a kneeling pad, and the chairs were there, folding metal chairs. When we were there, there was that public park (Glenwood Children’s Park) down at the south end going down Glenway (Street), before Monroe Street, and Father MacDonald was giving the benediction and the blessing.

I remember all of us school kids at Queen of Peace walking in a line, holding somebody’s hand; we all marched down there to show support for Father MacDonald.

When my dad was doing this work here, he was also starting to buy land for Orchard Ridge, and he was buying, negotiating with the farmers that were immediately south of Tokay (Blvd) and Odana Road. The Parks Commissioner came to my dad, they had known each other, and said “Jack, we can’t pay the price you’re offering, but we want to develop an 18 hole golf course in that area. Would you please remove yourself from negotiating?” which he did.


Part of the land that he bought for Orchard Ridge was north of the Belt- line, and my parents, in three parcels, deeded what is called Odana Park. That’s all that land that includes the pond, and all that land over to Whitney Way, and it’s interesting because in one of those conveyances, it specifically states, in fact in all of them, that the land would never be used for trash, you know that kind of thing, but in particular it is to be used exclusively for parkland, and if it is not used exclusively for that, it reverts back to the McKennas, and heirs.

So that’s why.... that’s one of the reasons that the new power line going west, it stops short of that parcel, and jumps to the other side of the road. I know that for a fact.

Interviewer: Any other stories?

Interviewee: Just that I wanted to tell you that this is a neighbourhood. When you look at the alignment of the roads, and so forth, and you look at the stuff that was done after this plat on the westside of Midvale Blvd. It is all rectangular. And my dad really was not primarily into subdivision work; he was a realtor. Oh, a matter of fact, for this subdivision, Kroger (Grocery Stores) came to my dad, and said “We would like you to find six spots for Kroger stores in Madison” and that’s why the Kroger store was at the corner of Tokay and Midvale.

Interviewer: Yes, that was Midvale Plaza; it was built in the late 1950s. That parcel was also owned by Dorothy Frautschi?

Interviewee: Yes. Dorothy Jones Frautschi.

Interviewer: That was interesting. In what I call “old Westmorland, the original streets in Westmorland there by the golf course, and all those streets are rectangular, and then you jump across Westmorland Boulevard where we are sitting now, and it’s noticeably different.


Interviewee: [Indiscernible] it don’t bother me. Back to Donald, Donald joined the Canadian Air Force. At the beginning in their involvement, he was a bomber pilot. So when the U.S. got involved, he shifted over to the U.S. So he flew bombers over Germany. The story is that, I don’t know if he was married at that time, or dating who became his wife, Betty. Betty was the right hand lady with Oldegard who founded General Telephone.

He was a year or so behind us in high school. He was on the Board of Regents, and I’ll think of his name. Supposedly Don came to visit with his crew and the bomber, and when they left Truax, they flew low down West Washington Avenue, and then took off. My cousin, Tim Harrington, I don’t know if you know Tim, or not. Tim is a Rheumatologist in town, he grew up in Sunset Village, but years ago he called our Don “our gigolo uncle”, because he was doing nothing to earn money, he was cooking the meals, and for years, Betty’s widowed mother lived with them on Hillcrest (Drive).

And Tim always says that Betty never caught on that Don had the bottle in the cabinet over the stove. Now in my adult life, over last couple of years, going into the Village Bar, and having a beer with friends, there were times when we had to tell Don “Give us your keys, we’re going to drive you home.”

Interviewer: Okay, thank you very much John for those interesting stories.

End of Audio

Original Format

Sound recordings




Copy the code below into your web page