Gutknecht Helped Oak Creek Fight Milwaukee, Become a City
LaVerne Gutknecht, who died last week at the age of 86, was instrumental in fighting off Milwaukee's annexation attempt and incorporating Oak Creek as a city.
You can't talk about how Oak Creek was born without talking about LaVerne Gutknecht.
It was Gutknecht and six others who were at the center of a now-legendary story of Oak Creek's founding: they went into hiding to stave off Milwaukee's annexation attempt and allow Town of Oak Creek residents to vote on incorporating.
Because of their efforts, Oak Creek officially became a city in 1955.
Gutknecht, 86, died Nov. 23. A visitation will be held from 4-7 p.m. Friday at Heritage Funeral Homes, 9200 S. 27th St.
Gutknecht was the last surviving member of the group that went on "vacation," as a newspaper story put it, and the story deserves a re-telling here.
The kerfuffle started when Wisconsin Electric decided to build a new power plant in Oak Creek on the Lake Michigan shoreline, where one still stands today.
Power plants generated not only electricity, but significant tax revenue for the communities hosting them. The money was so substantial that longtime residents have said property taxes were practically zero, Oak Creek Historical Society President Larry Rowe said.
And that put Oak Creek directly in Milwaukee's crosshairs.
"They wanted to get their arms around that tax revenue and that's what led them to attempt to annex Oak Creek," Rowe said.
State law gave Oak Creek seemingly no way to prevent it. So the town did the next logical thing: try to change the law.
Eventually, Town Attorney Anthony Basile helped draft a law, called the "Oak Creek Law," that spelled out the necessary steps—passing a referendum being a major component—for a town to incorporate.
But Milwaukee wasn't ready to give up. It turned its focus to the courts and tried to serve Oak Creek officials with myriad legal papers.
That's when Gutknecht, then deputy town clerk, and several others spent about a week in hiding. In the meantime, Oak Creek prepared for a referendum in which residents would vote on whether the town should become a city.
Gutknecht stayed with relatives, moving from one to another, according to a 1966 Oak Creek Pictorial story. Others went to a combination hotel-tavern in Franksville. Oak Creek's eventual first mayor, Arthur Abendschein, stayed at his sister's home in Franklin.
Milwaukee was incensed it couldn't find the group. Milwaukee police officers circled the city looking for cars that might be holding the Oak Creek officials. Gutknecht's husband, Harold, almost came to blows with a man who kept pestering him about his wife's whereabouts, according to the Pictorial.
When the referendum was finally held on Oct. 31, the vote was overwhelming: 2,107 for incorporation and only 126 against.
"The whole community was behind us," Gutknecht told the Pictorial.
Ironically, Gutknecht and the town officials who worked so hard to get the referendum set up couldn't even vote because they were still in hiding, Rowe said.
Gutknecht later moved from deputy clerk to city clerk. She was known for working long hours, weekends and whatever else she could do to make the community better, said Sharon Armstrong, who grew up near Gutknecht and worked alongside her in the clerk's office.
"Her best interest was always with the city," Armstrong said. "Almost to the point that the city sometimes came before her family."
No nights required hard work quite like Election Nights, especially in the 1960s when counting was done by hand. Armstrong said those nights are the memories that stick out the most, particularly heading out for drinks at 2 a.m. and still getting into the office at 8 for another day's work.
"LaVerne always joined in and was always part of it," Armstrong said.
Current City Clerk Catherine Roeske said Oak Creek will always be grateful for Gutknecht's work.
"What a truly honorable woman that the city respects and will forever be indebted to," Roeske said. "I know that she enjoyed her work and was an integral part of the beginning of our city. A true and dedicated noble advocate to her profession."