The life and times of Oscar Grady

Riveredge event celebrates Saukville man who despite leading reclusive life after bank scandal is remembered for his good deeds, including gift for library named after him

THE FIVE GRADY BROTHERS posed for a photo around 1940. Shown are (front row, from left) Henry and Arthur; (back row) Oscar, Alfred and Edwin. Grady Park in Saukville is named after Edwin, who also bought the woods near Newburg so Oscar could live there and later sold the land to establish Riveredge Nature Center. Far right, word of Oscar’s arrest became statewide news, as this Associated Press story published in the La Crosse Tribune attests.
Ozaukee Press Staff

Oscar Grady is a name with which many Saukville residents are familiar, being the name of their library.

But most don’t know the story of the man who was one of the most influential in the history of the village, even the region, and in his day one of it most colorful and perhaps notorious.

One of five brothers, two of whom ran a grocery store where the Moose Lodge is now, he was regarded by many as reclusive, even a hermit, living alone in the woods along the Milwaukee River north of Newburg.

A 1972 newspaper article written for the opening of the village’s first library, which he left money for, said of Grady, who had died in 1964, that he “always had a love of learning and nature” and for many years lived alone in the “wilderness” near Newburg where he “communed with the wild animals, built bird houses and mounted them on all the fence posts at River’s Edge and built several building of stone as well as an amphitheater.”

That “wilderness” near Newburg became the foundation for the Riveredge Nature Center.

“He was just a humble man who had a vision for preservation and had no idea what an impact he would have,” Anne Kertscher, president of the Saukville Historical Society, said. “He was a very reclusive person but with a vision, obviously.”

Riveredge will pay homage to Grady’s memory at its “Music in the Mushroom” event from 2 to 6 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 12, at Riveredge.

Dubbed as “A Historic Riverside Celebration,” the event will feature music, exploration of the Milwaukee River and historic hikes “to celebrate the life of Oscar Grady.”

The “Mushroom” is a concrete dance floor surrounded by a field stone wall and adjoined by two bandstands. The Nature Center later erected a roof over the dance floor.

It’s part of what’s known as the “Grady Ruins,” a collection of about a dozen buildings made of field stone that Grady constructed over the nearly 30 years he lived in the woods there.

The other buildings include a stage and amphitheater with a large fireplace and a “castle” tower meant to be used as a changing room, a small stable and two concession stands. All that remains of the small house where he lived is a concrete foundation.

The ruins are a point of curiosity for visitors, including the thousands of school children, who come to Riveredge to learn about the woods, the river and the wildlife there.

“Everyone asks about them,” Cassie Bauer, Riveredge’s family and community programs manager, said.

The story of Grady’s legacy and how he came to live in those woods had a not-so-happy beginning.

Grady was born in 1883 and was a teacher when he was younger. By the 1930s he was a teller —and a director, one newspaper said — at Saukville State Bank, which was located on the downtown triangle where Michaleno’s pizza restaurant now operates.  

Grady’s trail of good deeds tragically began when he and bank president Henry Carey were charged with violating state banking laws in  August 1934.

According to an Associated Press story that appeared in newspapers across the state, Carey and Grady faced 14 counts of “accepting deposits while knowing the bank to be insolvent, publishing false statements of the bank’s condition, making false entries and unauthorized loans to themselves.” 

An auditor testified at a public hearing that Grady, in particular, “made several false entries regarding security sales.”

The trial was moved to Waukesha County because of the case’s notoriety. Then, in a surprise move, the two men pleaded guilty to six of the 14 counts and were sentenced to prison. But on the prosecutor’s recommendation, the judge sentenced both men to two years’ probation with no jail time.

A weeping and shaken Carey told the judge he did not know the bank was insolvent, but should have.

Grady’s attorney, Thomas J. O’Meara of West Bend said Grady did know the bank was insolvent but hoped it could pull through. 

Neither Grady nor Carey profited, attorneys said, and depositors “did not lose a cent.” Carey made restitution by divesting himself of his personal wealth. Grady did so by “working in an aluminum factory in West Bend,” another AP story said. 

Grady, who was 49 at the time of the trial, never married and never learned to drive a car.

He retreated to the woods near Newburg, in apparent self-exile, for the next 29 years, hitching rides to work and walking into Saukville once a week to buy groceries and eat at Betty’s Diner at the corner of highways W and 33.

“The story is that he felt very responsible for what happened at the bank,” Oscar Grady’s great nephew Paul Grady said. He is the grandson of Edwin Grady, for whom Grady Park is named. “He apparently was trying to do the right thing for the people of the bank, but it went horribly wrong.”

According to a Riveredge history, Oscar Grady bought the 73 wooded acres in 1929 on a land contract from Rettie Crowns.

But according to family oral history, Oscar lost the property or faced losing it after the bank scandal, Paul Grady said.

“When everything went south with the bank, my grandfather purchased the property for Oscar,” Paul Grady said. “He knew Oscar had a real passion for the community and wanted to create an entertainment park.

“What a great thing my grandfather did for Oscar, to let him live there and do his thing,” he said.

He also planned to build a baseball field in a prairie there.

“His dream was to have a big picnic area out there, where everyone would come to relax, play ball, enjoy shows and just have fun,” his niece Janet Steffen told a reporter in 1987.

On the night of Nov. 15, 1964, as he was walking home from Saukville along Highway 33, presumably carrying a bag of groceries, Oscar Grady was struck by a car and killed.

After his death, Edwin Grady sold an option for the land to the Riveredge Foundation Inc. in 1968 for $500 and then sold the property for $1,000 an acre on a land contract over a 10-year period, promising to “not dispose of the land and to preserve it for future generations,” according to the Riveredge history.

The “ruins of Grady’s “entertainment park” remained, a curiosity for visitors to Riveredge Nature Center, his dream having never been fully realized.

But recent construction of the new River Outpost next to Grady’s amphitheater is expected to breathe new life into his vision for the place, Bauer said.

“With the new facility we’re hoping to realize Oscar’s dream and vision,” she said.

Grady also left $5,000 for a village library. 

The money was kept in a trust and by 1970, the village had created a library board. In 1972, the first library opened in a small building at 333 W. Church St. near Saukville Feed and Supply. Fifteen years later it moved to its current location, the former Saukville Elementary School and American Legion hall.

It’s ironic that a man known as a hermit, spent his life creating something to be enjoyed by other people for generations to come.

“He worked on this with the idea of bringing families out (to Riveredge) to enjoy it. He really had the heart for it,” Paul Grady said.

“He was building for the enjoyment of others,” Kertscher said. 


If you go

What: Music at the Mushroom

When: 2 to 6 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 12.

Where: Riveredge Nature Center




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