You’ve heard the old expression, “From Rags to Riches,” describing someone who came from a humble beginning to acquiring great wealth. My family story is a rags to riches story. I’m one of the Joannes brothers…Mitchell.
My father and mother along with my 7 siblings and I emigrated here from Belgium in 1856, poor, but with the intention to own land, farm and better ourselves. Unfortunately, within the first year, my father fell through the ice on the Fox River and drowned, leaving my mother to fend for herself and her 8 children.
We older boys, Charles (14), William (13), myself (10), and Thomas (9) left home to work and earn money doing various jobs…farm hand, clerking, etc. By the time we were in our early to mid twenties, we decided collectively we had learned many skills and could apply those skills to a business. So we opened a retail grocery business. Surviving the crash of 1873, our business grew and by 1884 we were a major wholesale business servicing retailers, not only in Green Bay, but throughout the midwest. Our location on Washington St. was ideal for shipping by rail, road and ship. I remained President of the Joannes Brothers Co. until 1923 when my son, Harold, took the reins. By then my brothers were retired too. Even though I retired, I still maintained an interest and presence at the company.
As I accumulated wealth, I felt an obligation to the Green Bay community and served as director of Citizens National Bank, the Green Bay Water Works, the Green Bay Planing Mill and the Green Bay Pickle Factory. I was also an alderman on the city council. My greatest joy was being one of the original contributors to the Green Bay YMCA. In 1923 we initiated a campaign to raise money for a YMCA to be built on the corner of Pine and Jefferson streets. I pledged $50,000 towards the $425,000 needed. I felt so strongly that the city needed a place for boys and young men to go rather than saloons that I was willing to invest time and money to such a worthy organization. Thomas, Charles and I also donated about 40 acres of land to the city to be used for a park. I understand that park is still used today.
My “Rags to Riches” story ended in December of 1931. I had been ill for about a year, critically the last 6 weeks of my life. I passed with my children at my side.