A Brief History of Milwaukee’s Festival Grounds

Dangerous landings, nuclear war and big fun

Jun. 15, 2017
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airfield
Long before it hosted the city’s major summertime festivals, the strip of land north of the harbor entrance was home to seaplanes like these seen in this undated postcard.

Festival season is once again in full swing here in Milwaukee and the heart of the action will be, as it is each year, the lakefront’s Henry Maier Festival Park. But before those 60-some acres of shoreline property became a permanent party site, they lingered on the lakefront as a plot of land that couldn’t seem to find its place within a rapidly changing city.

Prior to the 1920s, the land wasn’t even there. Like most of the lakefront, the festival park is made up of reclaimed land, earth and fill that was dumped onto the natural shoreline to expand and reshape it for the needs of the city. The decision to expand the lakefront just north of the harbor entrance was the result of a plea from the harbor commission, which insisted that the port needed more dock space. An artist’s conception of the area showed a series of docking terminals running from the area now near the art museum all the way down to where the amphitheater is now located. The city spent years on the fill project but, by the time it was completed, a dip in shipping volume on the Great Lakes had rendered the extra space unnecessary.

An artist’s conception of what the new lakefront areas on each side of the harbor entrance would look like as active cargo docks.

As one mode of transportation fell out of favor, another came into vogue. In 1926, just after having established Hamilton Airfield on the southern reaches of the city (now know as General Mitchell International), the county board determined that Milwaukee would best be served by a series of airfields surrounding the city – not unlike the various train depots that serviced the area. The lakefront plot would be the centerpiece of these airfields, serving as a major passenger conduit to downtown and as a delivery point for airmail.

In 1927, the lakefront airport was officially dedicated as Maintland Field, in honor of Milwaukee native Lester Maitland, who had just set a world record for flying from California to Hawaii in 26 hours. Pilots using his namesake field, as it turned out, needed to be nearly as daring. The narrow runways, the wicked lake winds, and the uneven grounds were major impediments to the field becoming a popular landing stop. In 1930, the federal government ruled that Maintland’s runways were too narrow for safe usage and traffic into the area stopped almost completely.

In 1937, still convinced of the eventual need for a downtown airport, the city estimated it would take another 15 million cubic yards of fill and at least 20 years of work to bring Maintland up to code. Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Seadrome had been established on the site, a facility specializing in the storage of seaplanes, airplanes that took off and landed on water, and as a training school for seaplane pilots. The downtown location was one of only six schools in the nation where civilians could receive seaplane training. The “runway” of the Seadrome was an east-to-west strip of the lake between the airfield and the breakwater wall.

The Seadrome operated until 1947. The following year, they city and the Civil Aeronautics Association each invested more than $200,000 in upgrading the field with the hopes of again using it for passenger planes. But still, the airport proved to be a difficult sell for visiting pilots. It remained little used until 1956 when it was abandoned and the land was leased to the Army. Their goal in taking over the land was nothing less than the prevention of a nuclear holocaust. Kinda…

By the mid-1950s, major cities all across the country were establishing anti-aircraft missile defense systems to guard against the threat of nuclear attack by long-range Soviet bombers. The lakefront site was to be one of eight that ringed Milwaukee. The other seven sites had already been established by the time the city agreed to lease the old airfield to the Army, which insisted that without missiles on the lakefront, the city would be exceeding vulnerable to nuclear obliteration. In 1958, the site’s Nike Hercules missiles went active. The weapons had a 90-mile range and the capability (although never utilized at the lakefront site) to be outfitted with nuclear warheads. (Visit this page, near the bottom, for rare images of the lakefront missile base.)

But by the time Milwaukee’s “missile ring” was completed, it was already mostly useless. The USSR was just months away from having operational nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which Milwaukee’s Nike missiles would have provided no defense against. Even in the increasingly unlikely scenario of an all-out nuclear war involving the old long-range bombers, the utility of a defense system that would have required enemy planes to have already advanced south of Green Bay was highly questionable. Over the next five years, five of the other eight Milwaukee missile sites were decommissioned, abandoned as useless in the event of nuclear attack.

Still, the lakefront site lingered. In 1968, with worries about a repeat of the previous summer’s civil unrest, the army denied a request by the organizers of the first-ever Summerfest to use a parcel of lakefront land near the missile site. They cited security concerns as the main reason. But all involved knew the base’s days were numbered. In 1969, the army announced that the nation’s remaining Nike bases would all be closed. The site was officially decommissioned on September 1, 1969. Milwaukee congressman Henry Ruess marked the occasion by deriding the base as a “boondoggle that has outlived its usefulness, if it ever had any.” Three months later, it was announced that the site would be made over as a permanent home for Summerfest.

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