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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

From Airplanes to Missiles to Summerfest?

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When we think of Milwaukee, some of the things that come to mind are Lake Michigan, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Summerfest, Klement's Sausage and Brewers baseball. But what are the hidden stories behind these Milwaukee institutions?

Let's take a closer look at the place we call home and explore Milwaukee through its local history, inspired present and hopeful future.

Summerfest, or the "Big Gig," has been a staple of summertime in Milwaukee for decades. The sound of music fills the air as locals sip on cold beer and munch on delicious local food. Musical acts from across the globe hit the stages and provide 11 days of entertainment for Milwaukeeans and visitors alike.

Summerfest was the brainchild of Milwaukee Mayor Henry W. Maier. Inspired by a trip to Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany, Maier aimed to create a similar festival here in 1968. He "dreamed of a festival for the people of Milwaukee that would re-energize the Downtown and provide a sense of community pride."

When the festival started, it was scattered across the city at various locations. In 1970, the current location of Summerfest was acquired. At the time, it was an abandoned lakefront property. This vacant lot had once been the site of the Maitland Airport and a Nike missile site. Maitland Airport, opened in 1927 by the Lange Aviation Group, was built as a small, one-runway, crosswind strip. It was one of the few lakefront airports of its time. However, due to an abundance of problems, it closed in the mid-1950s.

The U.S. military would find a new use for this site. Nike missiles, named after the Greek goddess of victory, were surface-to-air missiles placed across the United States during the Cold War. These missiles were built as a defense system against threatening aircraft. However, due to decreasing project funding and increasing technological advances, most of the Nike missile sites were shut down during the 1960s.

With the lakefront property available, Summerfest could hold its entire festival in one spot. Improvements were made, stages were built and Summerfest as we know it today was born.

Today, this spot on the lakefront welcomes about 1 million visitors annually as it celebrates the sounds, foods and people of the great city of Milwaukee.

Pictured above: Maitland Airport, Milwaukee, Wis., 1947, current site of the Henry W. Maier Festival Grounds