Ever come across a mildly interesting thing in Milwaukee and wonder, “What’s the deal with that mildly interesting thing?” What’s The Deal With explores these local curiosities, and aims to find the stories behind them.
Today, Summerfest awakens from its yearlong slumber, fires up some roasted nuts and a solid cover of “Don’t Stop Believin’,” and kicks off its 50th celebration. As always, the fun will take place on the hallowed Summerfest grounds. Except, of course, the Summerfest grounds aren’t technically the Summerfest grounds. The location is Henry Maier Festival Park, and it’s loaded with some bizarre history.
In 1927, the site was home to one of the city’s first airstrips, Maitland Airport. The airport buzzed along for more than 20 years before it was replaced with a Cold War-era Nike Missile installation (think Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, or this week’s fucked-up episode of Twin Peaks). The military outpost (one of eight in the Milwaukee area) was shuttered in 1969, and was eventually sold to the city.
Enter Summerfest. The inaugural Big Gig was held in July 1968, at 35—count ’em, 35—different locations throughout the city. It was a success, but the 1969 edition was plagued by poor weather and poor attendance. So, in 1970, Summerfest struck a deal with the Harbor Commission to lease the former missile site for $1 a year. The festival found a permanent home, and has been there ever since.
The $1 fee, however, is not still around. Following various renegotiations with the city (including a testy one in 2001, and the most recent in 2009), World Music Festival, Inc. currently pays more than $1.4 million a year for use of Henry Maier Festival Park. The lease is good through December 2030.
The park—home to other festivals like PrideFest, German Fest, and Festa Italiana, to name just a few—is named in honor of Henry W. Maier, Milwaukee’s longest-serving mayor (1960-1988). And no, there’s probably not a circus elephant buried somewhere on the grounds.