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What’s got you scratching your head about Milwaukee and the region? Bubbler Talk is a series that puts your curiosity front and center.

How Henry Hempsted set the tempo for Milwaukee's first music store

Milwaukee County Historical Society
Henry N. Hempsted's music store was located on Broadway & Wisconsin in Milwaukee and known as The Temple of Music.

Editor's Note: This story originally aired on March 5, 2021

On this week’s Bubbler Talk, question asker Craig Steitz wanted to know about the history of music stores in Milwaukee.

What was the first music store in Milwaukee?

There’s a rich history of music publishing and selling sheet music in Milwaukee. But what Steitz was wondering about is the first store to sell musical instruments.

The answer starts with a business out of Albany, New York called F. I. Ilsley and Company, operated by brothers George and Ferdinand Ilsley.

A 1847 newspaper clipping from the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel and Gazette references a store on Wisconsin Street in Milwaukee where Ilsley’s signature square pianos were sold. According to the Milwaukee Public Museum, George Ilsley can be found in Milwaukee’s 1850 census and his occupation is listed as music and instruments.

“Around this time, Milwaukee was just kind of growing and expanding and adding culture and that was also the time that some of the big influential music societies were also forming. So, it's just kind of a big period of growth in many regards, but you know music especially,” the museum's Jackie Schweitzer explains.

Around this same time, another man from Albany showed up in Milwaukee with 50 cents in his pocket. That man was Henry N. Hempsted, who eventually came to operate the premiere music store in the city.

Credit Milwaukee County Historical Society
Henry N. Hempsted moved to Milwaukee in 1849, first working as a music teacher and eventually starting Milwaukee's first music store.

He arrived in Milwaukee in 1849 and began working as a music teacher — and in 1850 he started his own business, first selling sheet music.

“He started out, you know, selling sheet music in the corner of a bookstore, and then eventually he just kind of built up his business and grew and expanded,” says Schweitzer.

In 1851, Hempsted took over Ilsley’s stock of instruments. “It seems pretty clear that Henry Hempstead bought the contents of the first music store for roughly $600. He was a young at the time, and he was a music teacher, so he ran the store and continued to teach as well for a while, but the store did pretty well, and eventually he gave up teaching. Hempstead was an organist. He was a songwriter, composer and a publisher as well. So he's really kind of fairly well rounded in the music business,” Ben Barbera from the Milwaukee County Historical Society explains.

Hempsted’s music store moved a handful of times as it continued to expand in both stock and sales. In the mid-1860s he came to operate the first major music store in Milwaukee called The Temple of Music. It was on Broadway and Wisconsin, formerly a billiard hall.

“At this Broadway Street location, he had a very large store that had a piano and organ department, sheet music department, music books, and small musical instruments," Schweitzer explains.

A newspaper article from The Daily Milwaukee News says of the space: "A marked change has taken place. ... Where formerly resounded the click of billiard balls, and the clinking of glasses ... new may be heard the tones of a Steinway or a Chickering, or the trilling of the last new song." The article goes on to describes the rooms as “fitted up in the most tasteful style, the ceiling in the piano room being arched and appropriately frescoed. Around the walls are hung pictures that please the eye.”

“My guess would be that this would actually be a nice experience from looking at photographs of early department stores and other similar businesses,” says Barbera. “These stores were well put together. They had high-end furniture, you know, woodwork, things like that and it was really an experience to go and visit one of these places.”

Hempsted was referred to as the veteran music dealer of Milwaukee who carried the largest stock of instruments in Wisconsin. He also wrote and published a number of popular pieces of music.

Credit Milwaukee County Historical Society
Along with owning his own music store, Hempsted composed his own music. His most famous song was the Lightguard Quickstep.

“His most famous composition is a piece called the 'Lightguard Quickstep', which came out in 1859. But he wrote a number of other pieces,” says Barbera.

As the years went on, other music stores popped up. Some gained quite a bit of notoriety like William M. Rohlfing and Sons and Edmund Gram Piano Company.

According to Hempsted's obituary, competition became fierce. He moved to a smaller store on Milwaukee Street but eventually rival businesses forced him to close his store.

Hempsted left Milwaukee and was in Chicago for a brief time before ending up in Kasson, Minnesota where he died from stomach cancer in 1898.

But for decades, Hempsted’s name was synonymous with music culture in Milwaukee. A newspaper article in The Daily Milwaukee News summed him up like this: “Mr. Hempsted has done much for the encouragement of art and music. ... His store in every particular tells of taste and care. To the musically inclined, there is no pleasanter place in the city.”

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Becky is WUWM's executive producer of Lake Effect.
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