How Milwaukee Became A City Of Ethnic Festivals

Aug 14, 2019

When you think of entertainment and culture in Milwaukee, what comes to mind? Is it beer, is it cheese or is it brats? What about festivals, especially this time of year?

I live in France, and I came to Milwaukee in July to spend part of the summer working in the WUWM newsroom. As I was learning about the city, one of the things that caught my eye was the number of ethnic festivals. 

So, I started looking into Milwaukee's festivals. As I was researching, German Fest was underway. The festival that celebrates all things German takes place at Henry Maier Festival Park, commonly known as Summerfest grounds. Many people were wearing traditional German costumes. As a parade went through the grounds, onlookers drank enormous cups of beer.

Traditional German wear for guys: hats with feathers, shorts with suspenders, and long white socks. And the ladies: off-the-shoulder white tops, long skirts, and corsets.
Credit Maayan Silver

Christopher Connell has been coming to German Fest for 10 years. 

"It’s part of who I am. It is tradition and it is my heritage so it is important to me," Connell says.

For Barb Wolf, who's been attending for more than 30 years, the festival has an emotional impact. 

“I was just telling my children, who are adults, that 32 years ago after their dad and I were here with my parents, he proposed to me that night. So yeah, German Fest has a lot of very fun memories for me," Wolf explains.  

Barb Wolf has been going to German Fest for more than 30 years. She even has the shape of Germany tattooed on her arm.
Credit Maayan Silver

Starting in 1981, Milwaukee’s German Fest has been around nearly 40 years. However, it isn't the oldest ethnic festival in Milwaukee. The first ethnic festival in Milwaukee to be held on the Summerfest grounds was Fiesta Italiana — it started in 1978.

John Gurda, a Milwaukee historian that has the answer to almost any question you could think of, explains how Festa Italania got its start: "Back in 1978, the Pompeii Men’s Club and the church that was torn down for the freeway, called Lady of Pompeii on Jackson Street, decided to hold a reunion and invite everyone else. That's the beginning of Festa Italiana. So that was the first ethnic festival. They were so successful, they were getting 70,000 people at some point," he explains.

Mass at the 1982 Festa Italiana in Milwaukee.
Credit Courtesy of the Italian Times

Because of the success of Festa Italiana, Gurda says it made sense that additional groups follow suit. Nowadays, there are a number of ethnic festivals on the Summerfest grounds, including Polish Fest, Mexican Fiesta, and Irish Fest (which starts Friday). 

Gurda says Milwaukee’s ethnic festivals are connected to the city’s ethnically diverse history. In the late 1800s, immigrants flooded Milwaukee for jobs as the city became increasingly industrialized. The population tripled in size, with people moving to Milwaukee from Germany, Poland, England, Ireland, Russia and other countries. Once they were here, Gurda says it was important to them to preserve culture as much as possible.

Irish Fest is held annually at the Summerfest grounds. The 2019 festival runs Aug. 15-18.
Credit Corey Coyle / Wikimedia Commons

So, just how valuable are the ethnic festivals to Milwaukee? Kristin Settle, director of communications for Visit Milwaukee, says all festivals, not just ethnic festivals, are vitally important to Milwaukee tourism economy.

"They drive hotel rooms today. They drive business to the downtown area or to neighborhoods where the festivals are being held. They keep our restaurants busy. They keep our locals engaged. They keep our tourists happy, and so they are very important to the overall tourism economy," Settle says.

It would take a long time to visit all of the city’s ethnic festivals. At last count, there are more than 20 each year in the Milwaukee area.