Festival’s return July 19 marks landmark year for celebrating Port’s proud heritage
Fifty years ago, William F. Schanen Jr. had an idea: Port Washington should have a festival that celebrates its fishing heritage.
In just a few short months, with the support of city businessmen and the Common Council, that idea became reality and Fish Day was born.
That first festival, held on Aug. 21, 1965, was a success, so much so that the festival became an annual event.
This year Fish Day celebrates its golden anniversary on Saturday, July 19, with the theme “Fish Day — 50 Years and Still Frying.”
“This year, we’re celebrating not just the city’s fishing heritage but the people who come home for Fish Day,” festival chairman Mary Monday said. “It truly is a social gathering and a time when people come together — for class reunions, for family reunions and just for the fun of it.”
Although the festival has grown and evolved through the years, this year’s Fish Day will feature many of the same elements as that first event — a large parade, music and crowds, estimated at 25,000 in 1965 and today averaging about 50,000.
Golden fish and chips sold by civic organizations will be the featured food, just as it was the first year. In 1965, an estimated 10,000 servings of fish and chips were sold. Last year, 42,960 servings were sold, Monday said.
And today, as then, there will be a smoked fish eating contest. Although popular, it doesn’t garner anywhere near the attention it did in Fish Day’s early years. Two hundred and fifty pounds of smoked chubs were eaten in 1965.
Planning for Fish Day today begins almost immediately after the fireworks show ends, but in 1965 the idea was proposed only two months before the festival was held.
Schanen, founder of Ozaukee Press, came up with his idea and began talking to the city’s movers and shakers about it, calling a meeting of people involved in civic events and businessmen to garner support.
“The whole concept was it would celebrate Port’s fishing heritage, which at the time was still going strong,” his son Bill Schanen said. “It went over big, and things started rolling.”
Schanen went to the Common Council and Mayor Frank “Ziggy” Meyer with the idea and asked for money to help make it a reality.
“What the bratwurst does for Sheboygan, the fish — which the city’s image seems to be concerned with — can do for Port Washington,” he told aldermen, noting that the festival would be patterned after Sheboygan’s popular Brat Day and staged in conjunction with Port Washington Yacht Club Day.
Despite the fact that there were no funds budgeted for a festival, the Common Council allocated $3,000 for Fish Day.
“In 1965, that was a lot of money,” Bill Schanen said. “The city endorsed it, the mayor got on the bandwagon and that really got things going. It just picked up momentum.”
From the start, he said, Fish Day was all about fish. Initially, organizers planned to sell fried perch and smoked chubs, but that proved impractical.
Instead the stands sold smoked fish and fish and chips, which became the festival’s signature dish.
The food and refreshments were sold at stands operated by civic groups — Jaycees, Kiwanis, Rotary, American Legion, Yacht Club and the Trades and Labor Council — with the organizations keeping the proceeds.
Smoked fish were also the focus of an eating competition that continues today. For that first festival, Meyer challenged Milwaukee Mayor Henry Maier to the smoked fish eating contest.
“I humbly beg pleasant rivalry with you,” Meyer wrote. “The nature of the rivalry is such that both you and I come equally equipped for fair contest. You have two hands, I have two hands. You have incisors and molars and I have incisors and molars. You and I also represent vast numbers of the body elect.
“Already it is obvious that Port Washington’s smoked fish are among the best, but recently runners from the princess city to the south (Milwaukee) have suggested that Milwaukee’s smoked fish are better. I must rise to take exception.”
Maier, it must be noted, declined to take up the challenge, saying he would be on vacation “hopefully too busy catching fish to taste them.”
In two short months, the fishing festival became a cause that not only excited the city but people living outside the area.
With a focus on the waterfront, the day kicked off with three skydivers parachuting into the outer harbor.
A mile-long parade with more than 60 units, including drum and bugle corps, drew thousands of people. Six of the musical units performed a concert after the parade.
Navy and Coast Guard ships docked for tours, there were excursion boat rides and a waterskiing act performed.
There was a Fish A-Go-Go dance, as well as a Fish Day ball.
Miss Ozaukee drew the winning ticket in a raffle for a Honda motorcycle given away by Ozaukee Press in honor of the paper’s 25th anniversary.
“The day was a great success,” Bill Schanen said. “It started out rainy but cleared.
“From the start, it was charmed. The idea just came out of nowhere and took on a life of its own.”
That life continues today.
“It’s changed, but the basics are still there,” said Monday, who has been general chairman of the festival for 20 years. “It’s been enhanced to keep up with the times, but the basic festival as it was designed 50 years ago still stands. It’s all volunteers who put it together. It’s all about the stands where civic groups earn money they give back to the community.”
There have been changes, Monday said. Where the festival was once held in downtown, today it is held along the lakeshore. It’s become more of a music festival than in the past, and the menu’s changed a bit. No longer are smoked chubs on the menu, but fish and chips still are. Today they’re supplemented by chicken strips and cheese curds — new this year.
“We’ve changed to reflect the things people have asked for,” she said.
Through the years, Monday said, Fish Day has taken on a life of its own. Held annually on the third Saturday in July, it’s eagerly anticipated by many in the community as families and high school classes plan reunions around the festival.
“It’s all about community,” she said. “When people leave here, they still come back for Fish Day because it represents that sense of community.”
For Monday, Fish Day is more than just a festival — it’s a family tradition. Her uncle, the late Joey Biever, was one of the first organizers of the Fish Day parade and a longtime backer of the festival, serving as Fish Day chairman.
He was also a beloved clown in the parade, and got his family members involved too, making them up as clowns.
“He instilled a love of Fish Day in all of us,” Monday said, noting virtually every member of her family has worked on the festival through the years.
Similarly, Fish Day has created a tradition all its own, even as it has changed.
“They still call it Fish Day. They still eat fish and chips,” Bill Schanen said. “It’s evolved, and it’s evolved just fine.
“It’s a remarkable thing to have lasted this long. You think of the money it’s raised through the years and the projects it’s funded. It’s done a lot.”
Image information: PLANNING FOR THE 50th annual Fish Day celebration on July 19 are members of the Fish Day committee, including (from left) Chuck Ellmauer, Bruce Manderscheid, Jackie Dietzler, Toni Brown, Dave Tainter, Chris King, Mary Monday, Chris Maechtle, Doug Rogahn, Dawn Baker, Jim Riley and Jim Benson. Photo by Sam Arendt