Bringing Fish Day back from the brink

After group that long ran Port’s largest festival bowed out, band of volunteers come together to organize reimagined three day event that begins Thursday

SOME OF THE members of the Fish Days organizing committee met Tuesday in Veterans Memorial Park in Port Washington to go over plans for the three-day festival. They included (from left) Robert Fechner, Lora Didier, Troy Bretl, Stina Bretl, BenMayer, Dana Maechtle, Cole Baake, Dave Mueller, Wendy Braam, Caroline Buser, Justin Myers, Andy Hill, Dana Miller and Erwin Wuehr. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

For the last five months, a small army of volunteers have toiled behind the scenes to bring new life into a longtime Port Washington tradition — Fish Day, the festival that for more than 50 years celebrated the community’s fishing traditions.

Their efforts will culminate this week when what was previously the world’s largest one-day outdoor fish fry will become a three-day event dedicated to all things Port Washington.

Thursday, July 13, will include a tribute to veterans and senior citizens that will meld into a teen night while Friday, July 14, will be formally acknowledged as Fishmas Eve, a time for high school classes to hold reunions.

Saturday, July 15, will be the traditional fest complete with a walk and run to benefit Portal Inc., a parade, fireworks, craft and car shows, water soccer and the signature fish and chips sold by civic organizations.

“It’s going to be awesome,” Andy Hill, one of the organizers, said. “I think we did a really good job. I think we’ve got a nice foundation to build on next year with substantially more time.

“I told the (organizing committee), let’s make sure the things we can control are done really well and hope the rest will kind of take care of itself.”

The committee came into being after the Fish Day Committee, which had staged the one-day fest for more than five decades, announced in January there would be no festival this year and its future was uncertain.

That led Mayor Ted Neitzke to call for people to pick up the reins and create a new Fish Day.

Fish Day, Neitzke said, is more than just a festival. It’s a way for civic organizations to earn the money they invest in the community, a time when families and high school classes hold reunions and when memories are created.

He called for volunteers and more than 40 people showed up on a Saturday in February to offer their time and talents, a list supplemented by another 30 or so people who called to volunteer, and from that group a reimagined Fish Day was born.

Dave Mueller, who with Hill took the lead to organize the festival, said the festival is so important to community groups that it had to continue.

“So many groups use this event to fill their coffers to do projects for our city and donate to groups and causes throughout our community,” he said. “It was an is imperative that Fish Day happens. It’s part of what defines us as a community.”

The reimagined Fish Days has a focus on community and family, Hill said, as well as civic groups. And by spreading out the fest over three days, there is time to really focus on specific areas.

“I love the fact that Thursday we’re focusing on teens. I love the idea of a gratitude dinner for veterans,” he said. “Fishmas Eve on Friday — it’s proven itself through the years.

“And Saturday — we’ve got so much going on that we can take people from the parade through the fireworks. I think we’ve got a good plan in place.”

Creating a festival from scratch in just a matter of months is a challenge, Hill said, adding that it was perhaps a blessing that the volunteers didn’t realize quite how much of a challenge it would be.

“Maybe there was just enough ignorance for us to go ahead and do it,” he said. “I think sometimes you need that.

Hill said he reached out to community members and volunteers with specific skill sets to help organize the event, calling these 15 leaders “ambassadors” who in turn recruited people to subcommittees that handled everything from fundraising to fireworks and the parade to volunteer recruitment.

Everyone he contacted, Hill said, agreed “with little hesitation.”

But there were plenty of logistical concerns to be dealt with, including obtaining nonproft status. The Friends of Port Washington Parks and Recreation stepped forward to sponsor the effort.

“This really was an easy decision for us. We wanted to do our part to make sure Fish Days not only happened but was reimagined to be a more sustainable festival to showcase our city,” Wendy Braam, vice president of the Friends group, said.

Some of the seed money for Fish Day came from the Port Tourism Council, which donated $10,000, Hill said, as well as companies such as Port State Bank and Ansay and Associates.

There was logistical help from city officials, including City Clerk Susan Westerbeke, who Hill said was “so incredible to work with” and Police Capt. Mike Davel who “made sure we have everything as safe as we can,” Hill said.

“There are just so many people who are critical to the success of this. I can’t begin to name them all.”

But they still need volunteers, Hill said.

“We need bodies to fry fish, to serve beer, to pick up garbage,” he said. “To put a festival like this on it takes 100 to 125 people for the three days.

“We need more people to give a small chunk of their day to their community.”

To volunteer, he said, visit the website and click on the “Volunteer” tab.


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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