Say what you will about our beloved little “Bean Town,” Princeton still knows how to throw a party.
The city’s 175th anniversary celebration from July 20-23 seemed to be a rousing success despite a couple of ill-timed rain showers on Saturday that sent Water Street shoppers and partygoers scrambling for cover and likely affected the sidewalk sales and attendance at the Road Trip concert.
The rest of the weekend, however, was perfect “chamber of commerce weather.”
My hat’s off to the anniversary committee, chamber and city officials, and cadre of volunteers who helped organize and execute a fun celebration.
In Princeton’s earliest years, the largest local celebration was the county agricultural society’s annual fair held at the fairgrounds just east of the intersection of Fulton and Main streets. It was supplanted as Princeton’s calling card in the 1870s by the monthly Cattle Fair, which began on the downtown triangle but moved to the west side “Market Square” east of the intersection of Main and Second streets and drew throngs of people to Princeton, especially for the March fairs when farmers and resorts hired seasonal help. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Princeton hosted large German Day celebrations on Water Street.
The City Park became the center of the city’s biggest celebrations in the 1920s and 1930s. The newspaper claimed 10,000 people attended the two-day celebration for the dedication of the Community Hall and rededication of the city airport in 1929.
An estimated 20,000 people attended Princeton’s centennial parade and celebration in 1948, according to the newspaper. The newspaper did not estimate the crowd size at the city’s quas qui centennial celebration in 1973. I was going into my final year at UW but don’t remember much of the event other than the parade, a carnival downtown and a country band, which didn’t match my musical tastes of that time. The celebration for the city’s 150th anniversary in 1998 was not as elaborate.
With the odds of making the 200th anniversary in 2048 against me, I made it a point to attend each of the 175th weekend events downtown and at the park while trying to connect names and faces from my childhood at each.
My weekend started when I stopped at the Ice Bowl on Thursday morning to chat with Jerry Disterhaft for a book I am writing about St. Marie. Jerry and Glen Gorsuch set up a fur-traders’ camp on the riverbank and offered rides in their voyageur canoe for the first three days of the celebration, then participated in the parade and gathering in the park on Sunday. I was there early enough Thursday to get a photo of the first “crew” to hit the water in the first event of the 175th fun.
I thought there was a real sense of community spirit at the celebration, most notably for me at the Copper Box concert in City Park on Friday night. The park was the crown jewel of Princeton’s development in the early 20th century when it hosted community picnics, band concerts, a radio broadcast of the Dempsey-Tunney fight, political rallies, tennis tournaments, and more.
We have sacrificed the park’s neatly kept flower beds and rock garden, veterans’ memorial, several trees and much of the lawn over the last 50 years, but the bandstand built in 1927 and enlarged and repaired in recent years was put to good use Friday evening, and there were still shady spots throughout the park where family and friends could gather for Sunday’s events. I think George Kelley, Henry Bierman and other founding fathers of the park would have been pleased.
They certainly would’ve have felt at home when Copper Box threw down a polka and people began dancing on the former tennis court site. It reminded me of St. John’s annual Polish picnic, another event that for many years served as a community reunion.
The celebration committee and local business owners invested heavily in musical entertainment during the celebration. I believe Copper Box drew the largest crowd, with much of the southeast quarter of the park filled with onlookers. A lot of gray-haired headbangers crowded the Ice Bowl venue for the Led Zeppelin tribute band Saturday. From my vantage point holding up the former Blue Moon building later that evening, it appeared the Road Trip crowd filled less than half of the 500 block of Water Street, from the intersection to about the Buckhorn, with people sparsely scattered beyond that point.
I am neither musically gifted nor educated enough to offer reviews of each band, but I thought there was a good mix of musical genres.
Having neither challenged the inflatable obstacle course nor floated in a sphere, I’m also not qualified to critique the children’s activities other than to say I was surprised by the large turnout for the kiddie parade Thursday, over a block long, and it appeared a good number of children enjoyed the library activities after playing in the puddles Saturday.
The appreciative crowd greeted the performers at Friday’s fire and light show with oohs and aahs. My tenure at the Key West Citizen and evenings spent on Mallory Square watching sword swallowers, fire jugglers, contortionists, and other alt performers in the 1980s perhaps dampened my enthusiasm a bit.
I give parade organizers high marks. With apologies to SNL, my only wish was for “more cow bell” – i.e. more bands – in addition to the float with the Princeton High School band (including a couple of alums, I believe), the University of Wisconsin marching band remnant and the Celtics Nation Pipe & Drum.
The most notable entries in the 90-minute parade for me were the community elders serving as parade marshals, the Princeton Woman’s Club’s Suffragettes, multiple generations of Princeton fire trucks, the old tractors, and the Shriners.
Kudos, too, to the parade entries that handed out iced treats instead of candy. My favorite and most useful memento of the parade will be the canvas shopping bag from Pulvermacher Enterprises!
I had the pleasure of meeting members of the Princeton High School Class of 1964 – the first class to complete all four years at the new high school on state Highways 23-73 – when I happened to place my chair near the corner of Water and Clinton streets where they gathered for the parade Sunday. I chatted with three members – Lynda (Schwanz) Kraklau, Lorna (Semro) Schieicher and Jeff Oestreich – to find out what I should know about the Class of ’64. I learned they were the largest freshman class (49; 35 girls, 14 boys) and largest graduating class (41) in school history to that point.
“Sad to say, we have lost 16 classmates over the years, but those of us remaining continue to get together as often as we can especially in these later years,” Lynda told me.
The parade wasn’t a class reunion; just a chance to get together with old friends – and 17 members of the class showed up. Now that’s class spirit. (I believe but am less than certain the 59-member Class of 1999 was the largest graduating class in PHS history.)
Many local businesses got in the spirit of the weekend with patriotic window displays. The displays I enjoyed the most were those that focused on local history. MnM Antiques offered key dates in city history, the Ice Bowl featured clips about some of the ice cream shops, Princeton Garage Antiques displayed several photos of the property over the years, and Twigs had a nice display of Princeton’s past. I would’ve given an award to Whimsy Mountain for the beautiful artwork on its window! (I noticed today it has been updated!)
I skimmed through the hefty anniversary booklet on Thursday while Jerry and Glen gathered their next crew for la compagnie. It’s crammed with information that I’m sure will help me wile away many winter evenings and serve as a community reference for years to come. I’m pleased my blog helped with the research.
I was relieved the local newspaper did not regurgitate inaccurate articles about Princeton’s past from their files in its special anniversary section – no fact-check required! The library’s display included several inaccuracies, however, which is inevitable when relying on newspaper clips from the last 40 years.
The worst, and most visible, blemishes on the 175th anniversary celebration, however, were the 30-plus downtown plaques on the City of Princeton Historical Walking Tour – and website – that have memorialized vast swaths of misinformation as facts.
After lunch at the park amid water fights and music by Clan Donald Pipes & Drum and sauntering past the music of Brandi Carlile and friends on the river behind Knickerbocker Landing, I wrapped up my weekend Sunday where I had started on Thursday – at the Ice Bowl. I decided a junior cone of Zanzibar chocolate was the perfect ending to a near-perfect weekend.
When the sun rose on Monday, Water Street was cleaned up, the park was quiet, and Princeton returned to work.
Members of the anniversary planning committee were Mary Hatfield, Ron Hatfield, Leann Holland, Mary Lou Neubauer, Cheryle Nickel and the late Lee Williams, who passed in May.
Thank you for reading and caring about local history.