People from every state travel to Milwaukee to experience some of the things it is best known for. From cheese curds to beer, to music and art, it’s no wonder Milwaukee is known as the City of Festivals.
One local festival combines all of these natures of Milwaukee is the Locust Street Festival of Music and Art.
Over forty years ago, the City of Milwaukee was planning on widening Locust Street, a bustling road in the Riverwest area. In a collaborative effort, residents and business owners surrounding Locust Street protested; after much communication, the project to widen the street was dropped.
To celebrate, the businesses hosted a multi-block street party. This block party grew into the present-day Locust Street Festival. Starting with just a few hundred locals, it grew to host over 15,000 people every year. The annual event takes place this year on June 11, between Humbolt and Holton Street.
The planning process for the festival begins in February. Coordinators host weekly festival meetings to discuss ordering, filing for the necessary licenses, reaching out to bands and sending out the vendor applications, setting up for the media release advertising in newspapers and magazines. Five months of dedicated work produces an event created for locals and tourists to come together for a day of music and mingling.
Every year the Locust Street Festival kicks off with the longest running beer run in Milwaukee. The festival starts at 11 a.m. and the Beer Run starts promptly at 11:30. After Alderman Nik Novac shoots off the starter pistol, the mayor runs alongside the participants, rain or shine.
“It’s quite a sight to see,” says one of the festival coordinators, Linda Maslow. “In past years, people have dressed in costumes, and one year when it was raining, people ran with umbrellas and inner tubes around their waist.”
The run is a 1.8-mile route throughout the streets of Riverwest with four mandatory beer stops: Nessun Dorma, Lakefront Riverwest Brewing Company, Falcon Bowl, and Dino’s.
Early registration, which ensures a complimentary Beer Run t-shirt, costs $22. It costs $25 to register the day of. If you miss out on the t-shirt, then run your buns off and hope to finish in the top three of your age group to receive a prize. Age groups start from 21-29 and go all the way up to 75 and older, with the groups being separated by every five years of age.
“Last year, our oldest runner was 82 years old,” says Maslow.
The Locust Street Festival Beer Run is the only Wisconsin race listed in Denise Malan’s 2014 book, “A Runners Bucketlist: 200 races to run before you die.”. People travel from all over to participate. “People from Chicago have come, as well as people from all over the state,” says Maslow.
Of the 130 vendors that’ll be there this year, the food vendors are always a hit. There will be ethnic food, like Pedros South American Food, Mamasitas Tamalaes, and Immy’s African Cuisine, and dessert from Chillwaukee and La Coppa Gelato.
Wisconsin being the dairy land, what’s a Milwaukee festival without its cheese curds? Wisconsin Fried Cheese Curds attends most of the festivals in the area and should definitely be a stop you make while strolling down the street.
Health conscious attendees can enjoy the fruit stands scattered around the street. Sensational Fruits will be serving up the freshest, most succulent fruits around, while Fruara Fruit Smoothies provides guests with a way to drink their fruit.
Every festival has entertainment and almost always has music to keep all walks of life moving. Locust Street Festival “will have six stages with over 35 bands,” says Maslow. This is one of the few festivals in Milwaukee that have more than one or two stages. Bands are still signing up to play at the festival; for some, it’s their first time attending the festival, and for others, it’s a second, third or fourth time.
First-timers Tweed Funk, a band that plays a mix of soul and blues, just started gigging again in early 2017. It’s been a tough year for them as, one of the band members, Joseph “Smokey” Holman, battled cancer and went through a stem cell transplant last fall. They’re kicking off the summer with a gig in Chicago, then traveling to Milwaukee to play at the Locust Street Festival; they also have multiple gigs lined up for this summer all around the United States.
Chicken Wire Empire, a bluegrass band has been pushing toward a more complex and progressive sound. They’ve come to play at the Locust Street Festival for a few years now. “Locust Street has been a favorite gig of the summer!” says Jordan Kroeger, the bass player.
This will be the third year for another band, Copper Box, whose genre is described as roots blues folk. They enjoy returning to the Locust Street Festival.
“It’s a great way to relax and enjoy the music under the sun; we love all the ‘feel good’ vibes of the fest,” says Michelle Jerabek, a band member for Copper Box.
Along with Tweed Funks soul and blues, Chicken Wire Empire’s bluegrass, and Copper Box’s roots blues folk, there will be an assortment of bands playing different genres as well. Milwaukee-born Brewtown Beat will be playing a mix of Jamaican reggae and modern rock. While Zed Kenzo will show off her swag rapping skills.
Other bands playing include Calliope, Paper Holland, Signal Daddy, Antler House, Power Wagon, The Young Revelators, and the Extra Crispy Brass Band. From blues and jazz to rap, rock and rock, Americana, to reggae and more, anyone can find a stage or a musical group that suits their fancy.
Along with the bands and countless food vendors, the festival will have plenty of art and crafts booths where you’ll find different pieces of artwork, handmade soaps and candles, accessories and craft items, as well as wood and metal works of art.
Many go to the festival with friends, and some bring their children. The friendly, lively environment makes it great for parents to enjoy the fun with their kids. John Schroeder tries to make it to the festival every year, and most years he brings his son.
“They have body painting, painting on metal, or classical spray painting on different materials,” says Schroeder. “I bought my son a kite and a magic kit.”
Local and traveling artists include Anna’s Treasures, selling sterling silver and fashion jewelry; the James Spenno Art Gallery, based in Milwaukee; and Art by Kelli, featuring acrylic and oil paintings of vibrant color.
Non-profit organizations are here, too, trying to spread awareness and helping certain parts of the community, non-profit booths are a good source for information – and maybe a new member of the family.
The Rescue Gang, a non-profit animal rescue organization, had a booth at the Locust Street Festival for a few years now; this year, the festival decided to partner with them, so some of the proceeds will go toward helping animal rescue.
“A couple of years ago I adopted my dog, Nala, there,” says Ray Reichert, a then close resident to Locust Street. He added that he liked seeing, and meeting new people of different cultures and races, like African, Jamaican, Haitian, Mexican, and German.
Other non-profit organizations taking part are Planned Parenthood, the Next Door Foundation, and various veteran organizations which also have a stage of their own, as well as a vendor booth and a beer stand.
Part of financing an event like this surely wouldn’t have been made possible without trusted sponsors. One of the festivals larger sponsors is David Gruber Law Offices. Others include Miller Lite, High Spirits Consulting, Competitor Awards and Engraving, and Shoreline Contracting Services, Inc.
What started as a six-block party, became a local festival that shows off what Milwaukee is known for. Anyone walking in the area of the Locust Street Festival inhales a mix of food and incense, hears the strumming of drums and guitars, and sees the 15,000 people enjoying their June day.
Check out locuststreetfestival.org, to see a full list of the bands and food vendors.