The Origins of Fish Day
By Doug Smith
Since 1964, Port Washington, Wisconsin has been home to the "Largest One Day Fish Fry" in the world. Fish Day, in late July has become the one day of the year that virtually every person in, from, or acquainted with Port Washington makes their annual pilgrimage to the Lake Front to pay homage to Fish.
Though there is no more commercial fishing going on in and around Port Washington, the harbor is still a bustling place in the summer time. Now that the Oliver H. Smith, and the last operating fish tug in Port Washington, the Linda E., are history, Sports fishermen fill the inner harbor with their boats these days.
Although the Great Lakes Fishing Industry has died a slow death over the years, one reminder of the fishing heritage is alive and well: "Fish Day", the world largest one day outdoor fish fry. Held anually since 1964, this event has come to symbolize Port Washington Wisconsin, and serves as a reminder of a way of life that passed time.
Contrary to local myth, Fish Day was not created by the Smith Bros.Fisheries as a way to increase their bottom line. Its birth and evolution did have something to do with the Smith family, however. In particular Daniel Smith and his father Oliver H. Smith, were involved, as were the local newspaper baron, William F. Schanen II, John "Jeep" Wildhagen and the various civic organizations such as the Kiwanis Club, Jaycee's and Rotary Club.
The history of Fish Day dates back to a smoked-fish botulism (food poisoning) outbreak and "scare" that occurred back in the 1963. Before the first Fish Day, its predecessor was something called the "Smoked Fish Jamboree", which was organized by Smith Bros. Fisheries as a publicity stunt in response to a botulism outbreak. At the time, rumors of botulism in Fish had caused the demand for fish from the Great Lakes to drop off to almost nothing.
Despite the botulism outbreak, there had not been a single case of botulism on the west shore of Lake Michigan, and Smith Bros. wanted to show that smoked fish were safe to eat. Daniel Smith of Smith Bros. decided to organize a photo and media opportunity for the state politicians, food experts and regulators. The draw was free smoked fish at Smith Bros. Restaurant in Port Washington, and free publicity for the politicians. The Smoked Fish jamboree was held indoors in Feb. 1964, and featured a smoked-fish eating contest. The smoked-fish eating contest was also one of the main events at the first outdoor Fish Day in August 1964, and is still done to this date.
Arguably, Sheboygan's Bratwurst day was the model for the first Fish Day. Up until this time, the city of Sheboygan, WI 30 miles to the north, had been successfully hosting "Bratwurst Day" since 1953. Sheboygan's event had a parade, floats, music and a bratwurst eating contest, which may also have been an inspiration for the Smoked Fish Jamboree of 1963.
Due to the success of the Smoked Fish Jamboree, Sheboygan's Bratwurst Day, and the interest of promotional genius Bill Schanen II, an idea was born. The first Fish Day committee consisted of representatives of Smith Bros (Oliver H. Smith, and son Daniel Smith), local fishing legends (Jeep Wildhagen and Bill Schiller), the media (W.F. Schanen II), and representatives of the various Civic Organizations. This small but dedicated group of business people decided to try the same sort of thing that Sheboygan was doing the following summer, outdoors with fish instead of bratwurst.
There were some obvious risks, given that this was only one year after what could be considered the worst fear-induced decline in fish consumption in the history of the Great Lakes Fishing Industry. Bratwurst would have seemed a safer bet than fish at the time.
The format of the event was to consist of a giant parade, fishing derby, entertainment, fireworks, and a series of small food stands selling fish. The idea was that each of the local civic clubs would have their own little fish stand, and they could have a parade with drum and bugle corps, maybe a band or two afterwards and of course fireworks. Bill Schanen would handle the publicity through his local newspaper empire and promotional gimmicks such as a motorized "mini-bike" give-away.
Much of the success and longevity of Fish Day had to do with the business model. The basic business model of Fish Day was to make money for charity, while having fun. Rather than being sponsored by a single club such as the Jay-cee's, the comittee included representatives of each club. The clubs, who had the most to gain monetarily, would do most of the work of cooking and serving the fish, and would get a big chunk of the revenues to support their local good deeds. The food and beer would be provided at cost, or paid for by corporate sponsorships. A small portion of the revenues would be channeled into the parade, fireworks, music and the following year's budget. Once the civic organizations realized what a money-maker this was, they promoted it vigorously.
Another reason Fish Day succeeded was the food. For many people, especially meat-eating, fish-fearing landlubbers, Fish and Chips were a new thing. For those too timid to try the fish, an order of 'cottage fries' or 'chips' alone were available. Once people tried the hot-battered fish, though, they were hooked. Washing the fish down with an inexpensive cold beer helped, of course!
Surprisingly, the 'fish and chips' part of the menu was sort of an after-thought. It turns out that William Schanen II had been to England recently and was enamored of the Fish 'n Chips tradition there, especially the idea of people carrying the fish and chips out in a newspaper 'cone'. Smith Bros. had been experimenting with it, offering it in their Fish Market as a take out item, but found that the 'paper boats' worked better than newspaper, and went over better with customers. The Fish 'N Chips turned out to be the surprise hit of the first Fish Day. Although saving the Smoked Fish industry was the intention of the Smoked Fish Jamboree, it had evolved into "The World's Largest One Day Outdoor Fish Fry", a catch-phrase coined by Dan Smith, and never disputed since.
The early Fish Days were simple affairs with a parade, a fishing contest, Fish and Chips stands and a big fireworks display at the end of the day. Eventually, a Coast Guard Vessel and a Navy Vessel moored in the harbor and gave free tours. Later, a Rock 'n Roll bandstand was added in the First National Bank's parking lot. This was an automatic draw for the local teenagers and the local motorcycle gang, the Ozaukee Guzzlers, though few would pay the $1 price of a Fish Day Button for admission. This was in part due to the fact that the $1 button would only let you get into a snow-fenced area for dancing. The bands could be clearly heard from all around the harbor, so why pay money to have your eardrums broken?
What really attracted people in the early years was the parade. And what made the parade successful was the participation of just about every Drum and Bugle Corps in the state, and several from out of state. The Drum and Bugle Corps competitions and the size and quality of the Bugle Corps in those days were spectacular. . The Drum and Bugle Corps competition were held at the Port Washington Athletic Field, below the High School. Port Washington eventually had its own Drum and Bugle Corps, the Windjammers, which successfully competed with many of the large urban Drum Corps.
The early Fish Day parades were not quite as kitschy as the present day parade has become. But he first Fish Day's were not serious affairs either. There were plenty of clowns to lighten the atmosphere. Oneof these clowns was Oliver Smith himself, who as a Shriner was famous for his "organ grinder" act at local parades and festivals, featuring a monkey who spent most of his time in a cage in the Fish Shanty Bar. At the first Fish Day, Oliver Smith borrowed a "topless" bus (with its roof cut off), had a player piano put on the back of it. He filled the bus with his buddies, including the legendary Jeep Wildhagen, who rode through the parade playing the player piano, laughing and singing "Hello Dolly", while throwing smoked fish to the crowds.
The bus was also used as a mobile platform stage for the first outdoor "Smoked Fish Eating Contest", which I am proud to say, I myself (then age 8) participated in. Fish Day was traditionally held the third Saturday of July. This turned out to be a good luck charm for many years, as the weather was seldom rainy, though occasionally a cool fog would blow in from the Lake. Eventually, the second to the last weekend of July would turn out to be the designated weekend for Port Washington High's class reunions. Over time, Fish day grew, evolved, and became more of a music festival. And still, its one of best run festivals around.
Fish Day may have benefitted in its infancy from the demise of Bratwurst Day, which was discontinued in about 1966 because "the crowds had grown too large to handle". Another theory is that the Bratwurst day was getting a bit too rowdy, and the heavy drinking crowds were chasing off the family fare. In 1978 Bratwurst day was revitalized and continues to be a big draw.
Oddly, the original Fish Day wasn't intended to be an event that would live on for almost 40 years. The founders of fish day would have been happy with one or two good years. The intention was to bring publicity to, and help the local fishing industry, which eventually with met its own demise regardless of Fish Day. Ultimately, Fish Day outlived some of its founders and the Great Lakes fishing industry itself, and promises to go on for another 40 years.