You know I love playing great tunes on the radio and co-hosting the TV show Discover Wisconsin, but I also love to hit the road and explore Wisconsin’s fascinating history. Did you know Wisconsin created the first numbered road system in the world? I even built a road trip website, StateTrunkTour.com, around where our roads lead to.
With Flag Day taking place one again this Thursday, June 14th, I headed to Waubeka in Ozaukee County, where Flag Day was founded. And it turns out in Grafton and Port Washington, a big chunk of early Blues, R&B, and other music history is being rediscovered.
Red, White & Blue: Flag Day’s founding
First, I traveled up I-43 and Highway 57 to Fredonia. A quick jog west on County H brings you to Waubeka, a friendly little unincorporated community. Hugging the Milwaukee River, this burg is the birthplace of Flag Day.
On June 14, 1885, a grade school teacher at Stony Hill School named Dr. Bernard J. Cigrand held the first recognized formal Flag Day observance with his students. He continued the tradition annually before making his way to Chicago and becoming dean of the University of Illinois-Chicago. By 1916, he had persuaded President Woodrow Wilson to officially proclaim June 14th as Flag Day in the United States. Stony Hill School has been restored and is home to the National Flag Day Foundation. You can find it by following County I from County H. You can not only check out the charming old schoolhouse, but on the grounds flag of all 50 U.S. states and more fly in the wind. The school is atop a hill (a stony one, hence the name), so you can count on wind pretty frequently there.
Back in the center of Waubeka, all 27 star configurations of the U.S. flag are on display at the National Flag Day Foundation Americanism Center. They depict the flag through history as states were added and outline major events as each new flag configuration was commissioned. The Center’s artifacts in multiple rooms trace many aspects of U.S. history.
Every June 14th (Flag Day) or on the Saturday prior, Waubeka celebrates its status as the founding point of Flag Day with a festival, parade, and ceremony. I happened upon it this year, see the video for some of that!
And now, just the Blues
From Stony Hill School and Waubeka, you can head south via County I or Highway 57 to reach Highway 60 and the heart of Grafton, which along with Port Washington offers an interesting history with Blues music.
Blues music?? Yes, Blues music.
Grafton was home to a famous label called Paramount Records from 1917 to 1932. In this town, far away from the hotbeds of New Orleans, Memphis, St. Louis, and Chicago, key artists performed and recorded music that found its way onto 78 rpm records that were distributed across the nation. Famous musicians who recorded in Grafton include Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ma Rainey, Jelly Roll Morton, Tom Dorsey, Lawrence Walk, and Louis Armstrong. Paramount Records’ recordings encompassed Blues, Jazz, Gospel, and early Country music that helped sow seeds for the R&B and Rock ‘N Roll Eras.
Between 1929 and 1932 alone, over 1,600 songs were recorded in Grafton at a make-shift studio that was formerly the Wisconsin Chair Factory; the output accounted for about 1/4 of the so-called “race records” of the era. Grafton’s historic downtown features Paramount Plaza, which has a fountain and statues of musicians, a "Walk of Fame" designed like piano keys, informational placards, restaurants, shops, and more.
Paramount Plaza in downtown Grafton features a Walk of Fame and plenty of historic info.
Many artists recorded in Grafton and stayed overnight in Port Washington where Paramount’s parent company, the Wisconsin Chair Company, was headquartered. Lots of chair and furniture manufacturers of the day sold records to help promote their cabinet sales, since they often had record players installed in them. Artists would go back and forth during their sessions between Grafton and Port Washington, creating a “Blues Trail.” A re-creation is under development between the two cities to help showcase this trail. The annual Paramount Music Festival, which has been running since 2006, will take place along the lakefront in Port Washington during Labor Day Weekend. And special this year, Grafton and Port Washington are celebrating 100 years since the founding of Paramount Records in 1917 – yes, the same year Soerens started up!
For more on these towns, attractions, history, and road trips, check out StateTrunkTour.com, an ongoing exploration of Wisconsin’s highways around the state. And thanks for listening!
I originally did this last year in conjunction with Soerens Ford for their own 100th anniversary. The video of that, where they loan me a sweet truck, is below.