Presenting Our Past

Summerfest: Cold War Battleground

Nike Missile Defense System 6

Summerfest draws to another inevitable, but always sad, close. All too soon, bands will be packing up their equipment and moving on to their next venue and the Henry W. Maier Festival Park will begin to gear up for the upcoming German Fest. But while you’re out listening to your favorite musicians today, take the time to look down toward your feet. Notice anything strange?

Good, you shouldn’t.

Summerfest brings joy and entertainment to hundreds of thousands of visitors every year and not a one would never take a second glance at the land on which it sits. The Henry W. Maier Festival Park hides its past well. This spot, which now brings pure elation to the masses, could at one point in its history fill the mind with panic and dread. The Summerfest grounds were, in fact, once the frontlines in the Cold War.

Long before Mayor Henry Maier concocted his grand scheme of hosting one of the country’s largest festivals on the shores of Lake Michigan, Milwaukee’s lakefront was home to America’s first downtown airport – Maitland Field. This small, general aviation airport was constructed along the banks of the Milwaukee Bay in 1927. Due to its proximity to the city’s famous Lakefront Depot, the small airport was seen as having enormous potential. Commuters would practically be able to hop off a plane and land at the platform of the train station, which could carry them to their final destination with ease.

Maitland Airport 002

But Maitland could never live up to its promise. Pilots tend to prefer taking off and landing into the wind, but the airport’s runways ran perpendicular to typical wind patterns. The tall buildings that surround the airstrips made Maitland a destination only for the most seasoned of fliers. The entire site, once a landfill for the city, had to be covered in concrete in 1948, due to shards of glass and nails frequently causing flat tires for any plane attempting to land or take off. Because of these conditions, the airport only averaged seven planes a day and forced the closure of three aviation operators. Needless to say, few were upset when the airport was decommissioned for good. In fact, the soon-to-be-abandoned airstrip turned out to be the perfect location for a covert operation the U.S. Army had been working on since 1944.

Nike Missile Defense System LocationsImmediately following World War II, with the threat of the Cold War looming over the entire nation, the United States military had concluded that guided missiles were the only way to provide an effective defense against high-speed Soviet bombers. In 1945, Bell Laboratories proposed a nationwide system of line-of-sight anti-aircraft missiles and by 1953, Project Nike had produced the world’s first operational surface-to-air guided missile system, known as the Nike Ajax.

Unlike later missile systems that would be developed throughout the Cold War, Nike Ajax had an extremely limited range of only 25 miles radius. Thus, the missile had to be placed in close proximity to whichever city it was protecting. It was typical to install multiple Nike missile sites in a large ring around the defense area, providing a solid line of defense no matter where an attack occurred. It was decided that a total of eight missile batteries were to line the outskirts of Milwaukee, America’s tenth largest urban area at the time.

There could be no more perfect location for the downtown battery than the Maitland Field airport. It would require no deconstruction of large swaths of historic neighborhoods, as the area was already an empty space, and the site’s adjacency to downtown Milwaukee could not be overstated. With the Nike Ajax planted immediately next to the city’s busy center, Milwaukee would be one of the safest metropolises in the country.

Redevelopment of the Maitland airport began in 1956, but not without controversy. Opposition to using the downtown location was vocal in its disapproval. Arguments against the Nike missile installation varied from concerns over loss of valuable lakefront property to questions over the effectiveness of the missile program itself. Testing of the rockets had shown mixed results. In some cases, the missiles had hit their targets; in other cases they missed by a wide margin. Some opponents noted that the system was already outmoded and that newer, better missile-defense systems, which could be placed further away from the city, should be used instead. There was even some anxiety that a missile could misfire and end up doing more damage to the city than the bombers it was trying to defend against. Because of these concerns, progress on the site was made at a snail’s pace. Construction on the seven other Nike Ajax sites of the Milwaukee defense area were already well underway when a judge ordered that the city hand over the land to the federal government.

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Upon completion, the Nike missiles were stored in large underground magazines, measuring 58-by-60 feet with concrete walls 12 inches thick. The sleek, 30-foot-long, white rockets were cradled horizontally in their launcher. With a whir of gears and motors, the Nike missiles could be hoisted out of their silos to stand almost vertically into the air, ready to be fired if any situation should arise.

Thankfully, that day never came.

Nike Ajax missiles were made obsolete and the threat of high-speed bombers nullified with the development of the intercontinental ballistic missile. However, deconstructing the site proved to be impossible, as the Maitland Field had been repurposed to survive a nuclear strike. Workers instead chose to fill the silos with concrete and move on.

The site was given back to the City of Milwaukee in the late 1960s and Mayor Maier made sure to put the lakefront property to good use. The land held its inaugural Summerfest in July of 1970 and Milwaukee summers would never be the same again.

It seems like an odd thought today, that a site which now provides Milwaukeeans with a 10 days of joy and entertainment was once an area that could bring anxiety and fear to passersby. It truly a testament to how cities can wipe clean unpleasant pasts in order to build towards a brighter future. So as you make your way through Summerfest one last time this year, be sure to look to your feet and recall what was once housed below them. Enjoy yourself and be thankful that the threats these Nike missiles were designed to block are gone from our world.

Mid-Summer Festival 02

Early aerial shot of the new Summerfest grounds

Need more photos of the Nike missile bases in Milwaukee County? Flickr has set up group pool to catalog all the shots of the now abandoned barracks. Check them out here.

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