Historian John Gurda shares his thoughts on the Milwaukee Flag

Historian John Gurda shares his thoughts on the Milwaukee Flag

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88Nine Radio Milwaukee

On June 14 at 88Nine studios, Greater Together will announce the winner for The People’s Flag of Milwaukee design contest. There were over a 1000 design submissions. Five judges narrowed down the submissions to five finalists. Then, Greater Together asked the public to pick the best one out of the finalists.

I decided to talk to one of the judges, Milwaukee historian John Gurda about the history of the existing flag and his thoughts about the new designs and what would a new flag mean for Milwaukee. Gurda told me that Milwaukee Flag needs a major update. According to Gurda, the new flag should be simple, bold and represent the city.

Listen to the entire interview below.

If that flag was any busier, it would die of sheer exhaustion - John Gurda

Tarik: Can you talk to me about the existing Milwaukee flag, its history of it?

Gurda: It’s an interesting story. The attempt to have a flag for Milwaukee goes way back to the 1890s and it’s hard to get a design that everyone will salute. So there were these repeated attempts and repeated failures to get consensus on a flag design. Then what happened was there was a contest in 1950, just after World War II and the city turned 100 in in 1946. There was an attempt to get a flag for the centennial. That didn’t happen, so they attempted to get a flag 1950.

They got a bunch of designs and didn’t like any of them. Four years later, there was an alderman named Fred Stephan who was at least an artist of some sort. He took elements of the finalists from 1950 and put them in one flag. So, it’s been described as kind of a kitchen sink flag.

What’s on there is a lot of fairly heavy-handed symbolism – you’ve got a sheaf of barley for beer; you’ve got a gear for industry; you’ve got a ship that somehow is levitating above the water for the port of Milwaukee; City Hall is front and center; the 1846 for the year of the city’s incorporation; and some icons that are gone.

County Stadium was brand new in 1954, and now it been replaced by Miller Park. The Milwaukee arena is also in the flag, now known as the Panther arena and built in 1950. The arena has become certainly well used by UWM but is subordinate to the Bradley Center, which will be going away.

There are smoke stacks belching away in the flag. Milwaukee experienced a lot of deindustrialization (over the years). Inside the gear, you got an Indian chief who may or may not represent the Milwaukee Braves. You’ve got a service flag. There is a flag inside the flag. The flag could be a civil war banner or a flag for some sort of Military service.

existing Milwaukee flag

Tarik: There is an image on the flag that looks like a spaceship. What is that?

Gurda: That is supposed to be a lamp of learning. Supposedly, it stands for the public library. I’m on that board, and I was talking to a librarian last week. They were looking through all the old materials trying to find if that logo has ever been used. There was kind of a lamp on some of the library’s materials but that is not the logo.

You can take a look at that thing (flag) for a long time and keep on finding stuff. In a recent op-ed about the Milwaukee Flag, I described the current flag as kind of a dead generations inventory of artifacts.

To hear the entire interview with Gurda, listen to the story in the player at the top of this story.