Sitting and listening to the rhythmic music of the Shades of Blue Jazz Ensemble at Blesch Auditorium during the last appearance here of the U.S. Air Force Band of Mid-America, I couldn’t help but recognize how well the concert hall has served the community for more than a half-century. What a wonderful and lasting gift from the G.A. Blesch family.
The auditorium has served multiple purposes for M&M area events. First and foremost, it has benefited the student body. Over time, it has been the entertainment center for school plays and concerts. It was the site of commencement exercises when inclement weather prevented the celebration at Walton Blesch Field, and before the school district opened the doors to a spacious gymnasium at a new high school and a new location in 1969.
Veterans and civic organizations have used the hall for Memorial Day and Veterans Day services, and for plays, music concerts and other activities. In a time of turmoil in the school district, board of education meetings were held there to accommodate large crowds. The edifice has been a sanctum for multiple services for which the community is indebted to the Blesch family for proving a majority of the funds to have it built.
While waiting for the Air Force band to begin its orchestral work, my thoughts drifted back to my high school days before Blesch Auditorium was a shrine for school and community activities. The class of 1949 well remembers the old senior high school which was a separate building from the John N. Davis structure. Students attended classes in both buildings.
I recall chemistry, biology, science and math classes in the building. The printing department, well-known for producing the linotype operators and printers for the newspaper trade and the many print shops, was located in the basement. A couple of study halls were also in the mix. The two-person school superintendent’s office was in the red brick building, the two-person principal’s office in the Davis building.
What made the reminiscing all the more nostalgic was that the well-worn structure was also the place where we had student assemblies, school plays, some pep rallies, academic and athletic awards assemblies and other functions. A small auditorium provided the space for the above-listed educational needs. The lighting was poor, the wooden seats were threadbare from overwork, and the general appearance was ragged. Yet, it served the purpose and we had fun. No student of my time envisioned a deluxe setting like Blesch Auditorium.
And here is where this column actually begins. The magnificent house of learning was stationed on the north side of the campus that extended from Dunlap Avenue (11th Avenue) to Stephenson Avenue (14th Avenue), and was flanked by Broadway (13th Street) and Walton Blesch Field. The spacious campus was decorated with nurtured green grass and neatly arranged trees that bloomed spectacular colors in the fall. Taking a short cut on the grass was an automatic sentence to the detention room after the 4 o’clock bell sounded.
Alumni will have their own individual mental keepsakes of the old school building. Once my images started flashing, I wasn’t sure I wanted them to end, or if I wanted the Air Force band to strike up the music.
A true relic of its time, the school was constructed in 1894. It was replaced by an addition to the remodeled Davis wing and Blesch Auditorium, all under one roof. No more changing classes from one building to the next in the rain, cold and snow.
World War II had ended in August 1945, and GIs were returning home in droves to rebuild their lives by starting families. Student enrollment began to climb and new technology and teaching methods quickly outdated the existing educational centers. Communities were in the mood for passing bond issues to build new schools.
At a time when the voting age was 21, the electorate approved a $750,000 bond program to finance a major expansion of the Davis building and three new grade schools — Boswell, Lincoln and a new Central School. Blesch Auditorium was to be financed by the 10,000 shares of stock in the former Menominee Sugar Co. of Green Bay, a gift from Mrs. G. A. Blesch. Blesch was also a major shareholder in the Menominee sugar plant, now the site of a paper mill.
The market for sugar industry was depressed in the early 1950s, and the Green Bay plant was in the process of being reorganized under a federal plan. The economic pinch shackled the finances of the school district. The meltdown, plus cost over-runs, forced the district to request an additional $145,000 from the community.
Two separate ballots were in the hands of voters under a complex system of laws at the time. Only taxpayers could vote on the 2.5 mills for no more than six years to raise the $145,000 in bonds. The proposal passed 584-375. All registered voters of age 21 were permitted to vote on the second ballot which gave the district permission to issue the bonds. The second issue was approved 503-326. The trend toward rural districts consolidating with the city district hadn’t yet started.
The neighborhood school concept was in place at the time of the building program. The city had grade schools at Washington, Roosevelt, Boswell, Grant, Lincoln and Central. Seventh-and eighth-graders were enrolled with the four high school grades at the high school campus. The city also had three Catholic schools at the time — Epiphany, St. Ann’s and St. John’s — with St. William’s in the development stages on the north end of town.
The demolition of the old senior high school commenced in the summer of 1951. The project was awarded to Oscar Salewski and Victor Blanchette on their low bid of $6,000, plus salvage rights for materials. A Chicago company in the wrecking business had bid $35,000 to raze the school.
The interior was stripped first, and then the roof was removed as demolition crews worked from top to bottom inside a fenced area.
An important piece of language was contained in the demolition contract. The historic bell was located in the building’s cupola. The bell was of tremendous sentimental value to citizens of Menominee. It had been pealing since 1894 when the school was erected and the first high school football team took to the field. The bell rumbled with each football victory, the messenger of joyful tidings in the 19th century when the local newspaper was not on a daily schedule and the communication network was in the primitive age.
The prudent decision by the school board of 1950 to save the historic bell has maintained perhaps the longest-running single folklore in community history, a tradition that has been ringing for 115 years.
What seemed all too hastily for someone deep in a sentimental journey of the good old days, the Air Force band was on stage and the concert started. A different stage in a different auditorium. Save the tape. Preserve the memories.