There’s a kraggly looking, boney finger of land pointing out from the east coast of Wisconsin like some prodigal pile of rocks making a break to Michigan’s upper peninsula. They called it the “Door of Death,” in tribute to the countless lives sucked under while attempting to round it’s treacherous northern tip.
But those days are long past.
Today, Door County is a beautiful area with a tourist trade that follows the foliage, blooming in the spring, and falling off by Halloween. The small towns along the coast are quaint, historic and artsy. The interior is a mix of cherry and apple groves, dotted with farm stands, wineries, breweries and places to buy cheese. Most of the locals have a tale to tell and time to tell it. Abundant inspiration for any songwriter.
Dissecting the peninsula is a working ship canal straddled by the city of Sturgeon Bay, and across that waterway is a drawbridge that was old school when it opened in 1931. For many years, it was that bridge that tied this split city together. Today, it’s that same bridge that ties this maritime area to it’s past. It’s much more than a landmark, it’s an icon, Sturgeon Bay’s centerpiece, predominant on the city seal. And it almost disappeared forever.
Cue the music.
When word got out in the 1980s that the bridge was being considered for demolition, it caught the attention of a local resident named Christie Weber. Christie and the other members of Sturgeon Bay’s Main Street redevelopment group immediately began a campaign to save the bridge. Studies were done and it was concluded the span still had plenty of life in it. So Weber enlisted her brother, musician/songwriter pat mAcdonald (that’s not a typo) who called on his friends in the music biz (including Jackson Browne) to help save The Michigan Street Bridge. That was 2005, the year of the first Steel Bridge Songfest. As word spread through the music community, the festival grew. This was no longer just something that mattered just to Door County, people around the country were coming in to support saving the aging iron structure. The festival expanded uptown . A pub crawl was added. It became a weekend event as various other past times were added to further focus attention on the Save Our Bridge movement.
To assure that there is plenty of new material each year, many of the musicians come a week early to particpate in the “Contruction Zone” held at the adjacent Holiday Music Motel to write songs. In 2007, mAcdonald invited his current musical partner, melaniejane, to participate in the 3rd The Steel Bridge Songfest. As melaniejane explains “The Construction Zone is the guts and heart and brains and the essential and undeniably unique feature of the whole event—writers are able to collaboratively write and record new material inspired by the bridge. There are now eight volumes of Steel Bridge Songs. We would venture to guess at this point that we now have the most sung about bridge in the world!”
By 2008, priceless public awareness had been raised and a major victory was celebrated as the bridge was added to the National Register of Historic Places. A short time later, the bridge closed for a renovation project that lasted over two years. Then, on July 1st, 2011, just a few days before the structure’s 80th anniversary the ribbon was cut and the great silver span again began bringing people into Sturgeon Bay’s business district. Four years later, the bridge stands as a shiny reminder of what a community can accomplish—and the the Songfest remains as an annual event, taking place the 2nd full weekend (friday, saturday, sunday) in June. Each year, songwriters arrive the preceding sunday for the Construction Zone— to jam and write more songs for the SteelBridge collection. This year, the dates for the festival are June 13-16 and topping the list of performers is, once again, Jackson Browne.
And now that the bridge has been “saved,” what next? As pat mAcdonald explains, “The new mission of the festival is to continue to build a creative community around the bridge and spread appreciation for the bridge as its centerpiece. This will create and nurture awareness of the importance maintaining and preserving those things that give a town its unique identity, while reaching out to the world and welcoming new creative energy to our community to work in collaboration with locals to build creative vitality, the “fuel” for the quality of life in any thriving community.”
Here’s a little taste from a past SteelBridge Songfest
There are many other great videos at Holiday Motelevision
But that’s just part of the story. STAY TUNED FOR PART 2