How Henry Hempsted Set the Tempo for Milwaukee’s First Music Store | WUWM 89.7 FM

On this week Bubbler talk, questioner Craig Steitz wanted to know the history of music stores in Milwaukee.

What was the first music store in Milwaukee?

There is a rich history of publishing music and selling sheet music in Milwaukee. But what Steitz was wondering was the first store to sell musical instruments.

The answer begins with a business in Albany, New York called FI Ilsley and Company, operated by brothers George and Ferdinand Ilsley.

An 1847 newspaper clipping from the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel and Gazette refers to a store on Wisconsin Street in Milwaukee where Ilsley’s signature square pianos were sold. According to the Milwaukee Public Museum, George Ilsley is in the Milwaukee Census of 1850 and his occupation is listed as Music and Instruments.

“At that time Milwaukee was growing, expanding and adding culture and that was also the time when some of the big, influential music companies were forming as well. So it’s just kind of a big growing season in a lot of ways, but you mostly know music, ”says Jackie Schweitzer of the museum.

Around the same time, another man from Albany showed up in Milwaukee with 50 cents in his pocket. That man was Henry N. Hempsted, who eventually got to operate the city’s first music store.

Credit Milwaukee County Historical Society


Henry N. Hempsted moved to Milwaukee in 1849, working first as a music teacher and eventually establishing Milwaukee’s first music store.

He arrived in Milwaukee in 1849 and began working as a music teacher – and in 1850 he started his own business, first selling sheet music.

“He started out, you know, selling sheet music in the corner of a bookstore, and then eventually he kind of built his business and grew and developed,” says Schweitzer.

In 1851, Hempsted took over Ilsley’s stock of instruments. “It seems pretty clear that Henry Hempstead bought the contents of the First Music Store for around $ 600. He was young then, and he was a music teacher, so he ran the store and continued to teach for a while, but the store did pretty well, and eventually he quit teaching. Hempstead was an organist. He was also a songwriter, composer and publisher. So he’s pretty well established in the music business, ”says Ben Barbera of the Milwaukee County Historical Society.

Hempsted’s music store relocated several times as it continued to increase both inventory and sales. In the mid-1860s he came to operate the first major music store in Milwaukee called The Temple of Music. It was on Broadway and Wisconsin, once a pool hall.

“At this location on Broadway Street, he had a very large store that had a piano and organ department, a sheet music department, music books and small musical instruments,” says Schweitzer.

A newspaper article by Milwaukee Daily News says of space: “A marked change has taken place. … Where once resounded the clicking of billiard balls and the clinking of glasses … one can again hear the tones of a Steinway or a Steinway. a Chickering, or the trill the latest new song. ” The article goes on to describe the rooms as “furnished in the finest style, with the ceiling of the piano room vaulted and appropriately frescoed.” Around the walls are hung images that appeal to the eye.

“I guess it would actually be a pleasant experience looking at photographs of early department stores and other similar businesses,” says Barbera. “These stores were well organized. They had high end furniture, you know, woodwork, things like that and it was really an experience to go and visit one of those places.

Hempsted was considered the veteran Milwaukee music dealer with the largest stockpile of instruments in Wisconsin. He has also written and published a number of popular music pieces.


Credit Milwaukee County Historical Society


In addition to owning his own music store, Hempsted has composed his own music. His most famous song was the Lightguard Quickstep.

“His most famous composition is a piece called ‘Lightguard Quickstep’, which came out in 1859. But he wrote a number of other pieces,” says Barbera.

Over the years, other music stores have appeared. Some have gained notoriety such as William M. Rohlfing and Sons and Edmund Gram Piano Company.

According to Hempsted’s obituary, the competition has grown fierce. He moved to a smaller store on Milwaukee Street, but rival companies eventually forced him to close his store.

Hempsted left Milwaukee and was in Chicago briefly before ending up in Kasson, Minnesota, where he died of stomach cancer in 1898.

But for decades, Hempsted’s name was synonymous with musical culture in Milwaukee. A newspaper article in Milwaukee Daily News summed it up: “Mr. Hempsted has done a great deal for the encouragement of art and music. … His store in every detail speaks of taste and care. For music lovers, there is no nicer place in the city.

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Alice P. Darby