Jerry Bamke is grateful for ‘A good run’

From farming to fireworks, life has been an 80-year adventure
Jerry Bamke outside the familiar blue barn of Fireworks Country near Wittenberg
Greg Mellis | NEW Media
Jerry Bamke

I’ve had a good run. It hasn’t always been easy, but each experience I had kind of led to the next step even if it didn’t work out.

I was 17 when my dad died. Floyd Doering and Carl Larsen and Gordy Cowles were good teachers who helped me buy the farm by co-signing a loan for me. I was able to go to school in the morning and then farm the rest of the day. I eventually lost the farm.

I married Sally in 1963 and we moved down to the Milwaukee area where I got a job driving a route for PepsiCola. After two years they made me district manager and put me in charge of Royal America Shows — the carnival circuit. Back in those days the carnivals traveled by train, which usually left in the middle of the night. Pepsi was losing all the machines because the carnival people didn’t want to leave them behind and just took the machines with them.

Pepsi thought, since I was a farm boy from up north, that I’d be willing to hang out and grab the equipment before they left. I got to know a lot of the carnival workers who told me that with my personality I could earn a lot more money.

Sally and I bought a button-making machine with our life savings — about $300 — and then had to wait for my next paycheck to buy three rolls of Polaroid film. We set up with the other vendors around 6 a.m., and by 8 a.m. I had to send Sally to buy five more rolls of film. We were out of that by 10:30 a.m. and by 2 p.m. we had made back all the money we had spent on the machine. We did even better when we set up at October Fest near the beer tent.

After the fair season was over, my neighbor had to abandon his pizza business to move his son, who had asthma, to Arizona. Since I knew all the distributors, they helped me get the pizza business going. I had two trucks from working the carnival and used them to deliver to all of the local bars.

I was still working at Pepsi and working on two or three hours of sleep. I got my education at Pepsi. They had me take a Dale Carnegie course, which basically reinforced everything I already knew. I had also read the book “Acres of Diamonds” about an African man who sells his farm to go mine for diamonds. After he failed, he came back to find the new farmer had found diamonds on the property. It got me to thinking, “What was our acres of diamonds?”

I had all the contacts from the grocery stores in Milwaukee, and I still had friends in the Wittenberg area who sold potatoes. So I did that all winter, driving back and forth to pick up potatoes in Wittenberg and sold them in Milwaukee.

In 1974, Sally and I moved back to Wittenberg and started up an ostrich farm, which wasn’t a very good decision, but we had painted it blue and it did establish us as a destination, so when we switched over to fireworks, everyone knew where to find us.

We keep busy with the fireworks and cheese curd stand on the fair circuit. My niece, Cindy, her husband, Jeff, and my son, Tony, have been working with us for years. We’ve been very grateful to have such good help.

I’m 80 years old and thankful to be in extremely good health. Sally and I have been blessed with 56 years of married life. We’re very grateful for our friends and our customers. It wasn’t easy getting the fireworks business up and running, but the Wittenberg Town Board believes in us and has been very helpful in helping us grow our business.



Jerry Bamke is the owner of Fireworks Country