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Monday, June 30, in Manitowoc, Wisconsin

Hi everyone. We’re settled for a few days in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, and we’ll be moving back across the lake to Michigan from here. Last time I wrote, we were in Port Washington, Wisconsin, but I only covered the rest of our trip to Chicago. I’ll catch up in this letter to where we are.

The morning we left Chicago was foggy and cool, but the wind and seas were quiet, and we left Chicago’s harbor. Though we couldn’t see much at all beyond the boat, the radar was showing us the very little there was at sea level. Once, I did peer out to see a floating zipped bag of what appeared to be marijuana, packaged for delivery.

The fog and cold persisted and deteriorated until we arrived at Racine, Wisconsin, where we stopped for fuel and then a berth at the nearly 1000-slip marina called Reefpoint. Every thirty seconds or so, the foghorn would blast.

We checked in at the combined marine store and marina office, where we were served Racine’s famous Danish-style pastry, the Kringle. For research purposes only, I tried a raspberry slice and then a cheese slice.

Actually, in Denmark, the word kringle generally refers to the pretzel shape of the pastry (originally a sailor’s knot), and can be sweet or savory, but the ones in Denmark are never like the Danish pastry we have in America. Actually, when I’ve seen Danish pastry in Denmark, I’m pretty sure that they called it a wien (or Vienna). So we say it’s Danish and they say it’s German. I’m surprised why nobody wants to take ownership of something that delicious.

But Racine was always based in Danish culture (the way Holland was with the Dutch), and any guidebook about Racine will eventually steer you to this gigantic, round pastry.

The woman who checked us in seemed so earnest and so hopeful that we’d enjoy our visit to Racine. I almost wanted to report back to her about all the fun things we did.

We weren’t able to do the first fun thing on my list, a visit to the Frank Lloyd Wright headquarters of SC Johnson, maker of all those brands we know like Pledge, Shout, and the Ziploc bag I’d seen on my way over from Chicago. This building was Wright’s largest commercial project. We’d only be around on a Monday, a day when tours weren’t run. Instead, we decided to spend the day downtown with a small list of errands and a willingness to browse.

The marina is about two blocks from the heart of downtown. Along the waterfront, to one side of the marina, there is a large park, a fishing pier, a boat launch, and a pavilion. To the other side, vacation condominiums overlook the harbor, as well as a Radisson hotel. In all, I’d guess that there are several hundred families that should be enjoying Racine from the land and several hundred more from seaside.

The All-American Girls Professional Baseball team the Racine Belles were the subject of the movie “A League of Their Own”, and won the league championship in 1943, although the team member characters in the movie were all fictional and other plot points were not accurate. I just hope that someone really said, “There’s no crying in baseball. No crying!”

Racine is the home of the inventor of the InSinkErator (the first garbage disposal) and of the malted milk ball. Apparently, the city’s over-the-top prom celebrations inspired an episode of “This American Life” and a documentary. In 2011, the city won an award for the best-tasting city water in America. This is not something that people told us as we walked around, but it’s very believable. It’s just the kind of thing that Racine would be good at.

The morning was dreary, but the fog lifted. The foghorn sounded muted somehow, as if it knew. We walked along the causeway to town. There’s an Art Museum that includes the largest contemporary craft collection in America, closed on Mondays. We did stop in the lobby of an office building that housed some public art created by a local graphic designer. She took a square canvas and cut it (metaphorically) into 16 tiles, four by four. She divided the Grant Wood painting American Gothic into sixteen tiles and placed some guidelines that match the lines of the Wood painting. Then she gave the tiles, as lined, to family members, to fill in. The result is a sort of quilted American Gothic, including the bottom corner scribbled by a 2 year old family member. The overalls on the farmer are made from real denim pasted on the tile. This appealed to me because there’s nothing more American in painting than American Gothic, and there’s nothing more American in crafts than the quilt.

Racine is approachable, friendly, and humble, but it is not thriving. About one-third of the retail buildings in the downtown area in which we walked were empty. About a third of the remaining buildings were closed on a Monday during business hours. The streets are well-maintained, and lovely hanging pots and potted plants burst with colorful flowers along the sidewalks. Several of the buildings had plaques detailing their historic status. One building proudly belonged to Dr. Shoop (who I learned made his fortune with a patented green salve that cured several ailments, although not gullibility). But that apparently isn’t enough to energize a town.

When we’d ask about getting, say, the SD card we needed at one of the shops, we were directed to a Best Buy just outside of town. It was impossible not to compare Racine to our visit to Holland, where, decades ago, the downtown businesses were destroyed by large chain stores within close driving distance. Holland fought back by creating a great downtown experience, and now has charming shops that cater to a vacation population that doesn’t even live within walking distance. And Racine is one or two blocks away from hundreds of vacationers, without a candy store, an art gallery, or an ice cream shop on every block. I wanted someone to step up and make the investment in this place, to restore the old buildings lining downtown and liven things up.

Art did have a dockside experience in the afternoon while he worked on the flybridge. A man on a boat docked across from us fell in the water while he was working on something. His wife would have been unable to pull him up on her own, and Art confided later that he wouldn’t have been able to do it himself either. But the two of them working together pulled him back on his boat. My conclusion from this story is that boating is indeed as safe as driving really slowly, except in boating you can fall overboard into freezing water in your driveway.

In the morning, we waited for the fog to lift in the harbor, and left at about nine. The fog hadn’t cleared over the lake, and we traveled again without any visibility and dependent on radar from Racine to Port Washington. When we cleared the harbor, we compensated the compass once more, because it still didn’t seem accurate enough.

During the voyage, I sat with my tablet and a mapping app, following along our route while Art sat at the flybridge helm with his two displays with the radar and weather overlays and a variety of engine and route data. He said that I reminded him of those little kids that sit in the back seats of cars driven by their mothers, turning their own little plastic steering wheels. I pouted and adjusted my tablet’s map display.

The trip was foggy and slow, and we entered the Port Washington harbor carefully. This harbor is apparently the first man-made harbor in North America, and it is indeed grand for a small town. As soon as we were inside the breakwater, the skies opened up and rain poured down as if it was throwing itself at us. We couldn’t see the clouds ahead of us, because we hadn’t seen anything more than a quarter of a mile away for the whole trip. We drifted inside the harbor until the rain tapered substantially, and finally tied up at the marina.

The marina wasn’t as modern as the one we’d left in Racine, but it did seem to hit all of the right notes, with amenities for boaters that included a lounge and a fish cleaning station. I did hear someone complain loudly as they powered away that the wi-fi was unusable, and that cruiser was proven correct the moment I tried to connect.

There isn’t a lot to Port Washington. A highly fictionalized version of it was the location for a seven-season sitcom called “Step by Step”, starring Patrick Duffy and Suzanne Somers. There’s probably less there now than there was when Hollywood needed to dress it up.

We took our first walk through town, which still has a 19th-century ambiance, partly because of the protected status of many pre-Civil War buildings, the most in Wisconsin. Town was quiet, but at least the commercial area seemed alive, unlike Racine. There is no grocery store within walking distance but a butcher shop offered some respite for our sagging pantry. I stopped short of taking someone’s suggestion that I could replenish our breakfast yogurt supply at the mini-mart of the gas station up the road.

The Twisted Willow restaurant in town was so enjoyable that we had dinner there two nights in a row. Our full day in town was lazy, which we spent walking around the downtown area in the cold or amusing ourselves aboard the boat. A restaurant next door to the marina was sponsoring a cornhole league in the evening.

Cornhole, also known as tailgate toss, corn toss, baggo, or, perhaps most accurately, lawn darts for drunks, uses a raised platform with a hole in the far end, and players toss beanbags filled with corn into the hole. Though it might have originated in the 14th century in Germany, it’s also likely that it came to be in America’s midwest when Native Americans, perhaps the Illinois Blackhawks, filled pig bladders with dried beans, and tossed them competitively. I assume that the bladders were by then no longer in use by the pigs.

After two trips in dense fog under only radar, we were delighted to have great visibility for our next venture on Lake Michigan. The day was sunny and clear, although the flybridge was still a little chilly. Our destination was Manitowoc, another small Wisconsin lakefront town.

Manitowoc’s sister city, Two Rivers, holds claim to the invention of the ice cream sundae in 1881. Though it has a compelling backstory about a request for a drizzle of chocolate syrup over ice cream, other persuasive narratives come from Evanston, Illinois, Ithaca, New York, and Plainfield, Illinois. Whatever the truth, Two Rivers is at the confluence of two rivers, north of Manitowoc on the shores of Lake Michigan.

As this part of Lake Michigan is more slender than south or north, a car ferry traverses the lake all summer to Ludington in Michigan. The SS Badger (named after University of Wisconsin’s athletes) is the last coal-fired passenger vessel in operation on the Great Lakes. The large ferry and its rumbling engines and smoky stack are part of the Manitowoc summer landscape.

The retail area of town is bigger than Port Washington and smaller than Racine, about one-third empty, but with crazy novelty shops in spaces that are too sprawling to feel right or even to fill with merchandise. One shop seemed to be a Halloween supply place. Many places didn’t seem like they kept normal business hours, including the downtown development office. A coffee place had a sparsely furnished room behind it that was twice the size of its shop, and a novelty shop next door that was more aisle than shelf. With all this unused retail space, the hallway between these rooms was filled with the remains for sale of a collection of 1/220 scale replicas of the stunning 1906 Manitowoc Courthouse building, in a fundraising effort to restore the building’s dome.

You can’t miss the giant painted beer bottles on the erstwhile Budweiser malting plant, although they came within a bucket of turpentine of being removed. The plant was sold to a company that didn’t brew beer, and that put the murals in danger of being illegal. A grassroots campaign resulted in an ordinance to keep the display intact.

On our first full day in town, we visited the Wisconsin Maritime Museum, focusing on the long shipbuilding tradition in the area. For example, just in Manitowoc, the first wooden sailing ship built on Lake Michigan was launched in 1847, and two large shipbuilding companies, the 1863 Burger Boat Company (still making yachts) and the Manitowoc Company (formerly a large shipbuilder), are based in this town.

The Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company was granted a contract during World War II to build 28 submarines for the US Navy. More than 7000 people worked around the clock, and 25 of the submarines saw action during the war. The USS Cobia, not one of the ones built in Manitowoc but a sister ship, is on display.

The tour is engaging and very little about the submarine has changed, including little effort to make it easy for visitors to get from one end to the other. I learned to grab the bar above the door and jump through the oblong hatch from one cabin to the next. We didn’t take advantage of the offer to sleep aboard, and our stateroom looks spacious compared to the facilities for the seamen and even the officers. At least we don’t sleep with torpedoes under our berth.

There’s a tradition in Wisconsin for a Friday fish fry. Of course, there are the remains of a Friday fish tradition in many places that once had an observant Catholic population, and even the Pope has given up on getting Americans to eat fish unless it’s in a savory form of funnel cake. A proper fish fry is made from perch, with either fries or potato pancakes, and is accompanied by cole slaw and marble rye bread. Port Washington dedicates an entire day in July to a celebration of the fish fry. But we’d only be in Wisconsin for one Friday night, and that would be in Manitowoc.

None of my many Google searches identified a Friday fish fry leader in Manitowoc, and local knowledge wasn’t much more helpful (one response was that the best place for a fish fry was Applebee’s at the mall, with all-you-can-eat. I like Applebee’s, but I don’t consider it a tourist destination for local culture.) A taxi driver gave us a suggestion for a fish fry, but then he ruined his reputation by telling us that his favorite restaurant in town is the Chinese buffet. I finally picked a place that was within walking distance with a fish fry recommended in the tourist brochure.

Apparently Manitowoc isn’t a potato pancake town, and the fries that were served to me had only been thawed recently. Art’s potato salad was in a little plastic cup meant for a condiment, as were our sides of cole slaw. I knew that the Wisconsin fish fry would also include marble rye, but coming from the Northeast and south Florida, I had no idea that you could actually find marble rye shaped in a square and in which the crust was as soft as the butter. Clearly, we’ll have to come back to Wisconsin and try another time.

One evening, Art was meeting me in town, where I’d had an errand, and he noticed that the lakeside road was unusually crowded with cars. Hundreds of cars. A patchwork of cars. Old cars, hot cars, trucks, fanciful cars, all driving slowly by. Furthermore, there were hundreds of onlookers, sitting on lawn chairs, alongside the road. It was a Friday night, so he asked someone if this is a Friday night tradition. Nope, he was informed, it’s an annual event. The woman called it a car show.

Only a few blocks from our marina sat the Rahr-West Museum, designated by Travel and Leisure Magazine one of America’s best small-town museums. It’s in a Victorian mansion built in the 1890s. From the outside, its turrets, dormer windows, and stone facades evoke thoughts of the English countryside, or some demented dungeon master. On the inside, some of the rooms have been restored to their original state.

The rooms provide a venue for the collections of its various owners and generous local donors. A recent modern addition houses a temporary exhibit called Colorama, which contains large color photos from the Kodak collection. These photos are of sweeping landscapes, famous travel sites, or families enjoying ordinary activities, and in nearly every one of them, someone is holding a Kodak camera to record the moment. They’re literally snapshots of idealized American culture, even to the feel of the color and the quality of the finish.

The museum also pays tribute to a moment in 1962, when a piece of Russia’s Sputnik fell to earth in a spot very close to the museum’s location. A replica of the 20-pound piece of Sputnik IV that fell to earth there is on display. We had to give back the original to the Soviets in those Cold War days.

Commemorating this event, there’s an annual Sputnikfest at the museum that earned the Reader’s Digest inclusion in their Top Five Funkiest Festivals. Last year’s poster says that it would take place in Manitowoc, WI, Earth. This had special meaning for me, because sometime long ago, I had tiny Sputnik replica, which I wore on a chain around my neck, a bauble that I’d purchased at the bazaar at my elementary school. So even in those days, we must have been able to make light of the uncertainties of international politics.

We’re up to date now. I’ll try to write a little more frequently from here on out. Hope you’re all having fun.

Love, Karen (and Art)