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USS Cobia at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum


getaway-chicago logo From Illinois's northern border to Manitowoc, Wisconsin many Lake Michigan communities were founded during the second and third decades of the 19th Century. Motivated by opportunity and necessity, many early arrivals were New Englanders and New Yorkers. Helped by the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, lumberman, traders, farmers and land speculators began to arrive in Kenosha (1835), Racine (1834), Milwaukee (1820’s), Sheboygan (1822) and Manitowoc (1835). And, by the 20th century Kenosha would be associated with cars, Racine with floor wax, Milwaukee with beer, Sheboygan with plumbing fixtures and Manitowoc with submarines. Submarines ??? manitowoc2

Kenosha’s cars disappeared ignominiously, but the Johnson Wax Company survived in Racine. Pabst (the “Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous”) is brewed elsewhere, since 1909 Kohler plumbing fixtures have been made in Kohler, and Manitowoc submarines are now local lore. The first four may make sense, but submarines in Manitowoc, challenges credulity. WW II war production marshaled every facility capable of making something. Manitowoc, Wisconsin could build ships and along with other naval craft it built 21 submarines.manitowoc3

Seeking answers as to why submarines, the Getaway Guys visited Manitowoc in July 2009 and January 2010. Little evidence remains of the submarines. A beehive of activity from 1941-45, the Manitowoc River site that once produced submarines is largely abandoned, except for the Burger Boat Company (a descendant of the company that built submarines but now builds yachts). The Getaway Guys wanted to know what made Manitowoc a suitable site for commercial ship building from the 1840’s to the building of submarines in the 1940’s, aside from the fact that the Manitowoc River meets Lake Michigan a few blocks east.manitowoc4

Not unlike Kenosha’s Charles Nash, Racine’s Samuel Johnson, Milwaukee’s Frederick Pabst and Sheboygan’s John Michael Kohler, Manitowoc’s primary 20th century industry was the result a visionary named Charles West, who arrived in 1902. Along with partners, Elias Gunnell and Lynford Geer, West bought the original Burger Boat Company and established Manitowoc Dry Dock Company. Intent on ship repair, by1910 the name changed to Manitowoc Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company and used steel instead of wood to build ships competitive with other Great Lakes builders. (Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company no longer exists, but a division of the Manitowoc Corporation does repair and construction at Bay Shipbuilding in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin.) Post World War I was a game changer for Charles West and Great Lakes shipbuilding. In its aftermath Government contracts disappeared and expanded facilities were idled.manitowoc5 In 1925 West partnered with and later acquired the Moore Speedcrane Company of Chicago, a venture leading to today’s Manitowoc Crane Company.

A city re-inventing itself, Manitowoc is a pleasant and friendly place. Gone are the halcyon days when the place jumped with thousand of shipyard workers and naval personnel. Nevertheless, there are things to see and do. First and foremost Neil and Alan took in the Wisconsin Maritime Museum. This place blew their jib away. Jammed with nautical ephemera related to Manitowoc’s shipbuilding and general Great Lakes commerce, the Guys were transfixed. In a well-designed and easy to navigate [pun intended] museum, the Guys steered their respective courses through one remarkable display after another. Alan was captivated by engines and ship models and Neil by tools and diving gear. They didn’t tour the U.S.S. Cobia, a sub docked next to the Museum. Alan had toured the U-505 at the Museum of Science and Industry and didn’t want to spend extra bucks -- typical!manitowoc6 Neil toured the Cobia years earlier.

After a good (inexpensive) lunch (an Alan specialty), at Beerntsen’s Ice Cream Parlor and Confectionary (established in 1932), the Guys visited the imposing Manitowoc County Court House (1906), an edifice undergoing restoration. Beerntsen’s is a hoot. Extra fortified (by sundae and float), the Guys were surprised by the Court House's opulent interior and declared it worth a gander. No concrete block or stripped down justice in Manitowoc County. Meted out in such digs, maybe time “up the river” is more palatable?

manitowoc7The next stop on their visit was the Rahr-West Art Museum, a magnificent Queen Anne style Victorian mansion with additions to accommodate changing exhibitions and the art collection of Ruth and John D. West. Dispersed between the Vilas-Rahr Mansion (1891) and the West additions, the West Collection contains a stunning Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986), a William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905), a Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860) and a Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899). Twentieth century masters include Milton Avery, Sam Francis, Alex Katz, Walt Kuhn and Frank Stella, along with works by Miro, Wyeth and Dali. While Alan was examining the exquisite wood work of New York furniture maker, Henry Belter (1804-1863), Neil got into several works by Schomer Lichtner (1905-2006) and his wife, Ruth Grotenrath (1912-1988). A gift of the Kohler Foundation, these recent additions are great examples of Social Realism from the early 20th century; the kind of stuff Neil likes and Alan is unmoved by (if he even noticed!).

The big draw in Manitowoc is the intriguing Wisconsin Maritime Museum. But, within walking distance is the surprising Rahr-West. Lastly, 8 miles north, the remarkable Hamilton Woodtype Museum in Two Rivers must be seen. Across the street from the phantasmagoric Washington Inn Museum, the Hamilton is utterly fascinating, containing artifacts from the days when wood typeset in the printing industry was a highly-skilled craft. April 2010


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