From the Illinois border to Manitowoc, Wis., many Lake Michigan communities were founded during the second and third decades of the 19th century. Motivated by opportunity and necessity, many early arrivals came from New England and New York. Aided by the completion of the Erie Canal, lumberman, traders, farmers and land speculators began to arrive in Milwaukee (1820s), Sheboygan (1822), Racine (1834), Kenosha (1835) and Manitowoc (1835). 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?
The Johnson Wax Company survives in Racine, and Kohler plumbing fixtures are made in Kohler, near Sheboygan, as they have been since 1909. But Kenosha’s cars disappeared, Pabst (the “Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous”) is now brewed elsewhere and Manitowoc submarines now survive as local lore. However logical the first four, the idea of submarines in Manitowoc challenges credulity. But production for World War II marshaled every facility in the country capable of making something, and Manitowoc, Wis., could build ships. Along with other naval craft, it built 21 submarines.
Curious about the 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 them is largely abandoned except for the Burger Boat Company. A descendant of the company that built submarines, it now builds yachts. The Getaway Guys wanted to know what made Manitowoc a suitable site for commercial ship-building from the 1840s to the 1940s, aside from the fact that the Manitowoc River meets Lake Michigan a few blocks east.
Like Kenosha’s Charles Nash, Racine’s Samuel Johnson, Milwaukee’s Frederick Pabst and Sheboygan’s John Michael Kohler, Manitowoc’s Charles West was a visionary. He arrived in 1902, and became the force behind the town’s primary 20th-century industry. Along with his partners, Elias Gunnell and Lynford Geer, Mr. West bought the original Burger Boat Company and established Manitowoc Dry Dock Company, which focused on ship repair. By 1910, its name changed to Manitowoc Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company, the business was using steel instead of wood to build ships competitive with those of other Great Lakes manufacturers. (Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company no longer exists, but a division of the Manitowoc Corporation does repair and construction at Bay Shipbuilding in Sturgeon Bay, Wis.)
After World War I, the game changed for Charles West and Great Lakes shipbuilding. Government contracts disappeared and expanded facilities idled. In 1925, Mr. West partnered with and later acquired the Moore Speedcrane Company of Chicago, the predecessor of today’s Manitowoc Crane Company.
Now a city re-inventing itself, Manitowoc is a pleasant and friendly place. Gone are the days when the town jumped with thousands of shipyard workers and naval personnel. Nevertheless, there are things to see and do. First and foremost is the Wisconsin Maritime Museum, a place that blew our jib away. The Guys were transfixed by nautical ephemera related to Manitowoc’s shipbuilding and general Great Lakes commerce. 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 did not tour the U.S.S. Cobia, a submarine docked next to the Museum. Alan had toured the U-505 at the Museum of Science and Industry and did not – typically – want to spend extra bucks. Neil had toured the Cobia years earlier.
After a good (inexpensive) lunch (an Alan specialty), at Beerntsen’s Ice Cream Parlor and Confectionery (established in 1932), and extra-fortified by a sundae and a float, the Guys visited the imposing Manitowoc County Court House (1906), an edifice undergoing restoration. Surprised by the Court House’s opulent interior, they decided justice in Manitowoc County might be as blind as she is supposed to be, but she enjoys cool digs.
The 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, a William Adolphe Bouguereau, a Rembrandt Peale and a Rosa Bonheur. Twentieth-century holdings 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 woodwork of New York furniture maker Henry Belter, Neil became absorbed in several works by Schomer Lichtner and his wife, Ruth Grotenrath. These recent additions, a gift of the Kohler Foundation, 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 notices).
If visitors have time, they should travel eight miles north to the remarkable Hamilton Woodtype Museum in Two Rivers. Across the street from the phantasmagoric Washington Inn Museum, the Hamilton is utterly fascinating and crammed with artifacts from the days when wood type was used in the printing industry and printing was a highly skilled craft.