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Just north of Manitowoc, Wis., is Two Rivers, a community of 11,807 and the legendary birthplace of the ice cream sundae in 1881 (though the claim is hotly disputed by Evanston, 1890, and Ithaca, N.Y., 1892. Ice cream buffs need not go all the way to Two Rivers to indulge in this American concoction, but the Getaway Guys did that and more.
Neil had, in times past, zoomed through Two Rivers numerous times en route to Door County without much thought. Alan, averse to almost anything near Door County, had never heard of Two Rivers until the Getaway Guys investigated Manitowoc and its submarine legacy this spring.
For a community of its size, Two Rivers has an inordinately large number of historical sites to explore. It can also boast of its proactive, community-wide effort to preserve its past. Like many Lake Michigan settlements of the 1830-40s, it prospered through the exploitation of timber resources. When the timber was exhausted, Two Rivers turned first to Lake Michigan fishing to sustain growth and then later to manufacturing. This story was repeated from Chicago to Door County on the west side of the lake and from Michigan City to Muskegon on the east side.
During their last Manitowoc visit, Neil and Alan foraged further north seven miles to Two Rivers and discovered the Hamilton Wood Type Museum and the Washington House Museum. Located in the sprawling late 19th- and early 20th-century Hamilton manufacturing complex on Jefferson Street, the former is a graphic designer’s mind-blower. Preserved, and presently used to advance the art of wood type printing, this museum-workshop is truly unique and very visitor-friendly. Loaded with thousands of wood-type samples and the original machinery used to cut and shape them, the Hamilton Museum must be seen to be believed.
Directly across Jefferson Street is the Washington House Museum, a 19th-century hotel dedicated to the preservation of artifacts and ephemera associated with life in Two Rivers from c. 1860 to c. 1960. Its collections are some of the best the Getaway Guys have seen in a small town museum. On a follow-up trip to Two Rivers, Neil and Alan explored the Historic Farm Museum on 12th St., the Two Rivers Historical Society on Jefferson Street and the West of the Lake Gardens just north of Manitowoc.
Although the Gardens are located on busy Route 42, Neil (along with thousands of other Peninsula visitors) had passed them unaware of their existence. In 1932 John and Ruth West (Manitowoc Ship Building-Manitowoc Crane Company) built a modest, modernist dwelling on 6-½ acres of lakefront property and surrounded it with annuals and perennials. In addition to other philanthropic endeavors, Ruth West bequeathed the estate and garden to the West of the Lake Foundation. While not the largest garden the Guys have seen, West of the Lake is one of the most tranquil and dramatically situated. Entry is free of charge.
Next the Guys explored the Two Rivers History Museum, in a former convent one block north of Washington House on Jefferson Street. Compared to the latter, its collection is modest and somewhat redundant, but eclectic and informative. Of particular interest to the Guys were the religious artifacts associated with its former occupants, the Teaching Sisters of St. Agnes.
From the Spartan environs of the Catholic convent, the Guys went to the Farm Museum on 12th Street, where they encountered an array of late 19th- and 20th-century farm implements. The uses of many of these complicated, scary-looking steel contraptions stumped these city boys.
Not far away on Hawthorne Avenue (Route 310) is the Woodland Dunes Nature Center and Preserve, a 1,200-acre site devoted to preservation and education. Its diverse trails (Cattail, Willow, Conifer, Yellow Birch, Trillium, etc.) could easily require a day to investigate. The Guys checked out only the Cattail Trail, to their later chagrin, because they wanted to visit the Rogers Street Fishing Village on the other side of town before returning to Chicago. As Yogi Berra famously said, “We shoulda stood in bed.” Very much a work in progress, Rogers Street has a way to go, but improvements are moving along.
The Guys did not get to the Bernard Schwartz House, a circa-1938 Frank Lloyd Wright built for Bernard and Fern Schwartz. It was inspired by a Life magazine article called “Eight Houses for Modern Living,” to which Wright had been a contributing architect (always eager to promote his ideas about the ideal American dwelling). The Guys saw this structure earlier in 2010; although they had recognized the obvious Frank Lloyd Wright design influences, they had not realized it was a genuine Wright article. Privately owned, it is available for short-term rentals to enthusiasts and is open periodically for tours.
The Getaway Guys have visited innumerable small museums and historic structures that are staffed by older volunteers. Generally retirees with an avid interest in history, they take their responsibilities seriously. In Two Rivers, Wis., as in Morris, Ill., South Haven, Mich. and Dubuque, Iowa, these earnest and engaging folks are the unsung heroes of historic preservation.
Editor’s Note: The authors maintain a free website, www.getaway-chicago.com, which offers recommended outings to nearby destinations that are often overlooked, but of genuine interest and delight.