Milwaukee in April: Bites, bikes and a blizzard


Grizzly bears lumbered around at the Milwaukee Zoo. (Pamela O’Meara photo/Review)

At the Harley-Davidson Museum, this 1936 Harley motorcycle is on display. (Pamela O’Meara photo/Review)

Whistling Straits Golf Course in Kohler, Wisconsin, overlooks Lake Michigan and was temporarily covered with snow following a mid-April blizzard. The course is set to host the 2020 Ryder Cup. (Pamela O’Meara photo/Review)

A blue and white tile Kohler sink is featured in the club house at Whistling Straits Golf Course. (Pamela O’Meara photo/Review)

Short ribs with fiddlehead ferns and pearl onions made a delicious dinner in the Immigrant Restaurant at Kohler. (Pamela O’Meara photo/Review)

Miss Katie’s 1950s diner is a good place to start a spring visit to Milwaukee if you like good burgers and delicious fries. Follow that up with a custard tour of 1950s drive-ins with Milwaukee Food and City Tours.

What’s the difference between frozen custard and ice cream? With added eggs and cream, custard is richer. And custard is very popular in Wisconsin, though it dates back to 16th century France or even earlier. With so many custard shops, Milwaukee, sometimes known as “Beer City,” is also called the “frozen custard capital of the world.”

The frozen snacks would prove to be a prelude to a mid-April blizzard that disrupted my trip to southeast Wisconsin for a travel writers’ conference and tour.

 

Vroom vroom

Milwaukee is home to Harley-Davidson, the premier motorcycle company. We toured the Harley-Davidson Museum, which offers a glimpse of American culture and history — motorcycles are seen as a symbol of rebellion, freedom and adventure — along with interactive exhibits.

It showcases many famous bikes — some from World War II and a red one made famous by Elvis Presley — and explains the evolution of the vehicle from small black bicycle-like models to large, powerful, colorful, even pink or sequined models.

We enjoyed a catered dinner at City Hall, an old downtown building that many years ago reportedly was the third tallest building in the U.S. It was built over a swamp with 25,000 logs beneath it, the mayor told us, adding that millions of dollars were recently spent to shore up the building, and as part of the city’s redevelopment, a freeway that once divided the city was removed.

Milwaukee, where three rivers came together, was once a meeting place and trading post for indigenous people for hundreds of years. Then in 1846, three small villages merged to form the city, now the largest in Wisconsin. These days the downtown is being redeveloped and more businesses, condos and apartments are being built in the heart of the city.

 

Expanding zoo

The next day we headed to the Milwaukee County Zoo, then under construction because new zoo certification rules require more space. We saw a few animals: Snow Lily, the polar bear, the zoo’s four grizzlies, caribou and two African elephants. In all, the zoo has more than 3,100 animals in specialized habitats. 

Our guide added that nowadays, zoos around the country trade animals to widen the gene pool, since the animals no longer come from the wild.

After brunch at Blue’s Egg for crab cakes and blueberry buckle with lemon sauce, we headed to Urban Ecology, which is unique to the city.

It offers all kinds of activities for children, particularly inner city kids, who haven’t had exposure to skiing, snowshoeing, gardening and more. For a small fee, families can get a year membership to do all of these things and borrow the equipment to do them as well. It’s an interesting and expanding program, served by hundreds of volunteers.

Discovery World, right on Lake Michigan, our next stop, offers a variety of science and technology programs, as well as a three-quarters-size schooner, aquariums stocked with Lake Michigan fish, interactive exhibits and plenty more to spark kids’ interest.

Though some 100 ships a day once went through the port of Milwaukee, few do nowadays.

 

Coffee to steak

We spent the next morning doing a fun food tour, stopping first at Colectivo Coffee, where we sampled some delicious joe, sweet and savory pastries and watched a video on growing and harvesting coffee beans in Peru.

We also stopped at Juice Kitchen, which serves healthy drinks, and Indulgence Chocolatiers, which offers delicious truffles with fine chocolate. We supped at 5 O’clock Steak, an old-time, wood-paneled supper club that has been featured on the Food Channel. My steak was delicious and our group shared lots of sides and desserts.

 

Snow

That night, the weather took a dramatic turn for the worse. Snow had been predicted, but getting snowed in, in April, was something else altogether.

The following morning snow was pouring down — two feet were expected in Sheboygan, our next destination — so that part of our trip was canceled. We holed up in our hotel for another day watching blizzard reports on the television, which flickered due to the storm.

The situation reminded of my favorite children’s book, Dr. Seuss’s “The Cat in the Hat.”

“The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play. So we sat in the house all that cold, cold, wet day. I sat there with Sally. We sat there we two, and I said, ‘How I wish we had something to do!’”

We still didn’t know when we went to bed if we’d be leaving in the morning, as re-scheduled. But thankfully, the weather was better come sunrise, so off we went.

 

From horse trough to bathtub

In little over an hour and despite the snow, we arrived at Kohler, a company town where bathroom fixtures have been designed and manufactured for a century.

We stayed at the America Club, an old red-brick building from 1918. It once was a dorm for men working for the Kohler Company, a place where employees were fed well and given English lessons to encourage them to become citizens. Now it’s a five-star boutique hotel and spa.

Before visiting the Kohler plant, I never realized that toilet tanks, sinks and bathtubs were essentially made of clay. During the tour, we saw large balls of raw clay formed and fired in giant kilns and transformed into various china products — some became sinks with lovely flower patterns, and toilets and tubs with square shapes.

John Michael Kohler emigrated from Austria in the mid-19th Century, settling first on a farm near St. Paul and then moving to Chicago as a traveling salesman for a furniture company. He eventually ended up in Riverside, Wisconsin, and planted the seed for his bathroom products business there, beginning with a horse trough to which he added feet and enamel and sold it  as a bathtub.

The town took on the company’s name and the town’s namesake business has been inseparable from the place ever since.

Today the Kohler Design Center tells the history of Kohler bathroom products and has designer rooms featuring new items.

Kohler is also famous for its golf courses, like Whistling Straits, where eight holes situated along Lake Michigan were covered with snow when we visited. This famous course will host the 2020 Ryder Cup and other competitions. We toured the men’s locker room to see its flowered bathroom sinks and Tiger Woods’ locker.

As summer comes to an end, I remember this surprisingly snowy trip — the blizzard did add a touch of beauty to everything — and ready myself for more changes in the weather.

 

– Pamela O’Meara can be reached at pomeara@lillienews.com or 651-748-7818

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