Meet Wisconsin Johnson
Hollywood has Indiana Jones. They can keep him, because here in the Great Lakes, we have Wisconsin Johnson.
He has an Emmy award, his work is on display in the Smithsonian Institution, he even appears in a colorful pirate-themed mural in an area restaurant — and just a few months ago, Wisconsin Johnson took the helm of the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc.
Rolf E. Johnson has been many things since he began his career in 1978: Dinosaur hunter, museum curator and administrator, award-winning producer, consultant, conservationist and explorer. He is perhaps best known for his 24 years with the Milwaukee Public Museum, where he worked as a vertebrate paleontologist specializing in late Cretaceous dinosaurs and paleocommunities.
During that time, he also got his own radio show. “Museum Digest” aired from 1986 to 1991, and it gave him the catchy moniker. “I’d written an editorial about why we needed to popularize science, to continue in the tradition of scientists like Jacques Cousteau and Carl Sagan,” Johnson remembers. “Wisconsin Public Radio recognized how passionate I was, and they gave me the show.
“They kept saying I was like Indiana Jones, but even better, because I was real,” Johnson continues with a laugh. “I thought the name was great. It represented the spirit of exploration and discovery.”
In addition to authoring more than 70 articles and serving as senior editor of the encyclopedia “Rainforests of the World,” Johnson was active in museum administration. He helped design and build Milwaukee’s popular Discovery World museum, which is now home to Wisconsin’s official flagship, the S/N Denis Sullivan; and he assisted with the expansion of Norfolk, Virginia’s “Nauticus: The National Maritime Center,” home to the Battleship Wisconsin.
Johnson also spent time in Costa Rica, working with PBS to document the experiences of Wisconsin kids in the Costa Rican rainforest. In 1997, he won an Emmy for “Best Children’s Special.” Most recently, Johnson was director of the Neville Public Museum in Green Bay. But when the opportunity to serve as chief executive officer at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum came his way, he jumped at the chance. “I’m thrilled to be here,” he enthuses. “It’s a good challenge, and good fun, to be running a museum.”
“Great things are happening in Manitowoc, and the museum wants to be part of that,” Johnson explains. “It’s not just about what’s happening in the building and on the USS Cobia anymore. We’re focusing more on events and large public programs, and we’re very involved in local activities and festivals here in the city.”
According to Johnson, the Wisconsin Maritime Museum also is planning to add interactivity to the Cobia experience through an interpretive center, which should be opening in mid- to late summer.
“We’re working on a lot of outdoor programming as well, such as a boatbuilding competition later this year,” he notes. Maritime heritage issues are another major focus. This involves working collaboratively with other groups and institutions — for example, joining forces with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to establish a National Marine Sanctuary along Wisconsin’s Schooner Coast, a 60-mile stretch of Lake Michigan between Manitowoc and Sturgeon Bay.
It’s not all about museums for Johnson, however. Also high on the priority list: Finishing the little cabin that he hopes will be his forever home. “It’s on the southeast corner of my family’s land, overlooking Lake Michigan,” he says. “I’ve been very fortunate, and I’ve loved being a dinosaur hunter, Great Lakes conservationist and scientist over the 35 years that I’ve hop-scotched around. But now I feel like I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.”
To learn more about the Wisconsin Maritime Museum and its upcoming exhibits, learning programs and submarine experiences, visit www.wisconsnimaritime.org.
A Tale of Two Cities
When I think of growing up in the early 1980s in rural Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, certain memories stand out.
The bustle of the boat landing during the smelt run. Begging for five- and ten-penny candies at the neighborhood tavern. Heading to the Penguin Drive-In in the city of Manitowoc for a Big Penny hamburger. Marveling at the stop-n-go lights, since we didn’t have any in Hika Bay. Choosing a treat at Beerntsen’s Confectionary. Scanning the Lake Michigan horizon to see if we could spot a freighter.
It was the stuff childhoods are made of, punctuated with the oft-repeated, delightfully colloquial cry, “We’re going down by the lake!”
I remember Manitowoc, Two Rivers and the surrounding countryside so fondly. Yet 30 years have passed, and I’m well aware that Midwestern lakefront communities are changing rapidly as manufacturing gives way to tourism, and as waterfront property becomes increasingly attractive to new arrivals and new development.
What are the twin cities like today? Are they mere waypoints on tourists’ and cruising boaters’ trips to Door County or Mackinac Island, or are they destinations in their own right? To find out, I knew I’d have to look at Manitowoc and Two Rivers with fresh eyes, as if we were meeting for the first time.
Originally settled in the 1820s and ’30s, Manitowoc attracted waves of immigrants from Germany, Britain, Ireland, Canada, and even as far away as Norway. It was incorporated as a city in 1870 and quickly developed a reputation for quality manufacturing; a reputation it has held for more than a century. Shipbuilding became an important industry, from schooners and Mackinaw boats in the 19th century to submarines, landing craft and tankers during World War II.
More than 150 years after its founding, Burger Boat Company is now the oldest custom yacht builder in the United States. It’s celebrated around the world for its custom-designed, hand-built vessels, both recreational and commercial, and it still calls Manitowoc home.
“Customers love that we’re in Manitowoc,” says Ron Cleveringa, Burger’s vice president of sales. “They love that it’s a quaint Midwestern community, and they recognize the Midwestern work ethic. They see the neat, tidy homes and lawns, the clean streets, and how safe it is. And the people here, the employees... the loyalty they have to Burger is amazing.”
“Even today, locals see our community as an industrial one,” echoes Jason Ring, president of the Manitowoc Area Visitor and Convention Bureau. “But that’s been changing in the last 10 years. A lot of our manufacturing is going away, and tourism is replacing some of those jobs.”
Currently home to widely recognized attractions such as the Wisconsin Maritime Museum and the Rahr-West Art Museum, Manitowoc now has several new shopping centers, restaurants and development projects in the works. “So much is happening right now,” Ring says. “Tourism is going to be a major part of our economy; from 2013 to 2019, we’ve committed $30 million to tourism.”
Cruising into Manitowoc, your first stop will be the Manitowoc Marina, located near the heart of the city’s historic downtown. With 250 well-protected, deep-water floating slips, this full-service facility has private showers and restrooms, laundry, repair and refit services, fish-cleaning stations, ship’s store, Captain’s Lounge and deck. Located at 425 Maritime Drive, the marina is within easy walking distance of downtown restaurants and shops.
The Manitowoc Marina also is home to Trawlers Midwest (trawlersmidwest.com), owned by husband-and-wife team Ken and Karen Schuler since 1994. They sell both new and used trawlers and offer a wide variety of sizes and pricing.
Many boaters might consider trailering their vessels, staying at a local hotel or bed-and-breakfast, and hitting the water for day cruises or fishing adventures. If that’s the case, Manitowoc Marina has an uber-efficient, six-lane launch ramp. According to Ring, it never backs up, even on busy summer weekends.
Some visitors from eastern states arrive with a much larger boat: The SS Badger carferry. Built in 1952-53 at Christy Corporation in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, the Badger is the last remnant of Lake Michigan’s storied railroad-freight carferry service. That service officially ended in 1990, but two years later, a retired industrialist named Charles Conrad formed Lake Michigan Carferry Service Inc., refurbished the Badger, and resumed sailings between Manitowoc and Ludington, Michigan. She is the last coal-fired passenger vessel on the Great Lakes, and she has a diehard local fan base. Her throaty horn suite, from famous Two Rivers-based manufacturer Kahlenberg Industries, always elicits smiles and cheers.
Your next stop in Manitowoc is likely to be the Wisconsin Maritime Museum, one of the Midwest’s largest. Ring says the museum is the city’s most popular attraction.
Founded in 1970, the Wisconsin Maritime Museum is a respected leader in preserving the maritime heritage of Manitowoc-Two Rivers, Wisconsin and the entire Great Lakes region. It contains more than 60,000 square feet of exhibit space, with highlights that include the Chief Wawatam steam engine, displays of historic vessels and marine engines, interactive galleries for children, the Aquatic Species Investigative Lab, and the World War II-era submarine USS Cobia.
“This summer, we have a very cool exhibit called ‘Towers of Power,’ which features historic outboard motors,” says Rolf Johnson, the museum’s chief executive officer (see sidebar profile). “Some of them are more than 100 years old.”
Johnson also says the museum continues to offer special live-aboard experiences through the USS Cobia Overnight Education Program. That’s just one of the museum’s many community-focused programs, which include classes, workshops, competitions and summer camps.
Another popular attraction is the Rahr-West Art Museum, located in the historic, Queen Anne-style Joseph Vilas Jr. house. Built in the early 1890s and donated to the city in 1941, the house is now on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s open free to the public, and it’s full of surprises.
“People don’t realize we have such a high-profile collection at the museum,” Ring says. “You’ll see artwork by masters like Picasso, Warhol and O’Keeffe.”
In an interesting twist, the museum hosts a special annual event called Sputnikfest. Apparently, in September 1962, a 20-pound piece of the Sputnik 4 satellite crashed on North 8th Street (a disk marks the spot). When the Rahr-West put a cast of the original piece on display, someone suggested a festival to celebrate the crash. Manitowoc’s first Sputnikfest took place in 2008, and it’s become a city mainstay. This year’s event will take place September 6.
Also on North 8th Street is the Lincoln Park Zoo, another free city attraction. The zoo has “Summer Fun Tuesdays” and “Movie Nights at the Zoo” during the summer months.
It’s not all about cultural attractions in Manitowoc, however. On a beautiful summer day, you can enjoy the city’s recreational opportunities: Hit one of Manitowoc County’s 13 public beaches for swimming and sunbathing; stroll a half-mile along the harbor breakwater to visit the lighthouse; or hike in nearby Point Beach State Forest.
The state forest is home to the Rawleys Point Lighthouse, one of the tallest, brightest and most-photographed Great Lakes lights. It started its career in 1893, as an exhibit at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Afterward, it was disassembled and moved to Rawleys Point, where the steel-skeleton tower replaced an older brick one.
If the weather is less cooperative, check out some of the local shops. And don’t miss a stop at Beerntsen’s Confectionary, a third-generation business that began in 1932 and remains in its original downtown location.
If you’re looking for gifts, Manitowoc seems to have unique items on just about every street corner. Apparently, Manitowoc County has the perfect climate for raising alpacas, so you’ll find businesses that sell raw fibers, yarn and finished products.
“We also have a lot of nautical gifts in the city, of course, but another big seller is cheese,” Ring comments with a chuckle. “Henning’s Wisconsin Cheese is one of the few places that do 1,000-pound blocks!”
Ring also advises that you can enjoy a killer cheese plate at the Courthouse Pub, a popular restaurant with outdoor dining and Manitowoc’s only microbrewery. It has received the Wine Spectator magazine Award of Excellence every year since 2002. The pub can provide shuttle service to and from the marina, or it can deliver to your dock.
And before you leave town, set aside some time to explore the Mariner’s Trail, a 5.5-mile paved recreational trail that connects the cities of Manitowoc and Two Rivers.
“We’re really one of the top coastal cities on Lake Michigan,” Ring says. “Both Manitowoc and Two Rivers are really tied to the shoreline, and the Mariner’s Trail is a gem for both of us. It gives us a sense of pride.”
Indeed, make sure you have enough wiggle room in your schedule to visit the city of Two Rivers (locally known as Trivers). Appropriately named for the West Twin and East Twin rivers, the community’s original town plat was recorded in 1837, when its population hovered at 40, and its economy revolved around commercial fishing and a sawmill.
Like Manitowoc, Two Rivers grew quickly and developed into a manufacturing community, earning a reputation for durable, quality goods. One major player was Kahlenberg Brothers Company, now known as Kahlenberg Industries. Founded in 1895, it’s internationally recognized for sound signaling products, especially ships’ whistles and horns. Countless ships on the Great Lakes boast a Kahlenberg horn, and in 1999, Kahlenberg was chosen to test Titanic’s original whistles when they were retrieved from the North Atlantic.
Despite that proud manufacturing tradition, Two Rivers also is undergoing a transition.
“I like to say that we’re in the process of turning our face toward the waterfront,” says Greg Buckley, city manager. “For example, the 12½-acre Hamilton complex, which dates to the 1880s, is in the process of being cleared. It’s right on the East Twin River, with a 10-foot-deep channel. It’s hard to lose the jobs, but the complex really was a wall between downtown and the waterfront. We’re very excited at the potential for redevelopment.
“We’re planning to construct a beachfront entertainment pavilion at Neshotah Beach, which is one of Lake Michigan’s finest beaches,” he adds. “This will be topped with a colorful tensile fabric structure and will be a focal point for special events like our ‘Kites Over Lake Michigan’ festival and lakefront concerts.”
In the meantime, there’s plenty to see and do. For boaters who wish to stay in Two Rivers for the duration, or to move their boats from Manitowoc as they hopscotch up the lake, Seagull Marina and Twin Cities Marine offer transient dockage and launch ramps.
Twin Cities Marine, Wisconsin’s oldest and largest Boston Whaler dealership, has been family-owned and -operated for 40 years. It offers a fuel dock, fish- cleaning station, hoist, ship’s store with a kids’ play area, restrooms and showers. From here, you’ll have easy access to the beach, playground and library, as well as to downtown shopping, dining and museums.
Once you’re settled, you’ll quickly realize that you’re in the perfect spot to jump aboard a charter vessel for hardcore fishing adventures. After all, this has been a fishing haven for 175 years, and there are still plenty of chances to catch The Big One offshore.
A good place to start is with the Two Rivers Charter Fishing Association, which has nine professionally equipped, crewed charter boats from 28 to 36 feet.
“The captains are experienced derby tournament winners and have years of charter fishing success,” says Michelle Kvitek, the association’s director.
Two Rivers provides 5-, 8- and 10-hour charters (the 10-hour trips can be split between two days). The charter season opens at the end of May and runs through the end of September, or even mid-October if the weather permits.
Kvitek’s most important piece of advice? Book early.
If you’re interested in other watersports, check with the folks at Shipwreck Adventures. They offer kayak and canoe rentals at Paddlers Park on the East Twin River, and recreational snorkel and dive charters to major wreck sites.
There’s plenty to do on land in Two Rivers, as well. If you’re interested in the city’s commercial fishing history, visit the Rogers Street Fishing Village and Museum, which is the traditional headquarters of the Two Rivers commercial fishing fleet.
The complex, located on the East Twin River and featured on the National Register of Historic Places, incorporates several historic buildings, including the 1886 North Pier Lighthouse and an 1877 U.S. Coast Guard Life Saving Station. You’ll also see the 1936 wooden fish tug Buddy O, explore fishing sheds, see an antique Kahlenberg marine oil engine and hear the company’s whistles and horns, and peruse shipwreck displays and artifacts, including items from the legendary Christmas Tree Ship, the Rouse Simmons. She was lost with all hands off Two Rivers on November 23, 1912.
Plan to stop at the Washington House Museum & Visitor’s Center. Originally built in the 1850s as an immigrant hotel, this historic building features its original decorative tin ceiling, rare 1906 ballroom murals, and an old-time saloon that recreates Edward C. Berner’s famous ice cream parlor and soda fountain, where the ice cream sundae was invented in 1881.
The Wisconsin State Historical Society has verified the story. One day, a local holidaymaker asked Berner to drizzle chocolate syrup on his ice cream (which Berner reportedly didn’t think was a great idea), and the sundae was born. Berner would only sell the sweet treat on — you guessed it — Sundays.
After visiting the Washington House, be sure to pop into Schroeder’s Department Store. Founded in 1891, the establishment has been at its current location since 1899, and it’s in the fourth generation of the Schroeder family. Sisters A.J. Schroeder and Theresa Kronforst manage daily operations.
“My great-grandpa, Joseph Schroeder, started the store with his brother,” A.J. Schroeder says. “And today, we stay true to our roots with high-quality merchandise and great service. We still measure people for suits and shoes, things the big-box stores don’t do.”
The family also owned what used to be the Two Rivers Savings Bank, and in 1997, they opened its doors as the Red Bank Coffeehouse. It overlooks Central Park and Main Street and is the perfect spot to take a break and relax.
On a warm summer day, spend a few hours at 50-acre Neshotah Park, which is indeed a crowning gem in the Manitowoc-Two Rivers crown. Neshotah, which means “junction of two rivers” in Ojibwe, incorporates a groomed white-sand beach, playgrounds, picnic areas, softball field, walking paths, bike path, shelters, concession stand, and launch area for kayaks and personal watercraft.
Don’t forget the Mariner’s Trail, and if you have bikes in tow, check out the 6-mile, packed-limestone Rawley Point bike trail that connects Two Rivers with Point Beach State Forest.
“For me, Two Rivers highlights include renting a bike and exploring the 12 miles of trails, and finding a bench to watch the Badger come in,” Buckley says.
He encouraged visitors to Manitowoc-Two Rivers to check the events calendar before planning their trips. Both communities host a variety of festivals throughout the summer season, including Manitowoc’s new “Fourth on the Shore” celebration in early July. The event, launched last year and held in conjunction with the Manitowoc Yacht Club and the Wisconsin Maritime Museum, includes five blocks of activities and waterfront fireworks.
Two Rivers highlights include Carp Fest and the Cool City Classic Car Show in June, and in August the annual “Kites Over Lake Michigan” festival. This signature event, now in its eighth year, attracted 30,000 people last year and saw almost 1,000 kites in the sky at one time.
There are outdoor concerts and farmers’ markets, and both Ring and Buckley note the importance of continuing to provide venues for community events along the lakeshore.
“We know we have to keep enhancing our waterfront because it’s such a major draw,” Buckley says. “It’s our best asset, by far.”
So, have Manitowoc and Two Rivers changed since a little pigtailed girl ate crackling fried smelt for supper, rode the length of Lakeshore Drive in the “way back” of the family wagon, and first learned to row her daddy’s aluminum fishing boat on blue-eyed Lake Michigan days?
In some ways, they haven’t changed at all. They’re still the same friendly, tightly knit, hard-working communities that I knew decades ago.
But now, in the 21st century, they’re coming into their own. The twin cities are now first-rate cruising and trailering destinations, awash in cultural attractions, recreational opportunities, diverse dining options, colorful festivals, and high-energy outdoor events. And they’re continuing to evolve, offering more services and amenities to visitors with every passing season.
There’s no question that Manitowoc and Two Rivers have turned their faces to the waterfront, protecting their rich maritime heritage and embracing a bright, shared future.
Clearly, great things are happening here. And for those of us who’ve always loved this place, it’s a joy to see others discovering the special magic that we’ve known for a long, long time.