Milwaukee Wisconsin is known for its beer. Yes, we sampled beer (more later in this blog), but we also found some other interesting attractions
Milwaukee Old World 3rd Street District
We especially enjoyed walking the 1000 block of Milwaukee’s Old World Third Street District. Particularly interesting were:
- Wisconsin Cheese Mart. This store had the largest selection of Wisconsin cheeses (a number each from more than 90 creameries) that we found, including some very unusual ones, such as a 31-year aged cheddar at $90 per quarter pound!
- The Spice House, with thousands of spices and blends that are stored in large jars. You are encouraged to taste them and drop any excess on the floor.
- Buck Bradley Saloon is an 1856 pub that claims to have the longest bar east of the Mississippi (76.5 ft);
- Usinger Famous Sausage historic plant and retail store;
- Hofbrau Munchen Old German Beer Hall;
- Milwaukee Brat House, an old fashioned spot at which we had lunch (see below)
Other Milwaukee Areas to Check Out
- Riverwalk, a roughly six block walkway along the Milwaukee River that is lined with some of the city’s iconic buildings, such as City Hall and the Pabst Theater and studded with metal sculptures, especially the ever-popular life-size replica of “The Fonz”;
- Milwaukee Public Market, with a number of bars, food stalls and fresh fish and meat;
- North Water Street District, with its Water Street Brewpub (with fun displays of hundreds of beer tap handles and bottle/can openers, and a line of Paddle Taverns (for groups to drink while foot pedaling a round rubber boat);
- Pabst Mansion, a 37-room, so-called Flemish Renaissance Revival structure that is the only survivor of what used to be a street lined with Gilded Age mansions;
- Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, which we did not visit, but whose three seven-story glass domes have become city landmarks; and
- The three-building, star architect (Eero Saarinen, David Kahler, and Santiago Calatrava)-designed Milwaukee Museum of Art (which we did not have a chance to explore).
The Burnham Block
This block has a cluster of six, tiny homes that Frank Lloyd Wright created as prototypes for a new form of very functional and fashionable, yet very affordable homes for working-class families who could not normally afford such homes. The designs are classic Wright, with flat roofs, prominent fireplaces and hidden, low entryways. The primary differences—they are much smaller (about 1,000 sg. ft.), semi pre-fabricated (built according to one of 30 pre-defined designs), made of less expensive materials (such as stained gumwood rather than oak or walnut and were very inexpensive (about $3,000 apiece in 1920 dollars).
Wright designed and built these so-called American System-Built Homes in conjunction with Milwaukee developer Arthur Richards. They were intended to compete with inexpensive mail-order homes then available through the Sears Catalog. Referred to by model numbers, such as BI and C3, most were standalone, single-story homes. A few were two-story, two-unit buildings.
Given that these buildings are open only on selected weekends, we were not able to tour them. They are, however, significantly smaller than Wright’s somewhat more expensive Usonian homes (which we did visit in Manchester New Hampshire). We’ve read that these homes are so cramped and awkward that their market was small. Moreover, the business relationship between Wright and Richards quickly went south and fewer than ten of these buildings were ever built.
While most of the Burnham Block houses are reasonably authentic, a couple have been so changed as to almost unrecognizable. Four of the buildings have now been purchased by a nonprofit and are currently being restored.
Milwaukee County Historical Society
The permanent collection in this beautifully restored bank building traces the history of the city (including a huge old safe).
We mostly focused on a special exhibit that traced the history of Milwaukee through the debate around Prohibition through the 1920s. It examined the pressures for prohibition and profiled the people who campaigned for it and the arguments Milwaukee brewers and officials who campaigned against it, the impacts on the roughly 6,500 Milwaukeeans who were put out of work, the many small breweries that went out of business and how the majors’ other businesses (property rental, hotels, soda, malt syrup, flour, cereal, etc.) allowed them to survive. It traced the failed attempt to sell “near beer” (0.5 percent alcohol) and how many bars survived by converting to soda parlors (often by selling soda with a shot of whiskey). It examined the ways different establishments got around prohibition, the violence and corruption that gradually led to repeal and the ways the city celebrated when repeal was finalized.
The separate but related exhibition on the Jazz Age examined the atmosphere of the late teens and 20s, with the growing popularity of jazz, blues, “risqué” dress and dancing and the economic and social changes that affected Milwaukee from the end of WWI and the Depression. It examined the changes in housing, transportation and the growing importance of radio, the roughly 2X growth in the city’s manufacturing base from WWI to 1930 and the severe shortage of less skilled labor due to restrictions on immigration and the limited number blacks who reached Milwaukee during the post-war migration from the south. While the city did manage to survive the first year of the Depression with little effect, it did suffer in 1932 and 1933, seeing, for example, the number of families on public assistance jump from 1,000 to 140,000, before New Deal programs such as unemployment insurance and social security kicked in.
The Harley-Davidson Museum is veritable history of the iconic American motorcycle company. The museum shows the motorcycles’ history in 450 motorcycles from the 1903 Serial Number One, through the customized, 13-foot long, two-engine King Kong, through current models. The exhibits begin with a history of the company. It started in 1903, and proudly displayed Number One (which may or my not have been the real first motorcycle) which was a bicycle with an engine.
The company formally incorporated in 1907 and by 1914, it was selling more than 20,000 motorcycles. It created a formal service training program by 1917 and had built a worldwide dealer network by 1920.
By the mid-1920s, it began streamlining its bikes for speed and the tastes of the time and began designing bikes specifically for women. By the 1930s—and the depression—Harley had come out with its ServiceCar (to allow merchants and small businesses to deliver goods cheaply) and begun to sell large volumes of machines to police departments. By the early 1940s, it had shifted virtually its entire production to addressing military needs (about 90,000 units during the war, benefited from a market of returning soldiers who learned to ride in the military.
By the end of the war, it began to incorporate a lot of pent-up technological enhancements into its bikes, significantly enhancing performance, comfort and efficiency, and continually streamlining them. Exhibits show the evolution of multiple models of cycles though 2010.
Complementary exhibits focus on areas including:
- The first rocket-propelled cycle that Harley produced in 1977 for a daredevil;
- Evolution of Harley engine technology, with shorter descriptions of everything from frames, suspension systems, gas tanks and taillights;
- The design of and insignias on gas tanks;
- The creation of, uniforms of, and trips taken by Harley-affiliated motorcycle clubs;
- The “bad boy” image of cyclists, which effectively traces back to the post WWII era when disaffected veterans rebelled against the rules and conformity of the 1950s;
- The sale of the company to AMF, which used Harley technologies and engines in golf carts, boats and snowmobiles, the executive buyback of the company in 1981 and its survival of the 1980s recession until the boom years of the 1990s, when Harley sales reached their peak;
- Customization of bikes, including a replica of the Captain America bike from “Easy Rider” and the 1973 Rhinestone Harley that is studded with more than 1,000 stones and dozens of additional lights; the emergence of rigid-frame, stripped-down, hard tail choppers to address the needs of purists, and the gradual enhancement of features within the more austere formats; and
- The evolution of powerful, streamlined racing bikes and the racing culture that emerged around motorcycles.
Even if you are not a motorcycle fan, the museum was a very interesting piece of American history.
Sprecher Brewery Tour
A trip to Milwaukee would not be complete without a brewery tour. Rather than visiting the huge, well-known brewers like Miller, Schlitz and Pabst, we decided on a smaller brewery with which we were not familiar.
Sprecher Brewery was founded by Randy Sprecher in 1985. This Army veteran developed a passion for beer during a posting in in Germany. He worked at Pabst, but was laid off when the company was acquired. While he began by producing a couple beers he brewed in his home, he soon expanded into soft drinks (initially Root Beer) and a growing range of lagers and ales.
Most interesting were the ingredients and the process for making beer. Sprecher beer is made from different types of malt (primarily one of three types of barley–malted, caramel and chocolate–and for a few beers, wheat), hops, water (multi-filtered Lake Michigan water) and yeast. To transform this into beer, they gradually heat the water to a boil, then add the malt and separate the mash (solids which is sold to farmers) from the wort (liquid) to which hops are added in three stages. When ready, the liquid is cooled, the yeast is added and the mixture is left to ferment from three days to three weeks, depending on the type of beer being made. It is then sent to the cold lager cellar to age and then to the line to be bottled. A tour took us through the entire combining and heating of the ingredients in the brew kettle, to the cooling tanks and through the bottling, labeling, casing and palleting processes.
We then returned to the tasting room where, between the two of us, we sampled multiple of Sprechers’ sodas, several of its beers, its two hard ciders, hard root beer and even a few mustards. Among our favorites were the root beer and cream sodas, special amber, IPA, Mai Bock and Abbey Belgian Triple beers, cranberry-apple cider and stone-ground beer mustard.
An interesting, albeit very basic tour and a nice opportunity to taste a wide range of the company’s wares.
- Bacchus was our favorite Milwaukee restaurant. We shared two dishes: seared foie gras with strawberry-rhubarb, brioche French toast, quail egg and maple syrup, and Alaskan halibut with artichoke barigoule, spring carrots and fennel and a rare find on any wine list, a 2016 Lingua Franca AVNA pinot that we discovered in Willamette Valley Oregon
- Sanford Restaurant is an upscale (James Beard Best Chef 2014) restaurant where we split three dishes. Each dish sounded wonderful and was fine, but lacked the finesse that would make them memorable. Our dishes were molasses-glazed quail with seared foie gras, basmati rice, grilled pineapple and pineapple vinegar, sautéed softshell crab with ginger-peach preserves, asparagus and peach reduction, followed by macadamia nut tart with coconut ice cream. The wine, a 2014 Salcheto Vino Nobile di Montepulciano was very good, although it was priced at a steep markup of 3X retail.
- DanDan Restaurant. Who would have thought that a couple Milwaukee boys would create a Chinese restaurant and end up winning a James Beard award for Best Chef(s)-Midwest Although we would have liked a chance to explore the larger dinner menu, we were pleased with our lunch consisting of a number of Cantonese and Thai classics such as Tom Kha soup (lobster broth, red curry, rice noodles and shrimp), vegetarian momo dumplings, pork egg roll, walnut shrimp and chicken and tofu pad Thai. While we prefer those we get in San Francisco, we did enjoy the dishes.
- Milwaukee Brat House. Tom had Usinger bratwurst with everything (sauerkraut, sautéed onion, red peppers, mushroom, poblano pepper and spicy giardiniera) with Lakefront Brewery IPA and Joyce had a Usinger Italian sausage. We enjoyed both.
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