A Weekend in Manitowoc

Part 3

After dinner, we had been graciously asked to join Kathleen Galas and her husband for some evening entertainment along the banks of the Manitowoc River. The occasion was a performance of a play called “Red Tides” at a venue called Tall Ships Theater at the City Hall Riverfront. A 90-foot sailboat had been specially outfitted with lighting and sound to serve as a stage for the performance. The performers also serve as the crew onboard and all members are responsible for some aspect of sailing and maintaining the boat, which has already stopped for performances in many ports of call in the United States, from Florida to the Hudson River and back to the Gulf of Mexico.

Written, directed and produced by Tour Coordinator and Captain of the boat Paul Kirby, Red Tides is: “A work of experimental theater… that conjures a society where myth and poetry were a staple of everyday reality.” Except to say that the performance was a bit avant-garde, I won’t attempt a review. I will say that despite the mosquitoes that were determined to sample some type O-positive from my exposed skin, it was a perfect night to enjoy some theater on the river in Manitowoc.

Red Tides: Tall Ships Theater

After the long performance, our throats were parched and dry. Kathleen knew of a place very nearby where we could stop for a nightcap. Called the Riverbank Lounge, this almost eclectic setting used to be a bank. The building dates from about 1900 and was only recently “refitted” as a place to enjoy cocktails and house specialty hors d’oeuvres. My description of the intimately appointed interior would be woefully inadequate; this is definitely a place that you have to see for yourself.

Even though it was getting quite late, it was the perfect end to a perfect day. We munched on some tasty garlic humus and nut bread and sipped on champagne. This was, as Bob would say, “reeeeaallly livin!” We briefly shared our days’ adventures, then, sleepy-eyed, said goodbye and headed back to the hotel for some well-deserved rest.

Mariner's Trail along Lake Michigan

We awakened early Sunday morning to another marvelous sunrise. The giant ball of fire was floating just above a calm and serene Lake Michigan. We dressed quickly, enjoyed some Eggs Benedict at the hotel restaurant and hopped into the car for a quick ride about two miles north to rent some bicycles at the Village Inn and Suites. We scored some brand new 15-speed Schwinns and headed north on the brand new Mariners Trail bike path that followed the Lake Michigan shoreline from Manitowoc all the way to Two Rivers, Wisconsin.

A $1.1 million cooperative construction effort, the trail is perfect for hikers, walkers and bicyclists; it was one of the nicest trails we have been on. We were surprised at the relative emptiness of the trail. And what a beautiful day for a ride… the temperature was about 75 degrees and there was just enough breeze to keep us cool as we peddled along.

The view was amazing; there no buildings between us and the lake that could block any part of the magnificent blue expanse of Lake Michigan. We pedaled north to Two Rivers, then turned around and retraced our path, returned the bikes and headed back south. We had seen what looked like an extensive flower garden on our way to rent the bikes and we wanted to check it out.

West of the Lake Gardens

What we had seen was West Gardens of Manitowoc.  This is the same West as in the Rahr-West Museum that I mentioned in Part II and I could write volumes on them.  The grounds are a former streetcar right of way purchased by the Wests in 1934.  The house itself is somewhat reminiscent of the style of Frank Lloyd Wright and the 6-acre grounds are almost entirely covered by flowers.  (At one time there were over 30,000 tulip bulbs!) 

The property and gardens were a donation and are now maintained by visitors’ donations and volunteers.  This was essentially an unplanned stop but I’m glad that we took the time.  Not only is the view incredible, the gardens are some of the most colorful and best maintained that I have seen.  It reminded me of the Botanical gardens that I visited long ago in Grey Summit, Missouri.  In any case, one could spend hours here just enjoying the colors, plant varieties and the serenity.  But we had more on our agenda then we had anticipated, so we headed back to town for a quick stop at Beerntsen’s Candies.

S.S. Badger coming into Manitowoc

 On our way we caught a glimpse of the Badger returning from Ludington.  Just making the tight turn to dock once again and pick up another load of cars and tourists, it dwarfed a small fishing boat in the harbor but made the job of maneuvering the huge vessel look like child’s play.  It was a fascinating event to watch.

Beerntsen’s is another building dating from the early 1900’s and the business has been in the family since 1932. The interior was much like those I have seen in buildings from that era. The shiny wooden booths were made from black walnut and had been meticulously maintained. The leaded tiles in the ceiling looked to be original as well and the place was as spotless as Disneyland.

Beernsten's Confectionary

We had decided to stay and have a sandwich; Heidi and I both selected a tuna, cheese and onion sandwich on whole wheat bread. My jaw dropped all the way to the shiny tabletop when I noticed that the sandwich was a mere $2.50! We splurged with one of the house specialties: a tasty Turtle Sundae. Everything was fresh and delicious, including the homemade chocolate items that were displayed in the front of the store. Beerntsen’s makes all of the ice cream and chocolate candy that they serve. At Christmas time, they even make their own candy canes. Now where can you find that anymore?

After lunch we strolled up the street to visit the “Nation’s Largest Kitchen Store.” The title seemed to be exaggerating a bit. But when we stepped through the door of Cook’s Corner, my doubts quickly left me. The store has over 10,000 square feet filled with more kitchen gadgets than I had ever seen in my life. I escaped with only a small dent in my pocketbook and a few items that caught Heidi’s eye. Had I stayed any longer, I’m sure that I would have needed a loan in order to pay for our purchases. I could get a lot of Christmas shopping done in that place!

S.S. Cobia docked outside the museum

There were but a few hours left before we had to head back home and had promised a return trip to the Maritime Museum, so we headed back over the river. (By the way, in case you are wondering, most of these places are within walking distance of one another.) My main goal was to tour the USS Cobia. Although the Cobia herself was not built here in Manitowoc, 28 other World War II submarines were and I had felt a definite need to get inside one.

I toured the U-505 in Chicago many years ago, but if my memory serves me correctly, we didn’t get to see all that much of the boat. The Cobia Tour, on the other hand, was the real deal: the whole nine yards, so to speak. Launched at the Groton, Connecticut Shipbuilding Yard in 1943, the USS Cobia is a Gato class sub: over 300 feet of lean, mean, fightin’ machine that saw two years of action in the Pacific during WW II.

Our tour started topside and then we were led down some stairs that were once the opening through which the torpedoes were lowered into the forward torpedo storage room. Having become increasingly more claustrophobic over my lifetime, I was afraid that I would freak once inside. Surprisingly, it was Heidi who became a little light-headed. But she soon recovered and we both finished the tour without mishap.

Torpedo tubes in the S.S. Cobia

Life aboard a submarine in 1944 must have been incredibly cramped; the Cobia’s crew had to work together like a fine-tuned watch. The men who served aboard her were definitely a breed apart. If the stories of what the men on the Cobia endured while protecting our freedom – like the time spent on the bottom of the ocean barraged by depth charges – are any indication of what war is about, then I suggest that you salute the flag and repeat the Pledge of Allegiance on a regular basis.

I cannot explain the emotions that I felt as I moved from stem to stern. But I could almost hear the wail of the klaxon signaling to dive and the steady pom, pom, pom from the guns on deck as the sub waged a surface battle. After I left the boat, I met one of the men who had served aboard the Cobia. Charles Stewart was in the museum autographing copies of his book: “The Blind Fight.” I was at a loss for words. But to Charles and all those who served aboard submarine boats during WW II, I salute and thank you for the difficult jobs that you did and for your dedicated service to your country.

Much of the Cobia's equipment is still operational

The boat has been almost totally reconditioned and many of her functions are still operable. Families can bring their children on board for an occasional sleepover and tours are given constantly; over 60,000 people take the Cobia tour annually. If you are ever going to be in Manitowoc, the Wisconsin Maritime Museum is a must see place and I can definitely recommend the tour of the USS Cobia. It was my favorite part of the excursion. By the way, don’t forget to purchase some Torpedo Juice after your tour!

While I am sure that I may have missed a thing or two in sharing our journey to Manitowoc with you, I can truly say that we had a wonderful time. It was a whirlwind tour and after the drive home, we collapsed, exhausted on the bed and quickly fell asleep. But it was a fabulous two-day trek that, as far as I can tell, was well worth the time. Thanks to all who helped make our stay in Manitowoc a memorable one. You have a great city on the Greatest of the Great Lakes!

R. Karl