A Weekend in Manitowoc - Part 1

There are at least a hundred reasons that make me know that summer is drawing to a close. I have watched the sun and it has started its annual race to the south, the evenings are, in general, cooler and the signs for “Help Wanted” are in all the store windows where the high school and college students have worked – just to name a few. These and other things mean that I must soon return my boat to its winter resting place until next season.

Manitowoc sign

But just because school is about to start is no reason to forget about taking another trek, is it? I think not! This weekend I am going to take some time and squeeze in another journey into Wisconsin. There is a city on the edge of one of the greatest of the Great Lakes – Michigan – by the name of Manitowoc, to which I have wanted to journey.

The name itself has the ring of Native American Heritage. The Indians called it mune-owk, and it meant “spirited land.” Manitowoc hugs the shoreline of Lake Michigan; it is a city of about 35,000 people and one of the cleanest I have visited. My assumption is that the residents take great pride in their city as well as their personal residences. Its heritage is one of rich maritime history, fur trading and the lumber industry. It is this trip that I wish to describe to you.

Heidi and I left the suburbs of Chicago at approximately 7:00 am on Saturday morning and headed north on some of the “back roads” that are my desired alternative to the Interstate Highway System. (We are fortunate enough to live in the western suburbs where we actually have an alternate choice to the Illinois Tollway.) It took a little over an hour to get north of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin and onto Route 43, headed toward Milwaukee. In about two hours we were already north of Milwaukee; even on a Saturday, the traffic had already thinned somewhat.

We took a brief detour at Kohler, WI just to see where it was and to make a note of the fact that one of our next trek would have to be a visit to the Kohler Kitchen Designs and the famed American Club there. I’ll be sure to let you know about that trip. After a total of only about 3 ¾ hours on the road – including the “detour” – we were pulling in to the Visitor Center at the edge of Manitowoc.

The S.S. Badger in port at Manitowoc

After a brief visit with the president of the Visitor and Convention Bureau, Kathleen Galas (who, by the way, was a tremendous help in planning our brief visit), we were on our way to see the S.S. Badger, the car ferry that travels back and forth between Manitowoc and Ludwig, Michigan.

We had a brief conversation with a Badger employee named Del before boarding the ferry. Del, a veteran high school teacher, has spent the past 22 summers working for the Badger. He said that he has never had a true “Summer Vacation.” One can tell he really likes his summer work and is knowledgeable on the subject as well. Soon Stephanie, the Cruise Director for the last six years on board the Badger, came down from the huge ship and welcomed us aboard for a brief tour.

Seems that this year is the 50th anniversary for the ferry. In her early years (Built in 1952 by the Christy Corp. of Sturgeon Bay, WI) she only carried things like railroad cars, lumber and the like across the lake. Due to dropping revenues and the need for her services, she was basically mothballed in 1990. In 1991 Charles Conrad purchased the Badger, thinking that maybe it would be cool if the Badger was fixed up and outfitted to carry passengers.

To make a long but very interesting story very short, the S.S. Badger was refitted and resumed cross-lake services on May 18th, 1992. She now makes a couple of four hour, sixty-mile trips daily from Manitowoc to Ludington, Michigan and back from about May until October, carrying a max of about 180 cars (although she has carried everything from motorcycles to race cars to other boats to freight cars to… well as I said, everything imaginable has made the trip!) and about 600 passengers.

The Badger is a huge vessel with all the amenities aboard, including restaurant and lounge facilities, a movie theater, children’s play areas, a small maritime museum and a well-stocked gift shop. One can ride inside in air-conditioned comfort or enjoy the fresh air from the deck that surrounds the ship. There are also 39 staterooms that are available for sleeping and resting. Del even told us of a gentleman who spends his week-long vacation just riding the Badger and relaxing with several good books.

A long blast on the horn reminded us that our brief tour had come to an end… we needed to disembark before we found ourselves stowaways on our way to a 4-hour cruise back to Ludington, Michigan! A last look back at the Badger showed that her cavernous cargo area was just about full with cars and the last of the passengers were climbing along a stairway to the upper decks.  We will definitely be back for a trip across the lake in the near future.

Pine River Dairy

Although it was a drop-dead gorgeous day, we both had a hankerin’ for an ice cream cone. Kathleen had provided us with directions to a small dairy just a few miles from town, so we headed out. About 5-10 minutes later we arrived at the Pine River Dairy. We were amazed by the sign out front: 25¢ ice cream cones! The place was very small, but most of the products were made right there on the farm – including the ice cream, and boy, was it tasty and refreshing.

The variety of cheeses was incredible for a small store and there were many other products there – like sausage, butter, chocolate, etc – as well. The Olm family has owned and operated the dairy for over 60 years. Had we not been so stoked for tonight’s dinner – more on that later – we would have probably eaten two double-dip cones… apiece!  We sat in the shade, enjoying the piece, quiet and French silk pie ice cream, and then headed back to town for a tour of the Rahr-West Art Museum.

R. Karl

Read Part 2 of "A Weekend In Manitowoc"