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Prior to European contact, the Manitowoc-Two Rivers area was a lightly-populated backwater more or less in the domain of the Potawatomi people. When the fur trade commenced in the late 1600s, it stayed out of the way. Voyageurs traveling south on the lake bypassed it for Milwaukee and Chicago, while traders bound for the interior and the Mississippi River paddled the Fox-Wisconsin River route via Green Bay.
As the strife, disease and general upheaval of the fur trade descended on their homeland in Illinois and southern Wisconsin, the Potawatomi found refuge in Manitowoc. They welcomed -- at least tolerated -- displaced people from other tribes. In the early 1700s, a community of Chippewa, Ottawa, Potawatomi and other refugees occupied the Lake Michigan shore from Sheboygan north into Door County. For people in need of refuge, it was a very pleasant place.
The land was mostly forested, with white pine and hemlock on the light soil, hard maple and oak on the clay ground, tamarack and aspen in the lowlands. Rising in the uplands east of Lake Winnebago, the rivers were short, narrow and rapids-strewn until they met the lake, where they spread over shallow estuaries, replete with fish, waterfowl and wild rice.
The East and West Twin Rivers met at the lake with room in between for the village that became Two Rivers. Ten miles to the southwest, the largest of the local rivers entered the lake at the point known as Manitowoc or "the place of spirits."
The land where these rivers flowed had everything the Indians needed to live as comfortably as their ancestors had for centuries. In the early 1800s, about seven hundred people inhabited the Manitowoc-Two Rivers locale.
The peace of the region was not disturbed until the fur trader known as Jean Vieau arrived with his family and crew of voyageurs in 1795. The glory days of the trade in the Lakes region had passed and Vieau's overseers at the Northwest Company sent him to scrounge up whatever fur he could find along the Manitowoc. Vieau was hospitably greeted by Waumegesako, chief of the mixed band of Indians living in the place of spirits. It was Waumegesako's misfortune to preside over the demise of his people that Vieau's arrival heralded. The decline of the fur trade, introduced diseases (smallpox, cholera), and the arrival of American settlers brought about the end of the Indian idyll at Manitowoc.
In the very same year that Jean Vieau set up his trading bench at Manitowoc, Benjamin Jones was born in Massachusetts. In 1833, he came west on a lake schooner and landed at Chicago. The village was booming and Jones prospered in a mercantile partnership with his brother William, but he had little faith in the future of the settlement at the tip of the lake.
The Black Hawk War of 1832-33 had raised interest in the territory north of Illinois and Jones thought it was worth more than a look. By 1836, land in the lakeshore counties of the new Wisconsin Territory had been surveyed and offered for sale out of the Green Bay land office. Working with legal descriptions and the best maps they could obtain, the Jones brothers selected 2,000 acres at the mouth of the Manitowoc River and laid down $1.25 per acre cash money to buy it. In short time Benjamin Jones traded real estate in downtown Chicago for his brother's share in the Manitowoc venture.
In the spring of 1836, Jones dispatched a crew of forty workers to clear the Manitowoc site and lay out a city according to the plat he had drawn up in Chicago. Soon after landing, all but five of the crew deserted. Believing that if he wanted it done right, he had to do it himself, Jones arrived with another crew early in 1837. He kept them on the job and they cleared a parcel of ground stretching from Huron Street on the north side of the river, Division street on the south side, and as far west as 14th Street. They staked out streets and lots, built a sawmill on the river, a house for Jones on the high bank nearby and a lodging house he called the National Hotel. A new city was born on the frontier. If he was tempted to rename the site in his own honor, Jones did not succumb. The United States did not need another spot on the map labeled Jonesville, but a Manitowoc "city" it did not yet have.
Jones' new village -- and the return on his investment -- started to grow. After a year Manitowoc had about sixty inhabitants. Upstream from "Manitowoc City,” at the mill site Jacob Conroe called Manitowoc Rapids, another village was developing. It would merge with Jones "City" and Conroe was just as much the founding father of the today's city as Jones.
At the mouth of the Twin Rivers, the Two Rivers settlement was growing around the sawmill of Oliver Longvine. Other village developers built mills at water power sites farther up the streams.
Conroe sold boards to settlers, but he also wanted to ship the output of his sawmill to the nation's largest lumber market in Chicago. To get the boards downstream to the lakefront he asked a Green Bay shipbuilder named Joseph V. Edwards to relocate and assemble a few flat-bottomed scows. Edwards obliged, first for Conroe and then for Jones. With these humblest of work vessels Edwards gave birth to the shipbuilding industry at Manitowoc. Ten years later, in 1847, he built the lake schooner Citizen, and this vessel--instead of the scows--is more suitably remembered as the mother ship of the industry at Manitowoc.
Edwards also set up a fishing operation on the beach at Two Rivers. He and a small crew dropped their first "pond nets" in the waters between Manitowoc and Two Rivers and reportedly hauled out fish enough to fill ten barrels totaling 2,000 pounds. Edwards partnered with a Detroit fisherman named J.P. Clarke and--for a few years at least--tapped the virgin waters to harvest 2,000 barrels of fish a season.
All seemed to be going well until the summer of 1837 turned to fall. Then the first wave of the national economic depression washed over the Wisconsin frontier. Trade died. The sawmills stopped cutting. Settlement halted and many of Manitowoc-Two Rivers’ initial residents were forced to leave.
The villages stagnated in a region that was still a backwater. The lake trade steered south to Milwaukee and Chicago. Green Bay was still the entrepot for inland travel. No one in either city was much interested in traveling cross-country through the woods to Manitowoc. Thanks to the lake, the struggling community maintained its link to Chicago. Merchants there purchased what little Manitowoc's settlers could offer in return for the few consumer items they could afford.
As the Chicago connection illustrates, from its earliest days, Manitowoc looked to the lake. An inland city thinks of itself as the center of a political, social and economic community -- and it usually is. Manitowoc was the "center" for the hinterland arcing around it, but the lake broadened its vision.
Its people shipped out as crew on steamers bound for Buffalo and Duluth. Its docks, busy with passengers from other states and nations, were as important to the city as railroad depots inland. Workers here built ships to carry cargo from Thunder Bay to Buffalo. Local fishermen came to know the price of whitefish in Chicago and of lake trout in Green Bay. Political and business leaders lobbied state and federal governments, not just to "improve" their own harbor, but to widen and broaden the waterways in Minnesota, Michigan and New York. All of this would come later, but the habit of looking to the lake was fixed in the 1830s when only Benjamin Jones, Jacob Conroe and a few score others hunkered down at their new city on the lake.
Nearly a decade passed before the national economy recovered, the pace of migration to Wisconsin Territory quickened and the tide turned at Manitowoc. In 1847, no more than eighty-nine people called Manitowoc home. By 1860, the population crossed the three thousand mark. The "city" -- still officially a village-- had wrested the county seat from Conroe's Manitowoc Rapids and, after a contentious row between the north and south sides, built a new court house on Eighth and Washington .
Industrial activity was based on natural resources. A foundry processed bog ore into iron tools. Loggers cut pine and cedar for the building trades, hemlock bark for the tanneries at Manitowoc and Two Rivers, plus hard maple and oak for ship's timbers, railroad ties and barrel staves and to be burned into ashes for soap. Increasingly, the logs came from settlers slowly but steadily clearing their land for farming. As they developed the hinterland, the farmers made Manitowoc their market center, bringing trade to merchants and professionals who set up shop "downtown."
Fisherman, whose shanties stood on piles over the Manitowoc and on the sand at Two Rivers, hauled loads of whitefish for the local trade, but also to be shipped "up" the lake to Chicago. The Manitowoc port was developing as well, with four piers thrusting out into the waves for shallow-draft schooners and smaller steamboats to take on cargo and off load. In 1859, more than one thousand sail and steam-powered vessels anchored at those piers and filled their holds with nearly thirty million dollars of goods for trade up or down the lakes. The course for both Manitowoc and Two Rivers as specialized manufacturing centers was laid in the 1850s.
They were both well on their way when the Civil War brought grief and pain to patriots, soldiers and their loved ones, as it stimulated the economy.
Harbor of Refuge
As Manitowoc boosters proclaimed, their city was ordained by nature to be a major Lake Michigan port.
"Manitowoc is situated about 170 miles from [the lake's] most southern point and about 190 miles from the straits of Mackinaw, through which its waters mingle with those of Lake Huron… The city is distant only 58 miles from Ludington, lying opposite on the eastern shore... About eight miles north of the straight line connecting these cities the width of the lake is contracted to about fifty miles by two projecting points. [Big Point Sable in Michigan and Rowley's Point northeast of Two Rivers].The protection afforded by the latter has always rendered Manitowoc a favorite harbor of refuge in storms."
To a sailor, especially a 19th-century sailor, having a "harbor of refuge" half way up or down the west side of Lake Michigan was a life and death matter. Years before Ben Jones and company landed at Manitowoc, lake sailors knew they could round Rowley's Point and head southwest to find shelter from storms blowing out of the west, northwest, north and the northeast. Rowley's did not shelter ships from storms blowing from the east or southeast, but neither did any other point on the Wisconsin shore. The waters in front of Manitowoc and Two Rivers were a "harbor of refuge" long before their port facilities were improved.
Getting into the harbor of refuge on the proverbial dark and stormy night was no easy chore. To help ships find their way, the U.S. erected lighthouses at Twin Rivers Point and, in 1875, at Two Rivers. Five years later the Life Saving Service assigned a crew to Two Rivers. Of all the people who ventured on the lake, none were more courageous than the men of the Life Saving Service. They launched their boats into waves that were already sinking larger vessels and rowed out to help. In November 1902, the steamer W.L. Wetmore was foundering in sight of the Two Rivers light. Oliver Pilon, a Two Rivers native, was captain of the station. Under his direction, his men saved the entire crew of the Wetmore and Pilon himself was awarded the Life Saving Medal. The Lake Saving Service stayed at Two Rivers until 1915, when it was replaced by a Coast Guard vessel that could batter its way through storms. Although moved from its original site, the Two Rivers Lighthouse remains in service, because lake sailors still need a harbor of refuge.
"Improvements" to the natural harbors at Manitowoc and Two Rivers came in the form of dredging the river channels and constructing piers and breakwaters to provide shelter from the easterly gales. It took decades of effort from local businesses and governments, plus federal funding provided by Congressman Philetus Sawyer [the king of earmarks in the 1890s] to deepen the rivers and build the docks and breakwaters to accommodate the largest of lake vessels.
That the lake was narrower at Manitowoc than farther south was not all that important until the railroads needed a port for their car ferries. (The "cars" being ferried were railroad cars, not autos.) In their heyday, the car ferries could make two round trips daily from Manitowoc to Ludington. The fact that Manitowoc was not much of a railroad center also helped bring the ferries there. The car ferry lines didn't have to compete for space with other railroads, as they would have at Chicago or Milwaukee. Despite the boosters, the first car ferry out of Manitowoc in 1896 steamed to Frankfort, Michigan, not Ludington. In 1897, the Flint and Pere Marquette Railroad started regular ferry service from Manitowoc to Ludington and the Wisconsin Central followed a few years later. Both these lines built their own landing slips on the south side to access the lake. One is still in use today.
The railroads used car ferries to move freight across the upper Midwest in order to avoid days of delay in the congested Chicago yards. Since the entire car was shipped on the ferry, no time was lost unloading and loading the freight inside. This practice of not "breaking" the load was the precursor of the modern container method of moving freight by sea, rail or semi-trailer.
Because water transport was/is the cheapest and fastest way to move bulk items, Manitowoc became an important port for coal that was loaded onto rail cars and delivered to power plants, factory and home furnaces throughout Wisconsin. Likewise, the city became home to the Manitowoc Portland Cement Company, located right on the river so the clay and lime used to make cement and the finished product could be shipped via the lake.
The Manitowoc River was an integral part of the port. Before turning directly east to empty into the lake, the river oxbows around what was first known as "Luep's Island," later the Peninsula. The low, sandy flatland was the home of shipbuilders and repair shops -- the heart of the industry at Manitowoc. Lake vessels also used the river as an anchorage when winter ice kept them off the lake. In winter the river looked like one large, elongated marine parking lot.
But the river was narrow, which presented Manitowoc shipbuilders with a problem. They could not launch their ships by conventional means. As we all know from the newsreels, new ships are supposed to slide majestically down the "ways" lengthwise, with the stern first into the water, followed gracefully by the bow. Cramped by the narrow river, Manitowoc builders had to be less majestic. They launched their boats sideways. The entire ship crashed into the water at once, raising a great wave as it bobbed over on its side. Just when it looked as if the ship would roll completely over, the wave it generated when it first hit the water rebounded in the narrow channel to push the vessel upright. Launching a ship was always a public event and a crowd usually assembled to watch the big splash -- and to see if this time the boat would roll over. As the ships grew bigger--300, 400, 600 feet -- so did the splash, the wave and the crowd. At the start of the World War II sub building program, more than a few old salts from the blue water Navy were convinced that submarines launched Manitowoc style would turn bottom up in the river, but none did.
Port of Entry
Manitowoc became a "port of entry" in 1854. That meant that foreign ships, i.e. Canadian, could legitimately dock there. Although nowhere near the number who landed at Milwaukee, European immigrants seeking new homes in Wisconsin landed at Manitowoc.
Steamship companies offering regular service to other lake ports started to land in the late 1840s, but it was not until the Goodrich Line inaugurated service in 1856, that Manitowoc received regular service. Although headquartered in Chicago Goodrich kept offices in Manitowoc, commissioned new ships to be built there and maintained and wintered its fleet at its dock in the river.
Always complementary to freight hauling, passenger service gradually diminished in the 20th century. It became more convenient to travel by train, then by auto. In 1970, the Milwaukee Clipper stopped carrying passengers and autos across the lake from Milwaukee. Originally built in 1915 and all but rebuilt to look like an ocean liner in Manitowoc in 1940-41, the Clipper was the last of her kind to serve Milwaukee. In 1990, theS.S. Badger, the last passenger, railcar and auto ferry to cross the lake, stopped sailing between Manitowoc and Ludington. Revived in 1995, the Badger continues to carry autos and people across the lake today.
His ships were fast sailboats, beautiful and—minus the steam engine—economical, but Bates was no purist. In the same year he launched the Challenger, he also produced the Union and the Sunbeam, both side-wheel-driven steamboats for the Goodrich Line.In 1851, William Bates and his crew completed the schoonerChallenger. It is recognized as the first ship of its kind designed for the lake trade. Bates based his design on the ocean-going clipper ships built on the eastern seaboard for the China trade. The clippers were the fastest merchant sailing vessels built and represented the last hurrah of the wind-powered era. Manitowoc became known for the speed and beauty of its schooners and dubbed itself the Clipper Cityin their honor.
That is the point to be remembered about Manitowoc shipbuilding—the variety of the vessels built. It is easy to be taken up with the World War II submarine story, but it is only a portion of the whole. Manitowoc built 28 submarines in about five years and more than a thousand other ships in the 170 years since Joseph Edwards launched the Citizen.
Built in Manitowoc
Mackinaw boats. 18-25 ft. two-masted sailboats; the fishermen's workhorse, built in small yards in Manitowoc and Two Rivers. Later replaced by motorized "gill net" tugs and trawlers of a type still in use today.
Schooners. Easy on the eye, but smaller and slower than steamers and more vulnerable to bad weather; owned by individual captains who made a precarious living; the last one was built in 1889. Many were dismasted and towed as scows to haul cargo. The most famous is the Rouse Simmons, "Christmas tree ship." Built in Milwaukee, its link to Manitowoc/Two Rivers is that it sank off Two Rivers on its way from Michigan to Chicago in 1912.
Lumber "hookers". Small, rugged, steam powered cargo boats.
Steam passenger and freight haulers. Steam side-wheeled and "propellors," all wood at first, then steel. In the World War I era, Manitowoc built steel-hulled, diesel powered lake freighters, many of which left the lakes to sail the oceans.
Tugs. Small boats with big engines, used to move other boats into and out of harbors and to tow barges and scows.
Yachts. Sail, steam and diesel. Perhaps the most famous is the Coast Guard patrol boat Electra, which Franklin Roosevelt turned into the presidential yacht, Potomac. Later, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Elvis Presley, bought it, making it the only royal yacht built in Manitowoc.
Rail car ferries. The first in use at Manitowoc were not built here, but many of the latter vessels were and just about all of them were maintained, refitted or rebuilt here.
World War II Naval Vessels. Submarines; LCT or Landing Craft Tank, used by the Navy to get tanks on the beaches in the Pacific; Search and Rescue boats to find downed aviators; Sub-Chasers to destroy submarines; Minesweepers; Seagoing rescue tugs; Shipyard maintenance boats.
Recreational fishing boats. Homebuilt in many a local backyard; also Mirro-Craft boats, first made by Mirro Aluminum in 1956. In 1982, moved to Gillett WI, but still called Mirro-Craft.
Also. Bulk carriers for grain, coal and cement; oil tankers, derrick boats, dredges, barges, scows and other types of craft for work on the water.
Shipbuilding means more than original construction. Ships were in constant need of repair and were often torn apart, redesigned, remodeled and rebuilt. Equipped with massive dry docks to lift entire ships out of the water, the Manitowoc shipyards performed maintenance work on locally made ships but also on just about any kind of ship that sailed Lake Michigan.
Although the list of shipbuilders at Manitowoc is long, the most important always seem to include the name Burger. A German immigrant raised in Milwaukee, Henry B. Burger married a Manitowoc gal and moved north in 1863. He started making Mackinaw boats, moved up to schooners and in 1870 formed a partnership with Greenleaf Rand. They built boats together until Rand died in 1885. Henry then took his nephew George into the business. They acquired a dry dock and added repairs work to their line of services. In 1902, Burger and Burger sold their yard to the newly incorporated Manitowoc Shipbuilding and Dry dock Company.
Henry B. Burger's nephew, also named Henry B. Burger, had started his own company, the Henry B. Burger Shipyard in 1892. He did well until his death in 1914. The following year his wife and four children incorporated the Burger Boat Company, which remained in the family until 1976. The company survives today with new owners who maintain its focus on luxury yachts.
The Manitowoc Shipbuilding and Dry dock Company discontinued wooden ship building in 1902 and built a six hundred foot dry dock capable of handling any ship on the lakes. After World War II the company was reorganized as the Manitowoc Company. It now is a leading manufacturer of ice making equipment and construction cranes. As lake ships grew too large for its docks, the Manitowoc Co. moved its shipbuilding and maintenance work to Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, Cleveland, Ohio, and Marinette, Michigan. It was a black day in 1968, when the cranes, arc welders and dry docks of Lueps Island went idle for the first time in a century.
Manitowoc and the surrounding area experienced a rush of settlement in the 1850s. Accordingly, a substantial number of German and Irish immigrants joined the native born white Americans who moved there. They were joined by a small number of Norwegians and a significant number of Bohemians/Czechs. The Poles made their greatest influx in the 1860s and 1870s, when they built St. Mary's church on "Polish Hill."
Manitowoc is part of the German belt of eastern Wisconsin, where to this day about fifty percent of the population has German ethnic roots. At Manitowoc in 1860, more than fifty percent of residents were foreign born. One third of them were German. Of the city's four newspapers, three were English language and one German. In that presidential election year, the Republicans pulled out the biggest German gun in their arsenal, Carl Schurz, and dispatched him to Manitowoc to rally Deutscher voters for Abraham Lincoln. The Railsplitter needed help to overcame the Irish Democrats led by local newsman Jeremiah Crowley. Lincoln carried Manitowoc County by only ninety-four of about 4,000 votes cast. In the city, the German vote helped him beat Stephen Douglas, 480-221.
Still pursuing the German vote, the Republicans nominated Edward Salomon to run for Lieutenant Governor in the fall of 1861. Born in Germany in 1828, he migrated to Manitowoc, taught school, and was elected surveyor and clerk of courts. He moved to Milwaukee to study law, connected with Schurz and worked for Lincoln in 1860. Salomon was elected Lieutenant Governor with Lewis Harvey as Governor late in 1861.
Harvey drowned while visiting Wisconsin troops serving in the Union Army in Tennessee in April 1862 and Salomon became Governor. Thirty four-years-old, he was the youngest Wisconsin Governor and the first who was not born in the United States. The war was the great issue of the day. When the draft was instituted in the summer of 1862, a group of immigrants in Ozaukee County, mainly Germans, resisted the call and rioted. The "German" Governor found himself forced to send troops to Port Washington to suppress "German" opponents of the draft. At the same time, three of Edward Salomon's brothers were in the Union Army and Frederick was in command of a "German Regiment" fighting in Missouri. Their service is commemorated with a tablet set in a stone on the court house lawn in Manitowoc.
Although Salomon's record as Governor was creditable, the Republicans did not nominate him for office again. He left Wisconsin in 1869, practiced law and tried to start a political career in New York, and returned to Germany in 1892, where he lived until his death in 1909.
John Schuette was the man of all business in Manitowoc. Arriving with his parents and a houseful of brothers and sisters from Germany in 1849, Schuette went to work. His father opened the general store that developed into the landmark Schuette's Department Store. It was known as the last locally-owned traditional department store in Wisconsin when it closed a few years ago. John and his brother Henry took over the store when their Dad died in 1870. Henry stayed in the store and it passed down through his family.
John entered politics, served in the legislature and as mayor for several terms and worked for economic development. He headed up local efforts to improve the harbor, build the first dry dock and grain elevator, bring railroads to the city, and establish furniture and farm implement manufacturers.
In addition, John opened the Oriental Mills to grind flour from grain that could not be shipped out via the elevator, and also founded the Manitowoc Savings Bank. In 1889, he started the city's first electric utility, using coal fired steam engines to drive Edison DC generators. He stayed in the electric business until the city purchased the plant in 1914.
Manitowoc was too far off the direct rail routes to become a shipper of grain, so Schuette sold the elevator to brewer William Rahr, who used it to store grain for his malting operation. Rahr closed his brewery when Prohibition was enacted, but the malting operation, now part of Anheuser-Busch, along with grain elevators larger than anything John Schuette imagined, remain in Manitowoc today. It is part of the legacy John Schuette left to the city.
Near the end of his years in 1906, Schuette—the Ur-capitalist—addressed the Manitowoc Historical Society and said, "Manitowoc is a most beautiful spot, and ideal socialistic city in the sense that we have no millionaires nor a poor class, that wealth is more uniformly distributed than in others, and if all were equally divided, it would not greatly change conditions."
Schuette was not the only 19th century capitalist to believe, or at least say, that he—with the biggest house in town, a bank account to match, and tended by a flock of servants—wasn't very different than the immigrant Polish dockworker loading coal on a boat with a wheelbarrow twelve hours a day. But Schuette's perspective is off only by degree. He was a penniless immigrant when he landed at Manitowoc. The place provided opportunity and he worked hard to make the most of it. For most of its history, Manitowoc offered the same opportunity to others. It was a place that worked.
Charles Viebahn - Emily Richter
The first kindergarten in the United States was established by Margarethe Meyer Schurz (Carl's wife) in Watertown, Wisconsin in 1856. It was a private school based on the early childhood educational philosophy of Frederick Froebel and survived for about one year.
In 1872, the Manitowoc city council hired a German-educated teacher, Charles Frederic Viebahn, to be principal of the First Ward School, on the "German" south side. At the time, public schools in Wisconsin were obligated to admit any willing student between the ages of four and twenty. The youngest children were lumped together into the multi-grade "primary" department.
Viebahn was a Froebelian and committed to the kindergarten concept. Shortly after taking over at the First Ward school, Viebahn placed a young graduate of Milwaukee's German-English Academy, Emily Richter, in charge of the primary department and directed her to establish a kindergarten. Richter opened her first kindergarten at the First Ward (Roosevelt) School on South 8th Street in 1873. It was the first public school kindergarten in Wisconsin (one source says the United States), and unlike the Schurz effort at Watertown, it lasted for more than one year. In a few years, every public school in the city had a kindergarten program for its youngest students and Manitowoc was known in educational circles for the success of its endeavors.
In time, the kindergarten was divided into the four-year-old "Juniors" and the five-year-old "Seniors." The Junior program survived until 1958, when the baby boon increased enrollments and the legislature chose to discontinue state funding for four-year-old kindergarten. The Senior program survived. In the 1990s, as the number of parents entering the work force increased, educators rediscovered the value of "pre-school" education and four year old kindergartens returned to the public schools.
Charles Viebahn moved up to become superintendent of schools for all of Manitowoc county and, in the 1880s he joined the faculty of the State Normal School at Whitewater. Emily Richter spent the rest of her working life teaching in Manitowoc schools. She died at age 91 in 1941.
Turner Opera House
Any sizable German community in Wisconsin had a Turnverein and Manitowoc was no exception. The Turners espoused the classical ideal of a "sound mind in a sound body," and their philosophy combined scholarship with athletics. They were also humanists, who did not believe in the Christian faith shared by the majority of Germans and other community members as well.
The Manitowoc Turners built their Hall/Opera House on South 7th between Jay and Washington in the 1850s. It served as the meeting place, gymnasium, concert and performance hall for the south side of Manitowoc. The Turner Opera House was renamed the Orpheum in 1911, and rented out for traveling shows and moving pictures. The Germans had become "Americans" and no longer needed it.
Aluminum magnate George Vits purchased the property in 1919 and maintained it as a meeting hall for city Boy Scouts and as an armory for the local National Guard. It was demolished in 1931.
Czech subjects of the King of Bohemia established communities in the eastern part of the state from Racine to Kewaunee, including Manitowoc and Two Rivers in the 1850s. Although predominantly Catholic, the Manitowoc community was diverse enough to support a Slovanska Lipa or Linden Tree organization. An national independence organization in Bohemia, the Slovanska Lipa was a cultural and social society in the US. It was affiliated with the Sokol physical culture movement, which resembled the German Turnverein. In the late 1880s, the Lipa built a two story opera house in the heart of the Bohemian neighborhood on the north side of Manitowoc.
Members of the Sokol used the first floor gymnasium for individual exercise and to perfect group drills requiring coordination, precision and physical fitness. The second floor was reserved for meetings, dances, music concerts, dramatic performances and exhibitions for everything from prize poultry to Manitowoc's first auto shows. The "Bohemian Opera House" was also used for non-ethnic related events, like graduation ceremonies for Lincoln High School and the County Normal School.
A bar served nickel beer to grey-haired pinochle players on quiet afternoons. Wines from the cellar were served at dances. It became a regular stop for vaudeville performers and lecturers. Silent movies, including the seminal Birth of a Nation, complete with musical accompaniment, were shown on a screen lowered from the ceiling.
In the 1920s, Prohibition cut into receipts from beer and wine sales, new movie theaters with permanent seating and better projection and sound equipment were built downtown and--perhaps most significant, the generation that felt comfortable in "Bohemian" surroundings had passed. Their children were Americans.
One writer called Manitowoc, "the pride of the polka belt," an apt title for a city brimming with Germans, Bohemians and Poles. About the same time as the amalgamation of European, African and American music known as jazz was taking place in New Orleans, local musicians in the Manitowoc area were putting together their own combination of traditional music from central Europe, American pop and country tunes.
The Pilsen Band was a six-piece brass band, with a tiny E-flat clarinet for the high notes and alto and bass horns to put the "boom" in their boom-tah sound. The Pilsen songbook included march-likegalops, reelsfor country dances, landlers that resembled waltzes, the two-step or slow polka, and theschottische, in which dancers hooked arms side to side, took three steps forward then kicked. With that repertoire, a band could keep a crowd of dancers happy all night in any town from Manitowoc to Kewaunee and back to Green Bay.
The first four decades of the 20th century was the golden age for groups like Dan Zahorik's Band, Cy Urbanik's Players, Berkey's Bluebirds, Tiny Laude's Orchestra and the Lyric Orchestra, which featured a piano, drummer, trumpet, trombone, bells, two saxes and a banjo. In Manitowoc they played at the Bohemian and Turner Halls, the Blue Ribbon Hall, Becker's Beer Garden and Zboralski's Hall. The combination of the automobile and Prohibition made road houses located in the lightly-policed countryside popular, so city bands traveled. They also played at barn dances and picnics, on lake excursion boats and, after 1926, on WOMT radio.
Of all the Manitowoc bandleaders, the most famous was Romy Gosz. A natural born musician who started playing the piano as a boy, Romy started in a family orchestra with his three brothers in the early 1920s. In 1931, he started his own band but needed a trumpet player. None could be found so he took up the horn himself and played lead from the band's first gig. The Romy Gosz Orchestra was a quick success and in 1933, they cut their first record, The Pilsen Polkaat a studio in Grafton. Over the next five years, they made another 74 records on the Decca, Okee, Brunswick and Columbia labels, including the Barnswallow Polka, thePicnic in the Woods and the Depression anthem, Broke But Happy Polka.
In their heyday, they'd play a road house dance on Saturday night, drive home Sunday morning for a noon radio show, then play a park concert in the afternoon, before hitting the road for another dance on Sunday night. In the 1940s, they moved on to tour Texas and California and traveled to New York to cut records for Mercury.
Like other musicians of his generation, Gosz fell out of fashion in the 1950s. After he died, one fan pronounced an epitaph for the man and his era. "When he lived the dance floor was filled with happy people. When he died--standing room only. The church was full."
French and Fishing
The voyageurs of the fur trade era were the original "French" or French-Canadian settlers of Wisconsin, but the migration of francophones from down the lakes did not die when the trade ended. Canadians, French and English, could be found in virtually every 19th century lumber camp and sawmill in northern Wisconsin. It was logical for men with logging skills and their families to go where the jobs were and for fisherman too.
The French fishing community of Two Rivers dates to the 1840s, when members of the Le Clair and Gagnon families came west from Quebec. They were joined by the Allies, Vaudreuils, La Fonds and others. They settled on the east side of Two Rivers, close to the water where they anchored their mackinaw boats.
The French-Canadians are credited with bringing the "pond net" to the local waters, although Wisconsin Indians used fish traps of the same basic design since prehistoric times. The pond net resembles a large string bag with an entrance that allows fish to enter, but prevents them from leaving. Draped on poles driven into the lake bottom, they did not kill fish and were typically left out for days or weeks. To harvest the fish, the fisherman closed the opening and hauled his load of fish.
Gill nets were also used. They consisted of hundreds of yards of netting suspended vertically on poles driven into the lake bottom. Fish could push their heads through the mesh but not their whole bodies. If they tried to back out, their gills caught and hung them on the net. Gill netted fish died, which meant the fisherman had to check fish set daily.
Whitefish and lake trout were the main market fish, although pike, walleye, sturgeon and perch were also sold. They were salted, packed in barrels and sent to market in Detroit, Milwaukee and Chicago. They helped make the Friday fish fry a regular event in every town on the lake.
Although they could only venture as far into the lake as their sails would carry them, Two Rivers fisherman did well in the opening decades of settlement. A lumberman named David Smoke landed a colossal 52-inch, forty-three pound lake trout in 1866, the likes of which was never seen again. By the 1870s, the catch was declining and it continued to fall into the 1880s only to rebound for its last hurrah in the 1890s. At the time Two Rivers had one of the largest fleets of mackinaw boats on the lake. Since they could only fish as far as their boats could take them, the Two Rivers fishermen worked the grounds--and the fish--to death. They were aided by fisherman from other communities and by the destruction of wetlands where fish bred along the entire lakeshore.
Necessity and technology put the mackinaws on the beach in the 1900s. Steam and gasoline powered gill net tugs--some powered by Kahlenberg gas engines made in Two Rivers--allowed the fishermen to expand their range. By 1910, Two Rivers had as many as two dozen motorized gill netters and trawlers in its harbor.
They hung on but were fighting a losing battle. The construction of the Welland Canal around Niagara Falls had allowed the entry of exotic species that competed with the native fish, damaged their habitat or--like the lamprey eel--destroyed the fish themselves. There would always been a few fishermen at Two Rivers and Manitowoc throughout the 20th century, but the fishery, like the lake itself, was no longer what it was when the first French-Canadians lowered their nets off Deux Rivieres.
I've Got One Word For You, Aluminum.
In 1893, a young fellow named Joseph Koenig came home to Two Rivers from the Columbian Exposition in Chicago with a comb in his pocket. It had caught his eye at the fair because it was made of a metal unfamiliar to most Americans--aluminum. Koenig's comb was made in Germany but he saw no reason why it couldn't be made in the USA and why he shouldn't do it--except that he had no experience, no workshop and no capital.
He visited J.E. Hamilton, who had achieved some success making wood type for printers and had a small steam-powered factory in Two Rivers. Hamilton let Koenig use a workbench equipped with a drive belt connected to the steam engine that would run a saw, drills and other tools. Koenig started making combs and sold more than a few. In 1895, he was able to convince Hamilton and a few others to invest and the Aluminum Manufacturing Company was incorporated.
A few years later, Henry Vits, who had been in the tannery business at Manitowoc since the 1850s, saw the future and it was not leather. He incorporated the Manitowoc Novelty Company and set up a factory to turn out novelties, which turned out to be combs. Henry's son George was in charge of sales and on a trip east he discovered the New Jersey Aluminum Company in Newark, New Jersey.
By 1909, George Vits had brought about the merger of his own company with Koenig's company and the New Jersey manufacturer into the Aluminum Goods Manufacturing Company. Vits became president of the company in 1912, and it took off under his leadership. A year later, Aluminum Goods expanded its line from combs to cook ware. Vits had landed a contract to produce double boilers for the Quaker Oats Company. Next came the company's own brand of VIKO pots and pans and heavy orders to make cookware sold under other names.
Automakers were switching from wooden spokes to metal wheels with hubs that required "caps." Lightweight, corrosion-resistant aluminum was ideal for hubcaps and Aluminum Goods was soon punching them out by the tens of thousands for Studebaker, Dodge and Buick.
Prospects for the company were as bright as a hubcap on prom night when American entry into World War I made them even brighter. Aluminum Goods couldn't turn out mess kits, cookware and canteens fast enough for the expanding military. When the war was over, the company was able to make five large additions to its plants in Manitowoc and Two Rivers and buy another factory in St. Louis. During the war, Aluminum Goods rebranded itself with a national advertising campaign promoting MIRRO, The Finest Aluminum. Growth continued during the boom years of the 1920s, with MIRRO making jobs for 3,500 men and women at Manitowoc and Two Rivers.
Operations slowed down in the 1930s, and MIRRO had to lay off one thousand workers --but 2,500 still had jobs. The buildup for the war that started in 1940 filled the workstations again and MIRRO was busier than ever. In addition to cook pots, mess kits and canteens by the millions, the company shaped aluminum into parts for airplanes, radar stations and ammunition cases.
When the war ended, MIRRO hit the jackpot again with popular consumer goods -- most notably MIRRO-MATIC pressure cookers, electric fry pans and coffee percolators. In the mid-1950s company headquarters and some manufacturing moved to a new 100 acre facility midway between Manitowoc and Two Rivers. In the early 1960s, MIRRO hired Milwaukee designer Brooks Stevens to redesign it products and to add color to its silver and black line of goods. He suggested nutmeg brown and Wedgewood blue. MIRRO opted for harvest gold and avocado, signature colors of the '60s. Stevens wasn't involved when MIRRO became one of the first cookware makers to coat its pots with "space-age" Teflon.
The company carried on until, like every manufacturer in the US, it faced the twin challenges of automation and foreign competition. Both meant the local work force would be reduced. MIRRO soldiered on and was acquired by the Newell Corporation in 1983. Newell struggled to stay in Wisconsin but, by 2001, had moved all of its manufacturing out of the state. In 2003, it closed its offices here too. That year, a group of former employees purchased some of the MIRRO facilities and reopened as Koenig & Vits to manufacture coils and other custom aluminum products.
It was a great run while it lasted. MIRRO's is the story of American manufacturing in the 20th century. Low-skill, high employment, mass production has been replaced by high skill, automated, custom work.
Hamilton of Two Rivers
J.E. (James) Hamilton story is a classic American saga. He was born in Two Rivers of sturdy Yankee stock in 1852. As a young man he acquired a foot-powered scroll saw he used to cut the decorative doodads favored by Victorian house designers. Demand for his goods was slack in 1870's Two Rivers, but Hamilton was optimistic, encouraged by the steadfast Etta Shove, a graduate of Lawrence College, who graciously consented to become Mrs. Hamilton in 1880. Although Hamilton worked as a foreman at a local chair factory, the newlyweds could not make ends meet. They were forced to live -- along with the scroll saw -- in a back bedroom at Mother Hamilton's house.
A few months after the wedding, William F. Nash, publisher of the Two Rivers Chronicle, asked Hamilton for help. He had agreed to print posters advertising a "Grand Ball" to be held at the Turners Hall and did not have type of the right size and style in his shop. New poster type, made from wood and not lead, had to be ordered from the east and would not arrive in time, so could Hamilton, who was so handy with his scroll saw, oblige?
J.E. said he could. With Nash's input, he drew up a design, and started pedaling his saw. The result was a reverse face with the letters outlined by the block around them. It worked. Nash was out of trouble and Hamilton was into a new career.
He decided that other small town printers throughout the Midwest would have needs similar to Nash's and perhaps he could meet them. Having no experience as a type maker, Hamilton continued to cut thin strips of wood into the desired shape. He then glued them up with a durable and expensive strip of holly wood on top and less costly pine stock on the bottom. He called his new typeface Hollywood. Hamilton hit the road and found that his hunch about the needs of small town printers was accurate. He also learned that type was not made by gluing up layers of hard and soft wood, but by carving the desired typeface into the ends of hard maple blocks.
He pursued the business, perfected his end cutting technique and found a partner willing to invest. Two years after cutting the Grand Ball type, he moved his office, and the scroll saw, out of his mother's house and into a steam-powered factory.
The story continues, but remains consistent. Hamilton and his successors at the helm of the company proved to be very good at discovering new markets to serve and then serving them very well. The plant grew to dominate the water front at Two Rivers. Employment grew from a few to a few thousand. Two Rivers became the Hamilton Company town.
From wooden type in myriad styles and sizes, it was a logical step to make the wooden spacers (reglet) and the blocks (furniture) printers used to position their page layouts for printing. Then came specialized work tables with "stones" for assembling the forms that went into the press.
Next came a special "cabinet" for dentists, then a full line of drafting room equipment--adjustable drawing boards, tables and oversized storage cabinets for blue prints. All this equipment was made of quality hardwood, still abundant in the lakes region. During World War I, the company landed a big contract for airplane fuselages made of wooden frames covered with canvas. Hamilton expanded its plant, and would have become a major airplane builder but the war ended before serious production could begin. After the war, radio was developed and home receivers entered the front parlor. They required handsome wood cabinets and Hamilton supplied them. Babies were coming into the world, too. They required cribs, potty chairs and new-fangled things called "playpens." Hamilton obliged.
Before the war, Hamilton had added steel furniture to its line and continued to develop new products after the war. Furniture and workstations for dental and medical offices, for hospital examining rooms, and for laboratories appeared, along with laboratory work benches for high schools and universities.
Just before World War II, Hamilton introduced what company publicists said was the first home clothes dryer. It was invented by a North Dakota farm boy named Ross Moore whose cruel mother forced him to hang the laundry on a line in the yard. He concocted a plan for a rotating drum filled with heated air and sold the Hamilton staff on it. They perfected the idea and enclosed the works in a featureless white metal cabinet--then called in designer Brooks Stevens. He said that no one would spend $375 on a storage cabinet whose purpose they couldn't immediately discern. Stevens redesigned the cabinet, added up-to-date control dials and a chrome nameplate identifying it as a "Fluff-dri" and--the final stroke of genius--put a window in the door. World War II delayed production of all consumer appliances. After the war the Fluff-dri hit the stores to great acclaim and soon every other clothes dryer on the market came with a window on the door. As the company's website states, the Hamilton dryer, "freed the American housewife from the last vestiges of washday blues."
Hamilton followed along the familiar course of American manufacturing in the late 20th century. In 1968, it was acquired by a conglomerate that presided over a necessary downsizing in the '70s and sold out in the '80s. The vast plant on the lake front was shut down. In 1993, the company was purchased by Fisher Scientific, and continues manufacturing specialized laboratory equipment on a much reduced scale.
Things To Know About Manitowoc & Two Rivers
On The River
Birth of the ice cream sundae
Two Rivers declares itself the birthplace of the ice cream sundae. In the summer of 1881, a visitor from Illinois stopped into Ed Berners' soda fountain in Two Rivers and ordered a dish of ice cream. He spied the bottle of chocolate syrup Berners used to flavor his sodas and asked Berners to pour some on the ice cream. Berners hesitated, the customer persisted and history was made. The ice cream sundae was born.
The craze spread to Manitowoc where George Giffy began selling the concoction at his shop. He is credited with christening the dish a "sundae," because the Sabbath was the only day on which he would sell it -- at first. The spelling may have been altered to appease pious folks who did not think a confection should be named in honor of the Sabbath. It might also have been cooked up by an ice cream bowl salesman who wanted his product to stand out, or it might just be a plain and simple mistake.
Be that as it may, Two Rivers touts itself as the birthplace of the sundae and vigorously defends its title against any one bold enough to mount a challenge.
Sputnik crashed at Manitowoc? Not exactly. A fragment of Sputnik IV, not the famous satellite of 1957, fell out of the sky in September 1962. It landed smack dab in the middle of Eighth Street in front of what is now the Rahr West Museum. Local police were Johnny-on-the-spot, but had to yield custody of the baseball-sized metallic chunk to NASA and the Smithsonian. Members of the Manitowoc Engineers Local later marked the spot by fabricating a brass ring which the city fathers ordered be embedded in the pavement. It is still there today.
In 1938, Life Magazine asked eight architects to design "dream houses" for middle class Americans. Frank Lloyd Wright offered a Usonian model that he likened to "a little private club." Today we would call it an "open plan" with a great room and lots of windows but with roofs that did not leak. The house was slated to be built in Minnesota, but was not. The plans remained on file for years until Bernard Schwartz of Two Rivers contacted the architect and asked him to rework the design for his property. It was built and is now open to visitors and overnight guests who want to experience what Wright called "a freer life than you could possibly live in the conventional house."
Francis Kadow was the colorful founder of Manitowoc's WOMT radio station. He started his career as a showman by managing the Mikadow Theater at age sixteen in 1916. In 1925, the Mikadow, the first theater in the city designed to show moving pictures, was ten years old. To celebrate Kadow brought in radio equipment and stage performers to broadcast from the theater. The stage show went on, but the theater seats were empty. The audience was at home, listening on the radio.
Kadow saw the future and in 1926, established WOMT. The first programming featured a lot of music played on the big theater organ. News was not a part of any radio station's programming in the 1920s but Kadow talked the United Press International into selling WOMT access to its wire service bulletins. When the newspaper publishing association threatened to boycott UPI if it transmitted the news to WOMT, UPI tried to get out of its contract with Kadow. He refused and threatened a suit. UPI went back to the newspapers and said it was locked into the contract and WOMT was only a 50-watt station up in the backwaters of Wisconsin and who would listen anyway? The publishers grudgingly relented. By this means, WOMT became the first station in Wisconsin, if not the US, to broadcast wire service news.
Manitowoc was tinsel town long before Hollywood stole the title, and with better reason. The story starts with Henry Stolze, the unlikely socialist mayor. Far from a wild-eyed radical, Stolze was a businessmen who had founded the National Tinsel Company on the south side. For many years it was the only manufacturer in the country of the sparkly metallic strips draped over the boughs of Xmas trees--tinsel. Stolze also patented a metal clip that presumably allowed candles to be safely attached to Xmas trees so they could be lit without igniting the boughs.
Perhaps it was the candle clip that led him to take up the cause of municipal ownership of Manitowoc's electric and water utilities. Public ownership of basic public services--water, sewers, gas, electric, parks, mass transit--was an important issue in the Progressive decades prior to World War I, but in Manitowoc neither the Democrats nor the Republicans were interested. That made Henry Stolze a socialist, and he ran on the party ticket in 1907. What looked to them like a red tide rising prompted national socialist party leaders to send a young Chicago poet named Carl Sandburg to Manitowoc to rally the working class for the 1908 presidential race. His candidate, Gene Debs, did not do as well as Henry Stolze, who adhered to the "gas-and-water" school of socialism, not the Marxian kind.
Stolze won his first election, but could not muster the necessary council votes to buy the waterworks until 1911. In 1914, the council approved the acquisition of John Schuette's electric utility. The two services have been publicly-owned ever since. After serving eight years as mayor, longer than anyone yet elected, "Comrade" Stolze, the tinsel-town socialist, retired to--where else?--Los Angeles, California.
The Xmas spirit of Henry Stolze returned to Manitowoc in 1959 when an outfit called the Aluminum Specialty Company started manufacturing aluminum Xmas trees. The trees struck a chord in the consuming hearts of millions of Americans and Aluminum Specialty produced 100,000 to 150,00 a year until 1969. They are icons of the oft-ignored, unhip side of the 1960s.