Manitowoc-Two Rivers: Page 4 of 6

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.

 

Bohemians

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.

The generation that felt comfortable in "Bohemian" surroundings had passed. Their children were Americans.

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.

 

Polka Kings

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.

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 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 French fishing community of Two Rivers dates to the 1840s

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.