Drink, Pray And Polka In Underrated Milwaukee

It’s Friday night and I’m at a brewery tour in Milwaukee drinking beer. Good beer – not the mass-produced crap that Milwaukee is famous for. Tom Martin, our guide at the Milwaukee Brewing Company, takes a moment to state the obvious for the benefit of out-of-towners like us.

“We have a drinking culture here in Wisconsin in case you haven’t noticed,” he says, standing beside an imposing stack of 50-pound barley sacks. “You can get caught driving drunk with a child in your car and it’s still only a misdemeanor here.”
He’s joking but the point registers. According to Trulia, Milwaukee has the second most bars per capita in the country, just a hair behind New Orleans, with 8.5 bars per 10,000 households. (And unlike the Big Easy, all the bars in Milwaukee cater to locals.) But Forbes named Milwaukee America’s drunkest city and, according to USA Today, the state of Wisconsin has the highest percentage of binge drinkers in the country and ranks fifth in total number of breweries with 112.

Perhaps the good people at the Milwaukee Brewing Company had these statistics in mind when they created their brewery tour. Brewers ordinarily make patrons suffer through long, boring tours before they deign to offer a chance to taste their product and even then, they might serve just one full beer or a few tastes.

But tonight, our tour started with free beers, and then there were two beer breaks during our hour-long tour before we were sent back to the bar for a half-hour long open bar to cap the experience. And did I mention that our $10 ticket also entitled us to two tokens that are good for even more of their beer at area bars? Welcome to Milwaukee.

If you want to compile a short list of America’s most underrated cities, start with the places that have lost population over the last 50-100 years. Philadelphia, St. Louis, Buffalo and Cincinnati all had a larger population 100 years ago than they do now. And Milwaukee and Richmond were more populous in the 1950s and 1960s than they are now.

These are seen as declining cities – yesterday’s news – but I think these are six of the most underrated urban destinations in the country. All of these cities are brimming with history, culture and style but none are overwhelmed with tourists.

A year ago, I opined that Richmond might be the country’s most underrated city, but after a recent visit to Milwaukee, I might be ready to change my vote and not just because I like beer. In the winter, the place has a vacant, almost haunted vibe. It would be easy to conclude that the place is dead but keep looking. The city is synonymous with bad beer and the television shows “Happy Days” and “Laverne & Shirley,” but if you take the time to get to know this inviting city and the unpretentious people who live there, you’ll discover that it’s one of America’s best-kept secrets.

It’s a city where the Friday night fish fry is an institution, a place where sausage is elevated to an art form, a community where every neighborhood has a church that even an atheist would want to visit, a metropolis defined by its taverns and people who aren’t too cool to the do the Chicken Dance, and good, yes, good beer. Go ahead and tour the Miller and Pabst breweries if you must, but when you’re ready for the good stuff, check out the tours at Sprecher, Milwaukee Brewing Company, and Lakefront Brewery, which also has a killer Friday night fish fry complete with live polka music (see video below).

Start your Milwaukee tour at the Basilica of St. Josaphat, which opened in 1901 to serve the largely ethnic Polish community in the Lincoln Village neighborhood. The basilica is modeled after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and the interior is as beautiful as any place of worship in the country (see video below).

You can see the domed basilica from miles away but you could easily miss the St. Joan of Arc Chapel (see above), which dates to the 15th century but was moved to the campus of Marquette University in 1966. (The chapel was moved from near Lyon, France, to Long Island in the 1920s before its move to Milwaukee.) It’s worth the effort to find this place – as soon as you step through the big wooden doors and feel the bluish glow of stained glass, you’ll feel like you were visiting an ancient church in rural France.

If you want a flavor of old Milwaukee, the city, not the beer, take a stroll through the lobby of the Hilton City Center, which was built in 1927 and is still loaded with vintage charm. Check out the German bars and sausage shops on Old World Third Street and then, to get a feel for some of the outlying neighborhoods, cruise over to Brady Street or Murray Hill on the east side, or Bay View or Walker’s Point on the south side. Definitely have lunch at Milwaukee’s Public Market in the historic Third Ward and, if the weather is good, don’t miss the Estabrook Beer Garden. There are great neighborhood bars everywhere, but Wolski’s is one old-school watering hole that everyone washes up in at one time or another.

I think of Milwaukee as a venerable old town but the city’s premier attraction is modernity personified. The Milwaukee Art Museum has an impressive collection of art but the real attraction here is the Quadracci Pavilion, a stunning, futuristic annex built by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava in 2001. Even if you don’t want to visit the museum, take a walk into the pavilion or dine at Café Calatrava downstairs for gourmet food and a sublime view. The building’s Brise Soleil wings open and close during the museum’s opening and closing hours and the wings also flap at noon each day.

Each time I visit Milwaukee from my home base in Chicago – which was once called a “pompous” Milwaukee – I feel like the city is a less expensive, more laid back, and more manageable version of the Windy City. And I think that Badger state residents have more pride in their state than any other place in the country, with the possible exception of Texas. There’s a cohesive culture in Wisconsin that revolves around beer, brats, cheese, the Packers, the Badgers, fish fry, supper clubs and 1,000 other things that make this state unique. Milwaukeeans will tell you that they are content to keep their hometown a well-kept secret, but there’s always an empty barstool somewhere in town, so stop by the next time you thirst for something different.

[Photo/video credits: Dave Seminara]

Buried Deep In Ohio’s Amish Country, Memories Await At The Famous Endings Funeral Museum

Faithful Gadling readers might recall that I’m not a big fan of sightseeing, but I read about a funeral museum on BBC Travel this week that I’m, excuse the pun, dying to visit. The Toland-Herzig Famous Endings museum (please don’t call it the Happy Endings museum as I accidentally did) in Dover, Ohio, has more than 1,500 funeral-related items from famous and should-be famous people from around the world, including Elvis Presley, Abe Lincoln, Marilyn Monroe and Robert E. Lee, to name just a few.

Aside from predictable death-related fare, like funeral cards, programs and the like, the museum also has some downright bizarre pieces such as some cookies with Rodney Dangerfield’s likeness that were served at his funeral, a Sherry Lewis lamb-chop doll, and a primitive “head block” embalming device that was used on the notorious outlaw Jesse James. I caught up with John Herzig, a funeral director at Toland Herzig Funeral Homes who founded this unique little museum to find out more about this unique, free museum.

How did you decide to open a funeral museum?

I had a hobby of collecting autographs and I got an autographed picture of Joe Louis, the boxer, and for some reason when the guy sent it to me, he included Joe Louis’s funeral program and that’s how the whole thing got started.
I kept getting funeral-related items and then people encouraged me to display them, so I set up a display case in the funeral home and there was a lot of interest. Over the last 5-6 years, our funeral home has turned into a museum and we get visitors from all over the country.

What kind of tourists do you get?

We get busloads of tourists from Chicago, Pittsburgh, New York – all over. It’s been more than I would have ever expected. A lot of the tours are mystery tours. We have a lot of Amish in this area, so we get tourists for that. This is another site on their itinerary.

What is a mystery tour?

The people in the group don’t know where the tour guide is taking them, so it’s fun to see their reaction when the bus pulls up in front of a funeral home. It’s a surprise for them. I bring them on a guided tour and tell them stories about what my wife had to put up with as I built this collection.

Give us an example.

A year and a half ago, Jack Kevorkian passed away in Michigan. I got my wife and told her, ‘let’s go to Michigan,’ so we did and we attended his funeral. I do those kinds of things to her on the spur of the moment. She’s been through a lot.

Does she enjoy traveling around the country going to funerals?

She doesn’t mind. We also try to do things she likes to do. Like shopping. We don’t go to that many celebrity funerals.

Do you have some unique caskets in the museum?

We haven’t really gotten into caskets. It’s mostly personalized items that celebrities have used. For example, when Rodney Dangerfield died, his wife made cookies with his caricature on them and they passed those out at the funeral. Ed Bradley, he had a jazz funeral and they had an Ed Bradley handkerchief. Jerry Lewis had a Lamb Chop doll.

So you have some of the Rodney Dangerfield cookies that were served at his funeral. Aren’t those stale by now?

Yes, we have the cookies and a bookmark, and his funeral program, which had his signature red tie on it.

How did you get one of those cookies?

Through the funeral home where they held the funeral. It was all wrapped up and, of course, it’s dry now, but it’s preserved very nicely. It’s in a display case so no one can touch it. It’s held up pretty well.

How do you get most of the pieces that are on display in the museum?

The vintage things I have, like items from Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, I’ve gotten in historical auctions, but the newer ones come from other funeral homes. I have Robert E. Lee’s funeral card, I have a lantern from the horse drawn carriage that carried Lincoln’s (body) through Albany, New York. I have a shell from JFK’s 21-gun salute.

I have Elvis Presley’s mother’s original funeral arrangements. Probably the most expensive item is Marilyn Monroe’s original funeral program. Joe DiMaggio made her funeral private and made a list of the people who were allowed to attend her funeral. We’ve got that.

How much did that cost?

I’d rather not say. My wife would kill me if she knew.

You don’t tell your wife how much these things cost?

No. Not really. Most of them aren’t that expensive. (Laughs)

What are your most popular items?

The things I mentioned, plus Ed Sullivan is popular. Elvis Presley’s funeral program. When FDR died, there was a famous photo in Life magazine of Petty Officer Graham Jackson who performed for FDR at the White House. And when they loaded the funeral train, he was weeping and it was a famous photo. I have the accordion from that photo. It’s a popular item.

What other unusual items do you have?

I have a head block device that was used to embalm Jesse James that I got in a Wild West Museum when it closed. It was a device that the person’s head was positioned on when they are embalmed at the funeral home. It’s a little bizarre.

I also have the menus from the train that carried Eisenhower’s body from Washington, D.C., to Abilene, Kansas. They had breakfast, lunch and dinner. I recall they served fish for one of those meals but I don’t remember what else they ate.

Some would say it’s morbid to create a funeral museum. I assume you disagree?

I don’t see anything morbid about it. It’s history. I have items from the gentleman that developed super glue. Items from Samuel Morse, who developed the Morse code and telegraph. Wilson Greatbatch, the guy who invented the cardiac pacemaker. People that aren’t famous but that changed how we live. Everyone enjoys their tour here. We try to show funerals and death in a very positive manner.

[Photo Credits: Famous Endings Museum, Flickr user Gerald Fitzpatrick]

Corn Palace to the Jolly Green Giant: 10 Midwest roadside attractions you must see

America’s heartland is home to plentiful crops, rolling hills and orange sunsets. You can find a Dairy Queen next to a cherry tree and park yourself in front of a drive-in movie on a hot summer night. There’s also the world’s largest bottle of ketchup, and enchanted highway and the Jolly Green Giant…. wait, what?

It’s true, travelers. The Midwest is home to many quirky attractions that might seem downright weird, but make for great roadside fun. Here are 10 that are worthy of your time:

World’s Largest Catsup Bottle – Collinsville, Illinois
Along the Mississippi River in tiny Collinsville, Illinois, stands the world’s largest catsup bottle. It was built in 1949 and used to serve as a water tower for the Catsup factory that once existed there. The Catsup tower is 170 feet tall and located next to Route 159.

Dorothy’s House and the Land of Oz – Liberal, Kansas
Whether you’re a fan of The Wizard of Oz or simply appreciate the classic film, dropping by this Land of Oz museum is a must. This roadside attraction is located in Liberal, Kansas and visitors can tour a replica of Dorothy’s house in addition to the actual Land of Oz. Don’t forget to say hello to the Lion, Tin Man and Scarecrow.

Jolly Green Giant – Blue Earth, Minnesota

Even those who aren’t a fan of vegetables will be mesmerized by this 60 foot tall replica of the Jolly Green Giant. It rests alongside I-90 and Highway 169 in Blue Earth, Minnesota and was built in 1979 to celebrate the city’s canning business.Enchanted HighwayRegent, North Dakota
This 32 mile stretch off I-94 in North Dakota is appropriately dubbed the Enchanted Highway. It was designed by Gary Greff, a ND inhabitant, who wanted to improve the tourism business in the state. The highway features a variety of quirky sculptures, including a giant family made of tin and massive statues of insect and animals.

World’s Largest Easel / Van Gogh replica – Goodland, Kansas
Located along I-70 in the town of Goodland, Kansas passers by can ooh and ah over a 768-square foot replica of Van Gogh’s Three Sunflowers. In addition to being the world’s largest Van Gogh reproduction, it’s also the world’s largest easel.

The House on the Rock – Spring Green, Wisconsin

It may seem a bit dangerous, but don’t be fooled. the House on the Rock in Spring Green, Wisconsin is home to an eclectic collection of armor, pipe organs, the world’s largest carousel, fiberglass elephants and pretty much anything else your brain can think up. The house itself is perched atop a rock (hence the name) and located at 5754 Hwy. 23, Spring Green Wisconsin.

The Corn Palace – Mitchell, South Dakota
If there’s one thing the Midwest is especially known for, it’s got to be its infinite supply of corn. Visit the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota and you’ll have all the proof you need. The entire palace-shaped building is constructed of thousands of bushes of corn, grass and grains and is re-furbished annually.

Precious Moments Chapel – Carthage, Missouri
Collector or not, the Precious Moments Chapel is definitely worth checking out. It’s located in Carthage, Missouri and consists of dozens of Precious Moments statues and paintings in and around the chapel. Visitors can stop by from 9 to 5 p.m. on 4321 S. Chapel Road off I-44.

Villisca Ax Murder House – Villisca, Iowa
The Ax Murder House in Villisca, Iowa is coined one of the scariest places on Earth for a good reason. There, an unknown butcher is said to have crept into the house (owned by Josia Moore) to kill Moore, his wife and their six children. The house, located at 323 East 4th. Street, has since turned into a reportedly haunted museum.

Heidelberg Project – Detroit, Michigan
The Heidelberg Project, located at 3600 Hedelberg Street in Detroit, is just as cool-looking as it is beneficial to the Earth. It’s essentially a giant sculpture made of random trash and debris. The urban junkscape consists of cars painted and filled with trashed stuffed animals, painted pieces of plywood and an entire house decorated with brightly colored rubbish.

Wendy Gould is a Seed.com writer