By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
in Racine County Visitor Guide
Some of Racine County’s most intriguing treasures are somewhat tricky to discover. We’ve compiled a short list of must-see wonders of this diverse region--and the inside scoop on how to take advantage of them.
Be sure to call ahead for each of these attractions. Hours are limited, reservations are required, or both. Signage is slight, so get directions.
You’ll be amazed at how much hidden Racine County has to offer!
Norway Historical Museum
Heg Park Road and Old Loomis Road (off Rt. 36), Norway
Snug in the rural hills of the northwest corner of Racine County, a profound bit of history is kept vibrantly alive by the residents of Norway, an unincorporated town so small it’s not even on most maps. This is the original mother colony of Norwegian-U.S. immigration.
A historical marker in the shade of a nut tree on the sloping grounds of Old Norway Lutheran Church tells of the 1839 start of this community, where both the nation’s first Norwegian Lutheran congregation and the first Norwegian-American newspaper began.
Across the street is Colonel Heg Park, named after a celebrated Civil War figure with the same last name as one of the town’s founders. In this park, the Norway Historical Museum shares the past with descendants of the original settlers, the developing community’s more recent arrivals, and visitors from all over.
Over one hundred fifty years ago, the nine members of the Norwegian Bendicson family lived in a one-room log cabin. Now, that home is restored, refurnished, and on display. “The grandaughter of the Bendicsons came by a few weeks ago,” says Betty Fries (pronounced like “freeze”) of the Historical Society. “She said she was happy to see it open. A lot of the adults don’t remember that time, but they remember their parents or grandparents telling about it.”
Children on school trips like to show their new young neighbors the artifacts donated from their families, Fries says. The new kids later bring in their own parents, and thus the community is strengthened through sharing its heritage.
A farm exhibit includes “a historical chicken coop with feeders” and the restored clapboard farmhouse of a remarkable Lutheran pastor. “Pastor Eilisen walked to New York in 1843,” says Fries, “to translate the Norwegian catechism into English for the first time.”
Also on display are 19th century Wisconsin artifacts and Norwegian heirlooms: silver filigree jewelry, spinning wheels, a weaving loom, and much more. There’s even a full-scale reproduction of a traditional Norwegian fishing boat.
The museum is open Saturdays and Sundays from 12-4, Memorial Day through Labor Day weekend. Any size party (from one person to a large tour group) is welcome to call ahead and arrange a visit at other times.
During the town’s Heritage Days, the old church is open for tours.
Colonel Heg Park is a favorite spot for family reuinions and company picnics. To schedule use of the park’s picnic shelters, call (262) 886-8440.
Fred Hermes’ Basement Bijou
North side of Racine, off Route 32
Grecian statues, chandeliers, ornately carved walls: it’s old-time movie palace splendor. The lights dim. A gold curtain whizzes silently open, and, like Poseidon rising from the sea, up comes the star attraction: an elaborate theater organ console--five keyboards, countless pedals and switches. This 2,500 pipe Wurlitzer from 1926 is the largest model the organ company ever made. It’s almost certainly the only one of its kind intact--and in use.
As the organ emerges from deep below stage level, a man seated with his back to us plays a majestic overture. This is Fred Hermes, who salvaged the once-neglected instrument from Detroit’s 4,000 seat Michigan Theatre in 1956. Today, he invites groups to visit his “Mighty Wurlitzer,” which, he says, “cost $75,000 new. Now, you couldn’t get one like this made for $3 million.”
The organ can mimic the sounds of all the instruments in the orchestra, and then some. Some of the pipes are straight, some flared, some looped in the center. Some are metal, and some are wood. Besides pipes, there’s a full complement of actual percussion instruments: cymbals, a marimba, a harp, a glockenspiel--all controlled from the keyboards. Thirty-five hundred wires connect the organ console to its thousands of voices. A room-sized fifteen horsepower motor powers the organ’s blower. A separate two horsepower motor powers the keyboards’ current to the pipes and other instruments.
Hermes has spent the last 46 years restoring this unique artifact of musical, cinematic, and technological history. His achievements have been recognized by the American Theatre Organ Society and other groups.
The two-hour presentation includes a concert, demos, a talk with a question-and-answer period, a sing-along, and more. “School groups love it. I’ve had all kinds of groups come,” he says.
The extravaganza takes place in a 400-seat house set with authentic architectural elements from fifty (sadly destroyed) movie palaces throughout the midwest. Incredibly, it’s all installed in the two-story basement of the residential neighborhood dwelling where Hermes and his wife, Veryl, raised their family. “I built the house for the organ,” he says.
Shows are presented to groups, and are by reservation only.
Spinning Top Exploratory Museum
533 Milwaukee Avenue (Highway 36), Burlington
“My pet peeve with museums is, you walk through these rooms full of displays and there’s things that make you go, ‘Wow!’--but you can’t find out anything about them,” says Judith Schulz. “There’s nobody you can ask. No one who can tell you the story.”
At the Spinning Top Exploratory Museum--which features this former high school teacher’s collection of 6,000 modern and antique tops from all over the world--Schulz makes sure you’ll never have that problem.
“This is not an ordinary museum--it’s a whole program,” she explains. Visiting groups get two hours of spinning demos, hands-on practice with 35 different tops and top games, a video demonstration with tips for top play, and a guided, interactive tour through the museum’s exhibits.
The place teems with tops: yo-yos, diabolos, gyroscopes. Tulip tops, pump tops, top games, dreidles. The collection’s crown jewel, an intricately decorated green and gold metal top, is well over a century old: the faded letters on the string-pulled toy announce our nation’s Centennial.
Then there’s top tales: In Malaysia, top spinning is a traditional competition sport played by adults. The first tops were likely acorns and seashells. A yo-yo is really a kind of top; Yo-Yo was the brand name of Duncan’s popular “return top.”
Other Spinning Top programs include yo-yo day camps (there are programs for children and for adults) and the Hall of Puzzles (solve a logic puzzle and ring a bell!).
The world’s only top museum is a non-profit organization that began as a temporary display by a local educational group, Teacher Place and Parent Resources, in conjunction with Burlington’s first annual ChocolateFest in 1987. Visits are by reservation and for groups only, but the museum gift shop is open for walk-ins.
More about Burlington
Burlington’s idiosyncratic charm well fits the home of the renowned Burlington Liars’ Club. Walk the Tall Tale Trail, following the bronze plaques commemorating especially good fibs from the club’s 70-year history. You’ll find maps to this and other walking tours at the Chamber of Commerce on 112 Chestnut Street. Or, just stroll about mapless. Either way, you’ll enjoy seeing the lovely old commercial buildings and residences of this pedestrian-friendly town.
The restored Pioneer Log Cabin downtown is surrounded by lush plantings of native wildflowers and a vintage kitchen garden. The cabin is open Sundays and holidays from 1-4 or by appointment. Call (262) 767-2884.
On most summer Saturday nights, the Brown’s Lake Aquaducks put on a free waterski show, featuring a four-tiered human pyramid and other stunts. Call (262) 763-2603 for details.
It’s a marvel how much Burlington, a town of 9000, offers the day tripper: lots of historic attractions, beautiful buildings, fun places to eat, custard shops, boutiques, scenic parks, bicycle trails. They won’t all fit in this space, so call the Chamber of Commerce at (262) 763-6044 to find out about the rest!
Golden Rondelle Theater and SC Johnson Administration building
1525 Howe Street, Racine
Long before IMAX, there was the futuristic Golden Rondelle Theater, presenting giant-format, multi-screen movies to awed crowds. The theater building, too, is remarkable: a huge, golden, flying saucer-shaped disk that seems to hover miraculously several feet off the ground.
The Golden Rondelle was originally the Johnson Wax pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. After the fair, it was brought to Racine, where SC Johnson is headquartered. Visitors have delighted at the unique structure and the spectacular movies shown inside ever since. The year 2000 saw the premiere of an original eye-popping documentary--a brand-new Golden Rondelle exclusive.
A few hundred feet away stands the revolutionary SC Johnson Administration building, designed by controversial 20th century architect Frank Lloyd Wright. With its rounded corners and open inner spaces, this architecturally significant 1930s structure continues to stand apart from buildings of its own or any era.
The Golden Rondelle Theater and the SC Johnson Administration building are open to visitors on Thursdays and Fridays. Reservations are required.
Also see Wingspread
Wingspread, a sweeping, four-winged building by the shores of Lake Michigan, is another important Frank Lloyd Wright creation. Designed as a family residence for H.F. Johnson, founder of Johnson Wax, the dramatic building is now a popular conference center. It’s open to the public when no conference is in session. Call (262) 681-3353 to confirm availability. Wingspread is at 33 Four Mile Road on the north side of Racine.