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Once you figure out where the city is, it's lots of fun

I’ve never shared the story of why I once resented the city of Watertown, so here goes.

It was very cold that Christmas Eve afternoon in 1988. I was living on the north side of Chicago and getting ready to leave for my annual Christmas pilgrimage to my childhood home on Bartlett Avenue in Milwaukee. I had agreed to pick up a friend, Janet Klutterman, who wanted to celebrate Christmas with her family in Watertown. Since I was driving to Milwaukee, I offered to drop her off. After all, I had passed that Watertown exit hundreds of times on my way to and from Milwaukee.

Perhaps I should have considered how over-the-top with almost shocked appreciation Janet was when I offered to drop her off in Watertown. She all but pleaded with me to rethink. “You’re too generous. It’s so out of your way.”

We left Chicago late that afternoon and crawled our way out of the city. We made it to the Wisconsin state line and I knew that Watertown was just a few exits down the road. When I came upon the exit and saw the sign for WATERFORD, I all but threw up! It wasn’t until that moment that I realized I had NO IDEA where Watertown was. And of course, this was way before the invention of the GPS and years before I ever imagined I’d have a cell phone. This was the time when everyone had a beeper and the only thing the beeper did was remind you that someone really wanted to talk to you so you should pull off the road and find a pay phone. A pay phone! … I digress. After we passed the Waterford exit, and without admitting my blunder, I asked Janet which way she would take to get to Watertown. She said that I should drive to Milwaukee, get on I-94 West toward Madison and go approximately 50 miles. I drove 100 miles out of my way that cold Christmas Eve in 1988. What I most clearly remember is my beeper going off, displaying my mom’s telephone number, over and over again. I didn’t have to call. I knew what she was going to say. “Where the hell are you?! We’ve already started drinking the Tom and Jerrys!” Yep. Watertown. I’ve known its exact location since December 24, 1988.

After shooting 80 episodes of “Around the Corner” with Milwaukee PBS, there are certain things that I really look forward to in every community. You are undoubtedly thinking I’m going to say the food. And, of course, you’d be right, but that’s a gimme. What might surprise you is that I love getting on the insides of manufacturing factories. Our great state is responsible for many global products and I get the chance to see how, why and where these products are created. Watertown doesn’t disappoint. Konecranes manufactures all types of cranes. They have 80 percent of the U.S. indoor lifting market. So who needs a crane from Konecranes, the largest crane manufacturer in the world? Any company or industry that needs to lift something really heavy, that’s who. Konecranes manufactures cranes that can lift up to 2 million pounds. What weighs 2 million pounds that needs to be lifted? Ships. I asked.

Watertown is also home to the world’s largest manufacturer of rotary lawn mower blades. Fisher Barton Blades Inc. makes millions of lawn mower blades a year. Most are replacement blades and are used commercially and residentially all over the world. To watch the process of liquid steel turning into lawn mower blades was fascinating. And learning that those blades are packaged and shipped to all corners of this planet was impressive. I love the fact that Watertown, Wisconsin, provides the world with such necessary products, and I feel so lucky to get an inside look.

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One of my favorite Watertown segments was our visit with Lloyd and Daphne Holterman, the owners and operators of Rosy-Lane Holstein Farm. My dad was raised on a dairy farm outside Wausau, Wisconsin. My grandparents raised Holsteins and grew corn. When my family went to visit, I remember thinking that it all seemed so foreign and was so far removed from anything I experienced in my daily life. Rosy-Lane is unlike the farm my dad knew growing up. This is a farm of the future where cows wear Fitbits and are monitored by GPS. It’s a world of genetic breeding where embryos get sold to farms all over Europe. My grandparents could never even have imagined a farm like Rosy-Lane. And still very far removed from anything I know in my daily life.

If history is your thing, then Watertown will be your thing as well. This community has done an admirable job of respecting and taking care of so many of the buildings that began in this town. Downtown Watertown has a feeling of historic significance. The well-preserved downtown commercial properties are charming examples of late 1800s architecture. Historic houses line streets close to downtown. Check out the Gore House (1850) or my favorite, the Marshall Woodard House (1894).

Have you ever been inside an octagon house? The Octagon House in Watertown, with its eight sides and 57 rooms (including halls and closets), was built in 1854 by John Richards. Octagon Houses were popular in the mid-1800s, and this house is one of finest you’ll ever have the chance to visit. I loved the cantilevered staircase that seemed to be freestanding and floating in the middle of this historic home. Take a day trip to Watertown and experience what the late 1800s must have felt and looked like.

Speaking of old, we spent an afternoon with the 1st Brigade Civil War Band. I mean the band is old – not the people in the band! It is the oldest and largest Civil War Reenactment Band in the world. It has more than 80 members and has been around for 52 years. They play authentic instruments that would have been played during the Civil War. Most saw action in that war. The volunteer band members dress in costume of the period and have a museum of instruments that needs to be admired. It’s a remarkable organization that makes history come to life.

If contemplating the present is your  thing, then while you are exploring downtown, stop in at Tribeca, the coffee shop/ bookstore/art gallery. It’s definitely a community-meeting place that caters to every generation. While we were there, Millennials were sipping espressos and face-deep in their smartphones while a couple around my age were looking for the next great read and wondering if the tea was sweet. A woman my mom’s age was having a cup of coffee and eating a homemade sweet while her friend was remembering the funeral home once in this location. It’s a comfortable destination in the middle of downtown and feels like a store you’d find in a much larger city. Watertown is lucky to have this place in its front yard.

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OK… now to food. Again, Watertown did not disappoint. If you’re a Tex-Mex cuisine lover, have I got the place for you: Amado’s on Main Street. The day we were there, we arrived at 1 p.m. and the place was packed. I mean wall-to-wall customers. I’d like to think it was because they knew I was coming, but that wasn’t it. There wasn’t a table to be had, every bar stool was occupied and people were standing by the door waiting for a table. That’s an indication. Mary and Amado Fuentes moved to Watertown from Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood to open this establishment. Mary put me to work behind the bar, and by the time we sat down for the interview, I needed a break. It’s a great place, and Mary and Amado couldn’t be any more fun.

We also had the chance to visit the owners of the Elias Inn Supper Club. John and Tammy have owned and operated this 13-table bar and restaurant for the last 30 years. It’s a community favorite with a very loyal, local following. They serve beautiful steaks, great prime rib and the best fish fry in Watertown. At the table was a classic Lazy Susan filled with herring and cheese spread and pickles and ham salad and summer sausage and red cabbage. It was appetizer roulette, with perfect classic supper club fare. I can’t wait to go back.

Every member of our Around the Corner crew had a great week in Watertown. I started by admitting that I once resented Watertown. Well, I’m going to finish by sharing something I probably shouldn’t. The Milwaukee PBS producer/director of our show, Lois Murer, experienced a bit of resentment for Watertown as well. The week we were shooting in Watertown, the Main Street bridge over the Rock River, which divides downtown in half, was closed. Yep. The perfect long shot of Main Street was impossible. Every time we neared the construction, Lois would shake her head. But after a few days we figured out it wasn’t really the lack of good shot that got her goat. It was that a detour was required before we could get to Mullen’s Dairy Bar! Once we figured out how to get her ice cream, her resentment faded fast. Apparently the loss of a perfect shot isn’t so important once the director finds mint chocolate chip!

Watch this episode online at MilwaukeePBS.org. Watertown is one of those places that could make a day off turn into a vacation. Enjoy… ◆


‘Yes, That Watertown’ appears in the June 2017 (City Guide) issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning May 29, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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