Take a Trip to Grafton, Wisconsin: Home Away From Home

John McGivern takes us to Grafton, where caring hearts and an unforgettable drink define the town.

After I was born, my parents brought me home to a duplex on Milwaukee’s East Side. Mom raised her six kids in that house, from which she walked to work at UW-Milwaukee for 30 years. She lost her husband, my father, while living in that house. She knew all the neighbors. Mom lived in that duplex for most of her adult life, and it’s the place that she and we six kids still think of as “home.”

But after 40-some years, Mom decided to scale down. I have two sisters, Colleen Mary Margaret and Maureen Mary Margaret (we’re so pathetically Irish), who live in Cedarburg. Wanting to be close to her daughters, my mom bought a two-bedroom, two-bath condo in Grafton.

So began my relationship with what was then a sleepy, picturesque, perfectly manicured, church-steeple-dotted, river-runs-through- it, close-to-Milwaukee small town. Since that move, I’ve visited Grafton more times than I can count. It’s a place I’ve never called home, but I easily came to think of as my mom’s home. So I guess that made Grafton my home away from home. Nevertheless, I was excited it was on our schedule to shoot for season 6 of “Around the Corner With John McGivern.”

That sleepy town I came to know while visiting my mom is anything but sleepy these days. I have to applaud this community for realizing years ago that having a plan for the future would make this a vibrant, relevant place to bring your business and a perfect location to buy a house and raise your family. Extending the commercial corridor up to I-43 was a smart business decision, because that meant surrounding communities would think of Grafton as a shopping destination. Over the last decade, Grafton has enjoyed both commercial and residential growth.

We spent five days capturing some of the best of what Grafton has to offer. And one of those best things is… KEFIR. That would be the fermented milk drink which is foreign at first taste but then refreshing. It can be described as a drinkable yogurt. It’s high in probiotics, has incredible gut-healing properties and can be used in many recipes. We arrived at Slow Pokes Local Food in downtown Grafton, and owner Kathleen McGlone, founder and kefir guru, gave us a “jump in with both feet” taste lesson. I have to say that if your system is not used to this “cultured” experience, you will feel the effects almost immediately. I’m not going to elaborate, but what you are imagining is not half of what really happened. I’m just gonna say it was a touch-and-go day (mostly go, if you catch my drift) with many a visit to whatever facility was close. YIKES…

Another Grafton “best” is Paramount Plaza. This center-city area is named to honor a time when Grafton was the center of jazz and blues music. Paramount Records was a record label in the 1920s and early ’30s known for recording such artists as Ma Rainey and Blind Lemon Jefferson, right there in Grafton. Take a stroll around the plaza and look at the concrete piano keys that honor all the greats who came to Grafton to make music.

If you spend more than a few minutes in Paramount Plaza, you’ll smell the rich, beautiful aroma of barbecue. Follow your nose and you’ll end up at Atlas BBQ. This is a place of culinary dreams. One order of burnt ends followed by a trinity combo platter with a side of Mexican corn and a double order of corn muffins and you will be the happiest BBQ camper on earth. Mike Tsuchihashi, owner and all-around great guy, takes a global approach. Whether you are a BBQ amateur or snob, do yourself a favor and come to what will end up being your new go-to, want-to-introduce-people-to, Grafton spot.

There is an old mill on the west side of the river that needs to be studied as a model for best reuse of an old building. Thanks to visionary Sheri Bestor, the Grafton Mill has been turned into a multi-use artists’ cooperative. The cozy coffee shop on the first floor, working artists in all mediums creating and selling work on the second floor and a gorgeous gallery/community event space on the third floor have given NSAA Arts Mill a new, purposeful life. It was in the third-floor space that we had the chance to meet up with the band Life In A Tree, and were blown away by the talent of the group. These teenagers grew up in Grafton and have been playing together for years, some since second grade. They have a unique indie-rock, acoustic-folk sound and are a legitimate, mature-beyond-their-years band. When we met them, they were all talking about getting ready to leave their hometown for colleges throughout the country. We had a bittersweet discussion of what was and what might be, now that they will be scattered. I loved their spirit. Their parents and friends should feel great about sending these young adults into the world, because they’ll make all of us proud – I just know it.

Talk about young adults to be proud of, who speak to all things right and good, I feel humbled to have had the opportunity to talk with a really special group of guys who grew up in Grafton together. I met Jake Wilde and Kevin Collins on the basketball court at Veterans Park. Their friend, Robbie Doring, could not be with us that afternoon, but he’s part of this story as well. When these guys were seniors at Grafton High School, they were on the basketball team along with their good friend Josh Davis-Joiner. For many summers, these four guys hung tight and played hard on a run-down basketball court in the Grafton riverfront’s Veterans Park. When you are in high school, your whole life is ahead of you, and anything is possible. These four guys were smart and popular and without much of a care until one of them, 17-year-old Josh, collapsed during basketball practice. To the shock and horror of all, he died. His family, his teammates, his classmates and his community were all grief-stricken. They mourned his passing and wondered how to move on. His friends and teammates decided to honor Josh’s memory by raising money for a state-of-the-art basketball court in Veterans Park on the same court on which they played all those carefree summer afternoons. These guys mounted a fundraising effort that brought in about $40,000. The court was built. Our future is in good hands when you hear the stories of caring and thoughtful young people doing selfless acts because it is the right thing to do.

John Gurda. Photo courtesy of Milwaukee PBS

Here’s one other thing I’ll remember about Grafton. I call it the meltdown at the river. So I’m an actor by trade. I can usually pull myself together in front of the camera, but not on the day in Grafton when I met John Gurda. All we had to do was record his three minutes of Grafton history for the show. In my defense, it was 4:30 p.m., a time when I usually need a nap. That day, my fatigue resulted in nonstop giggles. I couldn’t look at John Gurda without laughing, and he’s not even funny – usually. So I’m sorry if all my co-workers remember about Grafton is wetting their pants from laughing so hard and me soiling mine from kefir! Thanks, Grafton. It was both a pleasure and a privilege. ◆

‘Grafton: Home Away From Home’ appears in the April 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning April 3, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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John McGivern is best known for his Emmy-award winning work on PBS, Around the Corner with John McGivern. His one-man-shows, THE EARLY STORIES OF JOHN MCGIVERN, MIDSUMMER NIGHT MCGIVERN AND JOHN MCGIVERN’S HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS tell the stories of being the third born of six kids in a working-class Irish Catholic Family in Milwaukee. John has been the keynote speaker for The Alliance for Children and Families, The State Department on Aging, The Children and Family Service Agency of Wisconsin, The Wisconsin Defense League, Christ Child Association, Foundation for Children with Cancer, Employee Assistant Professional Association and has been fortunate to entertain companies such as Time Warner, Northwestern Mutual, Kohl’s Department Stores, Baird, Acuity, and M&I Financial.