We left the Milwaukee PBS studios on that gorgeous July 2016 morning to make our way to Delavan. Five minutes later, Justin, our photographer and crew-van driver, was on I-43 south driving toward Beloit. I informed Justin that Delavan is off I-94 on the way to Madison. Justin said he was glad I was sitting in the back seat because if I were behind the wheel we would have ended up in Delafield, not the community on our schedule. Yikes…
I had never been to Delavan, a burg of about 8,500 people, 13 miles from Lake Geneva, in Walworth County. We met John Gurda, our historian, in downtown Delavan, in front of the large giraffe and next to the water tower. He told me that Delavan began as a temperance colony in 1836 and was named after Edward Delavan, a major player in the national prohibition movement. Delavan remained dry for only nine years because, as John put it, “This is Wisconsin, after all!” He also explained that the huge giraffe in the park is a reminder of the city’s circus history. In the late 1800s, Delavan was the winter home of two dozen circus companies. Before the Ringling Brothers put Baraboo on the map, Delavan was circus central, and its cemeteries are the resting places of about 150 circus performers.
I can’t tell you how disappointed I was to learn that we weren’t able to get inside the Andes Candies operation. It turns out the entire plant shuts down for two weeks of summer vacation, and our shooting schedule put us in Delavan right in the middle of their break. Thankfully, they opened their lobby and filled a table with all of the Andes products we’ve come to know and love. My favorite is the classic, shiny, green-wrapped chocolate with that thin middle layer of mint. Not only did they send me home with the best all inclusive Andes sampler package ever, but they allowed me to drive their promotional, miniature semi truck (with a go-kart engine), built for the annual Delavan Parade. This Andes-filled miniature 18-wheeler was the best!
We spent a few hours inside the Continental Plastic Corporation. This is the home of all things plastic that go into animal breeding. They make plastic tubes (looked like drinking straws to me) for breeding all sizes of poultry from chickens to turkeys. I watched the plastic gloves used to breed cows come off the line. These three-foot-long gloves, one of Continental Plastic’s most in-demand items, cover from hand to shoulder. When I asked Becky Wolf, CEO of Continental Plastic, why they needed such a long glove, she paused, gave me a look and said, “Think about it, John,” which was a kind way of saying, “You’re an idiot.”
Downtown, an original brick street covers three blocks. These bricks were laid in 1913 and preserve a historical look to this beautiful, well-maintained main street. In June 2015, Walldog artists came to town and painted 18 Walldog murals on the sides of buildings all over downtown. They tell the historic stories of Delavan.
I was not disappointed when I walked into Remember When, a large store filled with treasures. Mother-and-daughter business partners Karen and Lori Wuttke have been in this location for 19 years. They were most excited to get me upstairs to the cookie jar museum. They have a cookie jar museum. Yep. A museum of cookie jars… WHAT? Never have I been to or even considered the fact that there is a museum dedicated to the cookie jar. And after my visit I can only say, why not? This place is amazing. I found our childhood cookie jar, which was a cookie-house model that was filled with broken windmill cookies made by Johnston Cookie Company. I found the happy-looking-lady-cow cookie jar my grandma had on her kitchen counter that was always filled with homemade oatmeal and jelly-centered sugar cookies. The only thing that was disappointing was there was not one cookie to be found in the museum. Hundreds of cookie jars and not one cookie… TORTURE is what that’s called!
Right down the street from the antique store is a department store, Bradley’s. It opened 164 years ago and is owned by Lois Stritt. She calls this store her “happy place” and considers her customers her good friends. Bradley’s carries on a tradition of service started in the 1800s, and Lois and her staff make this a unique destination shopping experience.
Delavan’s population is roughly a quarter Latino, with some great Latino businesses. Across the street from Bradley’s is Mi Lindo Guanajuato, a Mexican grocery store, vegetable stand, meat market and restaurant. The Martinez family opened it up in 2008 and Raul Martinez Jr. gave us a tour. It ended with one of the best chorizo burritos I’ve ever eaten and some delicious carne asada tacos. Raul’s mom prepares and makes the ingredients, and his brothers cook behind the line.
We could not visit Delavan without eating at Hernandez El Sarape Restaurante, open for the last 37 years. Rafael Hernandez is the second generation to operate this successful restaurant and catering business. Rafael is a character who seemed to really enjoy being in front of the camera. He loved talking right to the lens and thought we were doing the entire episode on him and his restaurant. He was very generous with his time and fed us till we couldn’t eat another bite. He also wanted us to do a few shots of his favorite tequila and taste every margarita known to man.
Lake Lawn Resort sits on 250 acres alongside two miles of Delavan Lake shoreline. We had the opportunity not only to take a tour of the resort but also to get on a boat and take in Delavan Lake.
Delavan has been called the poor man’s Lake Geneva, but certainly not by me! This community has its own feel and its own identity and stands tall as one of our great, small Wisconsin communities. I can’t wait to visit Delavan again. ◆