What’s in Horicon, Wisconsin?

This city has plenty going for it, including lots of John Deere green.

If all you know of Horicon, Wisconsin, is that there’s a marsh, then you have a lot to learn – and you’re a lot like I was until last August, when we spent five days shooting our Horicon episode of “Around the Corner with John McGivern.” Before then, I hadn’t even given thought to the fact that there might be a city called Horicon. I thought there was just a wildlife sanctuary and wetland called Horicon Marsh.

So it’s no surprise that the marsh was first thing on our list, and we found the perfect way to experience it. Marc Zuelsdorf, owner of Horicon Marsh Boat Tours at Blue Heron Landing, put me and my crew on a flat-bottom boat and proceeded to fill our heads with facts and our eyes with incredible beauty. Marc’s dad started the marsh tour business 54 years ago with a simple business plan: to provide a way for people to experience the marsh by boat, because seeing this marsh by driving around it just doesn’t do it justice. We weren’t on the marsh but a few minutes when we saw a 4½-foot great blue heron. I thought how perfect that the first wildlife we witnessed was the namesake of this tour company’s home base. It was like Marc had it staged, and it took a minute before I was convinced that this big bird was even real! Marc told us that there are between 500 and 600 herons living and nesting in the marsh, and around 305 species of birds have been identified here. We saw eagles, wood ducks, double-crested cormorants and belted kingfishers, all of which birder Marc pointed out. In 1991, to protect the Horicon Marsh, it was dedicated as a wetland of international importance. The protection of this land is vital to the wildlife, important to the economy of the area and a gift to all of us Wisconsinites. We left Blue Heron Landing in the early afternoon, and by the time we returned, I was overwhelmed with pride and respect for this Wisconsin treasure.

There is absolutely nothing taxing about the marsh tour, but after doing almost anything, it’s usually my plan to grab a bite to eat. Thankfully, the next establishment on our list was Rock River Tap. From the outside it looks like the small taverns that were on every other block when I was growing up. But when I walked in, I was totally surprised. It’s huge. It’s got a long bar with a few tables in the front, a large back dining room and a patio that overlooks the Rock River. On the afternoon we stopped in, there were tables of customers who were eating and tables of customers in the middle of an afternoon game of bridge! Next to them was another table of competitive mahjong players. Bob Carpenter has owned the place for 28 years and says the clientele range in age from 21 to 91. People come for the homemade pizzas with caramelized onions and roasted mushrooms and for the best fish
fry in town. But you know why I’ll come back? OK, any man can experience this, but women, find Bob and tell him McGivern wants you to see it. Because inside the men’s bathroom is what has to be the largest urinal ever made! No, I swear. I wouldn’t write about a urinal, especially in this cultured, almost highbrow Milwaukee Magazine, if it weren’t something. It is the size of a 1954 Buick. I was afraid I was going to fall in.

The urinal at the Rock River Tap and the Horicon Marsh Boat Tour are reasons enough to come to Horicon, but if you like the color green, then get in your car. Of course, there’s only one shade of green allowed in Horicon, and that’s John Deere green. This community has a long and special relationship to John Deere.

The plant opened in 1911 and builds John Deere lawn equipment. In 2010, John Deere Horicon Works also began to build Gator utility vehicles. Generations of families have worked at this same plant. Tony Westimayer, who recently retired from the stamping facility, was the third Tony Westimayer to work here – and there’s a fourth generation of his family there now. We heard a lot of multi-generation stories at this employer of eleven hundred people – in a community of just 3,655. Horicon is happy that “Nothing Runs Like a Deere.”

Jim Bandsma is happy that nothing runs like a Deere, too. He’s the son of a John Deere employee, and he followed in his fathers’ footsteps for thirty-three years. He is now retired but serves as Horicon fire chief, and is an avid collector of all things John Deere. He has one of the first John Deere riding lawn mowers ever made. He owns John Deere toys from the 1950’s and 1960’s. He has dolls and bikes and signs and clocks and thermometers and pens and pencils and paper tablets and tables and chairs – all with the John Deere logo and green and yellow colors. It is a completely impressive collection, and I’m so grateful that Jim shared it with me.

John Deere is big, but the smaller businesses here are no less impressive. One of my favorite visits in Horicon was with the Freds Schwertfeger at Horicon Bank. Fred F. is president and his son, Fred C., is a vice president of this community bank that began in 1915. There are 15 branches that employ about 180 people. The tag line of Horicon Bank is “The Natural Choice” because of their tie with the marsh and the geese, and because they know and respect and proudly serve the Horicon community. They are in the middle of town, in a building that hearkens back to a different time. Take a look at the pristine bank vault and the alarm system that may not be of use, but sure are of great interest. This building was built to house not only the bank, but the Post Office as well. It still stands tall and strong and represents Horicon’s past and present.

Another Horicon star is LeRoy Meats. When you arrive, be sure to ask for LeRoy. That’s how they’ll know you’re new to Horicon. This classic meat market and deli (started in the nearby Town of LeRoy) is famous for its brats. They have over 60 varieties. I asked Scott Hurst, the owner, which brat flavor was the most popular and he answered, “Wisconsin Beer and Cheese.” I asked why, and he looked at me like I must be from Illinois. He said, “Because of BEER and CHEESE… Wisconsin’s two favorite things inside Wisconsin’s other favorite thing, the BRAT! It’s like the TRINITY!” OK, I admit, it was a stupid question.

By the time we left Horicon, I learned one other very important thing. Don’t make fun of the high school mascot! The mascot is a Marshman. Not a Martian, not a marshmallow – a marsh-man, who is depicted by a cartoon of what looks to be a 40-year-old sailor in hip waders, and people in Horicon LOVE him!

I’ve been back to Horicon since our shooting, to visit Evelyn and John at Eberle’s Produce. The Eberles are farmers who have been selling pumpkins, squash and gourds for 40 years. They also sell crafts they make over the winter. Their market is open mid-September into November, and it’s now a must-do for me every fall.

Now when I think of Horicon, I think of a lot more than the marsh. If you saw this episode, or if you watch it on online, you’ll know that even though the marsh stole my heart, the city of Horicon steals the show. I’ll be a Marshman anytime. I’ll even wear the hip waders… if I have to! ◆

‘Horicon: More than the Marsh’ appears in the October 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning October 2, 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.