Here’s Why You Should Visit ‘Big City’ Manitowoc, Wisconsin

It’s the state’s 24th-largest, but it feels a lot like home

Manitowoc is Wisconsin’s 24th-largest city. Its population is about 33,000, with another 50,000 in surrounding communities. It’s on Lake Michigan at the mouth of the Manitowoc River and is the seat of Manitowoc County. Before our week of filming, I didn’t know any of that. I’d gone to high school (St. Lawrence Seminary) with a handful of Manitowoc boys. I’d driven through the city’s outskirts on Highway 42 on the way to Door County. And I knew that it’s 81 miles from Downtown Milwaukee to downtown Manitowoc, because that’s what my GPS said. But as for the city itself, I had no idea what to expect.

Then about a week before we were to shoot in Manitowoc, I received a note from our content producer, Deidre Martin, telling me she was so excited about this community. She said there was something really special about it, and she was hoping I’d feel the same. Over the last seven years, I’ve grown to trust Deidre and her sense of what, who and where in a community will make good TV. Deidre was beyond right when she wrote that there was something special here. I knew it the minute we pulled up to our first interview.

We were on the beach with Catherine Egger, a beach glass collector, searching the shore for glass treasures. We were there to talk about these objects as art, and what makes them valuable. I wasn’t sure what beach glass was, but after our search, I couldn’t wait to have my own beautiful, light green, worn-smooth-by-waves-and-sand specimens. But the real treasure on the beach that morning was Catherine Egger. She’s a born-and-raised Manitowoc resident, and not only does she know everything about her city, she’s also a busy Realtor. Her excitement was palpable; I could have spent another hour with her.

But when Lois Maurer, our producer, signaled for a third time that I should wrap it up, I knew I was just talking and not really thinking about making television. I love it when that happens (even if Lois doesn’t), and it happened a lot in Manitowoc.

For years I voiced the Cedar Crest Ice Cream commercials during Brewers radio games. I was excited to get into the Cedar Crest manufacturing plant in Manitowoc. I toured with Ken Kohlwey, company president, and we were given access to the secrets of this Wisconsin premium small-batch ice cream institution. The tour was fascinating, but even more exciting was “have whatever you want” at the ice cream shop afterwards. That is exactly what Ken said. He didn’t have to tell me twice. There were over 80 flavors, and yet my choice was easy. “A waffle cone with a scoop of Collision and a scoop of Elephant Tracks, please.” I also asked for a taste of Birthday Cake ice cream, and the woman scooping the ice cream said that I was the oldest person ever to ask for a taste of Birthday Cake. I gave her a polite smile but inside my head I screamed, “No one asked you, so shut the H up!” Old or young, I love Cedar Crest Ice Cream.

The following day we parked north of the bridge downtown and stepped back in time at Beerntsen’s Confectionary and Café. This place is a salute to past generations. It opened in 1932, and after three generations of Beerntsens was sold to the Schadries in 2003. Asked what they would change about the operation, they answered, “We’re going to get a new outside awning, but it’s going to look exactly the same.” The food is great, but it’s the ice cream sundaes, malts and homemade chocolates that keep people coming back. The homemade chocolate is made on site and is the same you’ll find being sold at the American Club in Kohler. YUM…

A must-see when visiting Manitowoc is the Wisconsin Maritime Museum and a tour of the USS Cobia submarine. I had never been on a submarine, and I swear I felt the presence of those who served. These tight quarters spoke to the commitment of the men who spent months submerged, never seeing daylight, to fight for the freedoms we take for granted today.

My thanks to Rolf Johnson, CEO of this museum. His enthusiasm was apparent, and his knowledge was impressive. Do you like to be scared? Do you watch horror movies or love it when someone jumps out of a dark closet and frightens the crap out of you? Do you go to haunted houses any chance you get? If you answered yes to any of these, have I got a place for you to visit! There is a B&B in downtown Manitowoc called DEAD BY DAWN. You may have read about it last fall, because some people believed the place was promoting devil worship. I laughed when I read that in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, because we spent an afternoon with Dawn Dabeck, owner and community organizer, and devil worshipper is NOT how I would describe her or her business. Dawn has created a one-of-a-kind experience for the like-minded. It’s a place where you never know what might pop out, what might be served as a late night snack (ask for the mealworms), or who or what might be standing in the corner. It’s an overnight, extended visit to a haunted house on steroids. I’m not sure there is anything like this anywhere else in the world. Smart business, Dawn.

I share the feeling with Deidre that there’s something very special about this city. By the time we left, I was looking at real estate thinking this would be a great place to call home. I actually looked at a house to buy! I came back to Milwaukee and told my partner, Steve, that we should go back, look at this house together and discuss Manitowoc as place to live. He looked at me as if I’d lost my mind. “Why would we want to move to Manitowoc?” he asked – a few times. I’ll try to explain it to you as I explained it to him.

I was raised in Milwaukee, but in my life, I’ve lived in a handful of our country’s largest cities: Chicago, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Tampa, San Francisco and Los Angeles. I moved back to Milwaukee in 2001 and have lived in the Yankee Hill area near Downtown for 17 years. I’ve never lived in a suburb – never wanted to.

I guess I presumed that Manitowoc would feel country and rural, but what I found was a community that completely appealed to me because it felt like a big city. It has a vibrant, busy downtown, and the people have an eager, welcoming attitude that felt genuine and somehow familiar. Raised on Milwaukee’s East Side, I know the feeling of a busy community on the shores of Lake Michigan. So maybe Manitowoc is somewhere I’d like to live because I feel like I already have lived there – like I totally fit in. Now if I can just get Steve to feel the same … ◆

‘Big City Manitowoc’ appears in the March 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning February 26, or buy a copy at



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.