05 June 2008

Lost City: Wisconsin Edition: Two Rivers, the Perfect Town

Two Rivers, Wisconsin, is a town that entrances me. It looks like something Hollywood would dream up to represent early-20th-century small-town America. It's entire commercial life runs along Main Street. It has a village square with a gazebo, and right on the square are the town's courthouse, library, a church and its most important store, an independent, family-owned department stored called Schroeder's (pronounced "Shray-ders"), which has been there since 1891. On the outskirts, as you leave town, are a Dairy Queen and an actual drive-in diner, the kind with two facing rows of parking spots and a cement divider running down the middle.

If none of this seems wholesome enough, consider that Two Rivers claims it is the birthplace of the ice cream sundae. As the story goes, in 1881, a soda jerk named Ed Berners heeded customer George Hallauer's outlandish wish for some chocolate sauce on top of his dish of ice cream. A food fad was born. Of course, these claims have to be taken with a grain of salt. Ithica also claims the sundae as its own. But H.L. Menken once studied the issue and sided with Two Rivers, and that's good enough for me. Menken was no sucker.

The tavern where the sundae was invented is gone, but the "historic Washington House" has taken up the banner. You can get ice cream in this former inn, and roam around a makeshift, but surprisingly interesting museum of Two Rivers history, included an excellent representation of Berners' ice cream parlor (which looks like a bar). Go upstairs and you'll find a well-preserved ballroom with hand-painted murals that looks like something out of one of Dawn Powell's rural novels.

Those wondering why Wisconsinites called water fountains "bubblers" should walk into Schroeder's. In the middle of the store is an intact, working, ancient fountain. Twist the metal knob and the water doesn't stream out in an arc, but bubbled up from the top. Hence "bubbler."

Schroeder's is what you expect from a independent department store—a breed that is nearly extinct in America, but once could be found in every city, big and small. It's not flashy, the fixtures are old and the product lines are third-rate. (There's something fascinatingly melancholy about the atmosphere in small-town retail outlets.) Judging from the clothes and shoes available, Schroeder's buys with farmers in mind. But there's an old-world charm and you can find bargains.

Two Rivers has a lot of great old restaurants with great old signs. I love this sign for Arvy's Home Cooking (unfortunately now closed). Next to it is the Golden Nugget Supper Club, for which you're instructed to use the side entrance. Kurtz's Pub & Deli, a German haunt with a good selection of beers, has been there for more than a century. There's one Chinese take-out place called China Wok, with a magnificent fading ad above it for Bubble Up soda. There's also on of the most beautifully situated McDonald's I've ever seen, set on a sliver of land between Lake Michigan and one of Two Rivers' two rivers.


Anonymous said...

Oh, how I would love to visit; it is about as far removed from my real-life experience as, oh, Peru, but many of the books I read as a young girl were set in towns like this.
Great shots!

Anonymous said...

I live in Two Rivers, I go past all these things on a regular basis.
They closed the A&W drive in, though, but the rest is still here.

However we now have to go out past the city limits to get to school. (High School)