John McGivern gives us an ‘Insider’ look at West Bend

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My fond memories of West Bend date back to the summers of my youth. We always looked forward to being loaded into the Rambler station wagon and heading up to West Bend, where we spent the day swimming in the sand bottom swimming pool and picnicking in Regner Park. I was raised on the east side of Milwaukee and spent many a summer day at the concrete bottom pool in Gordon Park, so to me, this lake-like community pool was so different and completely magical.

This Thursday evening at 7pm on Milwaukee Public Television, you will see that I expanded my list of places to visit in West Bend. I realized on our first day of shooting that downtown West Bend is a destination place for people from all over the area. Main Street is busy – like, wait-for-traffic-to-cross-the-street busy!

One of the attractions is a place I’d heard of but never visited: Husar’s House of Diamonds. This place is amazing. It is a huge, beautiful store with every kind of watch, ring, pendent and birthstone you could ever imagine. It was great to talk to owner Mike Husar about the history of this family business. It was fascinating and completely amusing to talk with his sister, Mary Husar, about the merchandise. I made the mistake of asking her about my November birthstone. Thanks, Mary, for completely bursting my Gold Topaz bubble!

In one of the most iconic Main Street buildings in downtown West Bend, Ann Marie Craig and her crew at Century Farmhouse operate a gorgeous shop, full of handmade soaps and lotions that smell like a flower-filled garden. I made soap with Soap Lady Ann Marie. It was a memorable experience to learn the science and mechanics of creating a product we all use and then put it on a rope. I’m always looking for a new hobby, but as I learned, soap making actually involves chemistry, so maybe not.

Just off of Main Street on South 6th Avenue, is A Conversation Piece. It is a combination gift shop/furniture store/refinishing studio run by the mother and daughter team of Mary Windall and Alicia Dineen. These ladies have created a one-of-a-kind shopping and refinishing destination that draws you in and makes you want to stay. You’re not going to meet two nicer women!

Except maybe for Chef Jodi Janisse-Kanzaenbach, owner of Café Soeurette. This woman and her restaurant blew us away. Jodi has committed to supporting local farmers and vendors to create a menu that speaks to what is fresh and available today. This is the best example of what we know to be the “farm to table” movement. Chef Jodi was canning and pickling watermelon rind during our visit. Chef does all her own canning (in jars…why do they call it canning?) and makes sure her restaurant “cellar” is always stocked with local produce. Canning. Talk about a memory of every neighbor mother on our block growing up on Bartlett Avenue. The difference is that not one of them ever canned watermelon rind.

At 600 North Main Street we had a blast with Becky Moehr, her sisters, kids and mom who work at Toucan Food and Custard. An institution in West Bend, this place is open all year round and serves the best malts, shakes, burgers, fries, sundaes and fish sandwiches in the best atmosphere. I didn’t want to be rude or play favorites so I tried every flavor of shake they make. Oh, don’t judge me. You would have too!

Larry and Christine Porter took the old Hardware Store at the north end of Main Street and turned it into their home. Yep. They live in an old hardware store, but there’s not one key cutting machine or can of WD-40 to be found. I feel so lucky to have been invited inside to see how this commercial space turned into the most beautiful, spacious and comfortable home. The Porters should have an HGTV show on repurposing and reuse. Has that been done?

Speaking of things I didn’t know, there is a privately owned zoo/animal sanctuary in West Bend called The Shalom Wildlife Center. David Fletcher is the brains and brawn behind this sanctuary, where bears, wolves, bison and other creatures live on acres and acres of land. Remember hearing about the rescued bear cubs? Well, Lewis and Clark made Shalom their home, and adopted David as their dad. But there’s no more family hugs because Lewis and Clark now weigh about 400 pounds apiece! David’s vision and bravery need to be applauded.

Rick Takacs also needs to be applauded for his Emu Farm called Meadowbrook Orchard. Ok, I just need to say it: EMUS ARE CREEPY. They are prehistoric looking, and you can just tell they want to kill and eat you. They run and hop and charge and spit. I was scared, which is perfect because Meadowbrook Orchard is known for their Halloween scary orchard tours. Unfortunately, I was there at 10 in the morning and never set foot in the orchard. All it took for me to be scared were the emus!

I was raised a few blocks from a firehouse on Bartlett Avenue. I lived next door and across the street from firemen. Needless to say, that’s what I was thinking about when we drove up to The Venerable Fire Museum just outside West Bend. I had no idea this existed! Mary Franz, co-owner and wife of the founder Keith Franz, opened the doors and gave us a personal tour of this wonderful museum of all things firefighting. There are trucks, ladders and equipment from the late 1800s to the present. Most of this gear came from Wisconsin firehouses. The collection is sizable, in great shape and accessible. Mary would love for you to come and visit.

Michael and Matthew at M&W Trombones may not want you to visit for long, but if you ever get the chance to watch them make a high end, one of a kind trombone, you should! Seriously – high end instrument makers, right here in West Bend – who knew?

I also didn’t know about the ultramodern Museum of Wisconsin Art. The fact that a community of this size can support a museum of this caliber says everything about West Bend. Graeme Reid, director of collections and exhibition, showed us how proud we should be as a state that has Wisconsin artists showing their work in such an incredible space.

As a child, I found the sand-bottomed pool at Regner Park magical. Now, as an adult I find this entire community magical. Thanks, West Bend!

The McGivern article appears in Sunday’s Home Section of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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