I Miss Wisconsin- part 2 Adventures in Cheeseland
As you leave the toll road you begin a long S turn. It is then that you cross the Illinois/Wisconsin border and enter the Land of Cheese. Now, this stretch of I-94 is one of the oldest paved highways in America, and has a straight as an arrow feel. You pass the Bristol Ren Fest grounds on the left, but I never had time to stop; I had to get to Gen Con! You also pass the Prime Outlet Mall, which has a pretty good selection of stores for the Gamer Geek, including Black and Decker, Sony, and Pepperidge Farms.
Now the next exit, SR 165/CR Q, is the exit for this Mall and the Wisconsin Rest Stop. That’s a good place to take a restroom break, look at travel pamphlets, and stretch your legs. This is where we would usually have our 1st “Gamer Sign” sighting. Usually big guys, in a Honda Civic packed to the gills, wearing black T shirts, and dumping Mountain Dew cans in the recycling bins. Behind it is a Mickey D’s and a Culver’s (my favorite hamburger) joint. You just take the road behind Culvers and it takes you a block or so to the Outlet Mall.
Now for those who want their mega sugar fix, you just head east two miles to the Jelly Belly factory store for all your candy needs.
Just before you make that exit you would see the Kenosha Military Museum on the left side of the road. You could then take the frontage road and play with some big boy toys. They have some hardware that I had not seen in a long time! I took Jeff the Enchanter and his evil twin Rob. They complained all the way, saying they didn’t to see dead military things; well, when we got there, they were like a couple of happy chimps, jumping in tanks, taking controls of helicopters, and generally having a good time.
The next major exit is Highway 50, a very major stop in the earlier year’s shows. When Gen Con moved there in 1978, all that was there was a Hojo’s, the Brat Stop, a Big Boy and some-notel-motels.
In the last years of the Milwaukee Gen Con’s, I always recommended that folks who were day tripping to the show should stay at the hotels on I-94 and SR 50. There were lots of rooms available there at affordable prices; and it would leave the Milwaukee hotels free for those who were there for the duration.
Now, there had been an outlet mall there until last year when it was torn down; who knows what they will put up next. The only thing that dirt mall had of any importance was an Eddie Bauer store, which I have been told moved to the Prime Outlet Mall.
Like I said, in the Parkside Years, 1978-1984, there were only two hotels; now there are about a dozen, with lots of places to eat too. However, the main attraction in the Milwaukee years was always Woodman’s.
Woodman’s is just about one of the biggest supermarkets in the country, (with Jungle Jim’s in Cincy being the largest), with a liquor store the size of a regular Walgreens. With a most excellent choice of snack foods, this was the stop of choice for munchies purchases.
Now there was one place at the Kenosha exit that I used to enjoy stopping at. One of the oldest restaurants there used to be a Mark’s Big Boy. Decent food for a decent price. We would stop there for lunch on the way up, get a burger and some pie, and attempt gamer sightings. Then it became a “Mark’s Café and Coffee Mill”, and then something else, and then it finally died. We even stopped eating there because it became so bad. Last time I drove thru it was empty, and by now it has probably met the fate of the wrecking ball, and something new is in its place.
Next is the exit for Mars Cheese Castle, as seen on Food TV, with its great selection of cheese. This was usually a stop on the way home, and a place I could get Sprecker’s Root Beer by the case; and generally bought a lot! Sometimes my homies would pick up some different types of cheeses at the Castle, and we would try them the following Saturday at our Gen Con “debriefing”.
From 1978 to 1984 you would pull off at County Road E and head east to the lake and University of Wisconsin at Parkside. But that’s another story.
(Stay tuned for I miss Wisconsin pt. 3: Parkside)
After you passed the exit for Racine, home of the Racine Kringle, the landscape flatten out to billiard table smoothness. On the right you pass this big old sign for University of Lawsonomy, do a Google search and you will be enlightened. Besides the “adult novelty” palaces and semi dealerships, it is a pleasant view. Before Seven Mile Road, there is a giant Santa Claus beckoning you to visit the year round Christmas store. At Seven Mile Road there is a huge indoor and outdoor Flea market.
The only major stop before the Marquette Exchange would be General Billy Mitchell International Airport; where I had to go to pick up folks flying in. There was also a great used book store in the Terminal.
Just days before the 1st Milwaukee Gen Con; I got a call from the Holiday Inn, now the Holiday Inn City Centre, (see my future blog entry I miss Wisconsin pt. 4: We all Journey to MECCA) letting me know that a water pipe had broken and that they would not be able to accommodate us until Friday. They had booked us into the Red Carpet Inn, then called the Milwaukee Inn, now called the Four Points by Sheraton. This was the only time I did not stay downtown, but in the later years things got so crowded that even the airport hotels would fill up.
As you S-turned, you saw the Bauhaus inspired Central Wire and Steel warehouse. Until 2003 you saw the industrial building with huge banks of glass windows, and it made a potently dull building look like an incredible masterpiece. Unfortunately they were covered in 2003 with steel panels, making the building look like any other warehouse. Sigh.
As you pass over a small rise, you see downtown Milwaukee spread out before you. Now, before you pass over the Menomonee Valley you see the Allen Bradley Clock tower, the largest four sided clock tower in the world, on the right, and the three domes of the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory on the left. Then the ground drops away into the valley, but the road stays level.
The 1st time my pal Jeff Thompson saw the number of level of bridges and ramps and the like of the Marquette Exchange, after a short burst of cursing, he remarked “Who designed this Esther?”. The roadway is at least a hundred or so feet above the Valley floor. Ramps going every where violating even the laws of the universe. Next time you see the Nazi car chase scene in the Blues Brothers, remember that part of it was shot on the Marquette.
Instead of going straight to our hotel, we would take a detour to go to the happiest place in the world, yes Miller Brewing. The neighborhood we went through to get to Miller was on the rough side, but the three free beers made it all worthwhile.
We would descend in to Miller Valley and smell that smell that can make grown men cry. Think about standing outside the Ram when they are making beer, and increase that smell about 10,000%. Yea it’s that good. Passing all the different buildings, we would park in the Miller Brewing Visitors Center. In past video tapes I’ve made of the journey I have noticed the sound of beer bottles tinkling on the floor of the van.
I love any factory tour, especially when it involves alcohol. You see, I believe that the best way to demystify booze for kids is to show them it’s an industrial process, and not some magic potion made by pixies. And Miller does a pretty good job of it.
We always had to hurry so as not to miss the last tour, but we always made it. The Visitors Center and Gift Shop was pretty cool; showing the process and history of Miller. I would always get some stuff at the gift show, a bottle opener, a t-shirt, or a pin of some sort, as we waited for our tour to start.
After a while you would be called into a little theater where, on three big screens, they would show you the Miller story. Ok, I am an AV monkey by trade, not choice, but the projection and sound system are second to none. When they pop the crown off that beer bottle and the brew is poured on screen; it’s like they are doing it right in front of you.
Next, our lovely tour guide would take us to the Bottling Plant, where we would see that golden lager placed in either bottles or cans, and packed in boxes for shipping. It was really cool seeing those spinning filling machines fill up those cans at almost the speed of light.
Next was the shipping building, which is about the size of the exhibition hall at the ICC. For about as far as the eye could see, there were pallets and more pallets, truly an amazing sight; but more amazing sights were to come.
Now one of the reasons Miller is where it is, is because the caves under the hill are next to the site of the original brewery. Before commercial refrigeration plants, they would slice and haul ice from the river, put the ice in the caves, and store the beer there, thus insuring the beer supply year round. Today the Miller caves are also part of the tour. You enter and descend passing by mannequins and displays of coppering tools. At the bottom there is sort of a small museum to the other trades that supported the beer making process. The other neat collection is a display of all the Wisconsin breweries’ beer bottles, with some very odd and interesting bottles of beer.
After all that hiking around, a person gets powerfully thirsty, so it’s off to the Miller Inn. Back in the day the Miller Inn is where Fredrick Miller would entertain visitors and family in this Bavarian styled inn. Now, tour visitors get the 1st of their three beers in this very classy background.
After draining the malty substance it was off to the Miller Beer Plaza, to fill out your free post card and drink your two remaining beers. Sometimes they would have a band playing, and sometimes not, but there would always be some jamming music, sunny skies, and cold beer. For me it was a time to put on my game face, get ready to meet the convention, and ready myself for what was about to come. I would look at my companions, hear the music blaring from the plaza’s PA, and just enjoy the pleasure of the moment.
Now before leaving there was one last thing you could see, and that was the brew kettles. Right next to the Plaza, the path to the kettles was located 140 steps up and 20 degrees warmer than ground level. After climbing to the top you saw the copper kettles where the beer is brewed. The smell was a bit overpowering, but as Jeff Thompson says, “but Randy it’s a good smell, a good smell.” I did it once and that was enough for me.
As we passed the Miller buildings, leaving the way we came in, I knew that Gen Con was now starting. These quiet moments would return on that Monday drive home. In 2002, it was partially sad this being the last Gen Con in Milwaukee, knowing that this journey I had made every year since 1985 was over. I could go back, and in fact I have, but now everything would be different. The yearly journey would now be a common place trip. But still, Gen Con would go on, and I was the Keeper of Ancient Gen Con Lore, I had my duties to continue with also. And now, the best four days in gaming would be just down the block!
But time pass all things and I am your humble Keeper of Ancient Gen Con Lore
Next-I Miss Wisconsin pt. 3 Parkside-Horror in the Forrest