Milwaukee Touring

After so long in rural environs, returning to a larger city seemed odd – almost jarring. No more “honor system” firewood stands along the road or leaving your car unlocked while you shop. Back to rude drivers and locking everything up – welcome to the big city!

Our visit to Milwaukee was all about the factory tours. Our first jaunt was to the Miller Brewing company. After ponying up the $10 fee, we were herded toward the auditorium where the guide instructed us to grab a beer and take a seat. Now that’s my kind of tour! After beer #1 and a short film about the company’s history, we headed up the street past the enormous complex of buildings that comprise “Miller Valley”.  We climbed 56 stairs to the top of the brewing room, where the magic elixir is created and cooked. Descending to the street again, we popped into a historic bar for more history and beer #2. We followed the brewing process through filtering, aging, bottling and packaging before heading back to the Visitor’s Center and their beer garden for beers #3 and 4. Subsequently, we floated to the gift shop to receive our free lager glasses and chits for yet another free beer at one of list of other locations. I believe we got our money’s worth! Miller/Coors still isn’t my beverage of choice, but you have to salute Frederick Miller who emigrated from Germany in 1854 with his special yeast in his pocket and built this thriving global company. Miller survived Prohibition, and recessions, and still use descendant strains of that very same yeast. Huzzah!

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Next, we hit the Harley-Davidson Power Train factory in nearby Menonomee Falls. This tour was free! We were provided ear plugs, safety glasses and a headset, and followed the tour guide through a 45 minute circuit of the highly-automated factory where Harley builds its iconic motors. (Final assembly is done in York, Pennsylvania). The tour would probably be more understandable to someone who really knows these engines – a lot of the assembly narrative was a bit blah-blah-blah to me. But I did admire the factory cleanliness and orderliness. Clearly they are proponents of Lean Manufacturing and Digital Six Sigma. The small onsite gift shop had the BEST prices I’ve ever seen on Harley-branded merchandise. (I took advantage.) For the true devotee, a more extensive “Steel Toe” tour option is available, for a fee.

After the Harley factory tour, we headed back to Milwaukee for a visit to the Harley-Davidson Museum. The museum was NOT free at $22/per person, but would have been if we were still HOG (Harley Owners Group) members. Alas, we had let our membership lapse. The museum consists of two floors of Harley motorcycles and memorabilia, including the oldest known Harley-Davidson motorcycle built in 1903, serial number one. The exhibits share the evolution of motorcycle features and design, use in military and police applications, and the motorcycle in modern culture. I thought one of the most fascinating aspects was the Harley-Davidson business story. Purchased by AMF in 1969, the new ownership slashed the workforce to streamline production. The result was worker strikes and declining quality, sales and profits. Poised to be sold off, a small group of investors led by Willie Davidson, bought back the company in 1981. After several rocky years, they managed to improve the brand’s reputation and brought the company back to profitability. Shortly thereafter, Harley-Davidson went public. It’s really an incredible business turn-around story.

In nearby Racine, we visited the SC Johnson headquarters. Their free tour features administration and (former) research buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Both of these structures are marvels of advanced architectural design, featuring FLW’s iconic horizontal and vertical swooping lines that appear to grow from the natural environment. Unfortunately, his design esthetic sometimes trumped function. His buildings had water leak problems, the wide-open administration office had noise issues, and his three-legged desk chair tended to tip over when occupants crossed their legs. The research tower has only one exit per floor, coming afoul of life safety code and causing it to be abandoned after 32 years of use. Still, the simple beauty of FLW’s design was WAY ahead of its time, and worthy of respect.

Before departing Milwaukee, Jeff felt we just had to take in a ball game, so we headed to Miller stadium. We cashed in our free beer chits, and wandered the enormous 42,000 seat facility. We watched as the Milwaukee Brewers handily beat the Arizona Razerbacks 6 to 1 before nearly a capacity crowd. Contrast that to attendance at the last few Miami Marlins games we attended which was dismal (and they lost). Wisconsin certainly loves and supports their teams!

Tomorrow we’re packing it in and heading South!

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