A new museum galvanizes our love of old Milwaukee.
On our trip to Brew City, we got a peek at the Harley-Davidson Museum, a $75 million ode to one of Milwaukee’s most storied cultural and commercial icons. Along the way, we indulged in other old Milwaukee classics—a Friday night fish fry, a little polka and a few rounds of bowling and brewskis.
In 2003, about a quarter of a million people gathered in Milwaukee for the 100th anniversary celebration of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company. Five years later, hog-heads were gearing up for the company’s next big milestone, a 13,000-square-foot museum opening in Milwaukee’s old industrial corridor. The sleek, industrial-style exhibition space is part of a sprawling complex composed of company archives, a café, event space and gift shop—all set in 20 park-like acres along the river.
Non-riders who enter wondering why the Harley-Davidson brand is such a big deal won’t have to look far: While gearheads fixate on mechanics, such as the difference between the roar of a flathead engine versus a shovelhead, laymen can marvel at manifestations of Harley’s other signature selling point—its style. Besides being the only remaining U.S.-based motorcycle manufacturer, the company wins fans for its custom-tailoring and design, as evidenced by a timeline of colorful gas tanks mounted on a second floor hallway like artworks.
Nearby, a fleet of bikes, representing almost every year from the company’s history, lines the length of the museum, while galleries on each side display memorabilia. For outsiders, some of the most interesting sights will be the customized bikes, or choppers, including King Kong (pictured), a 13-foot-long bike that a Pennsylvania Harley dealer customized by fusing two motorcycles, including their V-twin Knucklehead engines.
We’re smitten by another feature in this section: a couple’s white bike that looks like late-era Elvis on wheels, encrusted in rhinestone gems with decaled names—Russ and Peg—on both ends. Exhibits include one on bikers’ outlaw image à la The Wild One, and a collection of rare bikes and oddball Harley products such as a mod scooter and fiberglass boat. 400 Canal St, 1-877-HD MUSEUM, $10–$16.
Our next stop is the Lakefront Brewery, for the great Wisconsin tradition of the Friday fish fry. With communal German-beerhall seating and a live polka band energizing a kiddie-filled dance floor (pictured above), the revelry of this dining experience is reminiscent of a nice Milwaukee wedding. We get to know our tablemates as we decide among perch, cod and blue gill—they’re all served with coleslaw and a choice of fries or potato pancakes. Kids’ items and nonfish options are also available. Beer connoisseurs should be sure to sample Lakefront’s tasty line of regular and seasonal beer specialties. We were tempted by the optional brewery tour, which costs $6 and includes a souvenir pint glass, four pours of beer and a coupon for another free beer at various local bars. Even when we’re stone sober that sounds like a deal. 1872 N Commerce St, 414-372-8800.
Koz’s Mini Bowl
Among its many monikers, Milwaukee is known as Tenpin City. Though that rep’s taken a hit in the past few years—only 38 alleys remain from a peak of 83 in the 1970s, and the U.S. Bowling Congress recently announced plans to relocate to Texas—the sport is still alive and well there. In fact, you can have your pick of classic ten pin; kegeln, which is German for bowling and involves nine pins; or mini bowling, also known as duck pin. We opt for the latter at Koz’s Mini Bowl; three short lanes at the back of a personality-packed dive bar are stocked with softball-size bowling balls and a team of teen pinboys who manually set the pins after each frame (pictured). Games are $3 per player, but you must tip your pinboy—there’s no inherent glory in dodging your killer benders. 2078 S 7th St, 414-383-0560.
Kochanski’s Concertina Bar
A trip to Milwaukee wouldn’t be complete without some live polka. In our Milwaukee Issue, we fretted that Art’s Concertina Bar (pictured), a Milwaukee classic, would shut its doors forever. Since then, it’s been bought up by one Andy Kochanski, who has perfectly preserved everything from the year-round Christmas lights and great Eastern European beer selection to the dance floor and live polka players. The crowd is a 50/50 ratio of young kitsch seekers and dedicated old timers, all of whom seem to know the words to just about every oompah-pah verse. 1920 S 37th St, 414-837-6552.