Racine: Kringle Town USA
Groups in southeastern Wisconsin will discover art, architecture, history and, best of all, a mouthwatering signature pastry
To me, biting into a rich, sweet, buttery, flaky kringle is one of the true joys in life, and many of my family members agree. It’s such a special experience that we often don’t think of kringle except during the holiday season.
While kringle is one of our favorite things, many people, even Midwesterners living not far from southeastern Wisconsin, don’t know what it is. They should come to Racine, promoted as America’s Kringle Capital, and indulge in a few slices of this oversized, oval-shaped Danish pastry ring.
Though I have lived only an hour-and-a-half from Racine all my life, I had never stopped until I recently spent the day there checking out group-tour sites with Paul Holley from Racine County’s visitors bureau, Real Racine. The Wisconsin city, located on Lake Michigan just a little north of the Illinois border, is 62 miles north of Chicago and 23 miles south of Milwaukee. It’s easily accessible via Interstate 94.
Aside from the tasty treat brought to America by Danish immigrants in the mid-1800s, Racine offers plenty to see and do, but my personal focus was that decadent Danish delight, so I was happy my day started with a behind-the-scenes of Lehmann’s Bakery, one of Racine’s five kringle bakeries. Joining a motorcoach group from Indiana, I was transfixed for an hour that went by quickly as we watched guide/demonstrator Wayne Palmer-Ball work with the dough and make kringles and other pastries right before our eyes. Charming, chatty and easy to understand, he answered our questions as he went along. Who would have thought that each kringle consists of 48 delicate layers of dough?
Actually, the visit to Lehmann’s was so informative and so much fun that I would call it one of the best plant tours I’ve ever taken. It helped that we got samples of raspberry and almond kringle, along with some chocolate chip and sugar cookies right out of the oven.
Pecan and raspberry are the most popular kringle flavors, but Lehmann’s also makes apple, cherry, Bavarian cream, key lime, lemon cheesecake, blueberry cheesecake, peach (in season) and other varieties. The bakery turns out 480 kringles an hour, or 2,400 a night. Each is hand-formed from long sheets of floured dough, filled with fruit, nuts or other goodies, and baked to a golden brown. While still warm, it is hand-coated with white icing. Most of the kringles are shipped to Sam’s Club and other stores around the country.
Group tours of Lehmann’s are $3 a person and can be arranged through Real Racine or by contacting the bakery directly. Tour members are given an online order form and offered a discount. Some people on our tour purchased kringles ($7) at the store. (Kringles, by the way, freeze well.) Larsen Bakery is the other Racine kringle bakery that offers tours of its production facilities.
Other Racine claims to fame revolve around two famous names—SC Johnson and Frank Lloyd Wright. SC Johnson, most closely associated with Johnson floor wax for many years, makes household products like Pledge, Shout, Raid and Glade. Free tours of the SC Johnson campus, the company’s world headquarters, include visits to the Wright-designed SC Johnson Administration Building and Research Tower, the architect’s largest commercial project.
The 1½-hour tour starts at the visitor center in the Golden Rondelle, which served as the company’s pavilion at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair. First stop is the 15-level Research Tower, distinguished by bands of red brick alternating with bands of glass tubes. The tower’s labs were the birthplace for brands still around today. Beakers, burners and test tubes, along with TVs playing vintage commercials, are merely museum pieces, as the tower, opened in 1950, closed as a workplace in 1982. It reopened to the public in 2014.
Second stop at SC Johnson is the half-acre Great Workroom in the three-level Administration Building, where visitors see employees in the legal, financial and auditing departments busy at their desks. Supporting the 31-foot-high ceiling are 62 dendriform concrete columns, which rise from nine-inch bases to become 18½-foot-wide “lily pads” at the top; they’ve been compared to golf tees, trees and mushrooms. You can sit at a Wright-designed desk with rounded corners and swivel drawers.
Fortaleza Hall, the last stop on the tour, opened in 2010 as a tribute to late SC Johnson chairman Sam Johnson. Designed by Foster + Partners of London, the glass-and-steel structure displays a replica of the seaplane used by Sam and his sons, Curt and Fisk, in 1998 to recreate the 1935 expedition of his father, H.F. Johnson Jr., to Fortaleza, Brazil. He had gone there to study the carnuba palm, a key ingredient in floor and furniture care products. Tour members have 20 minutes to peruse Fortaleza Hall’s Johnson family history timeline, advertising and product displays, and Frank Lloyd Wright gallery. (Fisk Johnson is today’s fifth-generation leader.) The small Lily Pad gift shop offers items like packets of Shout, bottles of Windex and Fantastik, Off! bandanas and Glade T-shirts.
Wisconsin-born Wright also designed Wingspread, the last and largest of his Prairie-style homes (1937), for H. F. Johnson Jr. Located in the village of Wind Point, the residence is now a conference center operated by the Johnson Foundation of Wingspread. Free tours are available.
The Johnson family was instrumental in the creation of downtown’s world-class Racine Art Museum (RAM), the nation’s largest collection of contemporary crafts. Pieces from Karen Johnson Boyd, who collected crafts of all kinds, provided the foundation for the museum. Works range from ceramics and fibers to glass, paper, metal and wood. In addition to rotating exhibitions from its permanent collections, RAM brings in traveling exhibitions. A sculpture courtyard overlooks Lake Michigan.
Nearby is the free-admission Racine Heritage Museum, which has exhibits on Racine County’s maritime history (Racine was an important Great Lakes commercial shipping port), the Underground Railroad, Frank Lloyd Wright and early industries like Mitchell Manufacturing, a maker of wagons and cars until 1922.
Groups left off at Monument Square (between RAM and the heritage museum) for lunch and free time have a choice of many restaurants and shops on and off Main Street. Another lunch option: Reefpoint Brew House, at the downtown marina, has a dining room surrounded on three sides by views of Lake Michigan. There’s a private party room with bar. I recommend the grilled bacon-cheese-meatloaf sandwich with Cajun fries.
Besides buildings designed by Wright, architecture fans like the Southside Historic District, a 42-block neighborhood along Lake Michigan where substantial homes were built between the 1850s and 1920s. For no charge, Real Racine can provide a step-on guide for touring the town and historic district if the group overnights in Racine.
A noteworthy structure worth a photo stop is Wind Point Lighthouse. Built in 1880, the oldest and tallest operating lighthouse on Lake Michigan houses Wind Point’s village hall.
Another group tour option in Racine County is the 2.5-hour walking tour of Case-New Holland’s tractor assembly plant. Guided by retired employees, the tour shows each step of the manufacturing process, from engines being painted by robots to tires being mounted.
I concluded my day in Racine the way it started—with a kringle bakery stop. This time it was O&H Danish Bakery’s flagship store on Washington Avenue, an attractive new space with a cafe, descriptive panels of the company’s history and elements of Scandinavian decor. O&H does not do a production-facility tour, but a talk to groups can be arranged in the store or on the bus. Samples are available in the store.
O&H makes more than 30 flavors of kringle. Popular choices include the Wisconsin Kringle, which is filled with cherries, cream cheese and cranberries (Wisconsin is the top cranberry-producing state.) Or try the Turtle—caramel, chocolate and pecans.
O&H’s location at the Petro station on I-94, close to the Real Racine visitor center, makes a convenient place for grabbing some of Wisconsin’s official state pastry before leaving town.