Living in Falls

Sheboygan Falls is a little town north of Milwaukee, near Lake Michigan, and was built around the falls of the Sheboygan River in the mid-1800s.  The water over the falls was harnessed to provide power when settlement and industry first came to the area around 1835.  I graduated high school in 1991, and Falls had a population of slightly over 5000 people when I lived there.  With a total area of about 4 square miles, it’s a small community, with a quaint little main street that’s a block long, lined with cream city brick buildings, some with bands of stained glass windows across the tops of the stores.

Some of the main street buildings built in the 1850s were a flour and feed store, a tinsmith, and a drug store.  In the 1870s came a wagon shop and a grocery store.  These buildings were painstakingly restored in the latter part of the twentieth century, some complete with tin ceilings and delicate, precise, richly colorful Victorian painting on the exterior facades.  In 1995, Sheboygan Falls’ tiny downtown district was named a “Great American Main Street” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Today, on the main drag, you will find a flower shop, a couple of bars and restaurants, a photography studio, a shoe store, a furniture store and a dime store.  After hours of genealogy research, I found I am related to Rick, of Rick’s House of Flowers.  At least by marriage, anyway.  The shoe store, Depke’s, was owned by my step-dad’s brother and sister-in-law.  They sold mostly squishy tan or white nurse’s shoes – I think they were called Hush Puppies – and whenever I was there I always felt like I had to be extra quiet – like I was in a library, but one where kids weren’t welcome.

The local dime store is called Evans.  It’s a time warp sort of place – when you enter, it seems you’ve stepped back in time a few decades.  They sell a little bit of everything – outdated, but cheap, clothing, old-lady bras – the kind that are pointy and were popular in the 60s, kitchen odds and ends, some games and toys, and toiletries.  I randomly found an online post that describes it well.  “…you can always stop at Evans downtown for a bizarre dime-store experience – I’ve found deodorant on sale there from 1982!”

The Villager is a popular place to go for a weekend brunch or a Friday night fish fry.  Housed in a building that held the original wagon wheel shop, then an ice cream and sweets store, the place has been beautifully restored to reflect its original appearance.  I’ve been told by many people not from Wisconsin they have no idea what a Friday Night Fish Fry is.  Lots of restaurants in Wisconsin serve fried fish on Friday nights.  I imagine the phenomenon started because of the Catholic restriction against eating meat on Fridays.  Wisconsin is full of lakes and local freshwater pan fish are plentiful.  The most traditional fish to eat on Fridays where I grew up is perch.  If you’re ordering perch at any time other than Friday, you refer to it differently – you’re having a fish lunch or a fish supper, but on Friday, it’s a fish fry.

The rest of Falls is entirely residential, unless you count the various churches that are scattered throughout the town.  Streets are wide, and homes are modest.  It’s a quiet, safe, working-class, family-raising kind of place.  At night, it seems deserted.  A local ordinance prevents anyone from parking on the street overnight anywhere in town.  It originates from the need to keep roads free of cars so the snowplows can clear them in winter, but the parking ban extends year round.  When someone has visitors and needs to park on the street overnight, a quick call to the police department gets approval so the car won’t be ticketed.

Quaint and quiet as the town is, as a teenager, I had the most boring existence you could imagine.  There was nothing that counted as entertainment except a bowling alley on the outskirts of town, and you can only go bowling so many times before it gets pretty boring.  It’s a town of bars, churches, and a few restaurants, which is typical of small Wisconsin towns.  Even when we were old enough to drive into Sheboygan, a few miles away and a bigger city at around 50,000, outside the occasional trip to the mall or the movies, we didn’t go there that often.  Most weekends were spent hanging out at some friend’s house, watching Days of Our Lives, taped on a VCR, the latest MTV videos, or on Sundays, the Packer game, and then The Simpsons.

Occasionally my friends and I got a little creative.  One year, we all pulled CB radios out of our garages and basements – I have no idea how we all managed to have access to CB radios – maybe it’s a Midwestern thing – and we made up a game of car tag.  The rules were: While you were driving around town in your car, you had to give clues to your location over your CB radio.  We all had handles, because to talk on a CB radio, you need a handle.  Mine was “Red Baron” because I drove my mom’s red station wagon.  Whoever was “it” started out the game saying, “Hey everyone, what’s your 20?”  Then in turn, everyone else replied with something like, “This is the Red Baron.  I’m on the street made famous by Freddy.”  If you were “it,” your job was to drive around looking for everyone based on their cryptic clues, and when you spotted someone, flash your brights at them.  Then they were “it.”  What made the game tricky is that we never stayed in one place long, so if you weren’t nearby someone when they gave a clue, it might take a long time to find anyone.  We killed hours in the evenings wandering around town looking for each other this way.

Because we lived in such a small town, we were free to roam wherever we wanted to even when we were much younger, as long as we were home for dinner or when the street lights came on.  Through junior high, I spent a lot of time outside the house, hanging out with friends.  We met at River Park, a large park built around the Sheboygan River that ran through the center of town, or played catch with a friend on the huge high school athletic field, or we rode our bikes around town from one friend’s house to another’s.  My sister and I were latchkey kids, getting ourselves off to school in the morning, and hanging out at home alone until my mom got home from work.  In the summer, we were home alone all day long.  There weren’t many rules, except that we couldn’t have anyone over to the house without prior permission, we had to do our chores every day, and if the tornado warning bell went off, we had to get into the basement right away and turn on the old AM radio to listen for weather alerts.  Sitting in the musty, dingy basement was boring after the excitement and adrenalin rush of hearing the alarm wore off.  We used it only for doing laundry and for certain kinds of storage because it got damp and anything not made of plastic got moldy.  We kept a couple beat up chairs down there for the times we were stuck waiting for the all-clear from a possible tornado.

In school, at recess during the winter, we played games that would almost certainly be banned today.  The game I loved most was “King of the Mountain.”  As snow piled up, snowplows pushed all the snow into a huge pile on one end of the playground.  When the bell rang for recess, we made a mad dash to the snow pile, which was probably a good 10 feet high or more.  Whoever scrambled up to the top first started out as King of the Mountain.  Everyone else did their best to knock that kid down, while he or she worked hard to hold the coveted position at the top of the mountain.  There were the occasional injuries – a broken arm or collarbone, and scraped faces from sliding down the icy hill when you were knocked over – but we didn’t mind the risks.  It was just good, plain, Midwestern winter fun.

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