Go behind the scenes in open house

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Margaret Plevak | May 1, 2016

EAST TROY — For 15 years a life-sized Ronald McDonald statue has stood in the glass-walled cupola high above East Troy Shell, looking cheerfully out over the busy intersection of Wisconsin Highway 20 and County Highway ES. In the 15 years Linda Kaplan has owned the gas station and convenience store at 2526 Main St., hundreds of customers have asked if they could go up inside the cupola and check out the view. Since that area is not open to the public, she's always had to tell them no.

But for one day — Saturday, May 14, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. — she can say yes, courtesy of the statewide Downtown Open House Wisconsin event.

The inaugural event is a collaboration between the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. and the Wisconsin Main Street Program “to showcase unique historic and cultural assets of Wisconsin downtowns,” according to a WEDC news release. The organizations hope to get residents and visitors to explore their communities, learn what's new and discover the established places that they might not have checked out before.

In Walworth County, East Troy and Elkhorn are participating in the event. Both municipalities belong to Connect Communities, an offshoot of the Main Street program, said Cathy Anderson, executive assistant with Walworth County Economic Development Alliance.

In total, more than  a dozen Wisconsin communities and 80 sites — from dungeons, museums and forts to churches, rooftops and theaters — will be open to visitors, free of charge.

Many of the sites include spots people aren't normally likely to see, like East Troy Shell's cupola.

For visitors willing and able to climb three flights of stairs — there are hand railings, but no wheelchair access — to the 10-foot by 10-foot space on top, the view is worth it, Kaplan said.

“You can see almost to the square (in East Troy),” she said. “It's really so cool to get that bird's-eye view of the area.”

Because the station also houses a McDonald's, the statue of Ronald McDonald was installed in the cupola.

A living and breathing Ronald will be on hand to greet people on the ground-floor restaurant, which will be selling hamburgers for 59 cents.

Kaplan will have on display photos of the site dating back to 1873, and plans on distributing souvenir photo key chains. The station also will offer 15th anniversary specials, including samples of some 200 brands of soda sold at the store's Soda Stop.   

At the East Troy Historic Inn & Tavern, 2093 Division St. — also known as the East Troy House — a bit of racy history will be on tap during hourly tours of the building. Chuck Dimick, events coordinator there, claims it's not only Wisconsin's oldest tavern — built in 1836 — but it once housed a bordello on its second floor.

“The ladies worked on the second floor and their children were kept on the third floor,” Dimick wrote in an email. “The gas station next to East Troy House was originally a stable used by travelers so the Madame had a steady stream of customers. On the second floor is where the Madame's ghost has a habit of touching the hair of male guests. She's also been seen standing at the windows overlooking the town square.”

Visitors also will get a look at the bowling alley-turned-dance floor, hear more ghost stories and the varied history of the adjoining restaurant and get a good view of the period buildings lining the square.

Anderson said both communities are planning additional activities for the day, from a wine tasting to an antique car show. Participants will get passports that can be stamped at each site and then registered for prize drawings.

In Elkhorn, visitors can tour Holton House, a new pediatric therapy center inside the renovated 91-year-old home of Frank Holton, who founded an instrument manufacturing company that bore his name.

To add a 1920s flavor, old photographs of the area will be displayed, people in period costumes will stroll the streets and horse-drawn carriage rides will be offered, said Heather Bartell, administrator of the adjoining Holton Manor skilled nursing facility at 645 N. Church St. Bartell also hopes to have the Frank Holton Band playing in the square downtown.

All of the Walworth County Historical Society's buildings — the Doris M. Reinke Resource Center, Heritage Hall and the Webster House Museum — will be open during the event.

Society researcher Pat Blackmer said Walworth County veterans will be on hand at the Veterans Museum inside Heritage Hall, 103 E. Rockwell St. in Elkhorn.

“The collection in the Veterans Museum spans wars from the Spanish American War through current conflicts,” Blackmer wrote in an email. “It houses an interesting collection of artifacts that were donated by Walworth County veterans or their families.”

Docents will lead tours of the Webster House, 9 E. Rockwell St., pointing out exhibits of Native American and Civil War artifacts, a famed collection of waterfowl that Blackmer said is coveted by the Smithsonian and the Chicago Museum of Natural History and a huge doll house that's an exact replica of Westgate, a former Lake Geneva estate.

Elsewhere in Elkhorn, visitors can get tours of the recently renovated St. Patrick's Catholic Church, 107 W. Walworth St. The brick church was originally built in 1906, although the parish dates back to 1886.

St. Patrick's parishioner Mark Weseman said stained glass windows removed during the church remodeling were reused in other places, including on the wall of a meeting room and as part of an entranceway.

The tour will include the nearby Trinity Center, a former Masonic lodge that the parish now owns and uses for meetings, retreats and classes.

Weseman said historic photos will show the cornerstone of the former lodge being laid in 1914, when 500 Masons came to the dedication. There are also digital copies of items removed from a 101-year-old time capsule in the building, including letters from Civil War veterans.

Some older local residents might get a blast from the past if they tour the 1887 Building, 3 N. Jackson St. Now home to the Elkhorn Area School District administration office, the building is a former school, built in 1887.

EASD Administrator Jason Tadlock said building tours include the upstairs attic space, with its high windows and former bell tower, as well as offices created from converted classrooms.

“It's a flashback to people who went to school there, seeing their own classrooms,” he said. “And for those who haven't ever been there, they'll see a neat old building.”



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