Kenosha 101 – A Primer for Chicagoans

6/3/2019 - Frederick Butzen

Kenosha, WI is a great getaway destinations from folks from Chicago, IL
Kenosha, WI is a great getaway destinations from folks from Chicago, IL

For the first 65 years of my life – from 1952 to 2017 – I lived in Chicago. It’s where I was born, where I went to school, where I worked, where I married, where my children were born and where we raised them, where my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents are buried.

When my wife and I decided to leave Chicago, we chose Kenosha, because it a lovely, lively place: a good place to live and, as I hope to show you, a great place for a Chicagoan to visit.

Over the next 12 months, I’ll be writing about features of Kenosha that will especially appeal to Chicagoans. To begin, here’s a brief tour of Kenosha, the county and the city.

Kenosha County    

Kenosha County is in the southeast corner of Wisconsin, roughly halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee. It is laid out on a grid, and nearly all streets and avenues are numbers. Avenues run north/south and are numbered from east to west, starting at Lake Michigan. Streets run east/west and are numbered from north to south, starting at the Racine County border. So, for example, 420 30th Avenue is just south of the intersection of 42nd Street and 30th Avenue. As in Chicago, odd-numbered addresses are on the south and east side of the street, and even-numbered on the north or west side.

Most of the county’s 420 square miles is prairie, with the occasional hill or moraine. Most rivers and creeks flow from north to south, most notably the Des Plaines and the Fox. An important exception is the Pike River, which flows east into Lake Michigan. The southwest portion of the county has numerous small lakes.

The climate is like Chicago’s, only more so – a bit colder and snowier in the winter, a bit hotter in the summer – though, this being the Midwest, the weather varies a lot from year to year.

The City of Kenosha    

Most of the county’s 166,000 people live in the city of Kenosha.The city was founded in 1835 – two years before Chicago – by settlers from New York who settled around the harbor at the mouth of the Pike River. They called their town “Southport”, because it is the southernmost port in Wisconsin. In 1850, the town was renamed “Kenosha”, from the Potawatomi word for the pike fish, which flourished in the Pike River. To this day, many local businesses include “Southport” in their names.

Industry and Growth

Industry grew up around the harbor. Firms included the Simmons Manufacturing Company, which invented the coil-spring mattress; the American Brass Company; and the Thomas B. Jeffrey Company, which made the Sterling bicycle.

In 1902, the Jeffrey Company began to manufacture an automobile they called the “Rambler”; with that, the auto industry became a major employer. In 1916, Jeffrey was bought by Charles Nash, and renamed for him. In 1954, Nash became part of American Motors; and in 1987, AMC was bought by Chrysler. Much of Kenosha's autu-manufacturing history and industrial history can be explored at the Kenosha History Center

Reinvention and Renaissance

With the decline of the US auto industry, the AMC Lakefront Plant was demolished in 1990. Since then, Kenosha has reinvented itself as a place to live and to visit. The industrial area by the harbor has been redeveloped as parks, museums, and homes, and the harbor itself is now devoted almost exclusively to recreational boating - the area is now known as HarborPark. This process has been helped by an influx of newcomers who want what Kenosha offers: a quality of life that is high, yet affordable.

Kenosha Today

Kenosha stretches north and south from the harbor well west of Interstate 94. To the north is neighboring Racine, and to the south is the Illinois border. The city can be thought of having four areas, in my opinion, each with its own character: Central, North, South, and West.

The Central or Downtown area is clustered around the harbor, and is the oldest part of Kenosha,. It has the city’s marinas, museums, government buildings, the downtown retail district, and the Library Park historic district. An old-fashioned streetcar system runs between the museum campus and the Metra station. It’s a convenient way to get around downtown, and for some of us, a trip down memory lane. The fare is $1.

The northern area is featurings dining and residential areas. It also is where the city’s three higher education institutions are located: the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, Carthage College, and Gateway Technical College.  

The southern area is the older residential neighborhood, many being historic structures. Along the lakefront are parks and private mansions, as well as arts centers. Kenosha has nearly 90 percent of its lakefront publically accessible via parks, promenades, bike paths, and event spaces. 

The western area has newer neighborhoods, plus shopping malls, the Kenosha Regional Airport, and plenty of county farms, nature areas, and trails to explore.

Places To See, Things To Do in Kenosha County

Kenosha offers visitors a wealth of places to visit and things to do.

Collegiate baseball is played by the Kenosha Kingfish of the Northwoods League at Simmons Field during the summer, in south Kenosha.

Bicycling can be enjoyed on the more than 130 miles of trails in the county. Some trails are converted from abandoned railroad right-of-ways; others are on paths along the lakefront, or on lightly trafficked city streets. If you prefer to race bicycles, the Washington Park Velodrome– the oldest operating velodrome in the US – offers bicycle races three nights a week through August. Or, if you like mountain biking, Silver Lake Park offers more than ten miles of off-road biking.

Hiking is available along Kenosha’s lakefront, or through county parks – among them Petrifying Springs and Prairie Springs. At Petrifying Springs, you can stop in the biergarten after you’ve built up a thirst. Or, if you’re an architecture buff, you can stroll through south Kenosha’s historical neighborhoods and enjoy the viewing some of the best-preserved domestic architecture in the Midwest. Of note, Richard Bong State Recreation Area (named for Richard Bong, the Wisconsin-born recipient of the Medal of Honor and the American ace of aces in World War II) offers all of the above - hiking, biking, and even camping and fishing.                                                                                                                                                      

Speaking of fishing... Boating and Fishing are major recreation interests in Kenosha. Charter boats on Lake Michigan are available for fishing or recreation. Or, you can take a cruise on the Red Witch – a replica two-masted lake schooner (she also relocated from Chicago!). If you prefer canoeing, the Fox River Water Trail offers 11 miles of canoeing through lovely scenery. In August, the Tall Ships will be visiting Kenosha harbor August 2 - 4, where you’ll be able to enjoy them without Navy Pier’s crush or crowds.

For golfers, Kenosha offers two championship-calibre golf courses. Or, for  a more family-oriented game, Kenosha has four disc-golf courses, where players throw a Frisbee-like disc instead of hitting a ball.   

There are a lot of other adventures to enjoy, too. If you’re a fan of Top Gear or Grand Tour, Wilmot Raceway has auto racing every Saturday night through September. If you’re into aerial adventuresBoundless Adventures has just opened their first Midwestern park in Kenosha County. The park offers nine different aerial obstacles courses, of differing levels of difficulty, from you can choose your own aerial adventure. Finally, the fairs: the Bristol Renaissance Faire through July and August, and the Kenosha County Fair on August 15-19.

In the winter months, the activities continue. For snowmobilers, Kenosha County offers more than 100 miles of snowmobile trail. Cross-country skiing is available in the state and county parks. Wilmot Mountain offers downhill skiing, snowboarding, and snow tubing. Winter being winter, Kenosha has lots to do indoors. February features several great events including SnowDaze and Kenosha Restaurant Week, when Kenosha restaurants offer special menus and special offers. Or for something warmer, the Jelly Belly Visitors Center offers a guided tour, where you can see how Ronald Reagan’s favorite jelly bean is made.

History and Culture

Kenosha’s museums are well worth a visit.

The Dinosaur Discovery Museum has replicas of numerous dinosaur skeletons, displayed chronologically to offer a brief history of the Mesozoic Period.

The Kenosha Public Museum has a variety of exhibits, from art, to science and culture, to the natural history of the Kenosha region. A new permanent exhibit, “From Curiosity to Science”, presents the evolution of natural science from the 1600s to the present day.

The Kenosha History Center presents the history of Kenosha, both city and county. Among the displays are a history of industry in Kenosha, including some gorgeous AMC muscle cars. 

The Southport Light Station Museum offers a glimpse at Kenosha's maritime history. On the museum grounds is a cream city brick lighthouse erected in 1866 and the keepers' cottage that housed those who tended to the light. Visitors can climb the 72 steps to the top of the tower for superior views of Lake Michigan. 

The Civil War Museum is especially interesting. The interactive center walks you through a history of the war, from the crises over slavery, through the war itself, to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Also open to the public is a research library, and a well-stocked used-book store. I’ve not seen anything like it anywhere else. 


A Day In Kenosha

So, let’s say that I’ve convinced you, and you’ve decided to make a day trip or weekend visit to Kenosha this summer. Here’s what one such day might be like!

Kenosha is about a 90-minute drive from downtown Chicago. Just to straight up the Edens Expressway  to the Tollway to Milwaukee; then drive north until you see the signs to Kenosha. An alternate route – which I prefer – is to take the Edens, but, instead of the Tollway, take the Skokie Valley Highway (41) north. Depending on traffic, it’s not much slower than the tollway, and you save about $5 in tolls.

Or, if you prefer, take Metra’s Union Pacific North line terminates in downtown Kenosha. This makes sense particularly if you live on the North Side or in the northern suburbs. If you come on a weekend, buy a weekend pass, which offers unlimited rides for $10, which is about half of what you would pay for two one-way tickets. Be sure to check Metra’s website for the schedule of trains to and from Kenosha.

On the Town

If you’ve come on a Saturday, we’ll start with a visit to the Kenosha HarborMarket, which offers a great selection of handicrafts and locally grown food. What’s available changes over the season, so you may want to come more than once. There is also live music throughout the event site.

Once we’ve stored our purchases in a cooler, we’ll step across the street to the  Civil War Museum, to learn about the most important event in our nation’s history.

If you’re feeling a bit peckish, we’ll stop at The Coffee Pot for a late breakfast or early lunch. From there, we’ll cross to Simmons Island, to visit the Southport Light Station Museum, to see the displays on lake ships and navigation. We can then walk east on Simmons Island, to enjoy the view, or maybe go to the beach to dip our toes in the water.

From there, we’ll go south on Third Avenue to the Kemper Center, to visit the Durkee Mansion, which is a beautifully restored mansion from the 19thcentury.

After that, we’ll go a half-mile west to Library Park. The centerpiece is the Simmons Library, designed by Daniel Burnham. Surrounding it are historical buildings from the 19thcentury. Along the way, we’ll stop briefly to take a look at the home where filmmaker Orson Welles was born.

From Library Park, it’s a short through Downtown Kenosha, where you can choose to have dinner at one of many delicious area restaurants: Kaiser’s, whose pizza holds its own even when compared with Chicago’s best; or Sazzy B, offering fine cuisine and live jazz; or, a bit further north, Captain Mike’s, with an outstanding selection of local microbrews, for washing down burgers or mac-and-cheese; or, if you prefer the fruit of the vine, the Wine Knot– these among many others.

You can look at the blog postings here on the Visit Kenosha website for tips on places to go and things to do – new postings are made weekly. Thank you for reading! I hope to see you here soon!

Frederick Butzen

Frederick Butzen

Community Blogger

Recently retired software engineer & technical writer. Essayist and amateur musician, lifelong Chicagoan and newly arrived Kenoshan, enjoying exploring life and culture north of the Cheddar Curtain.