Written by Riley Behlke
In South Central Wisconsin — about halfway between Milwaukee and Madison — lies the city of Oconomowoc (pronounced Oh-cahn-no-mow-wauk). Oconomowoc is a city best described as a contradiction. The first sight one sees driving into Oconomowoc is the shaded streets lined with time-worn maple and oak trees. Every house on the block gives off the charm of small-town America, but as one continues into town, these sights give way to a pleasing assortment of low-rises and old brick German buildings that pay homage to the city’s heritage. Sculptures and murals populate the city, showcasing the city’s active art culture that was founded about fifty years ago and is celebrated with a yearly art festival. Oconomowoc is a vibrant city that merges the joys of the outdoors with the liveliness of a big city.
Situated on five glacial lakes, the city was initially settled by the Potowatami (pronounced pah-to-wah-tah-mi) and Ho-Chunk tribes. According to the city’s website, the tribes named the settlement “Coo-no-mo-wauk” which means “where the waters meet.” From the 1870s until the Great Depression, Oconomowoc was a popular vacation spot for Midwestern elites, and people came from as far as Chicago and St. Louis to use the beach homes located at “the Heart of Lake Country.” Now, hundreds of years later, Oconomowoc is still a hotspot for excursionists, whether their preferences lean toward outdoor activities, city life or geek culture.
Nature lovers can discover that Oconomowoc has a number of hiking and biking options available. A blue and green boardwalk leads visitors around Lake Fowler to the glassy waters of Lac La Belle. Historical walks showcase the multitude of large stone buildings that are featured on the National Register for Historic Places. Standout examples include Maxim’s Family Restaurant, a former train depot built with split granite boulders and a sprawling French Provincial mansion overlooking Lac La Belle. One of the walks organized by the Oconomowoc Area Historical Society & Museum doubles as a geocache hunt.
Outside of the city, Lake Country Trail and Glacial Drumlin Trail link Oconomowoc to Waukesha, Madison and Milwaukee. These paved trails lead visitors through the glacial scars of rolling hills and sprawling marshes. Hikers might spot turkeys or deer hiding in a trove of green ash trees or a sandhill crane wading in the lakes.
Besides hiking and biking, Oconomowoc’s other main attractions are its water sports. Oconomowoc City Hall and many businesses rent watercrafts, like kayaks or pontoon boats, to take out on the lakes and rivers that cut through untamed forests. Bass, walleye, and panfish inhabit these waterways in great number.
“I love hanging out on Lac La Belle,” local fisherman John Paul MacMartin said. “It’s really good fishing — I catch a lot of bass.”
Fishing is so popular, travels often come solely for it.
“Oconomowoc is a lake that fuels anglers’ dreams. And every so often, makes them come true,” according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The city of Oconomowoc organizes many events throughout the year, with one of the most iconic being the German Christmas Market.
“Oconomowoc’s sister city relationship with Dietzenbach has been the catalyst for the creation of an event to celebrate our heritage and revitalized downtown,” Robert Duffy, Oconomowoc’s Economic Development Director, said. “The German Christmas Market marks the beginning of the holiday shopping season, and brings the community together to support local artisans and businesses. Since its inception, the event has grown annually and has become a highlight attraction for downtown Oconomowoc to bring in visitors and shoppers from throughout the region.”
Held during Thanksgiving weekend, the market is hosted at Village Green Park overlooking Lake Fowler. In pavilions and stalls fashioned after Medieval Germanic architecture and decorated with garland and lights, vendors sell anything from Baltic sweaters and capes to Czech Christmas ornaments. A festive atmosphere permeates the park, with regional polka bands providing music and food peddlers cooking strudel and bratwurst.
As summer arrives, the city begins to host a wider variety of events. The Moonlight Movies are one of these. Starting at 6:00 p.m., the city of Oconomowoc closes down Main Street, setting up concession stands and a large movie screen as nature dims the lights. Locals and visitors alike take to downtown Oconomowoc with folding chairs and blankets to settle in for a cozy, family-friendly movie night.
Oconomowoc is famous for being the location of the world premiere of “The Wizard of Oz.” To commemorate this, the city of Oconomowoc screens the film every five years during one of the Moonlight Movie nights. For the 80th anniversary of the movie, occurring in 2019, Oconomowoc will be showing the film following a water ski show on August 15.
Concert enthusiasts have many options available to them in Oconomowoc.
“On the weekends we have at least three or four places that have live music,” Duffy said.
One venue is Crosspoint Church, a large church on the outskirts of town. It is renowned for bringing in big names in the Christian music industry.
“I like Crosspoint Church,” local musician Jourdan Westernberg said. “When I was younger I saw big names like RED and Disciple there. A couple years ago, I got the chance to open for Steven Malcolm there.”
In the summer, Magic Mansion hosts the Concert on the Porch series. These outdoor concerts feature folk musicians from around the nation. On August 25, American Idol winner, Lee DeWyze will be playing as part of the series. Like the Moonlight Movies, attendees bring their own lawn chairs and blankets and sit beneath trees decorated with fairy lights.
To get a taste of the local music scene, swing by the Rhodee Memorial Band Shell or Roots Coffeebar and Cafe.
Kowabunga Comics, a local comic book and game store, draws people in from all over South Central Wisconsin. Comics, new and old, line the walls and shelves. Figurines, retro video games and trading cards sit in display cases. Besides selling comics and games, the store has a loft, which serves as a meeting place for gamers with different backgrounds. Evenings dedicated to tabletop and video game gatherings draw participants from communities half an hour away or more.
“We have all sorts of little games and events,” James Bula, Kowabunga Comics owner said. “It’s really hard to find that anywhere else in this area. I think as far as providing something to the community, it certainly provides an outlet for people to find and make friends and connections that they wouldn’t have otherwise made.”
Kowabunga Comics belongs in Oconomowoc. Just like the town, it consistently punches above its weight. According to the Milwaukee A-List, Kowabunga Comics has been a finalist for best comic book store three times in the last five years. It is not uncommon for artists and authors such as Garth Ennis of “Preacher” and “Hitman” fame, and Tim Seeley, co-creator of “Hack/Slash” and “Revival,” to come in for signings.
Oconomowoc is a major destination in South Central Wisconsin. The lakes and trails offer nature lovers a place to go adventuring, and the wide variety of activities organized by the city provides something for everyone — from cultural events to concerts. With the presence of Kowabunga Comics, Oconomowoc is an meeting place for gamers in the region. All of these factors draw visitors from the surrounding areas to make the trip — regardless of the time of year. When traveling to Wisconsin, be sure to swing by “the Heart of Lake Country.” For more information for planning your trip check out http://www.visitoconomowoc.com/.