Kenosha, Wis., and the Jelly Belly factory: A place for any taste

(Andrea Sachs/ The Washington Post ) - The 1866 Southport lighthouse overlooks Lake Michigan, the marina and downtown Kenosha, Wis. The 55-foot tower and adjacent Southport Light Station Museum are open to the public weekends from May to late October.

(Andrea Sachs/ The Washington Post ) - The 1866 Southport lighthouse overlooks Lake Michigan, the marina and downtown Kenosha, Wis. The 55-foot tower and adjacent Southport Light Station Museum are open to the public weekends from May to late October.

Vacation is neither the time nor the place for deprivation, so on my first morning in Kenosha, Wis., I gorged on a breakfast of blackberries and honey, tutti-frutti, a peach bellini, baby wipes and grass. As you can imagine, I didn’t feel so buoyant after this buffet. Smart move on my part to pass on the canned dog food.

Kenosha, 60 miles north of Chicago on the shores of Lake Michigan, is a town of playful indulgences and guileless diversions. Vintage trolleys circle the main commercial area, picking up passengers in no hurry. A lighthouse as red as Rudolph’s nose casts a watchful eye over the lake waters. One of the town’s most beloved residents illustrated Curious George coloring books. You can’t get sweeter than that, unless of course you’re filling your cheeks with candy at the Jelly Belly Center in nearby Pleasant Prairie.

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The company, founded by a German immigrant in 1869, offers a warehouse tour as sugary as the widgets it produces. At 9 a.m., when the craving for coffee is stronger than the yen for candy, I rendezvoused with anthropomorphic jelly beans and a chirpy guide named Amanda, whose enthusiasm at that hour was set on Sugar High. She escorted us to the brightly decorated train, then, in her serious conductor voice, warned us not to stand up, snap pictures while moving or remove our paper sanitation hats.

The train, which circuited the warehouse floor, stopped at different stations along the route. We’d often pause at a bean-shaped screen, beneath a ceiling of giant hanging jelly beans. Though my mind often drifts at the sound of a corporate fact sheet, it stayed put. I was glad it stuck around, or I might never have known that:

●Ronald Reagan, a Jelly Belly fan from the governor’s mansion to the White House, favored licorice-flavored beans. America’s No. 1 flavor is Very Cherry, which supplanted the previous front-runner, Buttered Popcorn, five years ago.

●Some of the failed flavors include mac ’n’ cheese, nachos, ketchup and mustard.

●The newest flavor is candy corn, which means that the company has come full circle: The Goelitz family started the business making candy corn.

●If you behave, Amanda will give you a free bag of Jelly Bellys.

At the end of the tour, as in all factory tours, visitors are given one exit route — through the gift shop. A sampling station stood between me and my car. I couldn’t be rude and snub it, now could I?

An older woman in a hairnet was scooping up the beans and placing them in open palms. Despite the 50 core flavors, gross-out BeanBoozleds and various confections and special series (cocktail classics, Snapple, sours, etc.), there was no limit on samples. You could go down the line, from Berry Blue to Wild Blackberry, Centipede to Skunk Spray, then reverse order.

“Can we get an earwax and a booger?” ordered a woman ahead of me in line.

When it was my turn, I had a few questions for Cathy before I could commit.

Q: What does baby wipe taste like?

A: “It tastes like it smells, then like talc.”

Q: How did they end up with vomit?

A: “It was supposed to be pepperoni pizza,” but it didn’t work out.

Q: Is there a bathroom within sprinting distance?

I stuffed mmphfnumber of Jelly Bellys into my mouth and bought a few bags of Belly Flops (misfit beans that don’t pass inspection) for later. I locked them in the car trunk.

The guilt from my overconsumption quickly lifted in Kenosha. The town is diminutive in size but generous with its lakefront views. Easy on the eyes and the belly.

I stood at the Transit Center stop and boarded an electric streetcar, a 1951 model driven by a capped conductor. Open since 2000, the 1.7-mile single-track route takes a leisurely 15 minutes to complete.

“Twenty-five years ago, you’d never have recognized the place,” said the driver. Back then, pollutants released by the auto manufacturers that once occupied downtown contaminated the city. After Chrysler departed in the late 1980s, Kenosha cleaned up. Its spotless waterfront is lined with tidy condos, a picturesque promenade and a sculpture garden set on an apple-green knoll.

“The ride’s not official until you ring the bell,” the driver told the only other passengers as the trio moved to disembark near the new Kenosha Public Museum. A young boy yanked on the string, releasing a loud ting that could have awakened the ghosts of vintage Kenosha.

Even in its present state, there’s no ducking Kenosha’s past, not that you’d want to. At Kemper Center, a leafy campus of historic buildings and an arts center, I imagined the girlish giggles that filled the halls of the former Episcopal boarding school, active for more than 100 years. (Before that, you probably would have heard the stentorian voice of Charles Durkee, the 19th-century senator who donated the buildings.)

I followed a guide through a daisy chain of rooms that flowed from the nuns’ quarters to the refectory, the chapel, the gym with the Bayeux Tapestry mural and the chem lab, the first ever in a girls’ school. Sunlight streamed through stained-glass windows given to the school by graduating classes. “All the way to the fire,” read one piece, referring to the 1903 fire at Chicago’s Iroquois Theatre that killed more than 600 patrons.

In the dorms upstairs, Sandy pointed out scratch marks hidden behind window shutters. “The girls put their names there when they were in trouble with Mother Superior,” she said. SOS graffiti.

The students also preserved history in time capsules embedded in the school’s stone exterior. The copper boxes are filled with memories and memorabilia starting with the first graduating class in 1875 and ending with the last in 1975.

Thoughout my wanderings, certain figures appeared over and over again, their names appearing in stories, their faces peering out from portraits and pictures. Zalmon G. Simmons, who founded the mattress empire in Kenosha, was one; Donna Wolf Steigerwaldt, of the local Jockey dynasty, was another. Though fond of beds and undergarments, I was most interested in hearing about the artists behind Curious George and the pope.

Nan Pollard was an illustrator for children’s activities books; her characters included the Beatles, Tina the teenage cutout doll and the mischievous monkey. George, her husband, was a celebrated portraitist who has more works of art hanging in Washington federal buildings than any other artist. The Pollard Gallery houses more than 300 of the couple’s pieces, most of which Judy Rossow, the venue’s manager, seems to know intimately.

George, she told me, was the only artist to have secured a private sitting with Pope John Paul II. If that weren’t enough, Mother Teresa had recommended the painter to the pontiff.

“He lived through a lot of big stars and big sports people,” she said. “He had a way of making them look real.”

The gallery sells pieces by both artists, and Judy sent me off with a cutout doll book by Nan and a postcard photo of George and John Paul. What I really wished for, though, was a landscape that captured the endearing charms of Kenosha. Instead, I had to settle for a bag of unfit jelly beans that reminded me how much candy I’d consumed in southern Wisconsin.

 
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