A Traveller’s Guide to Johnsonville (The Town, Not the Kids)


The famous bratwursts come from a small community that might have a smaller population than your last family reunion.

In some of Wisconsin’s more teenage communities, there are good reasons to take a detour and visit.

Bratwurst enthusiasts know Johnsonville as a giant among sausage makers, but the Sheboygan County company’s territory is much more obscure.

Johnsonville, the company, sells its products in at least 45 countries, has 3,000 employees, and lists Sheboygan Falls (nine miles southeast) as an address.

Johnsonville – the unincorporated community – is large enough for a volunteer fire department, but not a post office or gas station. Its population is 65 and you can see the main sausage factory in the city center.

The town, founded in 1846, is of a size not to be missed: a road through, surrounded by agricultural fields. No stop signs or sidewalks. All of this would likely fit into the company’s campus, with room to spare.

The business and market town are less than a mile from each other (or across the street, if you count the buildings for the smoked meats). Welcomes you to the neighborhood, on a road sign, a 4-H club (Johnsonville Hustlers) and a sports club (Johnsonville Rod and Gun).

Johnsonville’s name is known the world over for the delicious bratwurst sausages produced there, but only 65 people live there. (Photo by Marie Bergin)

Polka lovers know Johnsonville thanks to Laack’s, centennial and fourth-generation, a steakhouse with a basement ballroom. Until a few decades ago, Laack’s was on the circuit of regional groups and nationally renowned orchestras (Guy Lombardo, Dick Jurgens, Romy Gosz). Think of the brassy music of the Big Band (jazz and swing), as well as schottisches and waltzes.

It was the climax. Today, the Laack Ballroom is more likely to host a private wedding reception than a public dance (although polka bands still play occasionally on Sunday afternoons). Mary Burbach, a Laack employee for 20 years, agrees that the crowd tends to be older, although an infusion of young dancers – “in their fifties” – also shows up.

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Unannounced but well known in the area is Johnsonville’s annual Sausage Fest (still on Sundays after Independence Day), when volunteer firefighters and loved ones cook up the region’s classic summer meal: kids, burgers, German potato salad, baked beans. Gone are the long-standing outdoor Catholic Mass with polka music, but the polka dancing begins at noon.

Also in July: the Pretzel Bender, which culminates in a short but lively midnight parade through Johnsonville, a tradition that began over 40 years ago. The Fasching holiday, before Lent, brings loaded buses to the Fox Valley, in addition to the locals.

So the word is circulating. Johnsonville may seem calm most of the time, but he has a long standing reputation and character.

Year round Laack subscribers show up for cold taps, burgers, and chitchat. On the wall is a menu board (there’s also the off-menu Esther Burger, which devotees know is served on rye bread instead of the standard Sheboygan hard bun).

Between Laack’s and the fire department is small Schnapsville Park, next to the Sheboygan River, which winds through town. “Schnappsville” was an old name for this hamlet with German roots, which was later renamed in honor of President Andrew Johnson.

The Smoked Meat Satellite Factory, across from Laack’s, sits on land where Ralph and Alice Stayer opened a small butcher’s shop in 1945. This is how the Johnsonville Empire began, with the Stayers using a family recipe from long time from Austria to make sausages. The company remains private.

A little further, Restoration Gardens, a landscaping and holiday gift shop open two months a year. Around the bend is the newcomer to the rural neighborhood, Johnsonville Marketplace.

Bratwurst fans can’t visit Johnsonville Sausage, but in the market they can make their bindings with whatever the brand stands for. This is where you can buy insider slogan t-shirts: “Don’t call me a weenie”, “You are the wurst”, “You can’t spell sausage without USA” and “This n ‘ain’t my first kid to fry,’ for starters.

The Johnsonville Sausage Plant operates just south of downtown Johnsonville. (Photo by Marie Bergin)

Everything that is needed for a kid’s fry, from a grill to condiments, is sold here. The same is true of 70 Johnsonville products, some of which are not sold in grocery stores. This includes Grumpy Grandpa beer and seltzer, made by Potosi Brewing Co. in homage to Ralph Stayer.

A selection of other Wisconsin favorites is on offer: kringle from Uncle Mike’s Bake Shoppe, cheeses from Sartori and Vern’s, soda from Potosi. The 3,200 square foot building is also a partly corporate museum. Outside is a paved patio with grills for cooking demonstrations and fries for local charities.

The market opening in late 2020 coincided with the company’s 75th anniversary, a celebration delayed and complicated by the pandemic. Think of it as a construction project and they will come and, like Johnsonville, the community, travelers find it.

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