Appleton—The Paper City
Appleton, Wisconsin, at the north end of giant Lake Winnebago, is not named because of an abundance of apple trees.
If it were named for an abundance of anything, it should have been called PaperTown, because for more than a century, it’s been a center, and at one time, THE center, of paper production not only in the country but the world.
It’s still proud of that heritage, but it’s also got other draws that make this city an up-and-comer in heartland America tourism. Here’s a rundown of some of the reasons:
Bringing Healthy To The City
In many American communities, including Detroit, getting fresh food to city residents is an ordeal. In Detroit especially, it’s because there are no chain food stores. One has opened, but the Whole Foods menu of items is way out of the reach of many Detroiters, for example, who can’t even afford to step in the door.
Not so in Appleton. Each Saturday from mid-June to late October, its main street, College Avenue, is taken over by more than 140 local venders for its Farm Market. They’re selling everything from fresh piles of carrots and apples, and trailers full of cauliflower, to baked goods, ready-to-munch Egyptian foods and other hot items. And if you don’t think it’s a draw, just come down. The street is curb-to-curb with people enjoying the day from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
When the weather turns, the event moves indoors in the City Center Plaza from November to late March, which things blossom again on the street in June.
Rather than grumble and close their doors, most stores along the street remain open to welcome shoppers to browse, and some even offer special deals during the market. It’s an idea whose time has come, and tiny Appleton is showing the way.
Shoot Over To Little Chute
After you’ve filled your larder, make the short drive to Little Chute, a Dutch community named for where the Fox River narrows as it cuts through the limestone of the Niagara Escarpment. Yes, the same stone that Niagara Falls drops over.
Little Chute promoters are hoping to bring more visitors to town with the addition of an authentic Dutch windmill, which, when it opens in spring 2014, it will be the town’s most distinguished landmark, and, city boosters hope, will bring tourists to see its operation, buy some stone-ground flour, and visit the rest of this community.
If you’re here in mid-September, stop by for a bolie bollen or two (think cinnamon-sugar-sprinkled Dutch doughnuts) during the annual Kermis Festival. As in Appleton, its main street is blocked off for food, music, entertainment, and Sieg the wooden shoe carver scraping away on any size souvenir klomper you wish, from full-size to miniature.
If you’re here at other times of the year, check out the (what else?) Wisconsin Cheese Festival here in June.
Catch The Trout
Back to Appleton now, and off its Houdini Square (more on him later), is the Trout Museum of Art. No, it’s not a museum of fish paintings. It was funded by the Trout family in 2010, hence its name. It’s housed in the Fox Cities Building for the Arts, which also houses other arts-oriented groups.
Its main gallery is a wide open and welcoming place in which to view not only the museum’s permanent collection, but visiting exhibits as well, like the one we visited featuring designs worn by actor Katherine Hepburn.
Or, come celebrate Appleton’s “Art on the Town.” Every third Friday of the month again, from June through September, downtown becomes a living gallery. Movies in Houdini Plaza, performing arts, and cool stunts including “PARK(ing) day,” when parking spots at various places downtown suddenly become mini-performance spaces. What a cool way to breathe life into downtown that other cities should emulate.
Now You See Him…
In the early 20th century, there was no greater illusionist in the world than Harry Houdini, who because he spent time as a child in Appleton, called it his home and the town now embraces him. He literally owned the vaudeville stage with his illusions, and also devoted much of his life to debunking corner store crystal ball readers and mystics.
A permanent exhibit on the master magician, who died of a burst appendix on Halloween night in Detroit, take up one upper floor of the Outagamie Museum, nicknamed the “castle,” downtown. Houdini’s lock picks that he used to wiggle free of supposedly impossible situations, from being locked into a bag and thrown in a river, to wriggling out of a strait jacket or his famous water tricks. The museum’s exhibits even give away some of his tricks, despite the protests of some modern-day illusionists. A self-guided walking tour of the town showing purported Houdini sites is also available at the museum.
Also at the museum is a bust of another Appleton resident best-known in the 1950s for terrorizing the government, Sen Eugene McCarthy, whose actions accusing everyone and their brother of being a Communist until he was censured by the Senate and voted out, and died in disgrace, spawned the term McCarthyism. It’s not a pretty piece of the town’s history, but it is a piece.
Papering The Town
As we said earlier, there’s a reason this region was called the Paper Valley. At one time, it was home to the largest number of paper mills in the world, and it still is a huge paper-making center.
So where else would you find a museum devoted to making paper? Located along the Fox River and appropriately at a former paper mill, many of the exhibits at the Paper Discovery Center are aimed more at children, but it gives a great overview of how paper is made, why so many mills homed in on the river, (swift flow, plenty of available wood and large drop between here and Green Bay coincided with the spread of using water power to create electricity). In fact, you also can tour the first home in the world lighted by hydro here.
High Cliff State Park
High Cliff it is, so named thanks to a large, elevated chuck of the massive stone uplift called the Niagara Escarpment towering over Lake Winnebago. Yes, that Niagara. It’s an uplift stretching across much of eastern North America, from Wisconsin, through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, to Niagara Falls.
In the 1800s, the escarpment’s limestone cliffs were mined for use to make everything from steel to cement alongside the tiny community that once provided the quarry and limestone kiln workers.
Drive up to the top of the formation where the remnants of an early 20th century amusement park are still visible, as well as the spot where locals amused themselves by running cars off the cliff, Really. Walk the nearly four-mile Red Bird trail, named for a local Winnebago chief to look out over 30-mile-long Lake Winnebago, the state’s largest inland waterway. There is also a good marina and a swimming beach. The lake unfortunately is undergoing changes, many of them not good. Algae blooms turned the water emerald green for most of this summer, prompting swimming warnings for both humans and pets, and resulting mostly from over-fertilization.
Now, on to a spot where you can dine in a museum of sorts. It’s Vince Lombardi’s Steakhouse. The one-of-a-kind restaurant cloaked in dark wood paneling and lined with football memorabilia from the Lombardi family is a joint project of downtown Appleton’s Radisson Paper Valley Hotel and the legendary Green Bay Packers coach’s son.
Inside are displayed more than 400 items from the family memorabilia collection, from autographed photos of Packer greats, to correspondence between the coach and U.S. presidents. It’s open for dinner only. Come when the Packers play at Lambeau and you’ll see members of the opposing team, who always stay at this hotel, chowing down on everything from chicken breast to huge ribeyes.
Since Lombardi’s is open only for dinner, head for lunch at Appleton’s Stone Cellar Brew Pub, located appropriately enough in an old brewery. Head to the rathskeller-like cellar and order a sampler to go with your meal that may include Houdini Honey wheat and Vanishing Vanilla Stout. Or, try the root bear and other soft drinks they also make.
Next, it's onto the water for walleye and other inhabitants of Lake Winnebago from the lake’s southernmost city, Fond do Lac.