My teenage son groaned from the back seat as we pulled over in Wabeno, about the 10th Wisconsin town with a population of 1,000 or so that we had stopped at that day. My attempt to get him to leave the car to look at the 22-foot statue of a lumberjack across the street was as unsuccessful as my appeal a half-hour earlier in Laona to clap eyes on the world’s largest soup kettle.
“What is it about these places you find so interesting?” he sighed, his hands limp with boredom, loosely cradling a well-used Nintendo Switch. I looked at Larry the Logroller, as the town calls its fiberglass giant; then at the tiny Logging Museum next to him, there since 1941; then at the upside-down Old Style sign that hung outside the Bottoms Up bar (get it?). It was a fair question, and not one I could immediately answer.
I grew up in a small Wisconsin town called Eagle (population 745 at the time), where my family moved from Milwaukee. I was presented with two existential options: Be bored cross-eyed by the limited options of a rural hamlet or figure out what might make Eagle special. I chose the latter. It began a lifelong habit of seeking out the attractions of the more obscure corners of the world. I grew up not wanting to visit France, but Luxembourg.
I know southern Wisconsin fairly well. The northern part of the state, however, was a mystery. I didn’t fish, hunt or ride a snowmobile, the reasons most Wisconsinites head north. Still, I was curious.
A family reunion
Last summer, an opportunity arose to explore the area. Since 1969, my father’s family has held an annual reunion. These get-togethers are typically held at some resort or campground, the woodsy, old-fashioned kind that can accommodate 50 to 100 Norwegian-Americans at one time. The 50th such gathering was slated for Rice Lake, a town of 8,000 about 100 miles south of Lake Superior. I had plans to drive to my sister’s house in Fish Creek, on the other side of the state, afterward. My heart raced as I looked at the map. That left me a large swath of lakes, woods, farms and villages to explore in between.
Curriers Lakeview Lodge, the site of the reunion, makes the most of Rice Lake. It stands yards from the shore. The room names tell you why people typically stay here. I was placed in the Angler’s Retreat. My father bunked in the Decoy Room.
Reunions usually begin with a dinner at a local supper club with my Uncle Knut’s family. (Yes, I have an Uncle Knut, pronounced ka-NOOT.) A supper club is not a club. It’s a restaurant, but a particular kind of restaurant found mainly is Wisconsin. They are usually family-owned and have long histories, stretching back to times when they may have been the only dining option in their communities. The fare is surf-and-turf traditional. Prices are high by Wisconsin standards, but your table is flooded with sides, breadbaskets and relish trays, and it’s expected you’ll be staying a while.
The big supper club in Rice Lake is Lehman’s, a fixture since 1934. I’ve been to many supper clubs and the pace is usually leisurely. But Lehman’s takes it to the next level. There was time for a brandy old-fashioned or three before our table was ready, and it took nearly a half-hour for the soup to arrive. However, when the food came, it was good. “Thank you for being patient on a busy night,” the waitress said. I looked around the nearly empty room. “No problem,” I said.
The next day, my girlfriend and I persuaded my dad to join us on a trip to Spooner, about a half-hour north of Rice Lake. I made my intentions clear: I had a date with a Muffler Man.
Muffler Men are mammoth advertisements in the form of towering fiberglass figures. Some once alerted drivers to businesses that could mend their muffler (hence the name). Others marked restaurants and gas stations. As the businesses folded over time, the giants remained, mysterious totems to nothing.
We encountered our first on the trip north, in the Wisconsin Dells — a titanic cowboy standing confusedly in front of an outlet mall. I became intrigued and vowed to track down as many as we could. Spooner’s man, just north of town, was also a cowpoke, his hands extended, gripping nothing. He stands in front of a go-kart track and mini-golf course and what looked like a broken-down water park. We took a selfie with the Muffler Man. He didn’t mind.
Animals and taxidermy
In the car, my father, who grew up in Sparta, Wis., recalled a company there that dealt in fiberglass. “But they didn’t make men,” he said. “They made big animals.”
In downtown Spooner, there is an old tavern named Big Dick’s Buckhorn Inn. Inside, anything that had ever lived in the surrounding woods is mounted on the wall. The bar has always been a haven for taxidermy. A regular drew our attention to the remains of a two-headed calf. It was genuine, he assured us, born in the area.
On the bathroom door, a wooden sign read, “John F. Kennedy used these facilities on March 18, 1960.” Sure enough, a newspaper clipping showed a campaigning Kennedy speaking from the hood of a car outside the bar. Down the street from Big Dick’s was the marquee for the small Palace Theater, built in 1939. Multiplexes are few up here, so independent theaters survive. The movies playing at the Palace when we visited were “Hotel Transylvania” and “Mission: Impossible — Fallout.”
On the way back, we passed through Shell Lake, the seat of Washburn County. It’s a small town on a large, picturesque lake, cut into frothy lines that day by Jet Skis and sailboats. At the entrance of Memorial Park was a large fiberglass statue of a Walleye. Sparta’s work?, I wondered.
Outside Cumberland, I brought the car to a near screeching halt at the sight of Louie’s Finer Meats. “Welcome sausage lovers,” read the sign above the door. That’s me! Customers wandered the aisles eyeing the dozens of bratwurst varieties, which range from gyro to bloody mary. A country singer over the loudspeaker sang, “Only in America.” Yes, I thought. On the wall, a poster told me the 86th Annual Rutabaga Festival would be held in four weeks. I experienced a severe attack of FOMO.
Before returning to the lodge, we stopped at Drag’s Roman Lounge, an old-school pizzeria in downtown Rice Lake, for a pie and an old-fashioned. Christmas lights and small chandeliers adorned the long horseshoe-shaped bar in back. The pizza came out fast: thin crust, tangy sauce, rich cheese and lump sausage. Drag’s served me one of the best pizzas I’d ever had. It was like finding a pearl inside an oyster.
My Uncle Dean and Aunt Ruth have a cabin in Minocqua, a town in north central Wisconsin, near the Upper Michigan border, and they invited us over after the reunion ended. We drove west, past rolling farmland and snowmobile-crossing signs and over rivers that, a century or so ago, were choked with pine logs on their way to the Chippewa River, and then to the Mississippi.
At Phillips, we found Fred Smith’s Wisconsin Concrete Park. Mr. Smith was a logger and tavern owner who, in 1948, at age 55, began constructing sculptures made of concrete and the broken Rhinelander “Shorty Export” beer bottles from his saloon. The rough-hewed figures possess an unexpected gravity. Soldiers, farmers, Native Americans, deer and horses (with beer-bottle manes), all silent sentinels of a vanished pioneer life, stared out of stiff stone faces, waiting to be remembered.
Down a long, tree-lined lane, just outside Manitowish Waters, the isolated Little Bohemia Lodge has been trading on infamy since 1934, when the gangster John Dillinger evaded an FBI raid there. Inside, the bar is decorated with Tommy Guns. The sole customer was a man dressed in a Milwaukee Brewers cap, Green Bay Packers sweatshirt and pajama pants. He seemed to know all about the place, and had his opinions as to whether the bullet holes in the side of the building were real.
Liz Taylor slept here
Minocqua is called “The Island City.” It is, indeed, surrounded by lakes. Commerce, too. On our approach down Highway 51, we saw the first chain outlet we had in hours. “Walgreens!” sighed my girlfriend, as if rediscovering a bad penny she thought she’d lost. My uncle’s house faced Kawaguesaga Lake. We took his boat to town; the lake was a more direct route than the roads. “I’ve been in more boats than cars on this trip,” observed my son.
The miniature downtown is a piece of picture-perfect Americana. As a child, a vacationing Elizabeth Taylor had walked these streets. A wall mural advertised the wonderfully named Min-Aqua Bats, one of the oldest amateur water-ski acts in the country.
Minocqua began as a logging town, but soon gave itself over to tourism. It has the things you expect to find in a vacation town: popcorn, fudge, antiques. It holds surprises, too. Bosacki’s Boat House contains a beautifully well-preserved 1903 Brunswick oak bar. The circa-1957 Island Café serves unexpectedly excellent biscuits covered with sausage gravy, a family recipe. A button-cute tween took our order. (Member of the family, I guessed.) The Shade Tree, a new book store, has an inventory befitting a much bigger town. I told the owner she had a great selection. “I know,” she said.
Leaving Minocqua, we made a brief stop at the Rhinelander visitor center. Outside is a large statue of the mythical Hodag, a sort of frog-faced dinosaur. It’s Rhinelander’s saber-toothed version of Babe the Blue Ox. A Muffler Man could whip the Hodag, I thought.
Goats on the roof
Swinging around Green Bay, we headed northeast up the Door County peninsula, a beauty spot surrounded by Lake Michigan on three sides that has been a vacation area for a century. My father asked to stop at Renard’s Cheese outside Sturgeon Bay for cheese curds. As my girlfriend tried her first curd, it squeaked as she bit into it. “That means they’re fresh,” explained my dad. She winced. “It tastes like a Barbie doll’s leg.”
Lunch was at Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant, which is so famous for the goats on its grass roof it will sue any restaurant that pulls a similar stunt. I’d been many times, and had the can’t-lose combo of Swedish pancakes and Swedish meatballs. “I don’t know how to say …” began my girlfriend. “Pyttipanna,” shot back the waitress, reading her mind. It’s a kind of Swedish hash, served with eggs and beets.
Dinner was a fish boil, a Door County tradition wherein a mess of fish, onions and potatoes are dumped in an outdoor caldron. Pelletier’s in Fish Creek does a dozen a night. Kerosene; fireball; boil-over. Dinner and a hundred Instagram posts were served.
My girlfriend, new to Wisconsin, loved the fish boil. She liked the whole road trip. For my father, it was all part of his Wisconsin DNA already. As to my son, he remained skeptical. Roof goats, Min-Aqua Bats, Hodags, supper clubs, island cities, concrete parks — all isolated glimpses of human endeavor surrounded by endless stoic nature. What did it all add up to? The charms of modest amusement; the quiet eccentricity of small-town life; local traditions, stubbornly hewed to; whispers of long-ago frontier hopes, never quite extinguished?
Perhaps it’s something that resonates only as you get older. Or maybe it’s just a matter of showing him the right Muffler Man.