The Fox Cities, Wisconsin: A River Runs Through It

Appleton Downtown. Photo courtesy of The Fox Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau
Appleton Downtown. Photo courtesy of The Fox Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau

A river runs through it….and river that would be the destiny-forging Fox, powering a destination that’s become known as the Fox Cities of Wisconsin.

Sure, the cities’ birth retells the familiar story of fur traders getting their wares to market via the waterway, but of more lasting impact, this river provided the muscle to turn a settlement into a thriving urban area via the water-powered paper industry (think Kimberly Clark today).

Appleton, a city of 75,000, stands as the geographic, economic and lifestyle hub of the surrounding Fox communities, so that’s where I headed and bedded on a long-weekend getaway. (It’s a four-plus-hour drive or 45-minute flight from the Twin Cities.) The newly-refurbished Hilton, anchoring the city’s main street, served as my base camp as I set out to get to know the town, tracing my steps along sidewalks with poetry engraved in their cement and utility boxes painted in bright mini-murals.

Houdini Exhibit at the History Museum at the Castle. Photo by Carla Waldemar

Although the nearby history museum was closed for installations, I marveled at the grand architecture of the Masonic Temple it once was—today, fueled by the spirit of famed magician Houdini, a local son whose story it unfolds. There I stood on Houdini Square, waiting instead for the doors of the Trout Museum of Art to open, where I was greeted by Bart Simpson—well, an engaging exhibit devoted to B(ART), featuring hundreds of stop-motion pics and explanations of the animation process. In other galleries, artist Carey Watters’ works provocatively re-examine ancient iconography through feminist eyes. Don’t miss the museum’s excellent gift shop as you exit.

Raise your hand if you’re eager to see more contempo art; then follow me down the main street to the campus of Lawrence College (established even earlier than the city itself) and its Wriston Art Gallery—three intimate spaces housing shows currently honoring Louise Bougeois, who proclaims “Art is a Guarantee of Sanity”; Suzanne Duchamp (sister of artist Marcel) and her portraits of Black women; and a faculty show, diverse and intense in provocative statements (including tongue-in-cheek—I hope—“Make America Uber Again” and “The Donald Is Always Right”).

B(ART) exhibit in Appleton’s Trout Museum of Art. Photo by Carla Waldemar

That evening, at the snazzy Performing Arts Center, I caught a show after dinner just steps away at Rye, whose series of small rooms heralds a melange of modern fare, such as my choices: a trio of petite crab cakes marshalled with apple, fennel and celery root in mustard cream and apple cider gastrique, then a roasted-beet risotto fashionably attired with crispy kale, pine nuts, citrus and feta crumbs. Wisconsin’s iconic cocktail—an Old Fashioned—hit the spot.

The previous evening, at the clubby, wood-paneled Vince Lombardi’s Steakhouse within the Hilton, I ogled memorabilia of the venerated Packers’ coach—everything from photos galore to his first Social Security card—as I devoured the Lombardi Caesar salad, followed by the only girl-sized steak on the menu, a tasty Hangar served with fries, chimichurri and truffle aioli.

Main (College) Street is lush with breakfast options, whether it’s the white, bright Bakehouse or comfy Copper Rock Coffee, whose antique brick walls and high tin ceiling shelter a vivid cross-section of Appleton, from young moms with tots in tow to hipsters at work on computers to retirees caffeinating their day. A Sunday morning option is brunch at SAP in the (contiguous) town of Grand Chute, where, over a smoked salmon Benedict at the counter, I met, by lucky accident, Doug Johnson, a gay guy (who recently ran for mayor….and lost); he recommended Rascal’s Bar as the primo place to meet the boys.

Lunch at Hop Yard Ale Works offered another op to mingle with off-duty locals in their lumberjacks settling in (as I did) for a flight of beer (20 on tap, from a coconut porter and lavender coffee stout to a more mainstream IPA and Irish Red). Pizza, too.

Hop Yard Ale Works. Photo by Carla Waldemar

Fat and happy, I headed to Hearthstone, a historic Queen Anne mansion-turned-museum, providing a rivetingly vivid tour led by its director, George Schroeder. “It was the ‘home of the future’ when it was built by the It Couple of the day—the Obamas of their time: Appleton’s movers and shakers,” he discloses. “It was the first home. In. The. World. to be lit by hydroelectricity. The day the lights first went on, 300 townspeople stood on the lawn to watch.” From intricate hand-carved wood details to specially-ordered tiles for fireplace surrounds to a bathroom with a flushing toilet and running water (more firsts in town), the papermill owner lived the life of the future.

Back on the main drag, shops like Mud & Prints, with its Pride flag displayed, sells pottery and more by regional artists. Blue Moon flaunts Wisconsin-motif-everything, from sweet to sassy: squeezy stress cows to tea towel maps of Wisconsin supper clubs, knit dishcloths to tartan headbands. Wet your whistle at ultra-welcoming McGinnis Irish Bar for a bit of craic, then continue to The Book Store (and the reason my suitcase was decidedly heavier on my return flight).

Neenah, a 20-minute drive to another of the Fox Cities (pop. 28,000), showcases the vintage downtown’s photo-ready storefronts, harboring Lyons Books (I’m guilty of a few more purchases); Revival, tempting us with belts and sweaters; Red Door Mercantile, with gifts both straight and sassy, ranging from Smoky the Bear T shirts to pink grapefruit Margarita mix; from a book on Man Skills to board-playing The Epic Beard Game. Pop into (gay-owned) Sante Wine Bar before heading to Neenah’s Bergstrom-Mahler Museum aside ice-wreathed Lake Winnebago. (Self-guide maps detail a home tour of The Other Half’s mansions of Neenah.)

Lawrence University. Photo by Carla Waldemar

Within the museum, a gracious home of the 1920s has been converted into a temple of sparkling glass, highlighting Germanic glass from 1500 to 1800; a couple of precious Chihuly pieces saluting modern times; and, foremost, the former homeowner’s collection of glass paperweights—4,300 of them, making this the largest cache in the world. Then rev your energy with a delectable bite at Zuppa’s, offering chef-driven creations like my superior Cobb salad and way-too-delicious desserts.

Back in Appleton, follow the Fox Trot Trail for two-plus miles’ worth of landmarks (it’s marked with blue footprints on the sidewalk) and/or hook up to Fox Cities Beer Experience—four brewery visits in five hours, $49. Make plans to return for the city’s annual Mile of Music Festival in August, featuring all-indie bands (no covers) performing for free upon a mile-long downtown stretch of 40-plus venues, from bars and parking lots to street corners and even city buses.

But why wait? To plan your own visit, check out

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