Menomonie's golden oldies

In a Wisconsin college town, antiques shops and an ornate theater stand fast amid pizza shops.

Mabel Tainter auditorium in Menomonie.
The Mabel Tainter's interior shines with gold.

In the western Wisconsin college town of Menomonie, shops and restaurants come and go.

One building will stay for the ages: the Mabel Tainter Memorial Theater, built of sandstone blocks backed by brick.

Lumber baron Andrew Tainter built it in memory of his daughter Mabel, who died at age 19 of a burst appendix. With two renovations, the town has polished its gloriously golden interior, fit for a Moorish princess.

Concerts, plays and ballets are held year-round in this Faberge egg of a theater, home of the Menomonie Theater Guild.

The town's other landmark, the 1897 clock tower of Bowman Hall, also was endowed by a lumber fortune. In the 1880s, Knapp, Stout & Co. was the largest white-pine lumber firm in the world, and Menomonie grew along the shores of its big mill pond.

Henry Stout's son James founded the vocational institute that became the nucleus for the University of Wisconsin-Stout. Today, it has more than 9,000 students, many of whom study industrial technology, one of Stout's pet interests.

You can tell Menomonie is a college town because of its tattoo parlor and many pubs and pizza shops. But scattered around the feet of the Mabel are an unusually large number of interesting antiques shops.

Town and Country Antiques shows the collections of dealers and has two levels. Among the finds there: a clown costume complete with wig, shoes and makeup, and a large, deep-red silk rug.

At the east end of the small downtown, Joan Navarre presides over the sunny Triangle Art & Antiques, in a triangular 1906 building that once housed a monument company.

Triangle Art and Antiques.
Triangle Art & Antiques includes an eclectic mix of items, many brought from England and Scotland.

There was a giant Roman-style frieze in her window and, on her counter, a cigarette case with an etched map of the Indian subcontinent. Navarre bought it in Edinburgh, and it's easy to imagine a British officer carrying it back from the Raj.

"I get involved in the stories," she said.

Navarre, an English professor at the university, also is fascinated by Menomonie's history. Sometimes, she leads her students on downtown walking tours that she titles "The Power of Place."

"I show them their neighborhood," she says. "I get them to look up and see the dates on the buildings. There's a separate story on the second story."

Sure enough, set into the brick above the neighboring Silver Dollar bar is a medallion that reads "Pabst, Milwaukee."

Menomonie's main tourist draw, the Red Cedar State Trail, is just across the river. Stretching 14½ miles along the Red Cedar to the Chippewa River, it's one of Wisconsin's loveliest and most serene bicycle trails.

It's also the trail that's closest to a brewery: Lucette Brewing is just a yard or two from the trailhead, brewing Ride Again pale ale and The Farmer's Daughter spiced blond ale. Now, it also serves wood-fired pizza.

Lucette Brewing's tall cans.
Lucette's beer cans feature their namesake, Paul Bunyan's sweetheart.

The brewery is named for the mythical sweetheart of the mythical Paul Bunyan, in tribute to Menomonie's logging era.

There are no longer log rafts floating down the Red Cedar, and Lake Menomin no longer is a mill pond. But the legacies of the lumber barons haven't been forgotten.

Trip Tips: Exploring Menomonie, Wisconsin

Getting there: Menomonie is an hour east of the Twin Cities, just south of I-94.

Events: November, Holiday Artisan Market at the Mabel Tainter.

Nightlife: There are concerts or plays at the Mabel Tainter most weekends.

Dining: The Acoustic Cafe, at the corner of Main and Broadway, is a good place to get a sandwich, have a cappuccino in front of a wood-burning fire or listen to music.

Red Cedar State Trail from Menomonie.
The Red Cedar State Trail heads south from Menomonie.

Lucette Brewing, on Wisconsin 29 next to Riverside Park and the Red Cedar State Trail, serves craft beer and wood-fired pizza.

The Menomonie Market food co-op, just east of downtown, sells tasty sandwiches.

At 1501 N. Broadway Ave., Stout Craft Co. Kitchen & Tap House serves steaks and burgers and has a patio.

Bicycling: The crushed-limestone Red Cedar State Trail runs 14½ miles south of Menomonie to the Dunnville Wildlife Area.

There, it connects to the Chippewa River State Trail, which runs 6½ miles southwest to Durand and 23½ miles northeast to Eau Claire.

To get to the Menomonie trailhead, drive through downtown on Broadway Avenue/Wisconsin 25 and, on the south edge of downtown, turn west on 29. The trail starts in Riverside Park, on the west side of the river.

For more, see Red Cedar ride 'n' glide.

The five-mile Rustic Road 89 parallels the bike trail toward Downsville, passing the Devil's Punchbowl, a small canyon cut into the bluff at the end of the last ice age. Stairs lead into it.

Mabel Tainter theater in Menomonie.
The Mabel Tainter was built in 1889 as a tribute to a lumber baron's daughter.

Bicycle and boat rental: Four miles south of Menomonie, the Irvington Campground, across the river from the bike trail on County Road D, rents bikes and also canoes, kayaks and tubes.

Historical sites: The Russell J. Rassbach Heritage Museum in Wakanda Park tells the town's story. It's open Tuesday-Saturday.

Wilson Place Mansion, on Wisconsin 25 as it crosses the Red Cedar River's exit from Lake Menomin, was built in 1859 by William Wilson, James Stout's father-in-law. Almost all of its contents are the belongings of the remarkable Wilson family and the Stouts.

Four miles south of Downsville along Wisconsin 25, Caddie Woodlawn Historical Park includes the 1856 home of Caroline Woodhouse, the intrepid frontier girl whose granddaughter told her story in the 1935 children's classic "Caddie Woodlawn." It's open daily.

For more, see The first American Girl.

Accommodations: There are no places to stay in the downtown area. On the east end of town, on a former stock farm owned by Andrew Tainter, the Oaklawn Inn has four guest rooms.

There are also half a dozen chain hotels.

The much-loved Creamery Inn in Downsville now is Woodland Ridge Retreat, which specializes in quilting and scrapbooking gatherings. It has eight guest rooms.

Information: Menomonie tourism, 800-283-1862.

Last updated on April 3, 2021

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