MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Historic houses & museums

Drawn to Spring Green

Creative urges converge in Frank Lloyd Wright's hometown.

There's a story behind everything in Spring Green.

Frank Lloyd Wright's story begins in the 1860s, when his unconventional grandparents and their 10 children emigrated from Wales to settle this dramatic valley of the Wisconsin River, which came to be known as "the valley of the God-almighty Joneses.''

The story of Alex Jordan's House on the Rock, atop a limestone spire that overlooks the valley and Wright's beloved home, is rooted in spite. After his father traveled from Madison to show Wright blueprints for a rooming house, and was harshly snubbed, Jordan vowed to get even and "put a Japanese house up out there.''

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Alexandria's enigma

This Minnesota resort town has many lakes and one mysterious stone.

There are many colossal lumberjacks, voyageurs and Indian chiefs scattered around Minnesota, all paying tribute to a colorful past.

But there's only one Big Ole.

He stands at the end of Alexandria's Broadway Street, 28 feet of glowering Viking, brandishing a spear and clutching a glistening silver shield that reads "Alexandria, Birthplace of America.''

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Gawking in Lake Geneva

On a mansion-lined footpath, walking is a spectator sport.

There are thousands of lakes in the north woods, but the most famous one is a stone's throw from Illinois.

Lake Geneva has been the favorite retreat of Chicago folks for 150 years, and everybody who was anybody had a place there: the Wrigleys, Maytags and Schwinns, but also cartoonists, actors, brewers and bottle-cap makers.

Geneva will seem citified to people who vacation on woodland lakes. There's a good reason to go there, though: It's entertaining to gawk at extreme wealth, and there's no better place to do it than Lake Geneva.

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In search of Christmas past

At Old World Wisconsin, pioneers party like itís 1899.

Once, every child in America celebrated Christmas without battery-operated toys.

Instead, they played flap jacks and dominos. They made paper ornaments for the tree. They got an orange brought all the way from Florida.

That’s still what kids do during Christmas time at Old World Wisconsin, where it’s always the 19th century. Danish, Norwegian, German, Polish, Finnish and Yankee families toil there, trying to get ahead on the American frontier.

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Homes for the holidays

For Christmas tours, historic mansions up the ante on opulence.

Two centuries ago, Minnesota and Wisconsin were ripe for the picking.

Iron ore lay under forests of tall white pine, fertile farmland lay under prairie grasses, and rivers teeming with beaver led to the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean.

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Ghosts on the prowl

Around the region, spirits of past turn out to haunt tourists of today.

It's funny how, wherever there are tourists, there are ghosts.

In Chicago, two ghost tours put titillated tourists on the track of Al Capone and John Dillinger, thrill-killers Leopold and Loeb and serial murderer H.H. Holmes, the Devil in the White City.

There's enough lingering ectoplasm in St. Paul, Milwaukee and Madison to keep guides busy there, too, especially around Halloween.

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Prairie du Chien's past

A riverside estate provides a window into Victorian high society.

He was young and dashing, the son of Wisconsin's first millionaire, an Indian trader who became a country gentleman.

She was a beautiful debutante, daughter of a Fort Snelling general who was Custer's commander in South Dakota.

The pair loved art, horses and books; after they met in St. Paul and married, they honeymooned in Europe, where they commissioned an artist to cast their handsome faces in bronze.

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Baraboo's gilt complex

In Wisconsin's Ringlingville, the golden age of the circus never ended.

In the circus, nothing succeeds like excess. And no one succeeded at that more than the Ringling brothers.

In the last half of the 19th century, Americans clamored to be amazed. Tent shows traversed the countryside; Wisconsin alone had more than 100.

On the Mississippi, showboats brought entertainment to river towns. In 1869, two circuses — one was Dan Rice's Own Circus, whose proprietor's clown character was the inspiration for Uncle Sam — put on performances in the Iowa river town of McGregor. 

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Nights at the museum

Sleep with the fishes, wolves and dinosaurs at family slumber parties.

Sleep with sharks. Howl with wolves. Get chummy with a mummy . . . in the dark.

At top museums, that results in sweet dreams, not nightmares.

After everyone else goes home, many museums, aquariums, nature centers and even a submarine turn over their galleries to children and their adults.

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Ghosts of Galena

This sweet town in northwest Illinois is packed with history . . . and mystery.

In the northwest corner of Illinois, there's no more cheerful place than Galena.

Today, it's known for its shops and giggling bands of women on a girlfriend getaway.  But in the 1850s, it was the busiest port between St. Louis and St. Paul, and rows of elegant homes were built with lead-mining fortunes.

Eventually, demand for lead waned, and the river connecting Galena to the Mississippi filled with silt. The town went into a deep sleep until the 1960s, by which point it had become a virtual museum.

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On the river in Minneapolis

The energy first created by a waterfall has returned to this Mill City entertainment district.

The Falls of St. Anthony wasn't a very tall waterfall.

But it was broad and thundering, and the only major drop on the Mississippi.

More importantly, it got good PR from two best-selling travel guides, Father Louis Hennepin's 1683 "Description de la Louisiane'' and Jonathan Carver's 1778 "Travels through the Interior Parts of North-America,'' both of which exaggerated its height.

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The first American Girl

Before Laura, before Kit, there was Caddie Woodlawn on the Wisconsin frontier.

More than a decade before Laura Ingalls played on the banks of Plum Creek, and 70 years before the fictional Kit Kittredge solved mysteries in Ohio, a girl named Caroline "Caddie'' Woodhouse roamed the Wisconsin wilderness.

To many readers, Caddie was the first and best American Girl.

She came of age during the Civil War and loved the outdoors, gathering hazelnuts in the woods, dodging rattlesnakes on the bluff and poling a log raft on the lake.

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Exploring Chippewa Falls

Leinenkugel's brewery, the Old Abe bike trail and the Chippewa River draw tourists to this Wisconsin town.

In Chippewa Falls, people owe a debt to two kinds of folks: the bubbas and the geeks.

The first came to harvest the lumber and stayed to drink the beer, or so claims the brewery: "It takes a special beer to attract 2,500 men to a town with no women,'' says Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing, founded in 1867 and now the oldest business in town.

Then came the guys with slide rules. Seymour Cray, the son of the city engineer, spent his childhood in Chippewa Falls tinkering with radios, then went off to war and college.

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Barn storming

Driving tours in five states showcase these simple but cherished farm buildings.

There’s just something about barns.

They appeal to everyone — city folk, country folk, anyone who's ever played with a  barn kitten. They're graceful structures, built in every size and shape. And they evoke a nostalgia for simpler times, when ordinary people who worked hard could prosper.

Many people like to drive around the countryside looking for them. But they're disappearing fast. 

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Road trip: Seeking covered bridges

Some are old and some are new, but they all inspire nostalgia for the past.

The more hectic life becomes, the more we love covered bridges.

They evoke a powerful sense of nostalgia for slower-paced times. Literally slower: On Minnesota's last span, a sign reads, "$10 Fine for Driving Faster Than a Walk Across This Bridge.''

Only a few original bridges remain, but others have been reconstructed or built from scratch, often from salvaged timber. Many of the new covered bridges are over bicycle trails.

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Hinckley's Fire Museum

Tales of an 1894 inferno that wiped out Minnesota towns still shock those who hear them.

On a September day in 1894, Hinckley, Minn., was hell on earth.

As a logging and rail center midway between St. Paul and Duluth, the town had grown quickly. But during the summer of 1894, less than 2 inches of rain fell.

Small fires smoldered in the countryside, many started when hot cinders from trains landed in tinder-dry slashings — the crowns, stumps and branches left behind by logging crews.

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Chasing gangsters in Wisconsin

In lakes country, tourists still love to see where infamous crooks relaxed.

In 1920, northern Wisconsin already was a playground for people from Chicago.

And when Prohibition flung open the door to organized crime, its remote lakes and forests became even more attractive to a certain kind of Chicagoan.

Al Capone had a fortified summer home on a lake near Hayward, to which hydroplanes flew whiskey from Canada.

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Twin Cities history ride

On a scenic loop from Minnehaha Park to downtown St. Paul, bicyclists see how it all started.

In the heart of the Twin Cities, one of the most popular bicycling routes also is the most historic.

Below Fort Snelling, the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers meet. Everyone came here . . . in the days before trains and cars, everyone had to come here.

Today, one of the easiest ways to travel this route is by bicycle, and paved trails line both sides of the Mississippi from Minnehaha Park in south Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul.

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The artistic Gags of New Ulm

The author/illustrator of the children's book "Millions of Cats'' puzzled neighbors but went on to great things.

New Ulm hasn't always understood the kind of people who color outside the lines.

That describes the entire family of Anton Gág, a German-Bohemian artist whose work can be seen at New Ulm's Cathedral of the Holy Trinity and the brewery of August Schell, who was his patron and sent him to art school in Chicago for six months. 

All seven children were creative, spending their days drawing, telling stories and building sets for plays.

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Historic boathouses of Minocqua

In a Wisconsin resort town, the wealthy built playrooms on water.

In Minocqua, you have to get in a boat to go on a historic home tour.

In the first part of the 20th century, captains of industry streamed to this village in northeast Wisconsin, called the Island City because it is nearly surrounded by Lake Minocqua.

Their estates are hidden in the trees, but the boathouses were built over water, fanciful structures with gables, balconies, towers and turrets.

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Road trip: Northeast Iowa

In these scenic bluffs, extraordinary people lived and worked.

There's something inspiring about a certain pocket of northeast Iowa.

It's nurtured a a beloved children's-book author, a famous composer and two brilliant woodcarvers. It's stirred battalions of people who create art, preserve heirloom seed and carry on Norwegian culture.

There are a lot of stories in these hills and valleys on the edge of the Driftless Area, which escaped the flattening effects of the glaciers.

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Welcome, darlings, to Ten Chimneys

When it was play time, the first couple of the theater headed for Wisconsin.

In a bucolic corner of southeast Wisconsin, a famous acting couple created a retreat unlike any other.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Milwaukee-born Alfred Lunt and his English wife, Lynn Fontanne, dominated the Broadway and London stage, where they were known as "the Fabulous Lunts.''

They had so much star power they took only roles that allowed them to work together — and to spend summers at their beloved country house near the village of Genesee Depot.

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West Branch's 'wonder boy'

An Iowa village tells the story of Herbert Hoover, the international hero who became a scapegoat.

Poor Herbert Hoover.

Orphaned at age 9, he spent his childhood picking potato bugs, weeding onions and cleaning barns. His first job after graduation from Stanford was shoveling ore.

Then he grew a mustache, bought a tweed suit and passed himself off as an experienced mining engineer. Sent to Australia at age 23, he found a vein of gold that yielded his London employers $65 million.

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Street of dreams

On St. Paul's Summit Avenue, imposing mansions are remnants of the Gilded Age.

Even tourists from the great European capitals are impressed by Summit Avenue.

It's not just one mansion, but one after another, all the way from the Mississippi River to the massive Cathedral of St. Paul, overlooking downtown and the state Capitol.

This five-mile stretch is one of the most splendid, best-preserved Victorian streets in the United States. The oldest are at the east end, on the lip of the bluff overlooking downtown and the Mississippi River.

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Brigadoon in bluff country

At Historic Forestville, visitors are transported back to 1899.

In Minnesota, people value their own history so much that the Minnesota Historical Society was founded nine years before the state itself.

No wonder the state's living-history sites are among the best in the nation.

At a fur post, logging camp and fort, tourists get a peek into the past, and schoolchildren learn their heritage at the feet of lumberjacks, voyageurs, soldiers and farmers.

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H.H. Bennett's Wisconsin Dells

Thanks to a 19th-century photographer, tourists flooded in to see the famous rock formations for themselves.

H.H. Bennett wanted tourists to come to the Wisconsin Dells, and thanks to him, they came.

Boy, did they come.

In Bennett’s day, they stayed for weeks, playing croquet and checkers and going on picnics, boat excursions on the Wisconsin River and perhaps to a magic-lantern show of stereoscope slides from Bennett’s studio.

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Duluth's grand mansion

At Glensheen, tourists walk into the life of an extraordinary family.

It took a servant a day and a half to polish one of their chandeliers. It took three Norwegian craftsmen three years to carve their woodwork.

Still, it's hard to begrudge Chester and Clara Congdon their nice things, because apparently they were very nice people.

Chester gave 11 miles of Lake Superior shoreline to the people of Duluth and made sure it was preserved for them in perpetuity. Clara donated her time and resources to the Methodist church; her servants ate the same meals she did and were paid twice as much as others.

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Home of horsepower

In Wisconsin, see where race cars, snowmobiles, outboards and motorcycles were born.

In Wisconsin, folks like to go fast when they're on vacation.

That's why they invented the snowmobile (Sayner), the Harley-Davidson motorcycle (Milwaukee), the outboard motor (Cambridge) and the race car (Menomonie).

Wisconsin's leisure machines have come a long way since the days of grain belts and lawn-mower motors.

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Feasting in Dubuque

Guests on a progressive dinner and mansion tour get a good look at what frontier fortunes could buy.

Walnut carpenter's lace. Fireplaces made of Italian mosaic tile. Yards of leaded glass and richly printed, century-old wallpaper.


That's what the two dozen people on a house tour and progressive dinner in Dubuque, Iowa, kept saying as the tour progressed from one Victorian mansion to another.

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