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.
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.
Thats still what kids do during Christmas time at Old World Wisconsin, where its always the 19th century. Danish, Norwegian, German, Polish, Finnish and Yankee families toil there, trying to get ahead on the American frontier.
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.
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.
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 Rices Own Circus, whose proprietors clown character was the inspiration for Uncle Sam put on performances in the Iowa river town of McGregor.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.''
H.H. Bennett wanted tourists to come to the Wisconsin Dells, and thanks to him, they came.
Boy, did they come.
In Bennetts 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 Bennetts studio.
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.''
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Theres 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.
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.
If you're in the mood to loosen belts as well as wallets, the holidays are the time to do it.
At madrigal dinners, channel portly Henry VIII in a Tudor castle settling. During Dickens dinners, wallow in 19th century England the England of "A Christmas Carol,'' not "Oliver Twist.''
Which is to say, there's no gruel course.
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 moustache, 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.
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.
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.
"He didn't want the children to be like other children," says Mary Ann Zins of New Ulm.