The Wisconsin You Don’t Know: More than Cheese

by | Aug 31, 2023

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Last updated on November 19th, 2023

Featured image: There’s more to see in Wisconsin /By davidprahl on Envato

Four things to discover in Northern Wisconsin

by Karen Gershowitz

Prior to spending time in Wisconsin, I imagined pretty scenery, a landscape dotted with small towns and cheese. In a state renowned for cheese, I expected to see a lot of cows and farms. That imagined landscape proved inaccurate. Having visited Wisconsin several times, I can say with great conviction that it’s quirkier and more captivating than rolling meadows. 

Four things to discover in Northern Wisconsin

1. Galleries and outdoor murals 

My most recent trip started in Eau Claire, about an hour east of Minneapolis, in Northern Wisconsin. For a city of fewer than 70,000, Eau Claire has a lot to offer. 

There are numerous galleries and outdoor murals. In my hotel, there was a map of public art and an invitation to take the Eau Claire Sculpture Tour. There are over 150 sculptures scattered across the city. Locals are rightly proud of this; it is the largest free public art display in the country. My favorite was a massive, shiny silver, coiled snake hissing at passing cars. But there were a lot of runners-up, and the quality and quantity of the artwork was impressive.

One of my favorites is Artisan Forge. Outside was a display of large-scale iron sculptures created at the forge and a wall of murals. Next door is a gallery featuring local artists. The gallery is about to be renovated.  The new space will be called The One Gallery in the 1106. There will be a brewery, a theater, and a meeting room for readings and classes. Renovations are expected to be completed before the end of 2023. The Artisan Forge will move to a new location; it’s worth checking out.

Click here to find even more things to do in and around Wisconsin!

Sunset over the horizon in Eau Claire Wisconsin

Sunset in Eau Claire, Wisconsin / Photo by Karen Gershowitz

Close by is Carson Park. Amid lush greenery and a lake, reside several of the city’s sculptures.  I was enthralled by the Viking Ship and a monster-sized shark.  A little deeper in the park, I came upon the Wisconsin Logging Museum. It tells the history of Eau Claire’s beginnings as one of the most important logging locations in the country. There is also a collection of chainsaw sculptures, including Paul Bunyan and Babe, a wooden Statue of Liberty, and other fun characters.

2. The Country Jam Festival 

While I was visiting Eau Claire, the Country Jam Festival was taking place. The festival draws up to 18,000 country music fans each night. Though I was there at a preview event, there appeared to be an entire city of RVs and tents gathered in anticipation. The festival grounds resemble a county fair, complete with Ferris wheel, food vendors and lots of stages—both outdoor and enclosed. Unfortunately, there was torrential rain the night I was there. But on a fair-weather night, I’m certain country music lovers have a blast.

3. Giant Fish  

Leaving Eau Claire, I headed to Spooner, about an hour due north. Along the way, I took detours to see the giant Blue Gill in Birchwood and the equally giant Walleye in Shell Lake. They are a preview of what resides further north and perfect symbols for Wisconsin’s North Woods. 

I was in Spooner on a Saturday when the farmers’ market takes place.  Along the drive there, a young fawn darted across the road in front of me. It’s critical to be attentive when driving there. Seven deer crossed my path in under 24 hours. In the farmers’ market, the produce looked freshly picked. A few local crafters also had booths. Proprietors were friendly and chatty as I strolled around. While there, I bought a masterful, hand-crafted wooden box from “Timber Jack” (Jack T. Lundberg).

In Spooner’s compact downtown there are several high-quality craft galleries, Arts in Hand, features the work of 40+ local artists. The not-for-profit shop is run by volunteers to support a studio that offers classes. In the Gypsy and the Frog gallery, the owners, Richard Meaux and Mary Kay Latzka, collaborate on creating gorgeous ceramics. He throws the pots and fires them; she decorates. They’re quite a team. 

The area became heavily wooded as I traveled further north. In any given mile, there were at least two or three signs indicating public access to a lake or river.  Minnesota calls itself “the Land of 10,000 Lakes”, but Wisconsin has more (15,000). Enthusiasts flock there to experience the beauty, hiking trails, canoeing, kayaking and, of course, great fishing. 

When I pulled into Hayward, an attractive small town, I got out to stretch my legs and see whatever there was to see.  There was an abundance of the usual tourist shops, but what made me look twice were postcards of gargantuan fish.  A shopkeeper gave me directions and off I went to the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame. 

Rustic cottage in Spooner Wisconsin

Spooner Wisconsin / Photo by Karen Gershowitz

Giant muskie fish outside the Fishing Hall of Fame, Hayward Wisconsin
Giant fish at the Hall of Fame, Hayward Wisconsin / Photo by Bobak Ha'Eri via Wikimedia Commons

The major attraction at the Hall of Fame is a series of gigantic replicas of freshwater fish, including a four-story high Muskie in which there are exhibits.  I was taken with photographing people hanging out of the muskie’s mouth and waving, something every visitor seemed compelled to do. Beyond the fish replicas, I wondered what filled the museum’s many buildings.  A fishing enthusiast must find these exhibits fascinating, but it amazed me that anyone would spend hours examining (quoting the signs word for word):

  • Ice fishing ‘poles’ through the ages
  • Rare and collectable lures
  • The world of scalers and stringers
  • Live bait holders through the ages
  • Fish grabbers
  • The world of Bass
  • Bobbers thru the ages

Had I been able to stick around in Hayward for another week, I would have been there for the lumberjack world championships.  It’s an international competition featuring sawing, chopping, speed climbing, logrolling, and boom-running (whatever that is). I think I would have loved it.

4. Apostle Islands

Farther north are the Apostle Islands.  When I visited in June several years ago, it was a sweatshirt and scarf day. I took a cruise to get a water view of the National Park. Those of us brave enough to remain on the ship’s upper deck huddled behind the wheelhouse to partially escape the wind.  The view was well worth the discomfort.  The sun sparkled on the water, and everything glistened.  A few sailboats and kayakers were out. There are lighthouses and caves on the islands, but for me it was vast open space that was the chief attraction.  No matter in which direction I looked, water glistened in the sun, the blue sky painted with intricate cloud formations appeared to go on indefinitely.  Compared to the vast space, the islands appeared tiny.

Cliffs covered in trees in Apostles Islands National Park

Apostle Islands National Park / Photo by David Hamilton from Pixabay

One final stop that day was at the national seashore, where I went for a long walk on deep red sand.  The red comes from oxidized iron.  Iron and logging are the two biggest industries in the area, a fact that is difficult to miss.  I saw dozens of logging trucks and fleets of freighters that carry iron ore.  If that weren’t enough, the place names are a giveaway: Iron Wood, Iron Belt, Iron Mountain, Iron Ridge, and Ironton, to name but a few.

Yes, Wisconsin has pastoral landscapes and a lot of cheese, but that’s south. In Northern Wisconsin you can experience a whole different, wild, and magnificent landscape and way of life.

If you go to Northern Wisconsin

Here are some suggested restaurants:

In Eau Claire

  • The District Pub and Grill
  • The Reboot Social
  • The Informalist

In Spooner

  • The Wobbling Duck Saloon
  • Tracks Bar and Grill

 In Hayward

  • Tavern At White Stag Farm
  • The Boulevard
  • Hayward Family Restaurant
Badger Brew Spooner Wisconsin

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Karen has been traveling solo since age seventeen, when she flew to Europe and didn’t return to the US for three years. She got severely bitten by the travel bug and since then has traveled to over ninety countries and has visited all fifty states -- many of them multiple times. In her career as a marketing strategist she traveled the world conducting thousands of meetings, focus groups and interviews. Her skills as an interviewer have persuaded total strangers to talk candidly about the most intimate of subjects, personal bankruptcy, illness and religion. When traveling for pleasure, those same skills helped her to draw out people’s stories. Karen’s first book of travel stories, Travel Mania: Stories of Wanderlust, explores the confluence of travel and life events, and how travel has changed her beliefs and life direction. Wanderlust: Extraordinary People, Quirky Places and Curious Cuisine continues those stories, addressing memorable food, people and places she experienced in her travels.


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