Flowing south past Oshkosh, into Lake Winnebago and then north into Green Bay, the Fox River separates the cities of Appleton and Neenah, Wis., a.k.a the Fox Cities.
The Fox Cities constitute one of Wisconsin’s largest concentrations of population and wealth plus a number of cultural attractions worthy of investigation.
In October 2011 the Getaway Guys zoomed around the two. Thirty-six years have passed since Neil lived in the area (Oshkosh) and Alan’s dad was the manager of the now-closed Montgomery Ward store on Appleton’s College Avenue. Since then things have certainly changed culturally.
The trajectory of the Fox Cities’ history is familiar: Native Americans, French explorers, French and English traders, farmers, lumber barons, paper manufacturing titans and iron magnates all left their mark on the 21st century.
Not forgetting the lumber interests that provided the materials to rebuild Chicago after the fire of 1871 or the founders of the Neenah Foundry whose cast-iron manhole covers almost every American street, today two names, Kimberly and Clark, stand out to anyone who ever blew their nose in a Kleenex or applied Cottonelle to a derrière. The largess of these capitalists-philanthropists is evident almost everywhere.
Neil and Alan discovered seven must-see venues (probably missing an equal number). First was the Fox Cities Convention and Visitors Bureau in Grand Chute on College Avenue between U.S. 41 and downtown Appleton, where an enthusiastic and informative staff have lots of good ideas.
Next was the Outagamie County History Museum (330 E. College Ave.). The History Museum does not have a large permanent collection on display but features periodic exhibitions of penetrating worth. Nov. 15, 2011 was “Progressive Appleton”, an exhibition the Guys previewed in preparation. Of a permanent nature is the Houdini exhibit, which is kid-oriented and shy of actual Houdini artifacts. Harry Houdini (1874-1926) lived in Appleton from c.1876 to c. 1886. Few know that author of “Come and Get It” and “Giant”, Edna Ferber (1885-1968), once lived in Appleton. Even Alan, Mr. Librarian, did not. The Guys saw a small but intriguing exhibit dedicated to this popular American author.
West of the History Museum (111 W. College Ave.) is the Trout Museum of Art. In a former department store, something consequential can be found. The Guys viewed an excellent exhibit of post impressionist artworks on ban from Lawrence University and a private collection of paintings by Russian artists prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Turning back east on College Avenue Neil and Alan entered the Lawrence University campus, where on Lawe Street they investigated the Wriston Art Gallery. A spacious and well equipped exhibit space dedicated to the University’s extensive art collection and changing exhibitions, the Wriston was featuring a sampling of permanent works, from early 19th-century American portraiture to works by contemporary artists.
With excellent weather (cold, windy and clear) the following day the Guys viewed and photographed a number of private residences along Neenah’s imposing Wisconsin Avenue dating from the early 19th and 20th centuries Many of these waterfront properties are on the National Registry of Historic Homes, which guards their architectural integrity. Perhaps the most interesting in this eclectic collection were a couple by William Waters (1843-1917) of Oshkosh whose understanding of high Victorian exuberance Charles Adams would have loved.
A short distance away is the former Bergstrom residence. Now the Bergstrom-Mahler Museum, for many years it was dedicated to Evangeline Bergstrom’s paperweight collection. Re-invented, today it is a cutting edge venue for the exploration of glass as an art form.
The Guys were dazzled by the sheer size and scope of the permanent collection and the contemporary works on display. Alan was so impressed he actually bought a paperweight. Neil was stunned.
Back in Appleton, the Guys toured the Hearthstone House Museum at 625 W. Prospect Ave., an exquisite, restored Victorian mansion built in 1882. Throughout mid-America there are lots of Victorian structures, meticulously restored and open to the public, but Hearthstone is unique because it may be the first residence illuminated by electricity furnished by hydro-electric power. This was something else 130 years ago! From a dilapidated candidate for teardown in 1986, Hearthstone has become a monument to what a local citizenry can do to preserve its past. Its interiors and furnishings are exquisite.
Lastly, the Getaway Guys toured the Paper Discovery Center at 525 W. Water Street. Housed in the former Appleton Paper and Pulp Company mill, the Discovery Center is historically connected to Hearthstone (Henry Rogers, the original owner of Hearthstone, was the manager of the Appleton Paper and Pulp Company). It was a wee bit too interactive for Neil’s taste, but Alan ate it up.
Despite Neil’s reluctance to act like a tourist and Alan’s hesitancy to inconvenience the staff, the Guys got into simple paper making which proved to be fun and actually amazing. This is a must-see and-do in the Fox Cities.
With water, water everywhere and parks seemingly at every turn, Wisconsin’s Fox Cities have a lot to offer for those seeking something different and enlightening. The Getaway Guys felt they had just scratched the surface.
Editor’s Note: The authors maintain a free website, www.getaway-chicago.com, which offers recommended outings to nearby destinations that are often overlooked, but of genuine interest and delight.