The Fox Cities area is full of surprises:
From Edison to art
“reprinted with permission from Lillie Suburban Newspapers.”
The Fox Cities area is full of surprises
Who would have thought that in 1882, the beautiful Victorian Hearthstone home overlooking the Fox River in Appleton, Wisconsin, would be the first home in the world to be lighted by hydroelectricity from a central station using the Thomas Edison system?
The event put the area on the map and launched unimaginable changes in how people cooked, cleaned, lived and entertained themselves in their homes.
Now called the Hearthstone Historic House Museum, the home is one of the many unique places to visit in the Fox Cities, a group of adjacent small towns, including Appleton, along the Fox River.
Throwing the switch
The story goes that Henry Rogers, then owner of Hearthstone, was on a fishing trip with one of Thomas Edison’s salesmen and was so impressed with the salesman’s hydroelectric generator that he bought three on the spot. As manager of the Appleton Paper and Pulp Company, Rogers had one of the generators installed there and sent copper distribution wires wrapped in cotton over to his house on the river bluff and also to the nearby Kimberly & Clark Vulcan Paper Mill.
The visionary paper baron threw the switch just two weeks behind a much larger New York steam-powered electric generator established by Edison himself.
Visitors to Hearthstone, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, will see a few of the original light fixtures that are still hanging from the ceiling, though the light is dim compared to our lights today — equal to about five night lights, said our costumed guide Clare Hilgendorf, who added that the wealthy Rogers spared no cost in building his house for his wife, Cremora. Soon, many other affluent residents of Appleton followed suit and installed electricity in their homes.
Be sure to tour the entire elegant home and then head downstairs to the hands-on learning center and display of Edison artifacts to learn more about how people’s lives were changed forever, starting with a small illumination in Appleton.
Glass and water
Also notable in the Fox River Valley is the Bergstrom-Mahler Museum of Glass in Neenah. The museum includes a collection of Germanic glass dating back to the 1500s, collections of Victorian and modern glass, and one of the world’s largest collections of glass paperweights.
The paperweights, in gemlike colors with intricate inclusions, began mesmerizing Evangeline Bergstrom in childhood. Years later, her donation of 652 pieces became the foundation of the museum’s glass collection. The paperweights ranged from 19th-century creations of famous French firms to modern pieces when the donation was made in 1958. Today the collection numbers more than 3,000 pieces and fills the museum with light and color. Admission to the museum has always been free.
One of two remaining hand-operated sets of locks left in the nation is located on the Fox River. We took a pontoon ride through these recently restored Fox River Locks, watched the water level rise and fall, and the doors open to let the boat through and then close behind us. We learned some history of the locks while we looked for osprey and bald eagles. In the 1600s, the river was used by traders and fur trappers. Later, it was used for commerce and now is the home of many paper mills. Having the locks made commerce easier than paddling through rapids or portaging around them.
At the Trout Museum of Art in Appleton, I saw a wonderful exhibit of the Saturday Evening Post illustrations of Norman Rockwell on the struggles of America in the World War II period and the political and social issues that followed. Coming up next at the museum are the Evolution of Jazz concert series, and from Nov. 1 to 21, the Festival of Trees. Check the museum website for details.
Past, future and nostalgia
For a change of pace, whiz through space at the Barlow Planetarium on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley in Menasha. Visitors take a virtual trip between planets, constellations and black holes to see the amazing dimensions of space during the standard show for ages 9 and up. Then walk through the adjacent Weis Earth Science Museum to see fossilized dinosaur eggs, minerals of Wisconsin, displays about the ice age there and more.
At the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center, we saw the musical, “Dirty Dancing.” The theater itself is fairly new and the show was spectacular. We could even take sippy cups of wine into the theater. Check the schedule online for current shows.
If you want to see an authentic Dutch windmill, visit the town of Little Chute. Built in the Netherlands, taken down and then reassembled in Little Chute, the fully functioning 1850s windmill is over 100 feet tall. Tours of the inside are offered in the summer months.
Want to learn about the world famous magician and escape artist, Harry Houdini? In Appleton, the History Museum at the Castle houses an extensive history of the For River Valley, including an exhibit about Houdini, who called Appleton his home town.
And, for the entree
Fratellos Waterfront Restaurant is located in the very same building that once housed the hydroelectric plant that powered the Hearthstone House, and is positioned right by the dam. My eyes were frequently drawn to white pelicans flying around in groups and landing in the pool below the dam. The restaurant, bright with glass decorations and a high ceiling, prides itself on its signature white chicken chili and seafood, and they were delicious.
To taste award-winning, hormone-free milk in this dairy state, visit Lamers Dairy, a small, fifth-generation, family-owned dairy in Appleton. Lamers buys milk from small local farms within 25 miles and bottles it. We sampled 2 percent, whole and chocolate milk and ate ice cream made with milk fresh from the cows earlier in the morning. It all was so sweet and delicious that we weren’t surprised to hear Lamers won gold medals last year at the Los Angeles International Dairy competition.
At Simon’s Specialty Cheese shop in Appleton, samples were offered of its award-winning extra sharp cheddar, and also cheese curds and chocolate cheese fudge. You can only buy their products in this store, which also sells many other Wisconsin products – cheese from other dairies, wine, beer and sausages.
The creative touch
At Wilmar Chocolates, which has been open for decades in Appleton, visitors can create their own special-blend half-pound chocolate bar from a list of ingredients. I choose dark chocolate with pecans, almonds and raspberries and watched it all get mixed together. The smooth chocolate and added ingredients made me wish Wilmar were closer to home.
Tapping your creative side
Finally, visitors can walk into the Fire Art Studio in downtown Appleton, select pieces of colored glass and with help from owner Freddie Haas, and make a dish or wall hanging. I made a flower design which Haas fired to fuse into a small nuts or candy dish. That little creation — and perhaps the tour of the glass museum earlier – had me imagining the different designs and colors I could combine.
And Pinot’s Palette next door offers painting lessons led by an artist.
There’s plenty more to see as well: the Butterfly Gardens of Wisconsin, the Gordon Buholz Nature Preserve, High Cliff State Park, the Harp Gallery, Fox River Antique Mall, Heckrodt Wetland Preserve, Stone Cellar Brew Pub and Appleton Beer Factory.
So if you’re looking for unique places to go for a fun long weekend, family trip or a girlfriends’ getaway, pack a suitcase, hop in your car and drive east a few hours to the Fox River Cities. There’s so much to see and do, you may even make a return visit.
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