Chances are if you don’t have relatives to visit, a child in college or business to transact in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, you may have completely overlooked it as a travel possibility. If that’s the case, you’ve missed an important slice of Americana and a mid-size city in the throes of a renaissance. The next time you visit the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul or fly into Chicago, consider renting a car and adding this welcoming community to your itinerary.
Located at the confluence of the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers, the area’s rich history began when the Ojibwe and Sioux nations fought for dominance over generations. The first European settlers, largely from Norway, Sweden, and Germany, arrived in the mid-19th century and worked as loggers in northern Wisconsin’s dense forests and sawyers in the many local sawmills that engendered the town’s nickname, “Sawdust City.” When that industry went defunct, farmers did the hard work of removing the many remaining tree stumps and fieldstones so that they could grow crops to feed their families and make a living.
This rich saga is on display at two museums in Carson Park, which is also home to a baseball park where Hank Aaron once played and where today locals spend summer evenings watching the Eau Claire Express match up against other teams in the Northwest League. The recently refurbished Chippewa Valley Museum is home to photographs, artifacts, and interactive exhibits that bring all of Eau Claire’s incarnations back to life. At the end of the tour, an old-fashioned soda shop invites guests to stop in for some ice cream.
The nearby Paul Bunyan Logging Camp is the real thing, arranged to show visitors what it was been like to sleep in uncomfortable bunks and endure harsh weather conditions in order to make money to send back home. Children in your party will want to have their pictures taken with the oversize statues of Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox that mark the destination.
By the 20th century, however, pursuits in the Chippewa Valley had turned to manufacturing, hospitals, and education. A Uniroyal factory that produced automobile tires has now been converted to offices and maker spaces, and branches of several hospitals, including the prestigious Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, make this an attractive spot for medical care.
A campus of the University of Wisconsin is here, and one of its strongest programs is its department of music. Visit in April to take in the Viennese Ball, the largest outside Vienna. Guests can waltz, rock ‘n’ roll, and polka in the ballrooms, and in smaller spaces students give recitals in everything from classical piano to a cappella singing. The proceeds provide music scholarships.
Today the city has landed squarely in the 21st century with the performance spaces and art galleries at the state-of-the-art Pablo Center at the Confluence. Evenings find the plaza lit up and festive, and myriad downtown buildings have offered their exterior walls for local artists to create colorful murals. Sculptors, too, display their art along various downtown streets in an annual competition for which members of the community cast their votes.
Nearby is the 200 Main Art & Wine Gallery, which features expertly curated art pieces by local artists as well as a collection of international wines not found in most retail stores. Tangled Up In Hue is an artists’ collective, and the Local Store sells goods that range from handmade cheese boards and fudge to T-shirts and books by local authors. The Raggedy Man is the place to stop for unusual gifts.
Olson’s Ice Cream, a favorite in neighboring Chippewa Falls for more than 75 years, has joined in the revelry by opening a shop in this revitalized area. Their artisan-made flavors range from Chocolate Monster to Mackinac Island Fudge to Cotton Candy Confetti and Raspberry Cheesecake, as well as a range of toppings for sundaes, cones, and more. Nearby Ramone’s Ice Cream is also a busy destination on hot summer evenings. Also downtown are restaurants serving steaks, pizza, and ethnic foods. The Lismore Hotel provides excellent lodging as well as the upmarket Informalist restaurant. The Oxbow Hotel boasts gourmet martinis and food at their Lakely restaurant, and Stella Blues down the road entices Cajun-food lovers. On summer Saturday mornings a bountiful farmers market offers fresh fruits, vegetables, and flowers as well as baked goods, honey, and handmade soaps.
Farther afield is a Holiday Inn, which is home to the city’s classiest steakhouse, Johnny’s. Italian food is best at trendy Mona Lisa’s on Water Street, where visitors can mingle with the college crowd, and Dragonetti’s, which purveys old-style European recipes. Among several authentic Mexican restaurants, an off-the-beaten path favorite is Tacos Juanita.
Wisconsin in general—and Eau Claire in particular—is a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts. Boating, swimming, and fishing in a plethora of surrounding lakes and rivers fill summer days and weekends, and trails abound for hiking and walking. A number of city parks are perfect for picnics and are sometimes venues for live entertainment.
Chilly winters don’t get in the way of outdoor enjoyment, either. That’s when the ice skates, snowshoes, and cross-country skis come out of storage, and snowmobiles rumble along designated trails. Volleyball lovers keep the games going in a heated bubble despite how cold it is outside in a venue that includes a restaurant and full bar to make sure everyone stays warm.
When You Go
For more information: VisitEauClaire.com
Glenda Winders is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at Creators.com. Copyright 2022 Creators.com