Local tourism spending jumped by $15.7 million in 2017 as La Crosse County experienced some of the fastest growth in Wisconsin.
Visitors spent nearly $264 million last year in La Crosse County, according to a new report from the Wisconsin Department of Tourism. Only eight of Wisconsin’s 72 counties ranked higher in overall spending, while La Crosse experienced the 10th fastest growth rate from 2016 to 2017.
A.J. Frels, executive director of the La Crosse County Convention and Visitors Bureau, couldn’t pinpoint a reason for the 6.3 percent growth in direct spending but said a wide variety of attractions and activities make the county an appealing destination.
“Everything we have to offer is what makes it work,” he said.
State officials say low gas prices, better wages and stronger consumer confidence for overall growth in tourism.
Since 2015, the completion of five new hotels have added 459 rooms in La Crosse and increased the county’s lodging capacity by about 25 percent, which Frels said has helped. Lodging — including the purchase of second homes — is the largest single category of visitor spending, according to the state report.
You have free articles remaining.
Frels said the visitors bureau will continue working to attract guests from Chicago, Milwaukee and Madison as well as the Twin Cities, which he said has become a larger source for La Crosse tourism.
Meanwhile the CVB is focused on retaining some of the large conventions next year when the La Crosse Center is expected to undergo major renovations.
“That’s going to be a big challenge,” Frels said. “Every day that is in the forefront of our minds.”
According to the Department of Tourism report, tourism supported about 4,387 jobs in La Crosse County last year and generated about $33 million in state and local tax revenue.
Statewide spending was $12.7 billion, a gain of about 3 percent from 2016, based on an estimated 110 million visitors.
Milwaukee County tops the list with nearly $2 billion in direct tourism spending, while Dane and Sauk, home of Wisconsin Dells, each topped $1 billion. Eau Claire County, with 12.5 percent growth, jumped several places into the number 10 spot.
Hometown Icon: La Crosse Oktoberfest
The La Crosse Oktoberfest USA celebration has been a hometown icon for more than five decades.
The brainchild of four community leaders — Ray Ping of Erickson’s Bakery, Roy Kumm of G. Heileman Brewing, John Coleman of Western Technical College and Don Rice of the former Exchange State Bank — the festival began as a way to breathe life and fun into an economically depressed city and blossomed into the biggest party this side of the Mississippi, drawing more than 100,000 to La Crosse and pumping millions of dollars into the local economy.
There was no festmaster at the first Oktoberfest in 1961, but there was a cow-chip throwing contest, greased-pig catching and “the biggest parade La Crosse had ever seen,” said Duane Moore, 1997 festmaster and editor of the Oktoberfest 50th anniversary book, “The Fest of Times.”
The celebration expanded after the first year, adding events and Royal Family positions and drawing big name entertainers including jazz musician Louis Armstrong.
“Those days, you could really get top names from across the country,” Moore said.
G. Heileman Brewing Co. had a strong presence in the Chicago market, which helped Oktoberfest attract traditional German singing groups. After they performed as an ensemble, the singers would break up into smaller groups and serenade festgoers on the street corners of downtown La Crosse.
And after the festival was over, employees from the brewery were released from their regular workday to clean up the streets, Moore said. Now, the city charges Oktoberfest a cleanup fee.
Oktoberfest nearly went broke in the late 1960s because the festival spent so much on big-name entertainment, and the La Crosse Common Council came within one vote of cancelling the event, Moore said. The La Crosse Chamber of Commerce, the original Oktoberfest organizer, passed the event on to the newly formed nonprofit, La Crosse Festivals, Inc.
In the years that followed, Oktoberfest became La Crosse’s signature event, earning the city national and international recognition for its fun, authentic festival.
La Crosse’s other festivals — Riverfest, Irishfest, Weinerfest, Rotary Lights — were all in some way inspired and shaped by the original Oktoberfest ideas, Moore said. “The way to make it work is to rely on volunteers,” he said.
Hometown Icon: Boathouses
It could be a mere boat slip, or a floating cabin with the comforts of home — save for running water.
A little living room on the river is how one owner described his boathouse.
They trace their origins to the 19th century, when people made a living on the Mississippi River — either transporting lumber, clamming for pearls, hunting, fishing and trapping.
Boathouses were common in La Crosse at the turn of the century, but it was the modernization of the Mississippi River shipping channel in the 1930s that apparently led to a surge in their popularity.
During the Great Depression, they sometimes served as homes.
A 1941 Tribune article indicated the houses had spread. “Practically the entire west bank of Copeland Park is lined with boathouses and houseboats, people maintaining residences in the latter.”
Shorter work weeks, outboard motors and vast pools of backwaters led to a boom in river recreation in the post-World War II era.
As of 2014, there were 102 boathouses within the city of La Crosse, the majority in the waters off Copeland Park.
Because they are on public waters, the boathouses are regulated by the Department of Natural Resources, which limits what owners can do with them. Repairs are allowed, but not improvements.
The federal Water Resources Development Act of 1986 prohibited the construction of new ones, though it permitted existing ones to be sold. In the 1970s, the DNR imposed restrictions that severely limited repairs, but there was an exemption for those designated as historic.
About half of those in La Crosse are designated historic structures, owing to their role in the city’s social history.
"They're part of the history of the city,” boathouse owner Jerome Gundersen said in 2007. “As long as the city's been here, the boathouses have been. Eliminating these is erasing a part of our history.”
Hometown Icon: The Pump House
The Pump House Regional Arts Center housed in one of downtown La Crosse’s historic buildings offers the finest in regional visual and performing art, its executive director Toni Asher said.
“We produce innovative theater not done elsewhere in the region,” she said.
The building at 119 King St. was constructed in 1880 and housed the city’s first main water pump. A water tower added in 1895, expanded pumping capacity from 2.5 million gallons of water daily to 12.5 million, according to the center. The city moved pumping operations to Myrick Park in 1913, and the building housed the streets department from 1926 to 1962.
Western Wisconsin Regional Arts began remodeling the building in 1977 for a regional arts center. The original wood ceiling was preserved, and wood from the city’s old post office was used during renovations, according to the center.
The Pump House was added to the State and National Register of Historic Places in 1979. Another round of renovations was completed in 1996.
The arts center features a 140-person capacity theater that showcases concerts, plays and films; three art galleries; a classroom; pottery studio; and meeting areas. The center also works with businesses, nonprofits groups, schools and universities to provide a setting for art and theater classes and displays student work, Asher said.
“We’re very community-minded,” she said.
The galleries are open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays. There is no admission fee, but donations are accepted.
Hometown Icon: The Wegner Grotto
A quiet location near Hwys. 27 and 71 between Sparta and Cataract is where concrete monuments decorated with glass shards stand as the legacy of a German couple who enjoyed the freedom of their new country.
Paul and Matilda Wegner emigrated from Germany in 1885 and in 1889 purchased a farm near Cataract. The Wegners farmed until 1916 and moved to Bangor to operate a car dealership. They returned to the farm in 1927 after Paul retired and made it their summer home.
It was then that the Wegners — who had been inspired by a visit to a grotto in Dickeyville, Wis. — began construction. From 1929 through the death of Paul in 1937, among their efforts was an American flag, a giant reproduction of their 50th anniversary birthday cake, a birdhouse, a 12-foot ocean liner, a prayer garden and peace monument. A large star is a memorial to mothers who lost sons in World War I, which was the case with Matilda.
The grotto is perhaps best known for its non-denominational tiny glass church, where weddings are still performed today with permission through the Monroe County Local History Room. The church holds seven people.
The Wegners had no formal art training. The structures are made of concrete with thousands of shards of broken glass, porcelain, bottles, seashells, arrowheads and other material. Matilda continued to work after Paul’s death, embellishing the nearby cemetery where they are buried. She died in 1942.
A concrete entry arch to the park has the word “Home” encrusted with glass. The grotto was purchased by the Kohler Foundation in the mid-1980s and was given to Monroe County as a park. There is no admission fee to visit the grotto.
Hometown Icon: FAST Corp.
A field two miles east of Sparta on Hwy. 21 has become the birthplace and dwelling place for super-sized roadside attractions — a dream-like, cartoonish landscape where real and mythical creatures mingle with people historic and fictional, where massive, disembodied heads sprout among sports mascots, giant fish and footwear and food items.
This is the “mold yard” for Fiberglass, Animals, Shapes and Trademarks Corp., or FAST Corp., a company that, despite a few name changes, has put Sparta on the map since the 1950s for turning out custom fiberglass figures that, whether viewed as impressive or kitsch, definitely catch the eye.
“The traditional roadside Americana,” said Darren Schauf, general manager since 2007 and the son of company owner Jim Schauf. The yard contains more than 600 indestructible molds and figures that have accumulated over the years on the off chance the company might need to replicate them someday. These fiberglass creations produced in Sparta can be seen in all 50 states and several other countries, and business remains strong, Schauf said.
A major part of the business in recent years has been water park slides. Other recent projects included a 12-foot San Francisco 49ers football helmet for the Levi’s Stadium and a 19-foot, seated Dalmatian dog an organization will use as a fundraiser by selling its spots, each with a light the owner can trigger electronically.
Hometown Icon: Galesville Square
There’s a sense of history in most Coulee Region communities, which is evident in the heart of downtown Galesville. The Downtown Galesville Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, and the public square is anchored by the bandstand, which was built in 1912.
The downtown was first platted in 1854, and most of the buildings date from the 1880s to early 1900s with brick facades and elaborate cornice detail. Many list the date of their construction. A fire in 2005 destroyed the Grover Building in the middle of Davis Street, but a historically appropriate facade filled in the gap. In 2013 a new convenience store was built on the square in the same fashion when another building was razed.
Galesville is steeped in history. Chief Decorah ruled a large Winnebago village nearby and a historical marker on Decorah’s Peak tells the story of how he routed a rival tribe in battle. His granddaughter Princess Marie Nounka is buried near Artic Springs on the north side of the lake that bears her name. Lake Marinuka was formed by when Beaver Creek was dammed for a mill. Founder Judge George Gale helped start Gale College, which today is Old Main, a community and arts center. The homestead of Alex A. Arnold, who helped start the county fair, is a 15-room Italianate farm house that sits on the northeast side of the city that is also open for tours.
A statue on the edge of the downtown pays tribute to the Rev. David O. Van Slyke, a Methodist farmer and preacher who published a booklet declaring that Galesville was the Garden of Eden. The statue by Galesville sculptor Elmer Petersen shows Van Slyke with an apple in one hand and a Bible in the other.
Hometown Icon: Trane Co.
“You can’t stop a Trane,” or so the slogan goes.
The ubiquitous home air conditioners are actually made in Tyler, Texas. The La Crosse plant specializes in HVAC equipment for large commercial buildings.
But people still ask for Trane out of brand loyalty and hometown pride, said Dean Hammes, whose Ron Hammes Refrigeration business sells and services Trane units.
After all, the company has long been the engine powering La Crosse’s economy.
Trane’s roots in La Crosse go back to 1885, when a Norwegian immigrant named James Trane opened a plumbing business. Trane later invented a low-pressure heating system and partnered with his son, Reuben, who had recently earned a college degree in mechanical engineering, to begin making them. Trane Co. incorporated in 1913, and later began making indoor air conditioners, a novel concept in 1931.
The company didn’t become a leader in the residential air conditioning until 1982, when it purchased General Electric’s AC division, which included the Tyler plant.
While those units weren’t made in La Crosse, a company spokeswoman said the aggressive move into the residential market “substantially increased” the size of the company.
In the early 1980s, Trane employed some 4,800 workers in La Crosse, making it the area’s largest employer.
Acquired by American Standard Co. in 1984, the company headquarters moved away, but the plant remained. American Standard eventually took on the Trane name, a nod to the brand recognition.
In 2008, Trane was acquired by refrigeration giant Ingersoll-Rand for $10.1 billion.
Over the past 30 years, Trane’s local workforce has shrunk by nearly 60 percent as manufacturing jobs have been lost to offshoring, automation and economic factors. Even so, as of the last count in 2013, Trane remained the county’s third largest employer — and the only manufacturer in the top five.
The company, now headquartered in Ireland, has some 29,000 employees at 29 plants around the world and boasts that a Trane unit is installed, on average, every minute of every day.
Hometown Icon: Mount La Crosse
Mount La Crosse, found just outside the city in Stoddard, opened in 1959 with one lift and a single A-frame chalet with a small warming area and repair shop.
It was one of the Midwest’s first ski hills constructed with the ability to produce artificial snow to fill runs when Mother Nature didn’t deliver. Snowboarders hit the slopes in the 1980s, long ahead of the national trend, Mount La Crosse General Manager Darcie Breidel said.
Today, Mount La Crosse features 19 trails, a terrain park, three double chairlifts, a surface rope tow and expanded snowmaking capabilities.
The chalet has doubled in size to include a lunch counter, ticket sales, ski and snowboard retails, a repair shop and The St. Bernard Room Bar, full of antiques from La Crosse, including benches and chairs from the original La Crosse County courthouse.
The ski hill each February hosts the Wisconsin Alpine Ski and Board State Championship, which brings 500 athletes and their families to the La Crosse area. The challenge of the Midwest’s steepest slope draws nationally ranked racers, Breidel said.
In recent years, Olympic skiers and several US Ski Team members have hit the slopes of Mount La Crosse. There are more than 40,000 visits to the hill each season, Breidel said.
“The natural beauty of the La Crosse area is really showcased at Mount La Crosse, from the hills and valleys that make up the trails of the ski area to views of the Mississippi Valley from the chairlift on the way up to the top,” Breidel said.
Hometown Icon: McGilvray Road Bridges
Tucked away in the nearly 4,000-acre Van Loon Wildlife Area northwest of Holmen, a series of historic bridges span the Black River lowlands.
Known as Old McGilvray Bottoms Road, the rare, century-old bridges are preserved in time, thanks to the conservation efforts of the local community. Five of the seven original bridges still stand; one came down in 1954, anther was replaced in the late 1990s by a historic bridge purchased from Pierce County.
Before the bridges were built, a Scottish immigrant named Alexander McGilvray ran a ferry service across the Black River. He operated for about 40 years, but heavy logging traffic made the ferry service difficult to maintain. La Crosse County built a wooden bridge to serve as a crossing in 1892, but the area’s frequent floods rotted the wood.
Charles M. Horton and the La Crosse Bridge and Steel Co. came to the rescue, erecting a series of steel bowstring arch truss bridges along McGilvray Road from 1905 to 1908 at a cost of $14,950, shortening the trip between rural Trempealeau County and the city of La Crosse by eight miles.
The bridges stood strong through the rising and falling waters of the Black River for 65 years until a flood in the early 1970s finally washed out a large culvert, damaging the road and bridges and halting vehicular traffic. In 1975, town of Holland officials transferred the bridges and the 9,000-foot-long road to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
The bridges became listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, but they fell into disrepair, with bridge No. 6 collapsing and bridge No. 5 rotting beyond repair. The road closed to pedestrian traffic in 1986, and by 1989, the state Legislature granted $84,000 to take them down.
That’s when the community stepped in, collecting 800 signatures asking the Legislature to reconsider. The money that had been allocated to remove the bridges was put toward repair and restoration, combined with DNR resources and funds raised by Friends of McGilvray Road. With the help of the La Crosse Preservation Alliance, the organization earned close to $400,000 selling T-shirts and art prints by local wildlife artists.
The Friends of the McGilvray Road continue to maintain the trail and its bridges so all may enjoy the beauty, nostalgia and history of this La Crosse area icon.
Hometown Icon: Tomah’s Superior Avenue
The spacious street that graces downtown Tomah owes its size to a visionary civil engineer from La Crosse. Wisconsin law stipulates that city streets must be a least 60 feet wide, but there were few such rules on the books on June 4, 1857.
It was on that date that the plat for the village settlement of Tomah was approved. Requested by Tomah founder Robert Gillett and completed by engineer William Spear of La Crosse, the plat not only called for the very wide main street but that all connections running north and south be at least 70 feet wide and cross streets be 60 feet. All of this decades before the automobile and truck were even invented.
According to the 1912 book “History of Monroe County” by Randolph Richards, there was much community debate about paving the street in the early 1900s. Finally in 1908 the city agreed to pave the street with bricks and create the boulevard.
With its green boulevard planted with flowers, the road into Tomah was appealing. “… for nowhere in the country can be found a handsomer street; outside of the business district the boulevarding of the center, with its closely clipped lawn and artistic setting of shrubbery makes a beautiful appearance in the summer months.”
Gillett’s plat had 10 acres reserved on the southeast corner of where he was going to build. That never transpired, but today in that vicinity is a park that bears his name. Recently the downtown beautification group Our Town Tomah announced that the original Maid of the Mist fountain in Gillett Park will be replaced, thanks to a grant from the Toro Foundation.
Superior Avenue, which is part of Hwy. 12, is also known as Gasoline Alley, the comic strip started by Tomah native Frank King. The strip is still published in the Tomah Journal newspaper.
Hometown Icon: Lake Arbutus
Lake Arbutus is a manmade vacation mecca in Hatfield that traces its origins to 1904, when the La Crosse Water Power Co. dammed the Black River to create a hydroelectric plant.
Located partly in Jackson County and partly in Clark County, the reservoir of more than 800 acres harbors three parks along its shores, as well as numerous cabins and homes — some seasonal; some year-round.
“Hatfield is well known for having a sign that lists the population as summer, 5,000, and winter, 50,” said Torger Mikkelson of Waunakee, who has had a cabin there for 60 years.
“Somebody sawed it off, so we’ve got to get a new one,” said Mikkelson, a member of the Lake Arbutus Association and editor of the group’s newsletter.
The 200-member association of residents around and near the lake has taken a major role in enhancing water quality and making improvements to Arbutus, said Jon Schweitzer, assistant administrator of the Jackson County Forestry and Parks Department.
“They have done a lot of good work,” Schweitzer said.
That work has included donating two “gumby suits,” which are insulated, buoyant suits for water rescues, to the fire department in case someone breaks through the ice during the winter. The association also created three “Kids Don’t Float” kiosks on the lake so boaters who have forgotten life jackets for their children can borrow them and return them at the end of the day, Mikkelson said.
With a maximum depth of 50 feet and a mean depth of 16 feet, the lake is a popular boating, skiing and fishing venue.
Jackson County has two campgrounds — East Arbutus and West Arbutus — and camping also is available at Clark County’s Russell Memorial Park.
The lake is almost as big of a draw during the winter as in the summer, Mikkelson said, with hundreds of snowmobilers and ATV riders taking to the state trails.
The hydroelectric dam, still churns out current for North American Hydro in Neshkoro, Wis., which has been a subsidiary of Eagle Creek Renewable Energy in Morristown, N.J., since 2012.
Hometown Icon: Mill Bluff State Park
Motorists at the border of Juneau and Monroe counties need only look at Mill Bluff and Bee Bluff that bracket the west and east side of Interstate 90/94 near Camp Douglas to see a reminder of Wisconsin’s last Ice Age.
A finger of ice dammed up what now is the Wisconsin River tens of thousands of years ago and created a vast glacial lake in central Wisconsin dotted with stone islands and underwater reefs. When the ice and water receded, the wind took over further sculpting the sandstone into monument-like formations that reach 80 to 200 feet through the forests.
Designated a state park in 1936, Mill Bluff — named for the former sawmill that stood at the base — boasts a host of prominent rock features such as Ragged Rock, Camels Bluff, Devil’s Monument and Cleopatra’s Needle. Several, including Mill Bluff, have carvings shaped like bird tracks from ancient Native American cultures.
But only Mill Bluff lets park visitors ascend to its summit, on a path built as a public works projects during the Great Depression. It became a part of the Ice Age National Scientific Reserve in 1971. The campgrounds are open from Memorial Day weekend to the end of September, but those who stay here must be willing to forego some amenities — the park has only pit toilets, no showers and only six of the 21 sites have electrical hook-ups.
“It’s one of Wisconsin’s more rustic parks,” said Kathy Stanek, who works in visitors services at Mill Bluff. Yet the rest of the park is open year-round and remains a popular stop, especially for those traveling between Chicago and the Twin Cities looking for a halfway point to pull over and stretch their legs, she said. “It’s little,” Stanek said, “but we’re here.”
Hometown Icon: Silver Mound
Geographically there’s nothing special about the half-mile hill along Hwy. 95 between Hixton and Alma Center in Jackson County. But geologically speaking, the Hixton Silicified Sandstone that is found in layers had a profound impact for thousands of years.
Also called orthoquartzite, the stone is harder than flint and was used by Native Americans to chip stone tools. Some of the spear-tips from Silver Mound date back nearly 12,000 years and have been found as far away as Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, according to the Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
The site was visited by Paleo Indians some 12,000 to 9,500 years ago when mammoths and mastodons roamed the region. Weapons were also fashioned from the stone during the Archaic culture 9,500 to 3,500 years ago when bison herds were nearby. The last two prehistoric cultures that used the site for weapons and stone tools are the Woodland (1,000 to 1,500 years ago) and the Oneota (500 to 1,000 years ago) who still relied primarily on hunting for their food supply.
The hill is neither a burial mound nor contains silver, but various attempts to find the metal were launched in the 1800s, fueled by legends of a lost silver mine and physical evidence of quarry pits that previous mining had been done. Even after geologists dismissed the notion of silver in 1860, prospectors as recently as 1895 tried to find the precious metal.
Over the years archeological surveys and excavations have turned up evidence — with the help of carbon dating — that a rock shelter there has been used for nearly 10,000 years. Two rock art images remain.
The mound is on the National Register of Historic Places and has been designated a National Historic Landmark.
Hometown Icon: Elroy-Sparta Tunnel
Completed in 1873, the Chicago Northwestern Railroad was the second rail line to the burgeoning city of Sparta, where the population doubled in less than two decades.
It formed a 126-mile link between Madison and Winona, Minn., and required three tunnels — each carved by hand through seeping rock — to pierce the bluffs and keep the grade below 3 percent.
The longest, Tunnel 3 between Elroy and Sparta, took three years to dig.
Workers built homes and settled near the eastern at a mail stop known as Summit. It’s a ghost town now, with just the stone foundations remaining.
Without the railroad, communities like Wilton, Kendall and Norwalk might not exist.
But times changed, and in 1964 the trains stopped running.
A handful of visionaries saw opportunity for the abandoned corridor, and two years later the Elroy-Sparta Trail opened as Wisconsin’s first Rails-to-Trails project.
Winding through Juneau and Monroe counties, it now links some 60,000 annual visitors to more than 100 miles of contiguous limestone trails between Trempealeau and Reedsburg.
Each fall, hundreds of runners line up in Norwalk for the Rails to Trails Marathon, which takes them nearly to Sparta and back.
At 3,810 feet, Tunnel 3 is just under ¾ of a mile, long enough that you need a flashlight.
If you’re lucky, you can pick one up at Tom Cordner’s refreshment stand, which sits in his backyard by the tunnel’s west entrance and is generally closed.
“It’s just something I do for a hobby,” said the retired furniture maker who grew up in the same house when hobos camped nearby. “There’s no profit in it. I just like to talk to people.”
Hometown Icon: Villa Louis Mansion
The history-rich community of Prairie du Chien dates to 1673 when explorers Marquette and Jolliet arrived on their journey down the Wisconsin River and were the first Europeans to see the Mississippi River.
Perhaps nowhere is that history so prominent or as well known as the Villa Louis, a Victorian estate on St. Feriole Island that was home to three generations of the Dousman family. The present house was built in 1870 by Hercules Dousman’s son H. Louis, who contracted with a Milwaukee architect for an Italian Villa style home.
It was built on the site of an earlier home on a mound above the flood waters. Louis and his wife Nina took over the family estate in the mid-1880s. The property was expanded with stables, barns and race track for breeding and racing trotting horses. Nina remodeled the house in the style of the British Arts and Crafts movement. Louis died suddenly in 1886. Nina remarried, moved to New York and later divorced. The family returned to live in the home in 1893, mainly using it in the summer.
The Dousman family stopped regular residency in 1913. Two granddaughters of Hercules Dousman restored the home in the 1930s and allowed the city to operate it as a museum — after the Wisconsin Historical Society turned down an offer to own and operate the house. That offer was accepted in 1950 and it became the state’s first historical site in 1952.
The Dousman heirs donated many furnishings and accessories original to the house, along with extensive documentation. That was used as the basis for a $2 million restoration of the estate that began in 1994 to restore the building to its Arts and Crafts interior. The exhaustive restoration along with the home having 90 percent of its original furnishings makes the Villa Louis one of the most authentic examples of 1890s living in the country.
Hometown Icon: Nathan Hill
The hill between Onalaska and West Salem is more than just a geographic landmark. It's the place where Nathan Smith, a former slave and foster father of the first black man to run for president, found freedom and made his home for more than four decades.
Born in 1820 in Tennessee, Smith and his wife, Sarah, escaped to freedom via the Underground Railroad, making the difficult decision to leave a young child behind so they could make the dangerous journey undetected. Along the way, they met Union soldiers under the command of Maj. Gen. Cadwallader Washburn, who made his home in La Crosse and would become the 11th governor of Wisconsin in 1872.
Washburn befriended Smith and brought him into his employment. The nature of the work is unclear, with some saying that Smith served as Washburn's bodyguard, valet or "horse boy," but Washburn eventually invited Smith back to La Crosse and helped him find between 40 and 80 acres of land for his farm.
The Smiths first home was on the east side of the hill, near what is now the Hidden Trails Corn Maze. They later moved to the west side of the hill.
Smith was reportedly well liked in the community and a natural leader, hosting prayer gatherings and entertaining visitors with his singing and banjo playing. He and his wife had no children of their own, but they fostered a number of children, both black and white, the most famous of whom was George Taylor, who went on to become a journalist, newspaper publisher and the first black man to run for president in 1904.
Smith's legacy is tarnished by his reported role in the lynching of Nathaniel "Scotty" Mitchell, who shot Frank Burton, the head of the local Republican Party, at a parade in October 1884. Smith, who was a friend of Burton's, led a dozen men to storm the La Crosse County Jail. They bashed down the door, dragged Mitchell out and hanged him from a nearby tree.
Smith died in 1905 and is buried in the Hamilton Cemetery. He was 85.
Hometown Icon: La Crosse Queen
La Crosse Queens have been rollin' on the river almost as long as vocalists have been singing the 1970s rock hit "Proud Mary."
The big wheels churnin' these days are on La Crosse Queen VII, which continues its predecessors' Mississippi River cruises dating back to the first Queen in 1976.
Moored at the north end of Riverside park, the 149-passenger stern-wheeler runs more than 500 cruises of one to three hours a season, as well as private charters, said manager Kathy Jorstad.
The replica of the regal riverboats that plied Old Man River in the late 19th Century is one of the few authentic paddlewheelers in the country. Unlike similar craft, which have paddle wheels for show but rely on propeller power, the Queen has a split stern wheel powered by diesel engines that are its only means of propulsion.
The Queen offers a variety of day and evening cruises — some just sightseeing, while others feature pizza, or appetizers, full dinners or even customized accoutrements and menus for private charters such as wedding, birthday and corporate events, Jorstad said.
The Queen's six ancestors probably are churning waters elsewhere these days.
"The boats usually don't retire," Jorstad said. "You get a new one and sell the old one to somebody just starting up or who is looking for another boat. I think the La Crosse Queen IV ended up in Fairbanks, Alaska."
Hometown Icon: Christ Episcopal Church
On June 23, 1850, the Rev. James Lloyd Breck celebrated Communion on Grandad Bluff and, supposedly, that same Sunday baptized the first child of European descent born in "Prairie La Crosse," to "Mr. and Mrs. Scoots M. Miller," according to "Historic Churches of La Crosse, Wis." by Genevieve Koenig. That ceremony gave rise to the Christ Episcopal Church, the oldest continually operating church in La Crosse.
Christ Church, as it also was called, formally organized in 1857 and met in homes on Grandad Bluff in 1860. It was the only congregation in Wisconsin to offer Communion every week until it settled in 1863 at its current site at Ninth and Main streets, according to La Crosse Public Library archives.
The first church in La Crosse, it boasted the city's first pipe organ and the first boys choir in the state. That wood-framed building gave way in 1899 to the more ornate Christ Church that still stands at 111 N. Ninth St., "built with the speculation it could become the new Cathedral of the emerging Diocese of Eau Claire," church history states.
Again, from library archives: "The architectural survey describes the structure as being constructed from gray and red sandstone quarried from Grandad Bluff, Romanesque in style with a Venetian Renaissance interior. The church was completed with a gothic cruciform shape with counter balancing buttresses, a 108-foot tower, and two impressive leaded stained glass windows. A window, depicting a figure of Christ, was designed by the Tiffany Glass Decorating Co. of New York in 1898."
Another window, "The Beatitudes," was donated by Alice Green Hixon after the death of her husband, Frank Hixon, in 1931. Frank and Joseph Hixon, sons of prominent La Crosse lumber baron Gideon Hixon, were co-signers for a bank loan taken out by the congregation to complete the church; several members of the Hixon family generously contributed in the early 1900s through "pew-rents," Tribune files show.
The building in 1985 was added to the National Register of Historic Places and has been faithfully maintained and renovated over the decades through donations, the church's former senior warden Carla Marcou said. "If you were to imagine what a church should look like and feel like, this would be it," Marcou said. "Walk in and it gives you peace — You feel God's presence, you just feel it."
Hometown Icon: Onalaska's Giant Sunfish
When it comes to sunfish, Onalaska's giant fiberglass replica — known as Sunny — is definitely a keeper.
The city of Onalaska is known as the Sunfish Capital of the World. Lake Onalaska, created by a Depression-era dam project in the 1930s, is full of them, and Sunny is perched high on wayside rest along Hwy. 35 overlooking the lake.
Sculptor Elmer P. Petersen, whose iconic sculpture of lacrosse players and Riverside Park eagle monument highlight La Crosse's public art offerings, lived in Onalaska in the 1980s and proposed a metallic sunfish at the entrance to the city. His vision never came to be, but in the mid-1990s another Onalaska resident, Vicki Gilbertson, revived the sculpture idea.
Gilbertson came back from the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, Wis., home of a fiberglass muskie so big you can stand inside its mouth, with the inspiration to erect a sunfish monument in Onalaska. Gilbertson pitched the idea to then-Mayor Clarence Stellner and helped raise the money for the sculpture, chairing the 1997 mayor's Open golf tournament committee.
Dave Oswald of D.W.O. Fiberglass Co. of Sparta, who made the giant muskie in Hayward, was commissioned to build the 25-foot-long, 15-foot-high Sunny, which was dedicated in time for the community's annual Memorial Day weekend festival, Sunfish Days, in 1998. Sunfish Days has since gone by the wayside, but the base of the sunfish has a plaque listing the names of Sunfish Days parade marshals.
Sunny has stood sentinel over Lake Onalaska ever since, except for a two-month stretch in 2012 during which the statue was removed and given a fresh coat of paint. For people traveling the Great River Road, the giant sunfish is an irresistible photo op, and for the city, it is the go-to image to represent Onalaska.
Hometown Icon: Pettibone Park
It’s the only city park west of the Mississippi River’s main channel. In fact it wasn’t always in Wisconsin.
The island where La Crosse founder Nathan Myrick landed his keelboat and set up his first trading post in 1841 was platted for development by Alonzo and Lucretia Barron, for whom it was named.
But their island city never materialized, and Houston County took back the land for unpaid taxes. In those days it was described as “a wasteland in the middle of the Mississippi River that was for years a harbor for brothels and the toughest of the tough lumber men.”
Three-term La Crosse mayor Albert Pettibone, a Vermont native who made his fortune in lumber, purchased the land in 1901 for $62,000 (the equivalent of about $1.5 million today) and set up a public park.
It took nearly two decades of statehouse wrangling and an act of Congress to get the island into Wisconsin, but in 1918 President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill authorizing the border change. In return, Minnesota got Latsch Island by Winona.
Pettibone built the Victorian Romanesque gazebo from Minnesota sandstone and continued to fund improvements even after deeding the park to the city, which officially took over management in 1969.
Pettibone’s 1915 obituary hailed him for creating the park, “a Mecca for thousands who seek nature’s pleasures in the out of doors.”
Indeed. Visit the park today and you might find old men fishing from a bridge, sunbathers on the beach, a college student getting in
a round of disc golf or a bare- chested man in aviator glasses cruising with the top down.
Historical re-enactors set up camp each summer, taking it back to Myrick’s fur trading days. In winter, ice fishermen set up on the frozen lagoon, which once hosted national speed-skating championships but since fell out of favor with ice skaters.
Long ago, people built cottages on the south end of the island, on land leased for $100 a year. But the city put a stop to that in the late 1970s, evicting the last holdouts in 1983.
Hometown Icon: Arcadia Memorial Park
A walk through Arcadia's Memorial Park is a lesson in America's military history.
The city of Arcadia bought 54 acres of agricultural land in 1989 that eventually became Memorial Park. Ashley Furniture founder Ron Wanek designed and helped fund the expansive Soldiers Salk, which was dedicated in 1991.
The 500-meter walk, with each meter representing one year of a particular war, is lined with memorials from each of America's wars and conflicts, starting with George Washington on a horse representing the American Revolution.
Tributes to the War of 1812, the Spanish-American War, Civil War, World War I and II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf War are just a few of the statues, many of which were created by Wanek. Other statues include memorials to prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action, as well as a Patriots Memorial and Angel of Mercy monument.
A more recent addition to the walk honors the Global War on Terrorism with a monument to 9/11 that features a twisted steel beam from the World Trade Center.
Statues of America's five-star generals — Ulysses S. Grant, John Joseph "Black Jack" Pershing, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur and George S. Patton — tower over the park's 2,000-seat Millennium Amphitheater. In the park's center pavilion, more statues depict the history and founding of Arcadia.
Memorial Park is a favorite spot for summertime festivals, such as Arcadia Broiler Days and Ashley for the Arts.
Hometown Icon: Roger Harring Stadium at Veterans Memorial Field Sports Complex
The Roger Harring Stadium at Veterans Memorial Field Sport Complex on the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse campus debuted in 2009.
Renovations to the facility began in 1987 when the university bought it from the city for $1, according to UW-L. Construction of $16.6 million new stadium began in 2008 after the university hosted the annual WIAA state track meet.
The stadium honors Roger Harring, who led the university’s football team to three national championships and 15 conference titles during his tenure during his three decades as coach.
Back in 2005, the city’s Common Council voted for a compromise to name the complex Memorial Field, which ended years of fighting between the university and the city and veterans. UW-L was able to name the stadium after Harring. The state Supreme Court in 2009 voted against considering a lawsuit over the name of the stadium.
The facility includes football and soccer fields, tennis courts and track and field space and intramural fields. It can fit 6,250 spectators.
It also features an impressive Veterans Hall of Honor dedicated to those who served the country as the entrance to the complex. The new facility hosted its first event on May 14, 2009 with the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division III Track and Field qualifying meet, according to the university.
Hometown Icon: Rotary Lights
Rotary Lights traces its origins to 1995, when Duane Moore returned to La Crosse from a trip to Oklahoma, where a similar display had switched on a light bulb in his head.
Moore, who then was president of La Crosse Rotary East, pitched the idea to fellow Rotarians and asked who might like to head up a Christmas lighting effort here, recalled Pat Stephens, whose hand shot up and who has been president of the annual display in Riverside Park ever since.
“We figured it was too big for one club,” Stephens said, so they appealed to the other six clubs at the time for financial and muscular support.
The Rotarians pulled together 250,000 lights for the kickoff year, Stephens said, adding, “We bought what we could afford.” The annual event now has an inventory of millions of lights.
“I think now it’s probably one of the larger attractions in the Midwest from the end of November through December,” he said.
Its mission of collecting staples for food shelves started as an afterthought to keep the display free, figuring that people who couldn’t afford to make free-will contributions could donate food items, he said.
“One of the unique features is we have helped start nine other displays,” Stephens said. “People come to La Crosse and we show them how to set up and teach them how to do animated displays.”
The only requirements are that other groups must be nonprofit, with a main mission of feeding the hungry, he said.
Hometown Icon: St. Rose Convent
St. Rose Convent has been the physical and spiritual home of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration since it opened on July 10, 1871, when the sisters’ move from Jefferson, Wis., to La Crosse was completed.
The ornate Romanesque-style house of worship is home to Mary of the Angels Chapel and Perpetual Adoration Chapel that opened in 1906. It is in the latter where day and night since Aug. 1, 1878, there has been constant prayer for the community, church, city and the world. It is the longest nonstop prayer in the United States. Not even a major convent fire on Dec. 2, 1923, failed to disrupt the vigil.
Mary of Angels Chapel fulfilled a promise made to God by Mother Antonia Herb, who vowed in 1865 at the order’s first motherhouse in Jefferson that if God would favor the sisters and their work, they would someday build a chapel “beautiful as their means would allow.”
The chapels feature Corinthian pillars and windows of Bavarian stained glass. Altars of Italian marble are decorated with gold bronze, onyx pillars, and inlaid mosaics of Venetian glass and mother of pearl.
The chapels were restored in 1992 and the convent was modernized and renovated in 1997. The chapels are open for tours Monday through Saturday from 9 to 10:45 a.m. and 1 to 3 p.m. More than 4,500 visitors tour the chapels annually.
St. Rose Convent, 912 Market St., includes administrative offices and is also home for some of the congregation's retired sisters. Rose, the patron of St. Rose Convent and Viterbo University, was born in Viterbo, Italy in 1235.
Hometown Icon: Apple Blossom Scenic Drive
You might be forgiven if you refer to this iconic stretch of roadway less by its formal name — Winona County Hwy. 1 — and more by its familiar, state-designated moniker: the Apple Blossom Scenic Drive.
This 17-mile route isn’t so much a way to reach your next destination as it is a destination unto itself. Though you’re allowed to travel 55 mph, you’d be missing so much if you did. Often, you’ll find vehicles slowing — or stopping completely — to take in the breathtaking views of the Mississippi River that dot the stretch of byway that begins in La Crescent and concludes between Dakota and Nodine.
Apple Blossom Scenic Drive is rated — understandably — as Minnesota’s second most scenic drive, behind only the North Shore portion of Hwy. 61. But don’t tell that to the locals, as they’ll tout the majesty that only tall bluffs and the curvy Big Muddy can provide.
Once home to more than 40 orchards, only a handful remain today. But apples don’t have all the fun on the ridge, as a vineyard and winery recently opened, allowing visitors to taste another locally made product and gaze at the river vistas below.
Apple Blossom Scenic Drive received its designation from the state of Minnesota in 1972, and at that time, an article in the La Crosse Tribune, dated July 28, read in part, “It’s one of the prettiest stretches of roadway in our Coulee Region, which is no faint praise. The view of the Mississippi, the river islands and the varied landscape across the river on the Wisconsin side is magnificent.”
The nationally known overlook is a key piece to drawing people back to La Crescent.
“It’s important to anybody’s economy to keep people coming back,” La Crescent Chamber of Commerce executive directive Eileen Krenz said. “We have four seasons in Minnesota, and each one of those seasons on the bluff is completely different.”
Hometown Icon: La Crosse Fairgrounds Speedway
The five-eighth’s mile oval track at the La Crosse Fairgrounds Speedway is one of the Midwest’s premier short tracks and has served as a training ground for such high-profile drivers as Dick Trickle, Kenny Schrader, Mark Martin and Matt Kenseth — all of whom went on to race at NASCAR’s highest level.
The track, which is located on the La Crosse Interstate Fairgrounds, began weekly racing in 1970 under the ownership and management of Bangor businessman Larry Wehrs. The La Crosse County Agriculture Society took over fairgrounds operations — including ownership of the race track — in the late 1980s.
In 1987, Motorsports Management Services began leasing the track and remains the leaseholder to this day. Chuck Deery, of the Deery racing family from Rockford, Ill., took over as the track manager in 1987 and remains the manager 27 years later.
Fans continue to support what is often referred to as the area’s “playground of power.”
A lot of that power was supplied by Bangor are farmer Kevin Nuttleman, arguably the most prolific driver of the 1990s and through 2006. Nuttleman, with his NJ 4 car, won a record 10 Kwik Trip Late Model track championships and 106 Late Model feature races.
The track continues to host three divisions — Late Model, Sportsmen and Thunderstox — each Saturday night from April through August. Late Model and Sportsmen compete in the five-eighth’s mile track, while the Thunderstox — which are cars from the 1970s and 1980s with few modifications — compete in the quarter-mile track.
The racing season ends with Oktoberfest Race Weekend, an event that annually draws nearly 20,000 race fans and drivers from throughout the Midwest over a four-day period in early October.
Hometown Icon: Kwik Trip
It’s not on every corner, but just about.
With very few exceptions in the city of La Crosse, you’re never more than a mile from one. They fuel our lives — and our lifestyles — serve as landmarks and meeting places. Heck, they even help solve murders.
If you work in the La Crosse metro area, there’s a nearly 1 in 20 chance you work for Kwik Trip. It’s practically a given that you’ve shopped there.
Each store gets about 1,500 customer visits per day. Multiplied by the 14 stores in La Crosse, that’s half the city’s population. Every day.
The stores’ ubiquity — and notoriously sharp security video — have made them a valuable tool for police, and not just for catching shoplifters. In the past decade, police have nabbed a bike thief, car thief, embezzler and murderer with the help of Kwik Trip security video.
The first Kwik Trip opened in 49 years ago in Eau Claire, and the chain has been in La Crosse since 1971. Today, with 465 stores in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, it’s one of the nation’s 30 largest convenience stores.
Along the way, the business has been at the forefront of industry innovation.
Founded by Don Zietlow and two partners, the privately owned company shares 40 percent of pre-tax profits with its employees.
Starting with sandwiches made in the back of its Losey Boulevard store, Kwik Trip embraced the concept of making its own goods and is today considered the most vertically integrated convenience store chain in the nation, said spokesman John McHugh.
At its La Crosse headquarters, Kwik Trip bakes its own bread and pastries, prepares pizzas, salads and sandwiches, bottles its own milk, water and sports drinks. It even imports and ripens bananas.
It has pushed the envelope of the convenience store model, offering competitively priced staples — bread, milk, produce — on the premise that most people visit the grocery store only once a week or so.
In recent years, Kwik Trip has become a leader in alternative fuels. Its stores were some of the first in western Wisconsin to offer compressed natural gas under the canopy.
Hometown Icon: Hiawatha statue
Some believe the site where three rivers converge is a spiritual place; a source for great energy. It is at this point in Riverside Park in La Crosse where a 25-foot high statue has stood since October 1961.
Hiawatha, also known as the Big Indian, made his debut as part of the first La Crosse Oktoberfest. The statue was created by Anthony Zimmerhakl, a La Crosse schools art teacher, who worked on the sculpture for four years, layering cement on wire mesh in the back yard of his home. He was helped by his two sons.
The statue has been the focal point of many photos by visitors to La Crosse over the years, located near the La Crosse Area Convention and Visitor’s Bureau and near the entry point where the La Crosse Queen boat is docked. It’s also been the source of controversy, especially in 2000 when the city was debating whether it should restore and paint the statue that was showing signs of age. Some said the statute perpetuated Native American stereotypes.
A newspaper article at the time of the statue’s unveiling said local Native Americans — called Winnebagoes (now Ho-Chunk) — wanted the statue to be named Decorah after one of their great chiefs. But Zimmerhakl said he based the sculpture on Hiawatha, the 16th century chief who is credited with bringing together the Iroquois Nation.
After much debate and public discussion, in the end $35,000 was spent to refurbish and repaint the statue, $16,935 from private funds and $18,605 from the city’s budget. Representatives of the Ho-Chunk Nation were consulted with the colors used to repaint the statue.
The 20-ton statue may be big, but it’s not the biggest statue called Hiawatha. That honor goes to a 52-foot high statue that has stood in Ironwood, Mich., since 1964.
Hometown Icon: Mindoro Cut
If you believe politics are connected to everything, then the story of the Mindoro Cut — the second-deepest hand-hewn cut in the Western Hemisphere — is straight forward.
In the early 1900s Gov. Robert La Follette, the father of the Progressive Movement, pushed the “Good Roads Movement.” It was an effort to improve transportation to help farmers get their products to market.
Farmers in the northern part of La Crosse County seized the opportunity to find a better way to get their milk from the West Salem side of Phillips Ridge to the creamery in Mindoro and then back to West Salem to the train station. Thus began the impetus to construct the Mindoro Cut, the shortcut between the two communities where Hwy. 108 winds up and down the ridge.
The cut measures 74 feet deep, 25 feet wide and 86 feet long and was accomplished without the aid of machinery. There was dynamite involved in the construction, probably after workers discovered what they thought was a sandstone ridge was actually hard rock underneath. When work began the ridge was too steep for even horses and workers hauled away rocks in wheelbarrows balanced on wood planks. Horses and sleds were later used. Wages were $1.25 a day and meals from the cook shanty were extra.
Work on the cut began in 1907 and was completed at a cost of $11,241.29 to La Crosse County, the equivalent of about $287,000 today. With the exception of pavement in the 1920s and guardrails, the winding roadway through the cut remains the same today. It’s a favorite destination for motorcyclists and car enthusiasts and was added — with the cut — to the National Register of Historic Places in 2007.
The cut today can probably lay-claim to being the deepest remaining unaltered cut in the nation. Another cut that was supposedly deeper was in either West Virginia or Ohio, but cannot be verified.
Hometown Icon: La Crosse City Hall
La Crosse City Hall, 400 La Crosse St., gets decidedly mixed reviews today, but it was heralded as “a dignified landmark” when dedicated on the Fourth of July in 1970.
It was part of a movement in the city during the 1960s and early 1970s to shed the perceived staid, Victorian-era look for something more modern — “progressive and building for the future,” then-Mayor Warren Loveland said at the time. The city then had its offices in a brick, castle-like building at Sixth and State streets that dated back to 1892 and, officials said, no longer met the community’s needs.
That same time period would see a new county courthouse in 1965 and a new library at 800 Main St., plus the new main fire station at 726 Fifth Ave. S. and Viterbo University’s Fine Arts Center in 1971.
Voters in a 1966 referendum approved of swapping the old City Hall for new by a 4-to-1 margin, according to press accounts. With some cost overruns and other complications, it would take four years before the seven-story $2.8 million building opened in May 1970.
Architect Harry Schroeder of Hackner, Schroeder, Roslansky and Associates said they wanted to create a City Hall that had “some feeling of dignity, something that the people in the community could take pride in, a nice-appearing, landmark-type of building.” He touted the sand-blasted concrete walls “imported specially from Racine,” the anodized aluminum windows, the walls of “washable vinyl.”
Today, the compliments are harder to come by. One former local historian who led downtown tours referred to the architectural period that gave rise to City Hall as “brutalist style.” Others lament the loss of the former City Hall, razed in 1970, and the other classic buildings that made way for “progress.”
Those who work in City Hall say the building today seems designed to be cold, perhaps even intimidating.
“In my mind, it’s not very welcoming once you get inside,” said council president Dick Swantz, noting the lobby has little direction to guide the public and the council chambers leave the audience looking at the backs of officials’ heads.
“It’s not very architecturally appealing,” said Dale Hexom, former city public works director.
Hometown Icon: Valley View Mall
Since 1980, Valley View Mall has been a fixture of retail commerce in La Crosse County.
Leased and managed by the Pennsylvania-based company PREIT, the Valley View Mall property includes Texas Roadhouse, Chuck E. Cheese's, Play It Again Sports and Dick's Sporting Goods. Total property size is about 606,000-square-feet and includes more than 3,500 parking spaces.
Initially proposed in the 1970s for an 11-acre parcel along once-blighted downtown Mississippi waterfront, a "three-year war of court battles" ended with the annexation of an 80-acre piece of land from the town of Medary into the city of La Crosse, according to "A History of La Crosse, Wisconsin in the Twentieth Century" by Susan T. Hessel and Gayda Hollnagel.
Herberger's and Doerflinger's department stores, formerly the anchors of the downtown retail district, moved to the mall when it opened. The relocation was a harbinger of downtown economic struggles to come, but the mall continued to thrive.
The mall's construction drew a number of "big box" retailers to the Hwy. 16 corridor, including Best Buy, Office Depot, Wal-Mart, Shopko, TJ Maxx, Old Navy, Kohl's and Target.
In 2001, the mall underwent a major expansion that added a 4,079-square-foot food court. The improvements continued in 2006 with the addition of a 30,000-square-foot Barnes & Noble.
And even with the rise of online shopping and competition from sites like Amazon, people still come to the mall. The mall serves more than 1 million customers per year and about 10,000 shoppers per day, but at number will increase to about 16,000 per day during the holiday season, Cafe said.
"People like the opportunity to touch (merchandise) and feel it before they buy," she said.
Hometown Icon: LaCrosse Footwear building
The LaCrosse Footwear building, an industrial behemoth for more than 100 years that once provided 2,000 jobs, continues as a landmark on the city’s North Side — repurposed with a variety of businesses.
LaCrosse Footwear, which began as the La Crosse Rubber Mills Co. in 1897, manufactured rubber horseshoes before switching to making rubber-coated fabrics and raincoats and, eventually, canvas and rubber footwear.
Within a decade, its workforce jumped to 400 people producing about 850 rubber-coated garments a day.
The company installed the city’s first sprinkler system in its wooden factory, reportedly located on land once owned by Buffalo Bill Cody.
It constructed the first of several concrete buildings in 1913, launching a series of expansions across its 10-plus acres. By 1930, it was the city’s largest employer, with 2,000 workers.
In the 1950s, production featured a full line of rubber footwear, as well as sporting boots, tennis and basketball shoes and novelty shoes, according to a company history.
In 1983, the company was producing 2.2 million pairs of footwear a year, and sales hit $27 million. Sales reached $30 million a year later, $50 million by 1989 and an all-time high of $108.3 million in 1994.
Renamed LaCrosse Footwear Inc. in 1987, the company closed the facility in 2001, moving its headquarters to Portland, Ore. It was sold to Tokyo-based ABC-Mart Inc. for $138 million in 2012.
After remaining idle for four years, the buildings on St. Andrew Street have enjoyed a renaissance since The Fenigor Group LLC bought the complex in 2005.
Fenigor, owned by several members of the Hass family, removed more than 2 million pounds of obsolete factory equipment. It added ramps to bring cars, boats and other vehicles in for storage.
Continuing renovations have provided office space for several businesses, as well as housing enterprises such as the Boot Hill Pub, the Pearl Street Brewery, La Crosse Mail and Print Solutions, and Western Wisconsin Cares, among others. The latest addition is housing.
Hometown Icon: Lake Neshonoc
The largest inland lake in southwestern Wisconsin in West Salem was formed as the result of land speculation in 1851 and has survived after coming back from the dead.
Monroe Palmer built a log and dam on the La Crosse River when he bought 15 acres of land. He platted a village of 18 blocks and 147 lots which he called Neshonoc, a Ho-Chunk name. Several homes, a church and school were built. But the railroad bypassed Neshonoc in 1858 in favor of nearby West Salem and by the 1890s Neshonoc was all but gone.
The impoundment remained and was enlarged in 1940 with a new hydroelectric dam that raised the water level five feet and created a lake of nearly 1,000 acres. The newer recreational lake soon started to suffer from agricultural runoff and siltation, as was first noted in 1950 by the Wisconsin Conservation Department. The size of the lake shrank to about 700 acres. Carp took over the lake and it was essentially declared a dead lake by the Department of Natural Resources by 1970, with very little vegetation. The public beach was closed
But local residents were determined to not let the lake enter a final phase of eutrophication. In 1982 the Lake Neshonoc Protection and Rehabilitation District was formed and work began to restore the lake, which has a maximum depth of 11 feet and average depth of four feet. A $2.28 million dredging project — with funds coming from local sources, La Crosse County and the state of Wisconsin — was completed in 2002 where an estimated 1 million cubic yards of sediment was removed and a sediment trap was installed. Deep areas were dredged for fish habit improvement.
All of these efforts capped the return of the fishery where walleyes, northern pike, bass, perch and other fish. There are ongoing efforts to make sure the carp population is controlled.
Hometown Icon: Myrick Park
From ancient burial ground to environmental educational center, Myrick Park has undergone many changes throughout its 131-year life.
In 1873, the city of La Crosse bought 20 acres of land south of the La Crosse River marsh for $1,600. Known as “Turtle Mounds,” the land was once home to a number of animal-shaped and linear Native American burial sites. Two remain today.
Briefly named Lake Park, the name changed to Myrick Park in 1903 to honor Nathan Myrick, a fur trader who founded the city of La Crosse in 1841. The park grew to 40 acres and served as the Interstate Fairgrounds. A music pavilion was added in 1906 and a zoo in 1929 when World War I veterans unveiled Monkey Island — a La Crosse icon in itself, up until 2007. The lower shelter was originally built by the La Crosse Gun Club which held trapshooting over the marsh. The former railroad tracks first became hiking trails in 1976.
The zoo continued to expand for the next half century, adding a duck pond, a raccoon pit, and a bear den by 1954. Native Midwestern animals like deer, bobcats and prairie dogs took residence in 1970, and a petting zoo was added in 1977. For a few quarters, kids could feed goats and calves.
The addition of Kids Coulee in 1994 brought the city together as community volunteers built the 200,000-square-foot, handicap-accessible playscape. A service project of the Rotary Club of La Crosse, organizers looked to local kids for ideas and inspiration for the project, and more than 3,700 volunteers provided the labor.
Hometown Icon: Fort McCoy
Fort McCoy, a 60,000-acre military training center between Sparta and Tomah, is named for Maj. Gen. Robert Bruce McCoy, a widely known local lawyer, district attorney, judge and mayor of Sparta.
McCoy envisioned a large military training area after returning from the Spanish-American War, said Linda Fournier, Fort McCoy public affairs officer.
The War Department bought 14,200 acres of land, including 4,000 owned by McCoy, in 1909 and named it the "Sparta Maneuver Tract."
It was designated Camp McCoy on Nov. 19, 1926, after McCoy’s death.
Camp McCoy grew to 60,000 acres by 1942 and included the addition of a $30 million cantonment area with a capacity for 35,000, Fournier said. The new camp was inaugurated on Aug. 30, 1942.
Camp McCoy was used as a training facility for many World War II units, including the 2nd Infantry Division, the 76th Infantry Division and the 100th Infantry Battalion. It also served as a prisoner-of-war and enemy-alien prison camp, Fournier said.
The camp was aligned under U.S. Army Forces Command on July 1, 1973, and officially was re-designated as Fort McCoy Sept. 30, 1974, Fournier said.
The installation has been in almost constant use since 1909. It has provided training opportunities for millions of military members and has supported every major conflict from World War I to Operation Iraqi Freedom, Fournier said.
From Sept. 11, 2001, through Dec. 30, 2011, 140,197 military personnel from 2,416 units mobilized or demobilized at Fort McCoy during its efforts to support the Global War on Terror, Fournier said.
Fort McCoy has the largest workforce in Monroe County at 2,443 people, including 1,383 civilians, 424 military and 636 contract employees, Fournier said. In 2013, Fort McCoy returned $282 million to the local economy.
Hometown Icon: Brick streets
Streets have always been an essential part of any city’s transportation system. Before the turn of the 20th century in La Crosse, street paving — if any — was macadam (compacted layers of small stones), which was dusty and turned into mud when it rained. Rutted surfaces caused by wagon wheels were common.
But a major civic road improvement project was undertaken in 1900 and 1901 when some 40 blocks of the downtown area was converted to red brick paving. “The people of the city took great pride in what they considered their fine streets,” the La Crosse Morning Chronicle declared in its Nov. 24, 1901, edition.
It was part of a national trend that began in the late 1800s. One estimate said the city of Philadelphia had an estimated 135 miles of brick-paved streets. Bricks remained the preferred street paving method until concrete and bituminous asphalt took over in the 1920s. Asphalt cost less to install and the streets were easier to maintain, especially during the snowplowing season.
Most of the La Crosse brick streets are long gone, but a few remain. The sections of 20th Street and 17th Place between Main and Cass streets are still paved with bricks, which were laid in 1924 when that section of the city was being built. Those streets are on the local register of historic places. There is also one block of brick street remaining on Ferry between Ninth and 10th streets and about 100 feet on Redfield near Gundersen Health Care.
The whole history of the La Crosse street and alley paving is contained in the La Crosse Public Library archives in the “Guide to the La Crosse, Wisconsin Committee on Streets and Alleys, Resolutions and Reports Relating to Streets and Alleys, 1852-1932.”
The reports are contained in 46 boxes and amount to 19-cubic feet — enough to pave part of a street.
Hometown Icon:The Shrine of Our Lady Guadalupe
The Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe may be a bit young to have reached iconic status, but the copper dome on its church has become a beacon on a hill in south La Crosse that attracts nearly 70,000 pilgrims a year.
“There are daily stories of inspiration from here,” says executive director Leif Arvidson.
Then-Bishop (now Cardinal) Raymond Burke proposed the shrine in the late 1990s, drawing mixed reviews as an extravagance because of its initial price tag of $25 million.
But the shrine has drawn visitors from all 50 states and more than 75 countries across the globe since its Pilgrim Center and Mother of Good Counsel Votive Candle Chapel opened in 2002. The ornate Shrine Church, built at a cost of $29 million, opened in July 2008. It seats 450 and has a copper dome 45 feet in diameter.
The complex, which started off on 70 acres donated by the Robert and Lucille Swing family, now includes 103 acres, much of it hilly woodland surrounding the shrine buildings, with a trout stream meandering through the valley below
Main features besides the church, the votive chapel and the Pilgrim Center are a Memorial to the Unborn, the Flores Mariae Gift Shop, the Culina Mariana Café, devotional areas, Stations of the Cross and a rosary walk.
It features a half-mile, uphill meditation trail from the Pilgrim Center to the church. The Mother of Good Counsel Votive Candle Chapel has a 12-by-14-foot pyramid of 576 votive candles.
The shrine at 5250 Justin Road, just off of Hwy. 61/14, also is home to the international headquarters of the Marian Catechist Apostolate. The shrine, which has a Latin Mass daily, attracts not only carloads of worshipers but also busloads of tourists.
Hometown Icon: Pearl Street
At two blocks in length, Pearl Street is the shortest street in downtown La Crosse. Today it’s one of the best examples of downtown renewal but it also has one of the river city’s most colorful histories, especially the west block.
In that sometimes seedy past, the block at one time or another contained a bordello, a massage parlor, an adult book store and several bars. A railroad depot was located at the southeast corner of Second and Pearl. GIs were told the block was off limits because of the houses of ill repute.
Instrumental in the block’s turnaround from rough-and-tumble to visitor-friendly was Terry J. “TJ” Peterslie. When Peterslie got out of the Army in 1971, he rented a vacant building at 215 Pearl St., lived out of the back and sold clothing from the front in what eventually became T.J.’s Apparel. In 1974 he bought the building which dates to the 1860s. Peterslie and his wife, Michelle, started expanding on the block, renovating the downstairs portions of the buildings and painting colorful murals on the boarded up windows on the second floor.
The Harborview redevelopment project that resulted in the La Crosse Center across Second Street also helped improve the area. John Satory bought his building to house Satori Arts Gallery in 1990. He told a Tribune reporter that year that the building is attractive and historic and also because he thinks he can save other buildings just by being there. "They'd like this whole block ripped down," he said. But "people are going to have a hard time getting me out of here."
The Peterslies opened The Pearl ice cream shop in 1993, and in 1996 the block was one of the first to receive the antique-style street lights and brick sidewalks that became a key part of the downtown revitalization. The development of the Holiday Inn Express also solidified the block.
The other end of the block is anchored by Kroner’s Hardware, which has been at 321 Pearl since 1898, along with other established businesses, ending at the northeast corner of Fourth and Pearl where the Bodega is located.
Hometown Icon: Powell Place
At the foot of Main Street in downtown La Crosse is Powell Place, one of the city's most storied landmarks.
The ornate building where Main Street meets Second Street originally was named Healey's Block after logger and businessman Benjamin Healey developed the property in 1876, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society.
Valued in 1881 at $45,000, Italianate architectural details include cornice, arched windows hoods, Corinthian columns and brick walls two feet thick, according to the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Murphy Library archives. Early tenants included clothing and glassware retailers, a brewery and law offices. The Boston Store filled most of the ground floor in the mid-1880s, according to the La Crosse County Historical Society.
Frank Powell, a physician and friend of William ìBuffalo Billî Cody, moved his practice to the second floor in 1884. He patented medicine that claimed to cure warts, cancer and baldness, and was first elected La Crosse's mayor in 1885. He preferred the name "White Beaver" and served as the chief doctor for the local Winnebago Indian tribe.
The Yahr-Lange Corp., a wholesale drug company, owned the building for 1944 to 1982, according to the La Crosse County Historical Society.
Developers renamed the building Powell Place in 1982 and restored it over the years to include space for specialty shops, a restaurant and offices, according to Tribune archives. Installed in the ceiling inside the Main Street entrance is a stained glass skylight saved from the La Crosse County Courthouse razed in 1965.
The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. The mini-mall has housed a host of businesses over the years.
Hometown Icon: Rivoli Theater
It has been nearly 95 years since the Rivoli Theater first entertained La Crosse filmgoers.
Though not the city’s first motion picture theater (that honor went to the former Strand theater on Jackson Street, which opened in 1916 and closed 39 years later), the Rivoli was always the grandest.
Hailed by the La Crosse Tribune as the “apex of comfort and beauty,” it was the largest movie theater in the state outside of Milwaukee when the doors opened on Sept. 19, 1920, with a screening of Norma Talmadge’s “Yes or No.”
Tickets for evening shows cost 33 cents — 11 cents for children — and guests were assured that all 1,400 seats offered unobstructed views of the silver screen.
With three floors of offices above and featuring the “last word in modern business block construction,” the Rivoli building at 123 N. Fourth St. cost an estimated $400,000 to build; that’s about $4.8 million adjusted for inflation.
A $20,000 pipe organ supplied the sound in those days, but less than 10 years later it was one of the first Midwestern cinemas to install the new Vitaphone system, and in 1927 it screened “The Jazz Singer,” the first feature-length “talkie.”
A North Side sister theater, the Riviera, opened the following year on Caledonia Street, though that screen went dark in 1967.
Over the years it had brushes with fame. In one month during 1949, the Rivoli showed films directed by two La Crosse natives, Nicholas Ray and Joseph Losey, who both went on to Hollywood success. In 1953, Gunsmoke stars Audie Murphy and Susan Cabot signed about 1,200 autographs for fans at the Rivoli.
But times changed. In 1987, the Rivoli went dark. It was too expensive to operate and couldn’t compete with new multiscreen cinemas with comfortable seats. After a brief stint as a concert venue, the theater languished until 1994, when Tom Misco bought the building and reopened the Rivoli as a second-run theater offering beer and pizza along with popcorn.
More than 20 years later, it remains a downtown icon.
Hometown Icon: Bodega
One of the more popular haunts in downtown La Crosse has a reputation not only for stocking 400 beers but also being, well, haunted.
Such is the history of the Bodega Brew Pub, located in a building at 122 S. Fourth St. that traces to the late 1800s.
As legend has it, Paul Malin, who owned and operated the Malin Pool and Sample Room in the building, has haunted it since he allegedly hanged himself there in 1901.
The building reportedly changed hands several times during the next five years, with the reason finally coming to light in 1907, when the La Crosse Tribune reported that Malin had spooked the most recent owner, A.J. Hine.
Hine told friends that he was selling his Union Saloon in the building because Malin appeared to him every night and kept him awake with odd shenanigans.
Hauntedbarguide.com promotes the saga, noting, “Owners and employees tell stories of appearances, noises, slamming doors, and objects moving around.”
Jeff Hotson, who has owned the Bodega since 1994, said he hasn’t had any run-ins with apparitions, although employees have claimed a few strange happenings.
“They say they have, and perhaps they have, but I haven’t,” Hotson said. “Personally, I don’t believe in it.”
Hotson does believe in serving up a variety of hot and cold sandwiches, as well as other fare, with the Bodega’s signature being its roster of 400 kinds of beer.
Prices for the brews vary widely, from a buck fifty a bottle to a Canadian brand he recently sold for $380.
To ease the sticker shock, he noted, “One thing about it was it was a very large bottle — I think six liters. It was super high quality and discontinued.
Hotson said he became an aficionado of the pricey brews in the 1980s when he sampled one.
“They’re a little bit like wine,” he said. “They’re fantastic. It was a life-changing moment and one of the reasons I own this bar now.
Hometown Icon: Doerflinger Building
For much of the last century, the place to shop in La Crosse was the Doerflinger’s department store at Fourth and Main.
The familiar four-story Doerflinger building came into being a year after fire destroyed William Doerflinger’s original store in 1903. His daughter, Viola Doerflinger Fellows, and then grandson Samuel Fellows II continued the family’s long involvement in the store.
Doerflinger’s harkened back to the days before malls and big-box stores, offering a wide mix of merchandise such as furniture, casual and dress apparel, housewares, appliances. The Halfway Tea Room on the mezzanine allowed patrons to get a bite to eat. Area residents during those decades fondly remembered the store’s elaborate Christmas displays and decorations.
“I think it was the historic anchor to the downtown,” current building owner Mike Keil said.
But as with most such department stores, Doerflinger’s fell out of fashion and closed in 1984. It went through a number of tenants and owners before the city sold the building to Keil in 2004.
“I just thought it’s a wonderful building with good bones,” Keil said, “and I felt it was worth saving, worth restoring.” With retail on the first floor and office space above, the Doerflinger building now is fully occupied again, housing about 200 employees for companies such as Authenticom and Michaels Energy. Duluth Trading Co. occupies the entire first floor.
Hometown Icon: State Bank (McMillan) Building
La Crosse’s historic downtown — which runs roughly from the Mississippi River to Seventh Street and La Crosse Street to Cass Street — contains many buildings that tell stories of how the city grew from a small trading post to a bustling hub of commerce.
Many have been restored as part of the city’s downtown revitalization and others that have been saved from the wrecking ball await rehabilitation. One of the downtown gems that has experienced new life is the McMillan Building at 401 Main St. that today is home to State Bank.
Duncan McMillan was a Scottish immigrant who came with his sons Alexander and Duncan D. to La Crosse in 1854 to work in the lumber business. They quickly became prominent La Crosse citizens. Alexander was president of the Black River Logging Co., served as mayor La Crosse in 1871 and was elected to the state Legislature in 1872.
Alexander built a new office building at Fourth and Main streets in 1885-86, an impressive five-story Romanesque Revival style with a massive limestone façade. Large round arches are featured in the window and door openings. Many different businesses have occupied the building over its history, including E.R. Barron and C.E Valkenburg Dry Goods. The upper floor offices were once used by the city.
The McMillan family left its mark on the community in other ways. Duncan D. McMillan became president of State Bank of La Crosse which eventually moved into the building in 1913. His son John married Edna Cargill and the two families combined to control Cargill Inc., the multi-national corporation that was founded in La Crosse.
Like many other downtown buildings, the McMillan building was remodeled over the years and large granite panels were installed in 1957. State Bank spent nearly $2 million in the mid-1990s to restore the building.
Hometown Icon: Hixon House
The Hixon House is a historical treasure that showcases one of the finest original properties of its kind in the country. It’s also an example of the influence and affluence that the lumber barons had on our region.
In the middle to late 1800s, logs from the great forests of the north made their way down the Black River and the Mississippi River to saw mills in Onalaska and La Crosse. Large fortunes were amassed.
One of La Crosse’s lumber barons was Gideon Hixon, who in 1858 bought property at Seventh and Badger streets and began construction of a modest home, considering Hixon’s wealth. It was a two-story, rectangular, front-gabled house with minimal Italianate ornamentation. It was large enough for Hixon, his mother, sister and two brothers who often stayed at the house.
But Hixon married and he soon had three sons. He decided to add on to his house and constructed a two-story addition on the north side in 1869. Another two-story addition on the south side was added in 1881 and the kitchen wing was renovated in 1883. The interior was renovated to keep up with the styles of the times, including a Turkish nook added at the turn of the 20th century after Gideon’s widow Ellen (Hixon died in 1892) took a trip to Egypt and Turkey.
Alice Green Hixon, the second wife of Gideon’s oldest son Frank, made sure the furnishings remained in the house even after the family stopped living there. She gave it to the La Crosse County Historical Society in 1962 with the stipulation that it remain for historical purposes.
The Hixon House underwent a $1.844 million restoration in the mid-2000s. It’s open for tours through Labor Day. Also on the grounds are an 1889-era cobbler shop and a Greek-revival style workingman’s house built about 1858. Both were moved to the property.
Hometown Icon: Graff Main Hall
In the early years of the 20th century the Wisconsin Legislature authorized the location of a normal school in La Crosse and allocated $10,000 for the purchase of property.
The La Crosse Normal School was the eighth such school in the state when it opened with 176 students on Sept. 7, 1909. Main Hall as it was later called was the school’s only academic building until Wittich Hall opened in 1920. According to “Celebrate 75: A Time to Reflect” a history of UW-L, Main Hall was “a model of modern construction” that included a library, gymnasiums, auditorium offices and a Model School – all built with the purpose of training teachers.
Located on what was then the edge of the city, Main Hall was built in the Neo-Classical style shared by many other education buildings during that era. Designed by the architectural firm Van Ryn & Gelleke, the three-story red brick building is accented with cut limestone around the windows, roof and the base. The building features a central bay with a decorative arched entry and an octagonal tower.
Floyd Bartels, class of 1913, penned a short tribute to the building. “Towering high, its reddish walls; Look o’er all the land: Beckoning to the hungry mind. The home of knowledge stands.”
Main Hall was renamed Maurice O. Graff Main Hall in 1997 after a longtime professor, dean and vice chancellor at the school, which became the La Crosse State Teachers College in 1927, La Crosse State College in 1951, La Crosse State University in 1964 and the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse in 1971.
The building was designated as a historic site by the city of La Crosse in 1984 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Graff Main Hall has undergone several renovations over the years, but they have been sympathetic to the original character of the building. The auditorium was remodeled in 1979 but is again being overhauled as part of a $1.3 million project that will include new seats, a new ceiling and new lighting.
Today it houses much of the university’s administration and other programs, including the school of education, true to the school’s humble beginnings.
Hometown Icon: World's Largest Six Pack
We love our beer, a product that is synonymous with the city of La Crosse.
Nothing says beer more than what is billed as the World’s Largest Six-Pack, a landmark along south Third Street that made its debut in 1969 and was painted in 1970 to look like six giant cans of Old Style beer.
In those days the G. Heileman Brewing Co. was a regional brewer with an eye towards expansion. It was the last remaining of what were once 15 breweries in the city, which in 1884 produced more beer than any other place in Wisconsin.
Filled with fully-kraeusened beer made from pure artesian well water that some folks say flows underground all the way from Canada, the tanks were repainted several times before Heileman was purchased by Stroh Brewery Co. in 1996. Stroh went out of business in 1999 and sold most of its brands — including Old Style — to Pabst.
The brewery became the City Brewery in 1999 and the 54-foot high tanks were painted over in 2000, with the Old Style labels still faintly visible. Four of the visible tanks were wrapped in La Crosse Lager labels in 2003.
The tanks have been featured on postcards, travel sites and have been the location of many posed photos over the years, the perfect setting for “I went to La Crosse and all I got was a single six-pack.”
Some foamy fun facts: The tanks can hold 22,220 barrels of beer, which equals 688,200 gallons or 7.3 million cans, which lined up would stretch for 565 miles.
Boasting beer drinkers may like to brag about how many tanks they could finish off in their lifetime, but the math is against them.
It’s not physically possible to drink your way through a tank, much less more. One would have to drink 12 ounces of beer every hour and live to be 120 years old just to finish one tank.
Any claims to the contrary are simply lots of beer talk. Case (or make that six-pack) closed.
Hometown Icon: Hamlin Garland Home
One of Wisconsin’s best known authors was born in West Salem, and the home in the village he later bought for his parents is preserved as a reminder of his legacy.
Hamlin Garland was born Sept. 14, 1860, in a log cabin in West Salem, where he lived for about a year before his family moved to Onalaska’s Greens Coulee. West Salem annually throws a weekend celebration in September, Garland Days, to mark his birthday. Most of the activities happen at the Garland House, 357 W. Garland St., the home he bought in 1893, across from the former West Salem High School.
The West Salem Historical Society owns and maintains the Garland House, which includes furnishings and other items that belonged to the celebrated and prolific author, who won the 1922 Pulitzer Prize in Biography for “A Daughter of the Middle Border,” the sequel to his 1917 autobiography, “A Son of the Middle Border.” The Garland House museum room includes 48 of the 52 books published by Garland, who wrote novels, short stories, essays and magazine articles, many of them focusing on the hardships of pioneer life in the American Midwest.
Mary Isabel Garland, the first of two daughters born to Garland and his wife, Zulime, was born in the house in 1903, and Garland and his family spent several months a year at the house until his father’s death in 1914.
The Garland House is on the National Register of Historic Places and was designated in 1973 by the U.S. Interior Department as a National Historic Landmark.
The home is open Memorial Day through Labor Day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1 to 4 p.m. Sundays. Off-hours visits can be arranged by calling 608-786-1675.
Hometown Icon: Copeland locomotive
La Crosse was once served by five railroads. While that number is down to two, the La Crosse Shortline Railroad display at Copeland Park is a tribute to the city’s rail history.
The display began in 1963 when the Burlington Steam Locomotive was placed in the park. The coal-fired engine was built by The Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1930 for the Chicago Burlington & Quincy Railroad, one of only a dozen type S-4 locomotives built.
At nearly 40 feet in length and weighing nearly 396,000 pounds, the locomotive was streamlined in stainless steel to look like a diesel electric in 1937 and was renumbered 4000. Called Aeolus after the keeper of the winds in Greek mythology, she was used as backup on the Zephyr Line. It is said she once pulled a passenger train 112 mph between Cochrane and La Crosse. The steel shroud was removed in 1942 and the locomotive was renamed Big Alice the Goon after the heroine in the “Popeye” comic strip. The locomotive was taken out of service in 1955 and donated to the city in 1961.
Also on display is the Milwaukee Road Caboose No. 0359, built in 1883 and retired in 1961. The unique wooden caboose features a cupola and windows on all four sides.
The Grand Crossing Interlocking Tower was built in 1928 and was used at the mainline crossings near Logan High School. The tower contains levers once used to switch the rail lines. It was the last manually operated station in the state. The tower was replaced by automation in 1991 and moved to Copeland Park by The 4000 Foundation, which works to restore and maintain the Shortline display.
Hometown Icon: Oak Grove Cemetery
The historic Oak Grove Cemetery in the heart of La Crosse is known as “The Silent City” where more than 30,000 are interred, including some of the city’s some influential leaders.
The cemetery was founded in 1852 at 1407 La Crosse St. by the city’s founding fathers and today spans 80 acres, said Trish Grathen, executive director of the cemetery association.
Local attorney and civic leader Joseph Losey in the early 1880s led the cemetery’s beautification efforts after it fell into disrepair, Grathen said. It was his vision that visitors would spend time enjoying the grounds and exploring its history.
“We still encourage people to enjoy the cemetery like a park and to continue what Joseph Losey wanted,” Grathen said.
The cemetery’s entrance features a massive stone arch erected in 1901 to honor Losey. It’s now considered a local, state and national Historic Landmark.
La Crosse icons Gottlieb Heileman, Cadwallader Washburn, Gideon Hixon, James Trane and members of the Gund and Cargill families are buried on the grounds. Washburn’s monument is the ground’s tallest at 45-feet.
The site also includes a Civil War monument memorializing La Crosse area veterans and a marble and concrete mausoleum built in 1912 to hold 590 burial sites. A garden mausoleum featuring a waterfall and garden beds opened in 1999.
Visitors can take self-guided walking tours of the grounds from dawn to dusk daily.
Hometown Icon: Rudy’s Drive-in
It wouldn’t be summertime without a trip to Rudy’s Drive-in.
The iconic La Crosse restaurant offers touch of vintage charm — roller-skating carhops in poodle skirts, weekly “cruise nights” with classic cars, homemade root beer.
The restaurant has existed in some form since 1937, when original owner William Rudy bought an existing A&W root beer stand at Fourth and Vine streets.
By 1940, he had opened stands on the Causeway, at Fourth and Main and 24th and La Crosse; the progress continued with another A&W opening on South Avenue in 1947.
The current Rudy’s location, at 10th and La Crosse, opened in 1966 and is operated by William’s grandson, Gary Rudy, who grew up in the family business. Rudy worked part-time in the summer months as a child, starting in second grade when he washed glasses and scooped ice cream for root beer floats.
The third-generation owner dropped the A&W franchise name in 1979 and expanded to the east in 2009 when he his second Rudy’s Drive-in in Sparta in 2009.
The drive-in closes each winter but its re-opening every year comes after the sign tells us that the beer is brewing. And when Rudy’s opens for business, it is a true La Crosse harbinger of spring.
Hometown Icon: Railroad swing bridge
There’s little room for error threading a raft of barges three football fields long through L4-B. About 23 feet on either side, to be exact.
Spanning the main shipping channel of the Mississippi River between La Crosse and La Crescent, the Canadian Pacific swing bridge has provided an essential rail link between eastern markets and the west for more than a century.
Erected in 1902, it replaced an 1876 bridge that had been key to the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul railroad’s efforts to connect the three cities. Built with concrete and steel rather than iron and stone, it incorporated the most sophisticated designs of its time, according to a 2006 report by Hess, Roise and Co.
Construction took a year and claimed one life, 26-year-old Fred Rickleff, who was crushed under a steel beam.
The swing span pivots on a 26-foot diameter drum that sits atop 52 steel rollers, which bear its weight when open. Complicated as it sounds, the design was favored because it was less expensive than bascule lift bridges, and had fewer moving parts.
Originally powered by a steam engine, it’s now turned by electric motors fed by an underground cable and operated by Canadian Pacific crews, who staff the bridge around the clock during the river shipping season.
The railway won’t say how often it swings open, but Army Corps of Engineers records show that during the past year 1,686 commercial and passenger vessels passed through lock and dam 7 just 2.5 river miles upstream.
Providing an opening just 151 feet wide for modern barges that measure 105 feet across, the bridge has long been considered a navigation hazard.
It’s on a list of nine such bridges the U.S. Coast Guard has designated for replacement or modification, though Congress has yet to allocate funds for its replacement.
Hometown Icon: Lock and Dam 7
Lock and Dam 7 north of La Crosse is one of 29 similar structures that have shaped the mighty Mississippi River.
The facility has been open for 77 years as a Coulee Region landmark that has helped mold the Mississippi into a funnel for barge and pleasure boat traffic and help tame floodwaters.
The main lock itself is 110 feet wide by 600 feet long, and the section of dam with moving parts is 940 feet long, including five roller gates that are 20 feet high and 80 feet long, as well as 11 Tainter gates 15 feet high by 35 feet long, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Earthen embankments and concrete spillways stretch another mile and a half eastward.
The behemoth, built at a cost of $6.77 million, attracts school classes, bus tours, collegians studying river topics and a variety of other groups, lockmaster D.J. Moser said.
Last year 4,593 recreational craft locked through. The original control building, now a visitor center, is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The structure underwent major rehabilitation in 2011 and 2012.
Shipping tonnage through the lock has yo-yoed during the past 20 years, with a downward trend during the past decade. It peaked at 15.86 million tons in 1999, settling in the 9-million-ton range in recent years.
Part of the reason is a decline in the amount of corn shipped because of the commodity’s increasing use for fuel, Moser said.
Hometown Icon: La Crosse River Marsh
Before there was a La Crosse, before the river that winds east to west through the city gained the same name, there was the marsh — an expanse of water and wetland vegetation in the shadow of the bluffs, laden with life above and below the surface.
Those of European origins who settled here long looked at the La Crosse River Marsh as a barrier to the city’s growth, useful only if it could be drained or filled or paved over. Plat maps still show streets planned in the midst of the marsh. Lang Drive was built atop trash dumped into the wetlands.
Development did take its toll on the marsh, shrinking it to about half its original size. Yet time has brought a measure of pride in what once was viewed as wasted space, enough that a 1998 referendum vote soundly rejected the idea of putting a new road through it.
The La Crosse River Marsh now is touted as an asset for the city, a green jewel that helps define what makes the community unique.
It acts as a massive natural sponge, absorbing and filtering seasonal rains and providing a cistern for floodwaters. It also plays host and home to a wide array of species — 150 different kinds of birds, 54 fish, 30 invertebrates, 24 mammals, 15 reptiles, seven frogs or toads and who knows how many varieties of insects, not to mention at least 100 types of trees, grasses and other plants.
All right in the heart of La Crosse, giving those in the city nearly 1,100 acres of teeming natural space only a few steps away from where they live, work or attend school.
Hometown Icon: Pettibone Bathhouse
The lure of a sand beach and a cool river has drawn large crowds to Pettibone Beach for generations, especially in the days before air conditioning. The beach was actually part of Minnesota in 1901 when A.W. Pettibone bought the park that today carries his name and gave it the city.
In the middle of the bathers and the sand stands the distinctive Pettibone Bathhouse, an architectural treasure that opened in 1926. The bathhouse — which replaced a frame building from 1904 — was designed by La Crosse architect Otto Merman in the Spanish mission style. It was built by Theodore Molzahn Co. for about $29,000. High quality materials — such as Tennessee marble — were used in the construction.
River pollution that caused the death of a 16-year-old boy who contracted meningitis after swimming at the beach in 1931 led to the closure of the bathhouse. It remained closed for much of the decade because of low water levels and pollution caused by raw sewage being dumped into the river. Vandals broke windows and stole fixtures. The bathhouse was finally reopened in 1939 — two years after the city started treating sewage — after building repairs were completed.
In 1982, area high school students helped install bricks taken from old city streets into the former locker room area used as courtyards. Some plaster work was also done over the years, but by the turn of the century, the building had holes in the roof and was in a general state of disrepair.
In 2001, the city allocated more than a half-million dollars for a renovation, and in June 2002 the restored facility was rededicated. The late Betty Hyde is credited with being a strong advocate for the restoration.
Hometown Icon: Cass Street Bridge
Today more than 17,500 vehicles cross the Mississippi River every day traveling across the two bridges that link La Crosse to Barron Island.
But getting across the Mississippi River was no small feat when La Crosse was first settled in the 1850s. The first ferry service was called Wild Kate, a treadmill powered by two horses that began in 1853. It was replaced with a faster steam ferry called the Honeyoye in 1854 that could carry 20 teams of horses and passengers from the foot of Main Street to what is now Shore Acres. A ferry syndicate provided service until 1890 when the city’s Wagon Bridge — which spanned the river from just below what is now the La Crosse Center to Pettibone Park — opened.
The bridge was not designed for heavy auto traffic, and there was a push starting in 1935 for a replacement, which was accelerated when the west span of the Wagon Bridge collapsed in an auto accident in August 1935.
Federal funds for a new $1.5 million bridge were approved in 1936, and the High Bridge — or Main Channel Bridge — opened Sept. 23, 1939, in a colorful event attended by an estimated 15,000 people that included a parade, a fireworks display and a parade of boats .
Over the years the bridge has assumed the Cass Street Bridge moniker and has changed colors from gray to blue. It was placed under 24-hour guard during World War II. The slippery residue from a massive mayfly hatch closed the bridge for an hour in 1950, and at least seven people have been killed in traffic accidents on the bridge.
In 1983. the concrete roadway was replaced with a metal deck, in part so that the dead mayflies would fall through the grating. But the decision was wrapped in some controversy. Developer Russ Cleary complained about the noise in the 1990s when his Marriott Courtyard hotel opened just beneath the bridge.
The metal decking was replaced as part of a $5.7 million rehabilitation project in 2005 when its companion arch — the $31 million Cameron Avenue Bridge — opened. Today the Cass Street Bridge — also called Big Blue — carries two lanes of westbound traffic.
Hometown Icon: Grandad Bluff
Grandad Bluff stands 590 feet above the Mississippi River Valley and 1,183 feet above sea level.
It’s a towering icon shaped by the geologic forces of melting ice sheets and by men who later quarried dolomite rock. It also helped shape the region as the rock was used for building foundations and for paving streets.
In geologic terms, it’s actually a mesa, an elevated table with a flat top and steep cliff sides. Locals and visitors for years have stood on the vista for a panoramic view of the city below, the confluence of three rivers and a chance to see three states.
How the bluff was named is speculative. Some believe early La Crosse residents thought the profile of the bluff resembled an old man, hence granddad. Quarrying that was conducted until the 1930s and erosion resulted in a substantial facelift. Others believe it was given the patriarch’s moniker because it was the tallest bluff in the area.
The bluffs may look more like mountains to flatlanders, and for a brief period there was a movement to call the promontory Grandad Mountain. In 1928, Mayor J.J. Verchota and some council members considered calling the entire bluff range the Mississippi Valley Mountain Range to promote the bluffs as a tourist attraction. Alderman Ed Erickson suggested a large, illuminated sign could be installed on the bluff that would read “Grandad, La Crosse the Beautiful.”
The bluff passed through many private hands until 1909, when the daughter of Henry Bliss (who built the road to the top of the bluff) transferred the deed to Joseph Hixon for $12,000. Hixon in 1912 donated the bluff and land that is now Hixon Forest to the city.
Various park improvements were made over the years, including the shelter built in 1938 under the WPA program. The south overlook was closed in 2007 because of safety concerns and reopened after the park underwent a $1.4 million renovation completed in 2013.
Chris Hubbuch can be reached at 608-791-8217. Follow him on Twitter @chrishubbuch.