Point & Nokomis
Read about nearby Wausau
Far End of the Lake
Berghoff & Blues
Green Lake, WI
Green Co, WI
Are We There Yet?
Maestro – a little geology music,
please. Perhaps... something from Jurassic Park?
OK, here we go… Once upon a time,
long, long ago – about 13,000 years – in a land not so far away, the last
of the Wisconsin glaciers are retreating to the north. What they leave
behind is a sandy and acidic soil punctuated with ice blocks, rivers and
moraines. It is a hostile environment for plants and animals alike.
But as time quickly proceeds to present day – well, at least to the late 1800’s –
the climate has warmed substantially and the area of Wood County (near
Wisconsin Rapids) has become one giant bog filled with delicate but hardy
vines holding millions of tiny red berries. This is the lowly and humble
cranberry: one of only three fruits that are indigenous to North America.
By the 1870’s, they have been ‘discovered.’
Local native Wisconsinites who originally
purchased the land handpicked the tasty treats that made great
fresh fruit and preserves as well as sauces. And although at one
time the state of Massachusetts claimed the position as #1 grower and
producer of the crop, Wisconsin has now taken over that spot as the
nation’s leader in cranberry farming – producing over 300 million pounds
of berries annually from about 200 cranberry marshes in 18 Wisconsin
counties. Does that translate to prosperity for a state that is
known as the Dairy Capital? I would say
The industry provides employment for over 7,000 people and supposedly
contributes over $300 million annually to the state’s economy!
There is much to learn about the berry
that, until 1930, when Ocean Spray introduced us to its Cranberry Juice
Cocktail, was little more than an extra sauce served at
Thanksgiving. My intention was to learn as much as possible about “the
little red fruit that could” (Vaccinnium
and the result was another excursion – this time to
Wisconsin Rapids and the area roads that are now known as The Cranberry
We left the suburbs of Chicago just
before 2:00 on a Friday afternoon and headed north on Interstate 90-94.
Just north of Madison, Wisconsin we turned onto State Route 39/51 and
continued north to Route 73, where we turned west to route 13 and followed
it into the town of Wisconsin Rapids, arriving just past 5:00pm. I was
not quite sure what to expect. I had seen the signs for Rapids on every
trip north I had ever taken. But I never had a reason to actually go
there. Entering the city limits, the smoke stacks of the paper mills were
the first sight to attract my attention. Previously American-owned
Consolidated Paper, the plant was sold to a Finnish company and became Stora Enso North America in 2000.
(Note: Late in 2007, the plant was sold to NewPage Corporation,
based in Miamisburg, Ohio). We would be scheduled to take a tour of
the plant on Saturday. Unfortunately, upon entering the facility, we
would discover that a major equipment problem had shut down all of the
paper making operations and we would see very little of the process which
produces, globally, about 15 million tons of paper products and generates
sales of more than $15 Billion annually. I viewed the shut-down as
somewhat of a blessing, since the entire operation is now so automated
that it appeared that very few employees were being used and all we saw
were giant rolls of paper that were moved about by robotic handlers.
There was not very much to see today.
The paper mill ownership change seems
to have presented the city of Rapids with a dilemma. My sense is that the
city is one in transition – from a thriving metropolis mostly financed by
a successful paper mill with thousands of employees, to a city and region reeling
from the loss of hundreds (perhaps thousands?) of jobs in a time of
unprecedented economic downturn and struggling to maintain its dignity and
identity. It is a city split in two by the majestic Wisconsin River,
wondering on which side the recovery should occur. It is however, a very
pretty setting and a place that entices one to slow down and smell the
coffee. The people we met were very accommodating, down to earth and easy
to talk with. Tourism is not currently much of an industry here… but it
probably should be. I hear that walleyes are plentiful in the river and
deer abound in the area. There is plenty to see and do in the Rapids area
and we barely scratched the surface during our short visit.
Our first stop was the Mead Hotel,
where we had reservations waiting. It is a beautiful and modern venue
with all the bells and whistles, including two excellent restaurants and a
great bar (more on those later). The Mead’s own website sums it up very
well: it is “central
Wisconsin's premier lodging destination -- and the area's only
for our accommodating service, lavish amenities and attention to detail,
where guests applaud a pampered stay.”
As far as we could tell,
the Mead does not embellish upon the truth. Our room was top notch and
the whole place was as clean as a whistle from top to bottom. I can
recommend it with absolutely no hesitation.
We were hungry and thought about
trying one of the two restaurants at the hotel. But we felt like
exploring (Heidi was somewhat familiar with the area – I was not) and
found ourselves just west of town at what appeared to be a local favorite:
the Homestead Supper and Country Club. Accompanying a golf course, it was
a converted old barn, with the bar on the lower level and the restaurant
upstairs. A small but ample salad bar and tasty fish fry with American
fried potatoes (wedges spiced with BBQ seasonings) were all that I needed
after a long day and I was as happy as a Holstein at the feeding trough.
The waitress was friendly and the food was good & reasonably priced. What
more could I ask?? We drove back to the hotel, headed to our room and
were asleep before our heads hit the pillow.
On Saturday morning, Lonnie Selje –
the Executive Director for the Rapids area Convention and Visitors Bureau
– joined us for breakfast at Herschleb’s, sort of a combination diner and
drive-in. We enjoyed a simple but marvelously well-cooked breakfast and
some conversation with the owner Tom Brehmer. Tom is a 3rd
generation owner who knows more history than the local museum and takes
great pride in making the best home made ice cream anywhere. His
specialty is cranberry ice cream – would you expect it to be any other
kind?? Herschleb’s reminds me of the places I used to frequent as a kid.
Were I to live any closer to Rapids, I’d eat breakfast there every day. (On
yet another sad note and cogent comment on the times, Herschleb Ice
Cream, founded in 1939, finally closed its doors in 2006)
After breakfast, Lonnie took us for a short tour of the town and some
beautiful and well-kept homes, shared some history with us, then showed us
the way to the paper mill for our tour.
After the tour, we headed north a few
miles to visit the Wisconsin Dairy State Cheese Co. in Rudolph,
Wisconsin. Cheese making is such a cool thing to watch. And for a
not-so-country boy like myself, it never ceases to amaze me how it is
done. Of course the greatest thing is the fresh cheese curds that squeak
as you chew them. We walked out with our purchase of about 12 pounds of
fresh cheese of varying kinds… and of course a big bag of curds for
The highlight of the excursion and the
whole reason that we made the trip to begin with was to be found about a
dozen or so miles south and a bit west of Rapids, not far from Nekoosa,
home of the Giant Pumpkin Fest (which we just missed). Our destination
was Glacial Lake Cranberries, home of Cranberry Link. Owned by Phil and
Mary Brazeau-Brown, the cranberry marshes here have been in the family for
three generations – since 1873 – and some of the plants have been
producing berries for 75 years. The Brazeau name has been associated
with the property since the early 1900’s. Upon meeting either Phil
or Mary, it is easy to see that they both love what they do. They
take great pride in managing a resource that encompasses about 6,000
acres of wetlands, only 330 of which actually produce berries.
More than half of the rest is dedicated to a water reservoir system and
a forestry management plan. A tour of
the operation would be a wonderful idea and great weekend excursion.
Just make sure to set up a tour in advance with Glacial Lake or call
Lonnie at the
Visitors bureau in Rapids. Even though the harvest is typically from
and through October, there is plenty to see at other times of the growing
season as well. Phil provided us with an excellent tour and plenty
of info about everything from the geologic history of the area to the
general history of growing cranberries in the area. He also treated
us to a bird’s-eye close-up of the harvesting.
Everything from the “beater” machines
that separate the berries from the vines to the giant floating corrals
that move the berries to the elevators that carry the fruit to the waiting
trucks is fascinating. From the state that is supposed to be the dairy
capitol comes some of the best fruit that nature has to offer. Glacial
Lake also offers a short, pre-tour video to guests as well as gifts, books
and fresh cranberries for purchase after the tour. I haven’t even mentioned
the numerous health advantages provided by the cranberry… eat ‘em for
health – eat ‘em for life! We thanked Phil for his time and the valuable
information, not to mention the great pictures that we were able to get
while watching some of the actual harvest take place. We headed back to
Rapids for a well-deserved dinner… I was ravenous!
Our short weekend was almost at an
end. But the conundrum of where to have dinner still loomed. Although we
had gotten a heads-up to try the Café Mulino (in the hotel), we decided
instead to try the Grand Avenue Grill – also in the hotel. Dinner
consisted of thirst-quenching Grey Goose martinis, hearty portions of
tasty Ahi Tuna for Heidi and tender, flaky Alaskan Halibut for me.
Dinner was excellent! We finished the evening with a marvelous piece
of cranberry-apple pie with a huge scoop of vanilla ice cream… headed up
to the room and fell quickly asleep.
As we headed out of town the next
morning, we caught a glimpse of some huge birds roaming the fields. A
little research confirmed my suspicions: they were the elusive and
endangered Sand Hill cranes. It was an unexpected and awesome
sight! My mind drifted back to the cranberry harvest; I
smiled at the thought of the little berry sitting there undiscovered and
lonely for so many thousands of years, and now enjoying its rightful and
well-earned fame, fortune and place in the spotlight. It is no longer
just an accompaniment at the Thanksgiving table.
Special thanks this trip are
definitely in order for the Hotel Mead, Herschleb’s, the Dairy, Glacial
Lake & the
Brazeau-Browns, the State of Wisconsin for another great excursion and
especially to the Vaccinnium macroparpon: the little red fruit that