Appleton is the town that Harry Houdini left and where Joe McCarthy remains. Its award-winning local candy factory is in a mall complex, some of the sites on the Houdini walking tour are used-to-be-heres, and the locals eat breakfast at a strip-mall deli that serves butter and jam in little packets. But the town does still have flowering trees, Queen Anne-style homes (and some stick style and Italianate), and a hand-operated lock system on the Fox River, which offers vistas worth photographing. Several museums opened here in the 1980s, so there’s more to be seen here than there used to be. It’s located in one of the largest paper-making regions in the world, the Fox Cities. And the bathrooms are lovely (women’s only; I can’t vouch for the men’s). The town’s named, by the way, for Samuel Appleton, father-in-law of Amos Lawrence, the Bostonian who founded Lawrence University in 1847.
To get to Appleton, take the very slow and cantankerous Interstate 94 to Milwaukee, and at Milwaukee take the 894 bypass north to U.S. 41. Exit at Appleton’s College Avenue going east and immediately it will become clear that Appleton isn’t a place that time forgot but rather one the franchises found. But take heart: past the Hardee’s and Payless Shoes and Marc’s Coffee Mill is a semirestored downtown with pedestrian-scale buildings–a mix of Genuine Old Fashioned and Modern Bore–housing small stores and restaurants. A bit past downtown is Lawrence University (115 S. Drew), a good place to stop and stretch your legs. By the time you get there you’ll be admiring the comfy-looking old houses and appreciating the civility of your fellow drivers.
Park your car on College and explore the arresting postmodern Wriston Art Center (613 E. College Ave., 414-832-6621), the home of the school’s art and art history departments and three galleries. Built in 1989, it’s an orange and brown checkerboard celebration of horizontality, with bright blue window trim and a yellow metal outdoor sculpture. The inside is actually lovely, glassy, and sunlit: you can look down into a recessed amphitheater. And the bathroom was spotless and postmodern, with yellow triangles supporting the sinks and handsome, oversize hardware on the stall doors. Summer hours are Tuesday through Friday 10 to 4, Saturday noon to 4; it’s closed Sunday and Monday.
The campus was languid and prelapsarian when we were there, probably because the semester was winding down and we were beginning to mellow out from the ride. Then we noticed the reward sign posted on a nearby bus shelter: $500 for information on the perpetrator of an early-morning robbery and sexual assault at a convenience store.
Well, at least someplace people still notice these things.
Across the street and west of Lawrence is a grander turreted building, the castlelike Outagamie Museum (330 E. College Ave., 414-735-9370), built in 1923 as a Masonic temple and renovated in the late 1980s. It is “in the eclectic Norman English-medieval style,” according to the four authors of Visiting the Midwest’s Historic Preservation Sites. The museum houses exhibits on regional tools and workers, an 1890s mail-delivery sled, a reproduction of a 1940s doctor’s office, and a working replication of a 19th-century paper shop. (Call for dates of hands-on papermaking demonstrations this summer.) But the main reason I went was the Houdini Historical Center on the second floor.
Houdini was either born in Budapest and moved to Appleton as an infant or else he was born in Appleton; the display presents variations on the biography, which is what you have to do with such a larger-than-life self-promoter. Included are Houdini’s handcuffs, straitjackets, lock picks, and other props and souvenirs. A TV monitor shows clips from his life, the feature films he produced and starred in, and his funeral in 1926.
Be sure to save time for the gift shop downstairs; I recommend at least 30 minutes, though you can take a catalog with you to order, for example, one of five different styles of Houdini T-shirts or a cassette tape of Houdini’s short stories. This is the place to buy gifts: marked deck of cards ($2.95), handcuffs ($6), lock-and-key earrings ($11.25), and posters, postcards, magic kits, mugs, videotapes, and magic and historical books. Try the “wate and fate” machine, where for a penny you get a semblance of your weight and a fortune. (“Gossip is your big weakness,” it told me; my weight was equally off base.) If you want more information on Houdini’s life in Appleton, you can buy two booklets, The Young Harry Houdini in Appleton ($2.25) and Presenting Houdini in Appleton ($2.50) and pick up a free Houdini walking tour pamphlet on your way out.
The Outagamie Museum is open Monday through Friday 9 to 5, Saturday 10 to 5, and Sunday noon to 5. Admission is $3 for adults, $1.50 for children under 18.
If you’re still in a historical mood, walk on down to Conkey’s Bookstore (226 E. College Ave., 414-735-6223 or 800-279-4623) for general books and books on regional history (open Monday through Friday 9 to 9, Saturday 9 to 5). You can also get antique keys for $1.50 each, which weren’t necessarily used by Houdini but could have been, we were told.
You can drape yourself in the (recent) past at Glad Rags (308 W. College Ave., 414-738-0032, open Monday through Friday 10 to 9 and Saturday 10 to 6), a vintage and contemporary used clothing shop that’s generally pricier than Chicago thrift stores but more spacious and much easier to maneuver in. And the clothes are in better shape. The selection isn’t provincial: men’s and women’s clothes and accessories come from more than 100 consigners, one in Hawaii, owner Denise Jordan told us as she stood ironing a dress in the middle of the store. My traveling companion bought her son a bright red tie decorated with pictures of junk food for $8. For the same price, I bought a short sailor-style jacket.
If you’re in the mood for another museum, check out the Fox Cities Children’s Museum (10 College Ave., 414-734-3226), known for its interactive exhibits, including a fire engine, a flight simulator, and a giant model of a human heart. Children can also dress up in old-fashioned clothes. It’s open Monday through Thursday and Saturday 10 to 5, Friday 10 to 8, and Sunday noon to 5. Admission is $3, free for children under one.
The self-guided Houdini walking tour starts at his alleged birthplace, marked by a plaque. Just west of it is the brick Houdini Plaza, dedicated in 1985 and home of the sculpture Metamorphosis, named for his signature trick in which he escaped from a locked trunk. The metal sculpture is on a tiered platform and consists of four sides of a cube, a chain, and a broken padlock. I found it disappointing–as if it couldn’t decide whether to be representational or symbolic, and instead took a middle course that wouldn’t confuse anybody. At lunch downtown workers eat in the sculpture’s shadow, not necessarily talking about Houdini.
Most of the sites are downtown, though you have to walk a ways to relive “Houdini’s Encounter With Death in the Fox River” (“where a near-drowning incident inspired his deep-seated need to escape”). Also on the tour is Temple Zion, a yellow wooden Gothic building at 320 N. Durkee St. that now houses the History Workshop of the county historical society and is not open to the public. Houdini’s father was the temple’s spiritual leader before the congregation moved into this building, when it still gathered over what was then the Heckert Saloon, 117 E. College Ave., and is now Mar-Gee’s Boutique and Bridal Salon.
But this is where writer Edna Ferber (1887-1968) worshiped. A block east at 319 N. Drew St. is Ferber’s first Appleton home; she arrived with her family in 1897. North and west a block is 216 E. North St., where she wrote Dawn O’Hara in 1909. Ferber and Houdini’s paths crossed in 1904 when he returned to town and she, the first female reporter for the Appleton Daily Crescent, interviewed him. A little more than a block down, at the corner of Drew and North, is an attractive Richardsonian Romanesque-ish gray and red brick house with a balcony and dormer windows, a nice break from all the Queen Annes. The house was built in the 1880s and nobody famous ever lived there, as far as I know. You can check it out as you’re resting and recapping in lush City Park, which is just across the street.
If you want to actually go inside a wonderful, homey old millionaire’s house, head on down to the Hearthstone Historic House Museum (625 W. Prospect Ave., 414-730-8204), which has gorgeous parquet floors, carved Eastlake furniture, and Minton fireplace tiles decorated with scenes from literature. The 45-minute tour will give you an overview of the Rogers family: Henry, his wife Cremora, and his daughter Kitty. Rogers was a business promoter and investor in canals, a gaslight company, paper plants, and an electric company. The house is billed as “the world’s first home lighted by a central hydroelectric station”; the lighting took place in 1882 as a small crowd outside watched. Downstairs is a new hands-on exhibit on hydroelectricity. Best is a display where if you turn a crank hard enough you can generate rain, which turns a waterwheel that lights a miniature city and moves a small trolley car overhead. The Hearthstone is open Tuesday through Friday 10 to 4 and Sunday 1 to 4, Memorial Day through Labor Day, and on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays the rest of the year. Admission is $3 for adults and $1.50 for children under 18.
Another historic house, just north of Appleton in Kaukauna, is the Charles A. Grignon Mansion (1313 Augustine St., 414-766-3122), built by a fur trader in the late 1830s. On August 20 and 21 it’s the site of a Civil War encampment. It’s open 10 to 5 Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 Sunday during June, July, and August and year-round by appointment. Admission is $3 for adults and $1.50 for children under 18. (If you’re interested in preservation, stop at the Outagamie Museum first for an exhibit on how the Grignon Mansion was restored; the exhibits stays up through September 26.)
If you find yourself hankering for another museum, drive on over to the Amelia Bubolz Doll Collection (414-739-3161, ext. 229) on the lower level of the Secura Insurance Company building at 2401 S. Memorial Drive. Just walk in and ask the receptionist for directions. You may have to turn the lights on yourself. The thousand or so dolls on display include Eskimo, Native American (Menominee, Seminole, Shoshone, Oneida, Navaho), antique china, Cabbage Patch, stone bisque, Mickey Mouse, John Wayne, Fanny Brice, Midge, corn husk, Bavarian farmer, 1860s Frozen Charlotte, penny, and Norwegian troll. There are also nearly 40 bears, from Yogi to Smokey to a Ms. Bearman of the Board in pinstripes. Admission is free. The museum is open 8 to 3:30 Monday through Thursday and 8 to 12:30 Friday.
For a glimpse at a larger-than-life likeness of a near native son and famous red-baiter, drive over to the Outagamie County Courthouse, at 320 S. Walnut. Between two murals in the front of the building is the bronze bust of Joseph R. McCarthy, on a pedestal that gives his name and years of service as senator (1947-1957) and circuit court judge (1939-1946).
McCarthy was born eight miles north of Appleton in 1908 and buried in 1957 in Saint Mary’s Church cemetery, on a bluff overlooking the Fox River. The bust has been controversial; in 1987 a county board member lost a fight to move it to the local historical society.
Each year the Joseph McCarthy Education Foundation in Milwaukee sponsors a graveside ceremony in early May on the anniversary of McCarthy’s death. Though it’s not sponsored by the John Birch Society (414-749-3780), the society, which has its national HQ in Appleton, can supply the exact information. (The Birchers relocated to Appleton from the coasts in 1989 to save money; it’s just a “happy coincidence” that Birch CEO was G. Allen Bubolz of Appleton, says director of research Tom Eddlem.) Tours of the national headquarters are available if you call ahead.
A local hangout near the doll museum is the Old World Deli (236 W. Calumet St., 414-730-0092), in a tiny strip mall between a martial arts academy and a home-health-care business. We got there around 9 for a rather greasy but cheerfully delivered breakfast, late for the locals but too early, it seemed to us, to partake of a slice of the deli’s cheesecakes or pies or frozen cheesecake bars. The cheesecake comes in 84 varieties, including a dozen kinds of chocolate as well as root beer, pink squirrel, and mincemeat. Whole cheesecakes cost $18 and require a day’s notice; they’re $2 cheaper if you choose one of several flavors of the month. You can also get breakfast anytime (omelet combinations include corned beef and Swiss cheese, $3.25; turkey, bacon, tomato, and American cheese, $3.25; and alfalfa sprouts, olives, carrots, onion, green pepper, and tomato, $2.99). The deli opens at 6 AM Monday through Saturday and 7 AM Sundays.
For lunch or dinner downtown there’s the Gibson Grill (211 W. College Ave., 414-954-1001), a local and national historic landmark in an attractive deco building that used to be the Gibson Garage. The food wasn’t great: the free bread was the size and shape of a hot dog bun, and our lunches–a Caesar and a spinach salad–were bare minimums. We didn’t try the array of burgers (eight ounces, in various flavors, including Cajun, for about $5.) The iced tea was inferior to that at the student grill at Lawrence, observed my traveling companion. However, the deco bathroom surpassed even our Appleton Bathroom Standards. There are also nightly specials and scheduled appearances by the local Geriatric Jazz Group, which has members of all ages.
Locals recommended Frank’s Pizza Place (815 W. College Ave., 414-734-9131), Victoria’s Italian Cuisine (503 W. College Ave., 414-730-9595), and Karras’ (207 N. Appleton St., 414-739-1122) for Greek food and music (they also serve breakfast). And if you need a bagel fix try the Bagel Mill (532 W. College Ave., 414-739-9090). You can also get them at Vande Walle’s Candies (see below) and the Old World Deli.
For a hands-on meal try Mongo’s Mongolian Barbecue (231 W. Franklin St., 414-730-8304), the only Mongolian barbecue in town, where you have no one to blame but yourself if there are too many onions in your stir-fry. For $10.95 you get unlimited trips to the buffet, where you can follow the posted recipes or invent your own combination of thinly sliced chicken, beef, lamb, or pork; an array of accoutrements from cabbage to pineapple; and sauces from garlic water to peanut. Then watch the whole thing get quickly sauteed on a huge grill and add crispy noodles and, if you dare, very hot red sauce. The meal comes with white rice and warm pita bread. It’s open for dinner 5 to 9:30 Monday through Thursday and 5 to 10 Friday and Saturday and for lunch Fridays only, from 11 to 2. Seafood is available on Tuesday and Thursday.
Upstairs is Appleton’s first Thai restaurant, a place that proves Chicago doesn’t have the market on silly restaurant names: Thai Me Up (414-730-9530). Thai Me Up is open Tuesday and Thursday 5 to 9:30, Wednesday and Saturday 5 to 9, and Friday 5 to 10.
If you want something less labor-intensive, try the more upscale Cali (short for California) around the corner in a former shoe store. When we stopped to read the posted menu of the day, we noted a sauteed calamari appetizer for $6.95, fresh grilled swordfish for $17.95, and vegetarian pasta with goat cheese for $10.95. Live Maine lobsters are available with three days’ notice. Cali (201 N. Appleton, 414-830-0700) also serves alcohol and Starbucks coffee; it’s open for lunch 11 to 2 Tuesday through Friday and for dinner 5 to 9:30 Tuesday through Thursday and 5 to 10 Friday and Saturday.
For dessert drive out to 400 Mall Drive for Vande Walle’s Candies (414-738-7799). From 8 AM to 4 PM you can watch candy being made and munch on free samples. They have about 100 kinds of candies, from caramels to chocolates to sugar-free peanut brittle. You can also get baklava, preservative-free ice cream, a dozen flavors of taffy, and–the most popular item–angel food candy coated in milk or dark chocolate. Open Monday through Thursday 8 AM to 9 PM, Friday 8 AM ro 10 PM, Saturday 8 AM to 6 PM, and Sunday 10 AM to 6 PM.
To watch beer in the making, stop in for a tour of the Appleton Brewing Company (414-735-0507) open Monday through Saturday 11 to 7) in Between the Locks Mall, a handsome restored 130-year-old brick brewery building at 1004 S. Olde Oneida St. You can sample the local brew at Dos Bandidos Mexican restaurant on the lower level of the building or Coyote Crossing (414-735-0500) on the third floor; the latter serves taco pizza, cheese curds, and other exotica. Both places also serve microbrewery beer from around the world, but why bother when you can have a pint glass of Appleton Brewing’s Adler Brau light lager, pale ale, pilsner, amber, porter, or oatmeal stout for $2? Other varieties are available in season; our bartender gladly gave us samples of the cherry lager, one of the May specialties. Nondrinkers can get Adler Brau root beer or O’Doul’s nonalcoholic beer, both on tap. Take-home quarts of Adler Brau are $4.50.
If beer makes you think of baseball, don’t despair. The Appleton Foxes, a Class A farm team of the Seattle Mariners, play at Goodland Field, 1500 W. Spencer St., though plans are shaping up for a new stadium. Former Foxes include Bucky Dent and Bobby Thigpen. For information call 414-733-4152.
If you must see cheese, there’s Simon’s Specialty Cheese Retail Store and Factory (414-788-6311), one block north of Highway 41 and County Road N in Little Chute. Simon’s was listed in the 1988 Guinness Book of World Records for making the world’s largest cheese–a 40,000-pound cheddar. You can watch cheese being made, sample different varieties, and buy cheese, bread, sausage, pizza, and the all-important item of Wisconsin haberdashery, the cheesehead hat. Simon’s is open Monday through Friday 8 to 6, Saturday 8 to 5.
Appleton has accommodations aplenty, from budget to businessperson-type. I meant to stay at the Queen Anne Bed and Breakfast (837 E. College Ave., 414-739-7966) but wound up elsewhere (gossip isn’t my greatest weakness; indecision is). Rates range from $60 to $85 and include breakfast in the smoke-free 1890s air-conditioned home.
Elsewhere was the Paper Valley Hotel & Conference Center downtown (333 W. College Ave., 414-733-8000). The lobby is Generic Convention Hotel, but the room was pleasingly appointed, as if a real person had chosen the decorations: bright blue walls, quilted bedspreads, and bleached pine furniture. We had a lovely view of our car in the parking garage across the street. We paid $68.80 before taxes for a room for two.
On the way out of town, take 41 south to 114 and go east to the Bergstrom-Mahler Museum, 165 N. Park Ave. in Neenah (414-751-4658), home of antique Germanic glass and more than 1,900 paperweights. It’s open 10 to 4:30 Tuesday through Friday, 1 to 4:30 Saturday and Sunday. Admission is free.
For brochures and maps, call the Wisconsin tourism bureau in Chicago at 332-7274. You can also call the Fox Cities Convention and Visitors Bureau at 414-734-3358; on evenings and weekends that number plays recorded event information.