Rochester, Minnesota  5/12 – 5/19

Rochester, Minnesota:  Population =  112,225 (metropolitan area= 213,873), elevation = 1030 feet, Average January low temp = 8º, Average July high temp = 84º, average rainfall = 33.08”, average snowfall = 53”

The journey from Wisconsin Dells to Rochester passes through the river bluffs near La Crosse, an area of woody, rocky beauty.  We enjoy the sculpted terrain as we roll along the Mighty Mississippi.  Too soon, we are back in the heartland where the farmers are preparing to plant the corn and soybeans that will blanket this largely flat landscape.

The Hadley Valley Schoolhouse was built in 1885
William Dee’s log cabin was built in Rochester in 1862

From its humble beginnings as a stagecoach stop between St. Paul and Dubuque, Rochester could have developed into just one of many similar small towns in Minnesota.  But then there was this doctor, William W. Mayo, who started here as the examining surgeon for draftees into the Civil War.  After the war, he built a successful private practice in Rochester.  In 1883 much of the city was demolished in a tornado and there was no facility to treat the wounded.  Together with his two sons, William and Charles, Mayo and the Sisters of St. Francis raised the money to build a new hospital: St. Marys.

William W. Mayo and Mother Alfred Moes
William W. Mayo with his two sons, William and Charles

The Mayos enlisted the best doctors they could find for the hospital and formed an integrated private group practice.  In 1919 they formed the Mayo Properties Association and become a non-profit.  As the practice grew, more buildings were added.  Downtown Rochester is now full of hospitals, clinics, research centers, and medical education buildings.  The Plummer building is one of the early buildings and it is beautifully decorated with art deco trim and carvings.

The grand entrance to the Plummer Building
Lobby of the Plummer Building

The renowned medical center draws people from all over the world.  Walking the streets, we hear foreign languages, see foreign clothing.  There seems to be a lot of ethnic restaurants around for such a small town.  But still, this is Minnesota, so there are some great Minnesotan breweries too.

We did not have much luck with the weather while we were in Rochester.  It was a grey, rainy week.  One afternoon downtown, a storm front with 60 MPH winds came through with a downpour, and watching it whip through the buildings was like seeing a horizontal waterfall.  On the dry days we were able to do a little sightseeing, get lost in a park, and visit lots of restaurants.

Looking toward the city from Silver Lake Park
Somewhere in the wilds of Quarry Hill Park. There are trails, but the signs hid from us.
It’s a Minnesota thing. I guess…
The most “Minnesota” poutine we have ever seen features slabs of meatloaf with lots of gravy
Dr. Plummer’s house is open for tours. But not on the day we were there.

Rochester is a nice city to visit, if you are in the area.  And you don’t even have to be sick.

Next up: Plymouth, Minnesota

Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin 5/5 – 5/12

Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin:  Population =  2,678 (Lake Delton population = 2,914), elevation = 909 feet, Average January low temp = 7.2º, Average July high temp = 84.4º, annual precipitation = 33.56”, annual snowfall = 41.2”

The Wisconsin Dells is a strange world.  It is a combination of natural and un-natural entertainments.   It lives in two towns and four counties.  Driving through it, the town looks a lot bigger than what the population would support.  That is because so many things are inflated to larger than life sized.

The world’s largest Trojan Horse

Driving Highway 23 (Broadway) East-West takes you through downtown Wisconsin Dells.  The downtown is fairly compact, with a mix of solid old brick storefronts and garish new buildings.  This being a tourist Mecca, there is a high proportion of good restaurants and bars, as well as ticket sellers, fudge dealers, souvenir hawkers, and a few outlandish amusement parks.

Driving Highway 12 (Wisconsin Dells Parkway) North-South takes you from Wisconsin Dells to Lake Delton.  I am guessing that Lake Delton has homes someplace, maybe out by the Outlet Mall.  Along the Parkway, things are seriously Un-natural.  This is where the huge amusement and water parks have sprouted, interspersed with hotels, small, large, and huge.

To get a true appreciation of how massive this tourist entertainment district is, I guess you would have to visit during the high season in summer.  During our visit in mid-May, the parks are just gearing up for the coming season.  The waterslides are dry, the roller coasters still, the parking lots empty.  The biggest show in town is the Rick Wilcox Magic Theater, but that is sold out for the rest of the month.  Of course we visit the local breweries and find some great beers.

An excellent Belgian Trippel
Very nice Irish Red

Kind of hidden in the Downtown area, there is the entrance to the Riverwalk.  From this vantage, you can see the rushing Wisconsin River, nestled between high carved sandstone bluffs, blanketed with forests.  During the high season, the river is the playground of jet boats, amphibious “duck” vehicles, and a myriad of small boats.  In May, the river is mostly quiet and our tour boat putts along, often accompanied only by the occasional duck or goose.

The sandstone is so porous, the trees grow right through it
This is a “braided” river. It splits into smaller streams that flow between islands.
Water, wind, and time create striking rock formations
A boardwalk takes us into the Witches Gorge

 

Standing Rock. The gap is only about 5 feet but the dog they have trained to jump it was not liking it very much.

From my vantage point as an off-season visitor, Wisconsin Dells looks like a huge machine, dedicated to removing money from tourists.  Judging from the thousands of hotel rooms available, I would guess that the machine is very effective.  On the other hand, the river valley is beautiful and, at this time of year, serene and lovely as seen from a slow boat.

Next up: Rochester, Minnesota

Ottawa, Illinois 4/28 – 5/5

Ottawa, Illinois:  Population =  18,562, elevation = 482 feet, Average January low temp = 17.0º, Average July high temp = 85.6º, annual precipitation = 36.49”, annual snowfall = 24.6” (weather readings are from Peoria, which lies 73 miles to the Southwest.)

We probably turned North too soon.  Back in Memphis, when we woke to find snow on the ground, we should have turned tail and headed back to Texas.  Instead, we continued on Northward into Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois.  Fine and beautiful states all, but this year Spring came to them cold and rainy and windy, with lots of storms to liven things up.  Our week in Ottawa started with a weekend rain total of over 5 inches.  The little home we rented had a sump pump that kept gallantly bailing the entire week we were there.

A playground on the banks(?) of the Illinois River
Looks like a “farmer’s holiday” until this field dries out.

Ottawa is an interesting little town.  It is kind of touristy in that it is flanked by some beautiful parks and rivers and is close enough to Chicago to make it a prime weekend getaway.  There seems to be a lot more nice restaurants than there would normally be in a town of this size.  The downtown is built of stolid, stately old brick buildings from the mid 1800s.

There are murals scattered throughout the downtown.  One depicts the first Lincoln-Douglas debates, held here in 1858, where Stephen Douglas accused Lincoln of being an Abolitionist.  Another shows the Union Army marching off to war.  Still another is a folky bit of nostalgia for the 50s.

So what’s to do in a small town when it is pouring rain and the parks are flooded?  We did some shopping, took in a movie (“The Circle” was disappointing), tried some restaurants, and sampled the local wines and beers.  It may seem like we spend a lot of our time drinking, and maybe so, but we are also socializing.  The proprietors of wineries and breweries are generally nice people, fun to talk to, and full of local knowledge about what to see, do, and eat in the neighborhood.  Many thanks to the good people at Clarks Run Creek for their hospitality and their tip about what is probably some of the best fried chicken in the country.

Rip’s menu: light or dark, quarter or half. Served on fine paper with a side of pickles and some breading crunchys.

The skies finally cleared up for a day so we could go out and explore the park.  Starved Rock park is a huge attraction in this area.  The park is located on top of a tall rocky bluff, cut by deep canyons and rushing waterfalls.  Scenic hiking trails wind throughout the park.  There are cabins to stay in, a big resort with restaurants, campsites, horses, and boats and fishing, as well as the whole gamut of winter sports in their season.  There are also chainsaw carvings all over the grounds.  We were delighted to find the twin brother to the carving of Chief Paduke we saw in Paducah, Kentucky.

From the bridge, you can see some of the limestone canyon below
The Lodge was a CCC project, back in the 1930s
Memorial carving of Chief Walks with the Wind

Ottawa was a nice place to visit, even with the soggy week we had.  Spring is the slow season so it was pretty easy to get around, get a table, find a parking spot.  From all reports, summertime is a lot more crowded with tourists.  Make your reservations early.

Next up: Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin

Springfield, Illinois  4/21 – 4/28

Springfield, Illinois:  Population =  117,006 (metropolitan area= 211,700), elevation = 558 feet, Average January low temp = 18.7º, Average July high temp = 86.2º, annual precipitation = 37.43”, annual snowfall = 20.9”

As state capitol buffs, Springfield, Illinois is practically a required stop.  There are two capitols here, the newer, working one, and the old historic one.  Due to the VERY limited periods of time when state lawmakers are actually in session, we have been able to see a great many state capitols that were almost deserted.  We happened by the new Illinois capitol during a March For Women outside, and a big lobbying effort by Realtors on the inside.  Though it is a beautiful building, we had to squeeze our way through crowds and sneak into the Senate gallery.

At the State Capitol in Springfield, it is a march for Women’s Rights
The dome atop the Capitol is framed by wrought iron and statuary
The State Senate Chamber (in session)

 

Protesters and lobbyists vie for attention

The old State Capitol is a much smaller building and even, in its own way, kind of homey.  The rooms are more human sized, the desks plainer, the decor simpler.  There are pot-bellied stoves that supplied the heat during the long winters.  If you look closely at the House of Representatives photo, there is a stove pipe hat on the left end of front desk, next to the candle.  That is where Abraham Lincoln sat when he was a State Rep.

The Historic old State Capitol
The old Senate chamber
The old House of Representatives chamber

And speaking of Lincoln, this is the capitol of the Land of Lincoln.  Our first Lincoln stop was the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum.  The displays show Lincoln growing up, moving into Springfield to practice law, getting married, getting elected to the State House and then the White House.  Many of the artifacts on display were his own personal possessions.  The films about the Civil War do a great job of explaining the ebb and flow of the politics and battles.

A recreation of the legendary log cabin where Abe grew up
Lincoln’s war time cabinet discussing strategy
A life mask of Lincoln, just months before the assassination
One of Mary Todd Lincoln’s formal gowns

Our next Lincoln stop was just across the street, in the old Union Station.  Inside there is a display from the movie “Lincoln”.  The have costumes and sets from the movie, as well as scenes from the movie playing on monitors.

Items worn by Sally Field in “Lincoln”
Costume worn by Daniel Day-Lewis in “Lincoln”

Just a couple of blocks away is Mr. Lincoln’s Neighborhood.  The house he and Mary and the kids lived in is still there, as well as many other beautifully maintained houses of the era.  After his assassination, his household goods were packed up and shipped back here.  Mary did not  return.  Caretakers have watched over the house since.  The furnishings, carpets, and wallpaper are mostly what was there when the Lincolns lived in the house, with the exception of a few repaired and refurbished pieces.

Guests in the Lincoln home would be seated in the parlor
The living room was more for family
The chair with removable lid is Mary Todd Lincoln’s actual commode.
Mary learned to cook on this iron stove

Finally, we visited the Lincoln Monument.  Abraham, Mary, and the 3 youngest of the four children lie entombed here.  Nobel statues of Lincoln line the hallways of the Monument.  A massive tombstone marks the President’s final resting place.

The Monument to President Lincoln

There are a lot of other great things to see in Springfield too.  We listened to a concert at the Thomas Rees Memorial Carillon, one of the largest and finest carillons in the world.  We witnessed the spring flowers bursting forth at the Botanical Garden.  We sampled fine beers in the breweries.

The carillon is 132 feet tall and contains 67 bells that the operator plays, much like an organ
Spring!
A very nice APA

Springfield is a great city to visit.  Besides all the Lincoln stuff, there is a lot going on for a town of this size.  Big enough to have everything, small enough to not be crowded.

Next up:  Ottawa, IL

Indianapolis, Indiana 4/14 – 4/21

Indianapolis, Indiana:  Population =  853,173 (metropolitan area= 2,336,237), elevation = 715 feet, Average January low temp = 20.5º (4.7 days below 0º), Average July high temp = 85º (18 days over 90º), annual snowfall = 25.9”, annual rainfall = 42.4”

From the rolling hills of Kentucky, to the flat plains of Indiana, we keep tending North for the summer.  Indianapolis is a very large, sprawling city, surrounded by a ring of freeways.  Our next rental is just off the freeway on the Northeast corner of the loop: Castleton.  The distinguishing thing about Castleton seems to be the malls.  The Castleton Mall is a huge enclosed mall, surrounded by strip malls.  You can travel for miles on 86th street and never run out of malls.  Every American franchise is probably represented here.  All the restaurants too.  Good food! You have seen lots of malls so you don’t need photos.

Leaving the Bourbon Trail behind, we find ourselves back on the Craft Beer Trail.  That trail runs most everyplace these days, and Indy is well represented.  There are a great many well stocked breweries and taprooms all around the city.  IPAs are very popular, but there is a great selection of fine Belgians that we enjoyed too.

Whenever we enter a new state, we ask around to find out what the local favorite foods are.  Lobster rolls in Maine, po’boys in Louisiana, hot browns in Kentucky, BBQ in Tennessee.  In Indy it is pork tenderloin sandwiches and sugar cream pie.  We tried one of the reputedly best pork tenderloins in town at Squealers and it was awesome.  The tenderloin was the size of a hubcap, juicy, tender, and flavorful.  The regular sized bun it was served on was comic in comparison.  For the sugar cream pie, we went to kind of a handcraft-y sort of place: Locally Grown Gardens.  Yes, creamy and sugary, with a hint of cinnamon, on a great crust.  Nice!

Giant pork tenderloin with all the fixings and chips.
Sugar cream pie

The most famous site in Indianapolis has to be the Motor Speedway.  This is the 2 1/2 mile long oval that hosts the Indy 500 race.  We visited the museum and were awed by the collection of racers.  They have the first 500 winner, the Marmon Wasp, which won in 1911.  They have racers of every style since then, including some very rare exotics.  From the Museum, you can only see a little of the track.  We were a little disappointed until we realized that that is because the track is so huge.  To see it all, you would need a helicopter.

The Marmon Wasp blistered the track with an average speed of 74.6 mph
The main grandstand is just visible over buildings in the infield. The museum lies within the oval. To get to it, you drive through a tunnel under the track.

Indianapolis is the capitol city of Indiana.  The Capitol building is classic and beautifully decorated.  The dome and the hallways are elegantly decorated in simple classic patterns with tastefully applied colors.  The House and Senate were in session when we visited, but we did manage a peek into the chambers and they appeared to be utilitarian and business-like.

The dome over the rotunda
Hallway to the Senate chambers

Our 23rd president of the USA was Benjamin Harrison.  His Indy home has been nicely preserved and hold many of his actual possessions.  When his term was over, everything was boxed up and delivered here, where it has been carefully stored and maintained.

The home of Benjamin Harrison.
The parlor contains Harrison’s actual possessions
The bed where the president died in his sleep

Probably our biggest surprise in Indy was the Scottish Rite Cathedral.  This is an amazing building built by and for Masons.  I expected the usual cathedral setup: nave, transept, apse, and so on.  This enormous castle of a building has ballrooms, lounges, a cafeteria, and a huge auditorium.  The carved woodwork and marble are beautiful, but it is the glass that really stands out.  Much of the glass here is German art glass.  To make these windows, colored glass is finely ground and painted onto clear glass.  The whole piece is then baked so the glass and colors fuse.  Look closely and you can see the brush strokes, feel the textures.  The rest of the glass is “ordinary” stained glass, but it is also wonderfully realized.

The main entry into the building is dazzling with its cast concrete ceiling decor, its elaborate marble flooring, and the crystal chandelier
Looking up from the floor of the auditorium

The Indianapolis area is a huge metropolitan area.  We spent most of our time out in the suburbs, taking care of tasks that build up while on the road.  Our forays into the city were relatively painless, even considering construction, haphazard one-way streets, and massive numbers of aggressive commuters.  Whatever you are looking for in a big city, they have it.

Next up: Springfield, IL

Bardstown, Kentucky 4/7/17 – 4/14/17

Bardstown, Kentucky:  Population =  11,700, elevation = 646 feet, Climate = same as Louisville, KY, just 41 miles away

Following the Bourbon Trail through Kentucky, we decided we needed to make the pilgrimage to Bardstown.  This is the “Bourbon Capital Of The World”.  There are three distilleries in town and many more nearby.  Many of the local businesses have “Bourbon” in their name.  And it is a pretty nice little town.

Historic City Hall / Visitor’s Center

We started our tour on Heaven Hill.  This is a huge campus where they make several brands of bourbon.  It was not exactly a distillery tour.  Their distilling plants are huge buildings where the public does not usually visit.  We sat with a “Bourbon Professor” who told us about mash bills and oak aging and the history of distilling in Kentucky.  There is a legal definition of bourbon that has to be followed exactly, otherwise it is just whiskey.  He also demonstrated proper bourbon chewing technique and lead us through a fine array of tasty bourbons.

Next on our trail was the 1792 Barton Distillery.  This is a small batch (comparatively) company that only makes a few brands.  This time we did do the walking tour.  We saw the gigantic distilling towers, tucked tightly into a plumber’s nightmare of piping.  We got a peek into a giant rickhouse, where 19,600 barrels of whiskey sleep, waiting for its bottling day.  And, of course, we got to taste the results.

An industrial sized distilling column
Inside the rickhouse it is cool and dim as flavors slowly build. You can smell the “angel’s portion” as it evaporates from the barrels
It takes about three sips to properly taste bourbon. Add a drop or two of water to cool the burn and bring out more flavors.

Given a lovely spring day, we went for a drive though the rolling Kentucky countryside, on the Bluegrass Parkway.  The highway cuts through cliffs, both dark with coal and light with limestone.  It is the limestone filtering the groundwater that makes it iron-free and perfect for whiskey making.  Our stops include the distilleries for Four Roses and Wild Turkey.  Our timing was just right; we missed the walking tours and went right for the tastings.  The Wild Turkey site was probably the prettiest distillery we saw.  The visitor’s center is fresh and new and perched on a bluff overlooking a scenic river valley.

In the gift shop at Four Roses
Wild Turkey comes in many flavors and proofs
The river valley behind Wild Turkey is crossed by old girder bridges for cars and trains

Our last distillery was Willett, right in Bardstown.  This was the most complete tour we had.  Our (very!) talkative hostess ran us through every aspect of the distillery and the family that proudly owns and operates it.  We saw the corn being loaded into the bins, the mash fermenting in the tanks, a small pot distiller working a batch, and finally, a rickhouse.  The rickhouses are cool inside, a steady 60 degrees this time of year.  Which makes it a good place to age country ham.  We saw dozens of hams hanging in the rafters.  This is a family business.

Cooking up the mash
Loading the fermenting tank with the cooked mash
A pot still in action

Just off Stephen Foster Avenue (named for the author of “My Old Kentucky Home”) we found the Oscar Getz Museum Of Whiskey History.  Apparently Oscar was an avid collector who finally donated the whole works for a museum.  Today the displays cover an entire floor of what used to be a boy’s dormitory.  The memorabilia and posters are lots of fun, but the collection of bottles is amazing.  They have everything from the oldest backwoods moonshine jug, to whimsical figurine bottles, to bottles of Pappy Van Winkle’s 23 year old bourbon.

Carrie Nation still gives me nightmares

OK, so enough about Bourbon already.  What is Bardstown like?  The downtown is quaint and historic.  The buildings are made of solid old brick that has been well maintained.  Placing the city hall in the middle of a traffic circle was, to me, a questionable choice, but the town seems to deal with it.  We found beautiful old churches, stately old mansions, cute little cottages, a nice mix of old and new.  Drive out of the city center a little ways and you find all the big box stores that it takes to satisfy the American shopper.  Overall, a very nice town, I would be happy to visit again sometime.

The old Talbott Inn and Tavern was one of the first buildings here
Downtown Bardstown
The wide avenues hold many a fine Southern home
Even the smaller homes have that Southern charm

Next up: Indianapolis, Indiana

Louisville, Kentucky 3/31 – 4/7

Louisville, Kentucky :  Population =  760,026 (metropolitan area= 1,269,702), elevation = 466 feet, Mean January low temp = 34.9º, Mean July high temp = 89.3º (38 days over 90º), annual snowfall = 12.7”, annual rainfall = 44.9”

After spending some time in a cute little town like Paducah, it is somewhat of a culture shock to jump into the heart of a big, sprawling metropolis like Louisville.  Our rental is on a street densely populated by bars, pubs, restaurants, breweries, and assorted small shops.  Big signs over the 4 lanes switch traffic flow to and from downtown for the rush hours.  We are about a 10 minute bus ride from downtown.

Fourth Street Live is a semi-enclosed entertainment district

Kentucky is the birth place for America’s only native spirit, bourbon.  While we were in Paducah, we learned about the Bourbon Trail.  This is a string of distilleries spread across Kentucky that invite the public to stop on by and have a taste.  Louisville lies right in the middle of the trail and has about 10 distilleries, counting Moonshine U, where you can learn how to make it.

Jmi Beam has a tasting room right downtown, but they distill elsewhere
The Experience includes a museum tour and tastings
A big pot of mash bubbles and ferments before going into the still at Evan Williams

Louisville is also home to a multitude of craft breweries; big industrial buildings, intimate little pubs, bustling restaurants, and eclectic hangouts.  And if they don’t make it, they still sell it.  Taprooms are very popular and a wall of 30 or more taps is easy to find.

Another big claim to fame for Louisville is the Louisville Slugger baseball bat.  Those bats are made in the factory right downtown by the river.  We are not really baseball fans ourselves, so we did not visit the factory or the museum.  Wandering the town though, we found many a famous name in baseball along Main Street.

Probably the two biggest minutes in sports is the annual running of the Kentucky Derby.  This is a championship horse race that takes place here in Louisville at the Churchill Downs racetrack on the first Saturday in May.  The race itself comes after a two week festival, capped with the biggest display of fireworks in North America.  We toured the Kentucky Derby Museum, which included a tour of the track, a wealth of horse racing information, a 360 degree theater, and many fun exhibits.  A big part of the Derby is wearing silly hats and they have some great ones on display.

The theater in the Kentucky Derby Museum puts the viewer in the center of an oval with the film clips running completely around

Louisville is not especially famous for their food, although one of Kentucky’s most famous chefs was interred here.  We found lots of good food of all types, styles, and ethnics.  One of our new favorites though, is a dish that was created here in Louisville; the Hot Brown.  It is a simple dish, but the combination of ingredients is perfect.

Meeting the Colonel
Fresh and hot out of the kitchen, still some of the best chicken around
Hot Brown: toast covered in roast turkey, tomato, bacon, mornay sauce, and cheddar, baked until browned.  Yum!

There is a lot to see in Louisville: museums, parks, the river, a multitude of great places to eat and drink.  We asked for another week in our rental, but it was already booked so we have to move on.

Next up: Bardstown, Kentucky