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