A Road Trip to the Fiberglass Frontier of Northern Wisconsin

On the bathroom door, a wooden sign read, “John F. Kennedy used these facilities on March 18, 1960.” Sure enough, a newspaper clipping showed a campaigning Kennedy speaking from the hood of a car outside the bar. Down the street from Big Dick’s was the marquee for the small Palace Theater, built in 1939. Multiplexes are few up here, so independent theaters survive. The movies playing at the Palace when we visited were “Hotel Transylvania” and “Mission: Impossible — Fallout.”

On the way back, we passed through Shell Lake, the seat of Washburn County. It’s a small town on a large, picturesque lake, cut into frothy lines that day by Jet Skis and sailboats. At the entrance of Memorial Park was a large fiberglass statue of a Walleye. Sparta’s work?, I wondered.

Outside Cumberland, I brought the car to a near screeching halt at the sight of Louie’s Finer Meats. “Welcome sausage lovers,” read the sign above the door. That’s me! Customers wandered the aisles eyeing the dozens of bratwurst varieties, which range from gyro to bloody mary. A country singer over the loudspeaker sang, “Only in America.” Yes, I thought. On the wall, a poster told me the 86th Annual Rutabaga Festival would be held in four weeks. I experienced a severe attack of FOMO.

Before returning to the lodge, we stopped at Drag’s Roman Lounge, an old-school pizzeria in downtown Rice Lake, for a pie and an old-fashioned. Christmas lights and small chandeliers adorned the long horseshoe-shaped bar in back. The pizza came out fast: thin crust, tangy sauce, rich cheese and lump sausage. Drag’s served me one of the best pizzas I’d ever had. It was like finding a pearl inside an oyster.

My Uncle Dean and Aunt Ruth have a cabin in Minocqua, a town in north central Wisconsin, near the Upper Michigan border, and they invited us over after the reunion ended. We drove west, past rolling farmland and snowmobile-crossing signs and over rivers that, a century or so ago, were choked with pine logs on their way to the Chippewa River, and then to the Mississippi.

At Phillips, we found Fred Smith’s Wisconsin Concrete Park. Mr. Smith was a logger and tavern owner who, in 1948, at age 55, began constructing sculptures made of concrete and the broken Rhinelander “Shorty Export” beer bottles from his saloon. The rough-hewed figures possess an unexpected gravity. Soldiers, farmers, Native Americans, deer and horses (with beer-bottle manes), all silent sentinels of a vanished pioneer life, stared out of stiff stone faces, waiting to be remembered.

Down a long, tree-lined lane, just outside Manitowish Waters, the isolated Little Bohemia Lodge has been trading on infamy since 1934, when the gangster John Dillinger evaded an FBI raid there. Inside, the bar is decorated with Tommy Guns. The sole customer was a man dressed in a Milwaukee Brewers cap, Green Bay Packers sweatshirt and pajama pants. He seemed to know all about the place, and had his opinions as to whether the bullet holes in the side of the building were real.

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