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Visiting Historic Chippewa Falls: a Tribute Piece

Greetings adventurers,

It’s a sentimental day over here at Arts and Adventures. 

My Grandpa Roger recently passed away. He was a stubborn and particular man, but also hilarious and surprisingly understanding. He showed he cared by making you laugh, and by picking out the best damn birthday cards known to man each time you turned another year older.

Among the things Grandpa loved (tall tales, erector sets, his cat Rascal, and lemon/lime Gatorade among others), he loved history. He was a professed genealogy nerd, and was a proud member of the Chippewa Falls Historical Society, serving the town where he spent his adult life, raised two sons, and entertained his grandchildren (that’s me).

So in coming up with a personal way to honor my grandfather and his passing, I decided to write this post entirely about Chippewa Falls. I followed the thread of the places in Chippewa that I knew had a vibrant history, and went digging. And I uncovered so many things that I hadn’t known before. Interesting details that make my hometown all the more vibrant. I think Grandpa would be proud of the work I’ve done today.

As a bonus for you, in true Arts and Adventures style, (this is a travel blog after all), all the places on this list are places you can actually visit and experience if you happen to find yourself in Chippewa Falls.

Ready? Here we go.

Irvine Park and Zoo

The first thing you need to know about Chippewa Falls is that it was a logging town in the 1800’s. There was a massive sawmill on the Chippewa River, and it was an essential stop for timber coming out of the Wisconsin Northwoods. The town grew into what it is today because of the lumber barons of this era.

The first lumber-baron-funded treasure of Chippewa Falls is Irvine Park and Zoo. 

At a first glance, Irvine Park is a standard small town park. It has several playgrounds, pavilions and shelters for renting and resting, and a creek running through it for ultimate barefoot splashing in the summer. 

Check this prom photo in front of the "bandshell". Tiny Andi is down center in the white dress. I can't belive they didn't realize they were gay.

Look deeper and you’ll see the Chippewa Falls history running through every inch of it. The park was initially founded in 1906, when a lumber baron named William Irvine donated 165 acres of land. In the years that followed, the park expanded to include even more acreage, including a nearby one-room schoolhouse that was built in 1903. The Sunny Valley Schoolhouse has been lovingly preserved and restored and is a popular field trip location for local schools. The historic bandshell (more elegant than acoustic but c’est la vie), was built in the 1920s, and still hosts concerts, weddings, and Chippewa’s spectacular annual Memorial Day service.

Today, the most impressive aspect of Irvine Park is its free zoo. It features herd animals native to the northern forests, like deer and elk. There’s also a full scale petting zoo of barnyard favorites. And most impressively, sweeping exhibits for black bears and tigers!

The Cook-Rutledge Mansion

Another lumber baron specialty, the Cook-Rutledge Mansion is a stunning historic home in the heart of Chippewa Falls. Though it’s had many owners over the years, it’s named after the two families that had the greatest influence on it.

This beautiful home was built in 1873 by the Birmingham family. Unfortunately the Birminghams did little for the house (I mean…other than build it), so it doesn’t carry their name.

It was when the home was bought by Edward Rutledge that it started gathering attention. Edward was one of the became-a-millionaire-overnight kind of lumber barons. He was extremely good at sourcing and estimating the value of northwoods timber, and he grew very rich very quickly. When he bought the mansion in 1887, it became the center of high society in Chippewa Falls.

The Rutledges, Edward and his wife, lived in the house until their deaths in the early 1900’s. After that point, it changed hands a few times until it came into the possession of the Cook family. As the lumber trade in Chippewa slowed, the home became more a historical relic than a center of culture, and eventually, a Cook descendant named Mabel sold the mansion to the Chippewa Falls Historical Society in 1973.

My grandfather was, incidentally, a proud member of the Historical Society at the time.

Today, the Cook-Rutledge Mansion still stands in Chippewa Falls as a hallmark of the town’s wealthiest days. It’s open for tours, events, weddings, and more, and absolutely worth admiring.

The Heyde Center for the Arts

What next? You guessed it! Another stunning old building championed by a lumber baron!

The Heyde Center for the Arts is an institution of Chippewa Falls, hosting local artists, as well as performers from across the country. Its stunning architecture, complete with columns, perfectly suggests a performance venue. Which is why many people are absolutely floored when they learn that it used to be a high school!

It was built in 1907 by a lumber baron by the name of Alexander McDonnell, and it served as the local catholic high school for over 50 years. In the 1960s, a more modern building was constructed, and the beautiful building on the hill was closed. It fell into disrepair, until a driven group of local citizens campaigned and fundraised to save and restore it. Work began in the late 1970’s, and diligent attention eventually turned the Heyde Center into the artistic institution it is today.

Tiny Andi spent their fair share of afternoons seeing (and performing in) local theatre productions and piano recitals at the Heyde Center. If you find yourself in Chippewa Falls, check out the Heyde Center and see who’s playing. You never know who might be in town.

Lake Wissota

We can’t write about the upper midwest without talking about its natural beauty, and in Chippewa Falls, that place is Lake Wissota.

Lake Wissota is a man-made lake on the north end of town. It was essentially Tiny Andi’s backyard. We couldn’t see it from the house, but we could walk through the trees and end up right on its shores.

Lake Wissota is probably most famous for being name-checked in James Cameron’s “Titanic.” Jack is famously a “Chippewa Falls Dawson,” and when he’s talking about that super cold lake he fell through that one time, he mentions Lake Wissota by name.

Unfortunately, as a man-made lake resulting from the construction of a dam, Lake Wissota didn’t exist until 1917 - a full five years after the Titanic sank.

But if you want to check out Jack’s lake, the best place to do that is Lake Wissota State Park. This park has a beautiful beach, miles of hiking trails, and is a perfect place to relax, explore, and camp.

Leinenkugels Brewery

Best for last my friends! 

Leinenkugels beer has its home and origins in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. Though it’s only been on the national radar for a few decades, its history in Wisconsin stretches back over 150 years.

Leinenkugels was founded in 1867 by Jacob Leinenkugel, who was an immigrant from Prussia and bought classic German beer brewing recipes with him. It’s -allegedly- the oldest business in Chippewa Falls, and the seventh oldest brewery in the United States.

Now, 150 years and six generations later, Leinie’s (as the local’s call it) is nationally known and still hometown proud. Descendants of Jacob Leinenkugel are absolutely still a part of the business. Their beer labels are all proudly emblazoned with the phrase “the Pride of Chippewa Falls”. (I have been known to get a little tispy on Leinies and end up saying “*scoff*, I’m the pride of Chippewa Falls” but that’s neither here nor there.)

Today, the Leinenkugels Brewery is still active and brewing, and is open for tours and tastings most days of the week. As a veteran of several brewery tours, I can say with confidence that the Leinenkugels tour is a truly good one, and you can sample the brews afterward at the log-cabin-styled Leinie’s Lodge. The OG Leinenkugels beer is still largely the same recipe as was used in the 1800’s, and the Honey Weiss is a lighter but still hearty staple as well. Depending on when you visit, you can find seasonal brews like my personal favorite, the Sunset Wheat, or the nationally famous Summer Shandy. Sample them all and soak up some Chippewa history.

And that's Chippewa Falls

Chippewa Falls is a much more fascinating town than may be apparent at a first glance. I had a glorious time diving into this little town’s history, and I hope you did too.

Thanks Grandpa. This one’s for you. 



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