Can the Chippewa Valley support a passenger rail line to the Twin Cities? That’s the issue explored in a front-page article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, which details ongoing efforts to bring passenger rail back to Eau Claire after a more than half-century hiatus. The article, published in the June 20 edition, discusses the West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition’s grassroots effort to create a public-private partnership for passenger rail service between Eau Claire and St. Paul’s Union Depot along the existing Union Pacific freight rail line.
According to the article, the rail coalition has been “emboldened by privately funded transit projects in Florida and Texas (and) the Trump administration’s support of public-private partnerships to bolster the nation’s infrastructure.” The line would cost between $100 million and $250 million to build, and its operating cost would be paid for by passenger fares. The article continues:
“Nothing we’re looking to do here has been done before,” said James Coston, chairman of Corridor Capital, a Chicago-based passenger rail development, finance and management firm that plans to invest in the Eau Claire project. “This is a real grass-roots effort.”
The Eau Claire-St. Paul line would feature stops in Menomonie, Baldwin and Hudson in Wisconsin and Stillwater in Minnesota. A one-way trip traveling at a top speed of 80 mph would take about an hour and 20 minutes and would cost $30 to $35, though some discounts may apply, and fares would be less for stops in between. Four trips a day are planned, two in each direction, with Wi-Fi, snacks and beverages available for passengers.
Check out the full article on the Star Tribune’s website. And a word of warning, the first paragraph contains another cringe-worthy reference to "mini-Portland."
Longtime Eau Claire City Council President Kerry Kincaid resigned from office Tuesday, effective immediately.
The resignation was announced at the beginning of Tuesday’s City Council meeting by City Manager Dale Peters. Kincaid was not present at the meeting, over which Vice President Andrew Werthmann presided.
“On this day, and effective immediately, I find it necessary to resign my position as City Council President as it has become impossible to govern in a manner befitting a city that works, and to which the public has become accustomed,” Kincaid said in a statement released to the media.
According to WEAU News 13, Kincaid’s decision was so abrupt that several council members only learned about it when they came to Tuesday afternoon’s meeting.
The statement outlined a list of accomplishments during her time on the council, including “downtown revitalization (from Phoenix Park to the Confluence Project), an expectation of civility in public service, trust in local governance, intergovernmental agreements with surrounding jurisdictions, creation of the Public Spirit Fund and Eau Claire PORCH, Inc., the city’s first Writer in Residence, and cultivating an excellent working relationship with City staff.”
Kincaid, 65, has served as council president since 2009, and was most recently re-elected to a three-year term in 2017. She served a total of 14 years on the City Council and previously served two terms on the Washington Town Board.
Kincaid became the fifth member of the 11-person council to leave office this year. Four others – David Klinkhammer, Kathy Mitchell, Tim Tewalt, and Bob Von Haden – lost their re-election bids in April to a crop of newcomers.
Klinkhammer, the former councilman, told the Leader-Telegram that he believed the change in the makeup of the council likely contributed to Kincaid’s decision.
Over the past year, disagreements over council members’ decorum during meetings arose. In particular, Councilwoman Catherine Emmanuelle’s desire to continue to nurse her young child during meetings led to a successful vote, supported by Kincaid, to prohibit children from the council dais during meetings.
WQOW-TV News 18 reported that there were “tensions between Kincaid and other city council members.” According to an open records request filed by WQOW, “At least one city council member had requested mediation with Kincaid, but, according to our records, that request was never fulfilled. Tuesday, the council was set to discuss writing a code of conduct for council members.”
According to City Council documents, a proposed resolution stated a code of conduct was needed to “ensure a working environment among city council members that upholds the principles of inclusivity, support, respect, civility and honesty.”
Later this month, the council is expected to discuss the procedure for finding an interim president. And next April, a special election will be held to fill the remaining year of Kincaid’s term.
Below is the full text of Kincaid’s statement to the media:
Announcement to the Press July 12, 2018
On this day, and effective immediately, I find it necessary to resign my position as City Council President as it has become impossible to govern in a manner befitting a city that works, and to which the public has become accustomed.
I leave my position proud of the contributions my leadership helped accomplish for the common good. I count among them: downtown revitalization (from Phoenix Park to the Confluence Project), an expectation of civility in public service, trust in local governance, intergovernmental agreements with surrounding jurisdictions, creation of the Public Spirit Fund and Eau Claire PORCH, Inc., the city’s first Writer in Residence, and cultivating an excellent working relationship with City staff.
These accomplishments are not mine alone and I proclaim my admiration and hearty respect for city staff and the visionary people who urged me to try new things for the good of the city.
A lady always knows when it is time to leave. I do so now to employ my leadership skills toward another good.
It was an honor to have helped build a city that works.
The Chippewa Valley food truck scene is quickly evolving. With a recent softening in Eau Claire regulation, the developing food-truck frenzy is likely to grow even more. But with so many options and trucks constantly on the move (and a limited season in general), experiencing them all can be a challenge.
Enter Volume One’s new Food Truck Friday event series. This carnival of cuisine, presented in partnership with Silver Spring Foods, kicks off July 13 in downtown Eau Claire – in the parking lot between N. Farwell and N. Barstow streets (aka the “Railroad Lot”). Up to eight food, snack, and drink establishments will open for business for lunch and dinner (11am-8pm), providing the opportunity to sample and feast upon the work of multiple mobile chefs. It’s the perfect chance to take a break from the office, grab some grub, and snag a patch of grass or a bench by the river – or bring the whole family down after work and take in the summer sun. The event takes place across from Galloway Grille, where one can enjoy a cool beer on their patio while enjoying a meal. Food Truck Friday will feature a slightly different line up of vendors each month, including Basil Wyndthorp's, Life Support BBQ, Holy Donuts, The Hubb, ECDC, and more. It’s also sponsored in part by Visit Eau Claire. The event, which heads to Eau Claire City Council next week for final approval, will run one Friday a month through October.
More information, including the full season schedule, complete vendor list, menus and more will be available soon online and in Volume One Magazine.
If you’ve ever zipped across a northwoods lake (or enjoyed watching a water ski show) you have Wisconsin mechanic and inventor Ole Evinrude to thank. Evinrude, a Norwegian immigrant, produced the first commercially viable gas-powered outboard motor in 1909. His spark of inspiration came on a hot day three years earlier when he rowed a boat on a 5-mile round-trip to get his girlfriend a dish of ice cream. (We’re guessing the treat melted, but it’s the thought that counts.) Why not build a motor for the boat, the exhausted suitor wondered? To make a long story short: The young woman, Bess, became his wife, and Evinrude is known as the father of the outboard motor.
2. ICE CREAM SUNDAE
The addition of chocolate syrup to ice cream seems like a small thing, but in the 19th century it was a radical notion. (Chocolate syrup was reserved for sodas.) According to Wisconsin lore, in the early 1890s a patron asked for just such a combination at an ice cream parlor in Two Rivers owned by Ed Berners, and the combo became a popular treat. In nearby Manitowoc, Charles Giffey began serving the dish, too, but only on Sundays. When a little girl demanded one on a weekday, Giffey complied, but changed the concoction’s name to “sundae.”
3. MALTED MILK
Speaking of sweet treats, malted milk is also a Wisconsin invention. Seeking to create a formula for infants, British immigrant brothers William and James Horlick first set up shop in Chicago and then in Racine, Wisconsin, in the 1870s. They patented their “granulated food for infants” in 1883 and trademarked the name “malted milk” in 1887. The sweet, protein-packed powder became popular at soda shops as well as with explorers, which explains by you’ll find the Horlick Mountains in Antarctica!
Thanks, Wisconsinites of yore.
4. STATE-SPANNING BIKE TRAILS
When it opened in 1966, “The Wisconsin Bikeway,” a 300-mile trail between Kenosha and La Crosse, was the first bike trail to cross an entire state. Furthermore, the Elroy-to-Sparta part of the bikeway was one of the nation’s first “rails to trails” paths, having been converted from an unused railroad right-of-way into a bike trail. If you enjoy designated trails, you have Wisconsin’s pedaling pioneers to thank.
5. THE BAN ON DDT
This may seem like a stretch, but bear with us for a moment: In 1970, Wisconsin became the first state to ban the distribution and sale of DDT, an insecticide that was found to be be harming a lot more than insects – including mammals, fish, and birds, including the bald eagle. Following state and federal DDT bans, wildlife populations – including that of the bald eagle – began to recover. In other words, in part because Wisconsin took the lead 48 years ago, you can enjoy the beauty of our national symbol today.
Today, the minds behind the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival – Justin Vernon and brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner – launched a sleek new open-access audio platform called PEOPLE. The website brings together tons of familiar collaborators for a massive flux of new music, and there’s the second installment of a related festival component in Germany this August with over 150 acts performing with one another.
“We are a steadily growing group of artists, freely creating and sharing our work with each other and everyone,” a statement on the PEOPLE website reads. “We call it PEOPLE. It was born of a wish to establish an independent and nurturing space in which to make work (generally around music) that is collaborative, spontaneous and expressive in nature and where all unnecessary distractions or obstacles that get in the way are removed.”
Vernon and Aaron Dessner’s long-awaited Big Red Machine project has a four-song EP on the platform already, and you can hear new cuts from familiar names like Aero Flynn, Poliça, and Marijuana Deathsquads. Artists with the login are free to upload their own tracks from the studio or from the cutting room floor; everything is on the table. Clicking around the site will lead you to collaborations and all kinds of B-sides, rarities, demos, brand new songs, and much more will be added in time. Spend some time with it at beta.p-e-o-p-l-e.com.
And did you hear about the Vernon/Dessner Eau Claire fireworks live score thing?
In other kinda-related local news, Vernon and Aaron Dessner are gearing up to live score the Fourth of July fireworks in Eau Claire from atop the Jamf building next to Phoenix Park, as part of the lead-up to Eaux Claires, which takes place a few days later. The duo and some friends will play some music in coordination with the firework display – which will be live-streamed on Verge 99.9FM (f.k.a. Blugold Radio) – then perform some Big Red Machine tracks as well. There might be more surprises in store in the week of Eaux Claires in addition to the myriad Prex Claires shows all over downtown on July 5 as well, so keep your eyes peeled and your ears open.
Nearly 4-in-10 deadly car accidents in Eau Claire involve alcohol, says a USA Today article that ranks the drunkest cities in the United States. Eau Claire came in second in this not-so-favorable piece, which takes into account how many adults drink heavily or binge drink, how many driving deaths involve alcohol, median income, and an estimated number of restaurants and bars in the area.
The article reports that 26.2 percent of adults in Eau Claire meet the Centers for Disease Control’s criteria for drinking to excess. This includes binge drinking (drinking enough to reach a .08 percent blood alcohol concentration), heavy drinking (typically defined as consuming 15 drinks or more per week for men, or 8 drinks or more per week for women), alcohol use by people younger than 21, and alcohol use by pregnant women.
According to USA Today, Wisconsin is home to nine of the top 20 drunkest cities, with Green Bay coming in number one. In Green Bay, alcohol is involved in half of all deadly car accidents. For more information on CDC definitions concerning alcohol, check out the CDC website.
Chicago-based artist Molly Z stands across from the Eau Claire Printing Building
The corner of Farwell and Galloway is about to get prettified in a big, bold way. Chicago-based artist Molly Z will begin work on a 3,200 square foot mural on the side of the Eau Claire Printing Building on June 3 as part of The Oxbow Hotel’s first artist in residence program. The public is welcome to participate in the process during several events hosted throughout the residency – in addition to watching the image come to life over the roughly two-week project. The Oxbow Gallery will host a panel discussion on creating public art led by the artist June 9 (3-4pm). The Oxbow and Visit Eau Claire will host a Mural Appreciation Reception June 11 from 5-7pm, where people can view the nearly finished mural, enjoy live music, and get a poster of the mural live screen-printed by Tangled Up in Hue signed by Molly Z.
The artist in residence program will inspire communication between local and visiting artists, resulting in creative pollination between regions, enriching Eau Claire's art scene and spreading local character elsewhere, Oxbow co-owner Nick Meyer said.
Molly Z is a digital designer, illustrator, and muralist who uses vibrant colors and bold designs to brighten spaces and make people smile. She has created many works of art - both large and small - for special events, conferences, and products.
Today, after two and a half years in business, The Local Lounge – a bar, restaurant, and event venue on Eau Claire's westside – has closed. From their Facebook page:
In its place, the owners will open The Varsity Club, which describes itself as "an Upscale Sports Pub for Sports FANATICS in the Chippewa Valley." They say, "We feature, Racy Fun, Craft Beers, Leagues & a Scratch Kitchen."
They plan to offer dining, delivery, take out, and catering. The Varisty Club will be open for lunch and dinner and offer a “multi-cuisine” menu. Owners are now hiring, and they are scheduled to open June 17.
The change will not affect The Hub – an event venue next door to The Varsity Club – where all events will remain as scheduled.
From 11am–7pm Friday (May 11) and from noon–8pm Saturday (May 12), you can enjoy a sizzling Deutsch Family Farm pork taco with creamy queso, crunchy coleslaw and locally foraged ramp vinaigrette – all while helping pay off Chippewa Falls student lunch debt. At the suggestion of counter attendant Britni Sullivan, Royce Roberts, owner of Bomb Tacos at 504 N Bridge Street in Chippewa Falls, is donating $300 and 10 percent of the shack’s sales from this week to the Chippewa Falls School District to pay off remaining lunch debt so that parents and students can head into summer with fewer worries.
"We’ve all been at a point where life isn’t easy and a hand would be appreciated. We just want to do our part to make sure no child has to go hungry while they’re at school.” – Britni Sullivan
When Sullivan and Roberts began plotting on Wednesday, they thought they could pay off one school’s debt. But after contacting the school district, Roberts found the total debt of all Chippewa Falls School District lunch programs was about $1,300, far less than he expected. “I’m sure that if we got other people involved, we could knock this out in one weekend,” he thought.
Roberts reached out to Chippewa Falls Main Street to spread the word, and soon other businesses were on board. Lacey’s Lingerie at 101 N. Bridge Street is accepting donations in-store and via Paypal to support the cause.
Roberts hopes to be able to pay off the student lunch debt by next week. “Just be good to your neighbors,” he said.
"We’ve all been at a point where life isn’t easy and a hand would be appreciated,” Sullivan said in a public Facebook post promoting the fundraiser. "We just want to do our part to make sure no child has to go hungry while they’re at school."
A Special Note from Volume One Owner & Publisher Nick Meyer
Today the news is spreading that Ray Szmanda, the Midwest-famous “Menards Guy,” a multi-decade TV commercial pitchman for everything from paint to faucets to lumber, passed away May 6 at the age of 91. For nearly 25 years a growing radius of TV viewers were introduced to his signature black glasses/blue sweater combo, his giant grin, and his seemingly relentless enthusiasm for home improvement.
Ray started the gig way back in 1976, three years before I was even born. But by the time I was about 20 and starting a stint at the Menards general office making TV commercials, Ray was still there plugging away at those cue cards, letting a huge chunk of America know exactly what was on sale that week with a pocketful of puns at the ready.
Even in his later years (he was in his mid-70s by the time I worked with him) he had a booming voice that would echo throughout the aisles of the Westside Menards, commanding attention from unsuspecting shoppers.
For about a year, every Friday I got to work alongside Ray as we shot the opener, closer, and narration of anywhere from eight to 10 commercials. That’s a lot to shoot, and we needed to hustle to get it all done. We’d sometimes be in the studio or on location, but oftentimes we’d be right out in the open in the store during regular business hours. And of course it was in the store where he’d turn heads.
Even in his later years (he was in his mid-70s by the time I worked with him) he had a booming voice that would echo throughout the aisles of the westside Eau Claire Menards, commanding attention from unsuspecting shoppers. We’d be tucked away in the paint aisle with lights, cameras, and microphones and as soon as he started in on the script at full volume, the rubbernecking from customers would be hilarious. He was a legit celebrity. Imagine for years hearing Ray’s voice on TV selling you carpet and yard supplies and then suddenly you’re actually in Menards and you hear him in real life in the aisle behind you. People were in shock. And he loved every minute of it – waving hello, shaking hands, and giving the people what they wanted with a boisterous “Save Big Money!” on command. It was as much fun as I’ve ever had at a job.
After a morning of shooting we’d break production and he’d invite us all out for lunch together, often at a pizza buffet. At lunch he wouldn’t remove his blue shirt, nametag, or his signature black glasses (which didn’t even have lenses in them due to the glare on camera). Needless to say he stuck out like a sore thumb to anyone who’d ever watched television across the Midwest over the previous 20 years. Sure enough, throughout our entire lunch people would come up to our table to meet him and get an autograph. That’s when – happy as can be at their request – he’d pop open his briefcase packed full of headshots, ready for personalization to his many fans. He loved it, and so did we.
Ray Szmanda on set at a Menards commercial shoot for Gorilla Rack Shelving, circa 2001. Volume One owner/publisher Nick Meyer is the guy in the gorilla suit – it was his job to jump into the frame, hop up and down, and pound his chest. Ray had plenty of monkey jokes for the crew.
To celebrate this Midwestern cultural icon, we’ve gathered up some photos, videos, and tidbits here to share (see below), including a great interview Volume One had with him roughly nine years ago. He truly was a kind and generous man. Please, comment below with your stories and memories too.
I will fondly remember Ray, and I know so many who had a chance to work with him will too, not to mention the millions who saw him grinning on TV, paintbrush in hand.
– Nick Meyer, Volume One
Read Volume One’s interview with Ray Szmanda from 2009
Back in 2009, Volume One published a long Q&A between Ray Szmanda and former managing editor Trevor Kupfer. They covered a lot of fascinating ground, including his other gigs, how he got the Menards job, and funny things that happened while filming commercials.
Volume One: I also heard that you’re a drummer, as well. Is that right?
Ray Szmanda: Yes. I was a professional drummer. I played on the road. This is when I was young. Right when I got out of the Navy at 21. I had my own trio. We played 40s music, what we called swing. Swing lasted about 10 years, and then of course rock ‘n roll came in.
The Found Footage Festival Loves Ray
The Found Footage Festival – a local favorite – puts together touring comedy shows based on old VHS video footage from just about anywhere, from corporate training videos to infomercials. And The Menards Guy is no exception. Check out one of their favorite clips.
From the Chicago Tribune, May 12, 1997
On May 12, 1997, the Chicago Tribune ran a great article on The Menards Guy. This was while Szmanda was still working for the company in full force.
The Menards Guy is the chain's only spokesman and has been for 20 years. But for some reason--he says he has no idea why--in the past two years or so he's become a bit of a cult figure, a pop icon to whom viewers write fan letters and request autographed photos.
The mail comes to the chain's Eau Claire, Wis., headquarters addressed to "The Menards Guy," or, more formally, "The Menards Man." In his hometown of Antigo, Wis.--population 8,500--postal workers and others call his wife "Mrs. Menard."
Ray’s Iconic Headshot
Ray was known to carry around a briefcase full of head shots because so many people would ask for his autograph. Volume One scored one.
The Alpha Incident
The Alpha Incident is a 1977 American science-fiction-dramatic-thriller b-movie in which Ray Szmanda starred as “The Official.” Check out a compilation of Ray’s scenes.
Bloopers, a Parody, and a Trippy Tribute
Check out a short series of bloopers with Ray Szmanda as he shot commercials for Menards here in Eau Claire.
Svengoolie is a hosted horror movie show. The show's title is taken from the name of the character host. It's a long-running local program in the Chicago area and in recent years it's expanded nationally, airing Saturday nights on MeTV. Watch one of the old show’s parody commercials.
Enjoy a trippy tribute to The Menards Guy called "THE MENARDS MAN REMIX."