Tuesday, Sep. 22nd, 2015

Searching for Wisconsin's "Best" Sandwich

Look tasty? Look closer. The
Look tasty? Look closer. We couldn't find an actual picture of a "Bratwurst with Cheese Curds" sandwich, so we made one ourselves. In Photoshop. 

Can we take a minute to talk about sandwiches? They’re great, if only because anything can be made into a sandwich if you try hard enough, even the planet Earth (seriously, go make an Earth sandwich). And one could say that each State of the Union, or region of the country, has it's own iconic 'wich. Some have obvious connections, such as the Philly Cheesesteak, but some are less apparent. 

The folks over at Business Insider (our nation's top choice for sandwich news?) went around the country and compiled a list of what they think is each state’s "best" sandwich (the pictures are amazing). According to this list, our stately neighbors in Minnesota are known for their burger with cheese on the inside (the infamous Juicy Lucy), and Illinois for their burger topped with fries. Really? That's "the best" Illinois has to offer? I hear Chicago makes a hotdog people seem to like.

(See a condensed rundown of the sandwiches from Mental Floss.)

For Wisconsin, they chose "Bratwurst with Cheese Curds." Now, I'm pretty sure they just chose a few "Sconnie things" and crammed them together into an imaginary sandwich, as I've never seen such a creation in the wild. Maybe they could have added some Door County cherries and some cranberry sauce? A pretzel bun in the shape of Aaron Rodger's face? They say:

"This Midwestern state has a large German immigrant population, so it's no surprise its most famous sandwich contains classic bratwurst. Eat the sausage on a roll topped with mustard, sauerkraut, and cheese curds — another thing for which Wisconsin is well-known."

What do you think? Is that our best or can we do better?

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Monday, Sep. 21st, 2015

The 5 Oldest Houses in Eau Claire County

Clarence Chamberlin House
Clarence Chamberlin House

The Chippewa Valley is chock-full of rich history, exemplified in its historic buildings. Eau Claire County alone has 63 entries in the National Register of Historic Places, three of which date back to the 1860’s. Of our 63 entries these are the five oldest houses in the county. 

1. Clarence Chamberlin House – 1881

The Clarence Chamberlin House on West Grand Avenue (above) was built in 1881 for Clarence Chamberlin, who settled in Eau Claire in 1856 and worked as a lumber salesmen for the Empire Lumber Company. He later served on their board of directors as well as numerous other boards until his death.

Levi Merrill House
Levi Merrill House

4. Levi Merrill House – 1873

The Levi Merrill House on Ferry Street (above) was built in 1873 for Levi Merrill who was a noted stonemason and owned a quarry just west of the house. Merrill lived in Eau Claire as early as 1876 and is credited for cutting the stone pedestal for a sundial which used to stand at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Water Street. This house is one of the only remaining original structures in Shawtown.

Martin Van Buren Barron House
Martin Van Buren Barron House

3. Martin Van Buren Barron House – 1871

The Martin Van Buren Barron House on Washington Street, also known as the Krause House, was constructed by local builders Bangs and Fish. Van Buren Barron settled in Eau Claire in 1865 and ran a flour and feed store until 1878. Van Buren Barron was elected to the first city council of Eau Claire in 1872, representing the lower Third Ward.

Cobblestone House
Cobblestone House

2. The "Cobblestone House" – 1866

The Cobblestone House on State Street, also known as the Joel Roberts House, was built in 1866 by Bradley Marcy who constructed the exterior of the house from stones gathered from the banks of the Eau Claire and Chippewa Rivers. This house is the only example of cobblestone architecture in the Chippewa Valley. 

Adin Randall House
Adin Randall House

1. Adin Randall House – 1862

The Adin Randall House was built in 1862 for Adin Randall, who was one of Eau Claire’s first settlers who promoted the area as rich with lumber. His house was built near his factory and mill on the Chippewa River at the end of Ninth Avenue. Randall also operated a ferry across the Chippewa and invented the sheer boom to divert logs into Half Moon Lake to cut losses during floods. 

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Thursday, Sep. 17th, 2015

Saturday! International Fall Festival

International Fall Festival 2014
International Fall Festival 2014

The official start to fall may not be until the 23rd but we’re kicking it off early with the 38th annual International Fall Festival – this Saturday, Sept. 19. One of our favorite annual events, IFF closes down South Barstow Street and brings it to life with people and vendors crowding the motorway for an afternoon of food, heritage, and community. This year’s lineup includes classic favorites like the parade (which will be bigger than ever this year), performances by local groups, and of course, all the food you can eat. Amongst 2015's additions, the Blugold Marching Band will be giving a special performance at 1:30pm, the Torch Sisters will be giving a hula hooping demonstration, they'll have a scavenger hunt throughout downtown, and they'll even host a cotton candy eating contest.

Make sure you stop by and say "hi" to us at the The Local Store – we'll have a big tent on site, basically recreating the huge mobile store we produced for the Eaux Claires Music & Art Festival. It's like The Local Store's little sister. And you'll find it on the 200 block of S. Barstow, across from the Eau Claire Children's Museum, in the parking lot next to the Lismore Hotel project. See you there!

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Wednesday, Sep. 16th, 2015

Eau Claire County Reaffirms $3.5M Confluence Pledge

The Eau Claire County Board has once again given a thumbs-up to its $3.5 million pledges toward the Confluence Project’s performing arts center in downtown Eau Claire. In a 21-5 vote Tuesday evening, the board reaffirmed the pledge, which had originally been made in January 2014. The performing arts center, which is slated to open in 2018, will be shared by UW-Eau Claire and community groups.

The resolution “gives us a change to keep our word,” county Supervisor Colleen Bates said, according to the Leader-Telegram. “I can’t recall in all of my years of living in Eau Claire that there has been this kind of philanthropic response that we’re seeming for this project at this time.”

Why did the county board repeat its earlier vote? In the year and a half since the original pledge, the scope and funding mix of the project has changed. Most notably, the county’s $3.5 million pledge was originally contingent on a $25 million commitment from the state. However, this summer the state instead set aside $15 million for the project in its 2015-17 budget – a commitment that itself was contingent on a $15 million match from philanthropic donations and other local public and private sources. Under the newly approved county resolution, the county’s pledge is now also contingent on that $15 million in philanthropy and local funding, a goal that seems within reach: Fundraising for the project recently passed the $10 million mark, and this week another major pledge – $50,000 from Security Financial Bank – was made toward the project.

Meanwhile, work continues on the privately funded mixed-use portion of the project, which is rising on South Barstow Street near the confluence of the Eau Claire and Chippewa Rivers.

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Tuesday, Sep. 15th, 2015

4 Eccentric 19th Century Wisconsinites

The 19th century was weird. Really weird. Consult any book of historical accounts from the time period and you'll find sea monsters, "zombies," ghosts, cattle monstrosities, and Hodags. The people were weird too, and 19th century Wisconsinites were no exception. Every town from Madison to Mackinac Island had its colorful characters, so let's take a look at a witch doctor, a town drunk, a mystic, and a man with a window in his stomach.

1. Renown Wisconsin Mining Mystic, Mary Hayes-Chynoweth

I'd probably listen to her.
Can't argue with her results.

In 1853, schoolteacher Mary Hayes-Chynoweth claimed to have been pushed to the floor of her kitchen and inhabited by a disembodied force. Her account goes on to say that she began speaking in tongues, and a voice told her that she would spend the rest of her life healing people. So clearly it made sense to devote her life to spiritual medicine andmysticism. Although seances and other supernatural exploits were sweeping the nation at the time, Mary held that these were hoaxes and that her powers derived from God connecting her to a "force" or "power." While she certainly had her skeptics, a bizarre tale unfolded in 1883 when Mary claimed the "Power" had told her to direct her sons to change careers from forestry to mining. Then, with no knowledge of mining whatsoever, she showed them the exact place to dig to uncover rich veins of ore. Her family then became incredibly wealthy and she founded the town of Hurley. Like you do.

2. Wisconsin's First "Doctor," Aunt Mary Ann

To the people of Prairie du Chien, their doctor was known only as Aunt Mary Ann.  A former slave who came upriver from Louisiana near the turn of the 19th century, she eventually married Charles Menard (yes, that Menard) and mothered over twelve children. She was the first person in Wisconsin, in the early days of permanent settlements, to practice the healing arts, and is thus considered our state's first "doctor." She charged fees, visited patients, and used healing salves and herbs. Until, and even slightly after, a surgeon arrived at the fort in Prairie du Chiene in 1816, Aunt Mary Ann carried her "device and yarb drink" to heal the sick (results may vary). In one case, she saved a baby who'd sustained a serious head wound from an Indian attack, using a silver plate to patch her little skull. The baby lived to be over 80 years old.

3. The Man with a Window in His Gut, Alexis St. Martin

Alexis St. Martin (pictured right) and his wife in old age.
Alexis St. Martin (pictured right) and his wife in old age.

Fair warning: this one's really gross. In the summer of 1822, fur trader and voyageur Alexis St. Martin was the victim of an accidental shotgun blast. It tore a hole in his side and exposed his stomach. US Army surgeon William Beaumont treated him and helped him recover over the course of the following months. Beaumont was fascinated with the way that the wound healed, and because the now-disabled Martin couldn't make a living at his old career, the good doctor made him an offer. He hired Martin as a servant and would carry out a wide array of experiments on him to better understand the digestive process. Now while Beaumont's discoveries were later refined into modern gastronomy, I just wish there was an easier way than installing a window in a man's stomach to watch food digest.

4. Madison's Beloved Drunkard, "Turtle Toes"

The "town drunk," a comical staple archetype from old-timey movies and books, now seems more of a menace to society. However, in the 1870s, one such town drunk charmed his way through the streets of Madison. Pinneo was a shingle salesman who, according to record, was "ever ready to do the bidding of those choosing to command his services when sober, which was only when every artifice and cunning had failed to provide the means of getting drunk." He was given the name "Turtle Toes" because he never wore shoes and his toes were hard, callous, bent, and looked like turtle necks. What a scamp.


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Wednesday, Sep. 9th, 2015

City Council Adds Fourth Level to Downtown Parking Ramp

A conceptual drawing a four-level parking ramp from BWBR Architects.
A conceptual drawing of the four-level parking ramp from BWBR Architects.

The parking ramp that’s rising on North Barstow Street will grow a little higher after a vote Tuesday by the Eau Claire City Council. After debating the necessity of increasing the size of the ramp as well as how to pay for the project, the council voted 8-3 to add a fourth level to the structure. The fourth story will add 200 parking stalls to the 570 already included in the three-deck ramp, which Market & Johnson began building earlier this year.

“I think we will regret if we don’t find some way to park ‘up’ rather than park ‘out,’ ” said Councilman Andrew Werthmann, who voted in favor of the addition, citing the pressure downtown growth has put on available parking. Earlier in the meeting, council members heard projections that the new ramp would be virtually full as soon as it opens in September 2016 because of parking demand from employees and patrons of growing downtown businesses.

Councilman David Klinkhammer agreed, saying the city should act to take advantage of current cost savings. “Growth is occurring,” he said. “We’re not all going to ride bicycles. There is a need for the parking downtown.”

The addition’s $2.2 million cost will be paid for from the city’s general fund – in other words, through borrowing that will be paid back by city property tax payers. The council also considered paying for the addition with funds from a special Tax Incremental Financing District, which are already being used to cover the $8.5 million cost of the ramp’s first three levels. However, city staffers who examined the issue advised against additional TIF funding for several reasons: First, using TIF funding would cause a delay and add $800,000 in cost to the project. Second, the district in question – TIF No. 8, which covers a portion of downtown – would need additional grown to generate enough tax revenue to pay for the project.

City finance director Jay Winzenz told council members that city road projects this year have come in under budget, leading to a savings of about $2 million, which means that very little additional borrowing will be needed to pay for the fourth level. The total $2.2 million cost will lead to an annual property tax increase of $5 on a $150,000 home.

The city will also have outside help to pay for the project. Earlier on Tuesday, the North Barstow Business Improvement District, an association of neighborhood businesses, pledged $110,000 of its own money toward the project.

Because the spending came in the form of a budget amendment, it required the support of a two-thirds majority, or eight council members. Those who opposed the addition cited worries about adding to the city’s debt load. Councilwoman Kathleen Mitchell said that when the council originally approved the ramp in March, they intended that an optional fourth level be paid for via the TIF district, not added debt. “There are other priorities for me in the community than a fourth level on this ramp,” Mitchell said.

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Tuesday, Sep. 8th, 2015

5 Defunct Territories that Almost Claimed Wisconsin

Above: History!
Above: History!

1. Louisiana (or Canada)

The French were the first Europeans to poke around Wisconsin, and they officially claimed what became our state in 1671. While New France were split among several colonies, borders were vague. As one historian wrote, “The territorial status of the region that became Wisconsin was never made clear.” As long as the beaver pelts kept coming, the French had a laissez-faire attitude.

2. Province of Quebec

The French ceded control of Wisconsin-to-be (and a lot of other territory) to the British in 1763 after the French and Indian War. Originally under British military rule, by 1774 what is now Wisconsin became part of the British Province of Quebec, a.k.a. much of what is now eastern Canada and the U.S. Great Lakes states.

3. Illinois County, Virginia

True, this jurisdiction was never much more than some lines on a map, but it’s tantalizing to imagine what would have happened if Virginia’s territorial claim, made in 1778, had become reality. During the Revolutionary War, Virginia called dibs on what is now Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. A few years later, presumably realizing this land was really, really far away, the Virginians gave it to the United States.

4. Northwest Territory

After the Colonies won the Revolutionary War, a big hunk of what’s now the Midwest was organized by the new nation into the Northwest Territory (so called because it was northwest of the Ohio River). Gradually, new states were formed out of the territory – including Wisconsin in 1848.

5. Illinois Territory

In 1800, Wisconsin became part of Indiana Territory, and nine years later was shifted into the new Illinois Territory, where it remained until Illinois became a state in 1818. It was then that one of the great losses of Wisconsin history occurred: The northern border of Illinois was originally going to be the southern shore of Lake Michigan. Just before Congress created the new state, however, the map was revised and a 61-mile strip was added to northern Illinois. If the switcheroo hadn’t been made, the future state of Wisconsin would have included the spot where the city of Chicago was founded a few years later.

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Friday, Sep. 4th, 2015

Gemini Drive-In Theater to Close

Image: Visit Eau Claire
Image: Visit Eau Claire

WQOW is reporting the Gemini Drive-In Theater, Micon Cinemas’ outdoor summer hotspot for more than 40 years will close (for good).

According to documents filed with Eau Claire County, the Eau Claire Co-Op Oil Company has entered into a contract to purchase the 40-acre plot of land. The company will reportedly use the area to house buildings storing fertilizer and salt; they also plan to lay down a railroad spike that will connect the area to other rails nearby.

Micon Cinemas just re-vamped and remodeled Eau Claire’s Downtown Cinema this spring, but the loss of the Gemini is certainly a blow to local outdoor movie lovers from the Valley and beyond. Sadly, we’ll have to kiss the theater goodbye.

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Sept. 8: Say Goodbye to the Water Street Bridge and Hello to a Detour

New Water Street Bridge Renderings by WisDOT. Note:
New Water Street Bridge renderings by WisDOT. (Please note – new bridge construction WILL NOT replace the surrounding area with a vast green nothingness.)

If you want to take a final, nostalgic drive over Eau Claire’s Water Street bridge, you’ve only got a few days to do it: Construction will begin to replace the bridge on Tuesday, Sept. 8. The $7.2 million project will last roughly a year, and will completely replace the current bridge with a new span that the state Department of Transportation says will be better for drivers, bikers, and pedestrians. When finished, the bridge will have taller railings, raised sidewalks, six-foot-wide on-street bike lanes in both directions, and a right-turn lane onto First Avenue. Until the new bridge is complete, traffic will be detoured over the Lake Street bridge about three-quarters of a mile away, so plan your trips around town accordingly. (And if you’re walking or pedaling, use the UW-Eau Claire pedestrian bridge a bit downriver.) Oh, and if you do plan a last drive over the current bridge, you better hope it holds up better than its predecessor: The old Water Street bridge collapsed dramatically into the Chippewa River in 1945.

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Tuesday, Sep. 1st, 2015

Local Groups: City's Red Tape Stalls Special Events

A SHOT AT GLORY. The Buckshot Run, held each Labor Day weekend in Carson Park, is one of scores of special events that require city approval every year.
A SHOT AT GLORY. The Buckshot Run, held each Labor Day weekend in Carson Park, is one of scores of special events requiring city approval every year.

Organizing a special event in the city of Eau Claire is sometimes unnecessarily complicated because of bureaucratic red tape and an adversarial relationship with city staff, event organizers said during a recent listening session held by city officials.

Lengthy applications, repetitive meetings, and tight restrictions on serving alcohol were all cited as reasons that it’s no walk in the part to schedule a walk in the park. In fact, representatives of several organizations said they’d scheduled events outside the city in part because of such hassles.

“Especially if you’re a new event planner, it looks like a new mountain that might not be worth it to climb.” – Michael Strubel, Visit Eau Claire, on the challenge of planning a special event in the city of Eau Claire

Michael Strubel, director of sales and events for Visit Eau Claire, said his organization had recently met with event organizers who had concerns about how the city operates. “The most common theme out of that meeting is the process is daunting,” he said. Based on his conversations with event organizers elsewhere in Wisconsin, Strubel said arranging a special event is a one-step process is some cities, and applications are sometimes only two or three pages long, compared with 29 pages in Eau Claire. Furthermore, getting approval is a three-step process in Eau Claire, with a thumbs-up needed from the Special Events Committee, the Waterways and Parks Commission, and finally the City Council. In addition, the rules in Eau Claire are particularly restrictive when alcohol is involved: Two additional hearings are held, and alcohol can only be served inside fenced-in areas. Many other cities – including larger ones – don’t require fences and control access to alcohol with wristbands, Strubel explained.

In a subsequent interview, Strubel summed up the process like this: “Especially if you’re a new event planner, it looks like a new mountain that might not be worth it to climb.”

Brian Sandy, marketing and promotions manager for the Eau Claire Press Co., which publishes the Leader-Telegram newspaper, said he’s found it is easier to hold special events in Altoona than in Eau Claire. He said rules for serving alcohol at events his company sponsors – such as the Taste of the Valley – are too restrictive and complicated. “What I am here to say is where is the common sense?” he asked.

Numerous event organizers spoke at the Aug. 26 listening session that was attended by representatives of numerous city agencies, including the Police and Fire departments and the Parks, Recreation, and Forestry Department.

Several event organizers expressed displeasure with a requirement that they pay $90 per hour for police services at events where alcohol is sold, even when police aren’t present. Karen Kraus, director of development for the local branch of Special Olympics Wisconsin, said she’d prefer to pay the fee and actually have officers present or be able to avoid the fee and regulate the event herself.

Kraus agreed that the special event process in Eau Claire is more lengthy and complicated than in other cities, such as Altoona, where the Special Olympics is relocating its annual Polar Plunge. However, she sounded hopeful that policy changes could be made. “I don’t think we’re looking at reinventing the wheel here by any means,” she added.

Ken Van Es, executive director of the Eau Claire YMCA, noted that fees have grown expensive for using city parks and trails for special events, adding that event organizers are sometimes required to pay to rent adjacent pavilions and venues even if they aren’t using them. For example, the YMCA uses the trail in Owen Park for its Kids of Steel Triathlon, and is required to pay for the park’s band shell, even though it isn’t used.

“The (City) Council has to decide whether they want to encourage special events or discourage special events,” said Van Es, a former city parks director. He noted that the profusion of requirements for event coordinators sometimes leads to an adversarial relationship with the city.

After the meeting, city Parks, Recreation, and Forestry Director Phil Fieber said the feedback would be provided to members of the City Council. He said he hopes they consider making changes to city ordinances to make the event planning process simpler. For example, he said, he doesn’t believe all special events need direct approval from the City Council.

Councilwoman Catherine Emmanuelle, who attended the listening session, also expressed hope that procedures could be streamlined. She said she’s heard from some groups that the special event application process is overwhelming. “The cost that we could be looking at is that if we don’t change things, some of the special events might say they don’t want to come back to Eau Claire,” Emmanuelle said in an interview.

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