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Six Places to Experience Vintage Fox Cities

Posted on May 1, 2018 by Cody Wiesner

The Fox Cities offer many unexpected ways to experience local history, and not just at museums either. Whether you’d like to add a historical perspective to your exercise routine, you’re looking for a new hairstyle or if you’re down to imbibe at a local bar, here are six ways you can have a great time while discovering the Valley’s distinct history.

Play at Vulcan Heritage Park

Located on the banks of the Fox River, Vulcan Heritage Park in Appleton combines the fun of exercising, picnicking and spending time with friends and family with the river’s historical roots in hydroelectric power generation and paper mills. Thanks to an assortment of signposts along a convenient brick walkway across the park, visitors can read about the Fox River’s early history on their daily walk while taking in the park’s lush green fields and trees as well as one of the Fox River’s historic dams. This dam, known as “the Grand Chute,” was built in 1874 and powered the Vulcan Street Plant which is considered the first hydroelectric plant in the nation to use the Thomas A. Edison system. Another signpost details early uses of the Fox River as a transportation highway, which brought commerce to the Valley via Lake Michigan and the Mississippi. Four other signs across the park provide additional details about the Fox River, its water power and paper mills. And after appreciating Vulcan Park, visitors can conveniently take in other scenic locations within walking distance, such as Hearthstone Historic House Museum, famous for being one of the first three buildings powered by hydroelectric energy, and the Paper Discovery Center, a science and technology museum that also chronicles the history of Appleton’s paper mills. 

Drink a beer at Lion’s Tail Brewing Co.

While many head to their favorite bar or tap house as their hard-earned escape from the office, the building Lion’s Tail Brewing Co. in Neenah now occupies was once just that. The 110-year-old building, formerly the Equitable Reserve Insurance Company, kicked the desks and foam-drop ceilings in favor of tables and bar stools, but it still retains much of its classic aesthetic, with a stone exterior, exposed brick interior walls, marble tiled flooring and, most notably, a vault, which owner Alex Wenzel says is popular among guests and is often rented out for parties. “I think it was an old record-keeping vault, and it’s got this big iron vault door with a lock on it,” Wenzel says. “People like the ambience quite a bit.”The vault’s interior, which seats 8-10 people, simultaneously hearkens back to the insurance building days while also adding a unique atmosphere to Lion’s Tail not seen in other bars. “There’s a certain style that almost every place has, and we’ve got something that you can’t manufacture,” Wenzel says. “It’s just old, original charm.” In the main taproom area, be sure to look through one of the large windows facing Doty Street to see another vintage monument: the 125-year-old Neenah clock tower. “It’s just beautiful,” Wenzel says, “especially at night. All lit up.”

See a performance at Lawrence Memorial Chapel

The Lawrence Memorial Chapel at Appleton’s Lawrence University is renowned for its performances by talented musicians and speakers in and out of the student community. Those with an observant eye will notice that the building itself uses stained-glass cathedral architecture to impart a story about the university’s history. The chapel included eight windows on its walls when it was built in 1919, each having a different well-known mythical or legendary figure depicted, such as Sir Galahad from Arthurian legend, Athena from Greek mythology and the Madonna with Child and John the Baptist. The windows are dedicated to teachers and benefactors who made an impact on the university. For instance, University Archivist Erin Dix says one of the professors honored in the Athena window was Emma Corkhill, the first female professor to have an endowed university chair. Other stained-glass windows in the chapel include insignias of the university, the City of Appleton and religious symbols. The windows can be observed during recurring artist and jazz series concerts from touring musicians as well as university musical ensembles. “The Chapel is one of our … iconic buildings, but it really stands out on College Avenue,” Dix says. “It’s such a great space to have that history surround you.”

Customize a quilt at Courtney Woolen Mill

It’s hard to imagine how prominent the wool industry was before the turn of the 20th century, but according to Tom Courtney, fourth-generation owner of Appleton’s Courtney Woolen Mill, Wisconsin once had more sheep than cows. Today, Courtney Woolen Mill carries the memory of a once-thriving industry, being one of the last in the state. Little has changed about the mill’s operation since 1880, and in fact, Courtney says many of the same machines are used to process wool, alpaca and polyester material for quilt interiors, mattresses and mattress pads. Courtney says the industry has declined because the mills sell raw material, while interest in hand-making quilts has diminished. However, those less interested in making their own quilts can pick up fabric coverings from their favorite fabric or hobby shop, and Courtney can custom-make the quilts for an additional price. The benefit, Courtney says, is the customizability of the quilts and the quality of the mill’s materials. The building, part of Appleton’s historic flats along the Fox River which was known for its concentration of paper, flour and woolen mills, stands testament to what the industry was like in its prime. Courtney says that aside from the front office, which was added in the 1920s, the mill is virtually unchanged since 1880. “Some people say walking through the back door of the mill is like walking back in time,” he says.

Take a walk in the Old Third Ward

Taking in the vintage architecture of a residential district can be the highlight of any walking trip. Appleton’s Old Third Ward walking tour easily delivers, with its eclectic mix of 19th and 20th century Irish, German, English, Italian, French and American building styles across its 65 featured homes. Along the trek, walkers can check out 325 W. Prospect Ave., built in 1872 and designed by architect William Waters, known best today as the architect of Hearthstone Historic House (also on Prospect) and the Oshkosh Grand Opera House. In 1912, the house served as a makeshift maternity hospital, operated by Dr. Maud Pratt. After seeing all Prospect has to offer, onlookers can cut through Jackman Street to see State Street and its nine houses and buildings, which date as far back as 1868. The Third Ward Neighborhood Association notes that one of the earliest electric trolleys passed through State Street on its four-mile route from 1886 to 1930, and Appleton claims it was the “first commercially successful” electric streetcar in the world. Also of note is 303 S. Walnut Street, which was built in 1875 and was owned by James P. Lennon, who once contributed to the Fox Cities county sheriff and justice of the peace. His descendants, the Lennon Sisters, notable for being inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2001, have visited the home. According to the Neighborhood Association, the range of building styles is due to an influx of American settlers, Irish, French and German immigrants who came to Appleton in the 18th and 19th centuries and made the Old Third Ward into the visual marvel it is today. Ask for a walking tour pamphlet at Coventry Glassworks & Gallery in Appleton or visit oldthirdward.org.

Get pampered at Modify Hair Studio

In the hairstyling industry, good conversation, depending on the customer, can be a very important tool of the trade. Luckily, Shannon Kadlec, manager of Modify Hair Studio in downtown Menasha, thinks the business’ late-1800s building is a great conversation piece. According to Kadlec, the building was originally home to a hotel called the Fox River House, primarily targeted at farmers who came to Menasha to mill wheat. The Menasha Historical Society gave Kadlec a photo collage of several early Menasha buildings, including the Fox River House, and is displayed on a wall in the studio. She says guests frequently like to look at the wall and read the accompanying descriptions of the pictured historical businesses. “Our wall is very popular,” Kadlec says. “Guests love that because everything’s changing and [they] bring up a lot of conversation because they remember the business that used to be there.” Kadlec says the building’s history and place in downtown Menasha is what motivated her to start the studio there. “I love the downtown setting and the history of Main Street,” Kadlec says. “I want to support that.”

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