From Gurnee, Illinois I headed up to the Northwoods of Wisconsin to stay the night with some old friends before continuing on to Valleyfair just outside Minneapolis, Minnesota.
I had been to Minocqua once before back in 2005, where my friend’s family has a cabin on a small private lake. The town bills itself as Nature's Original Water Park™ (yes, some local business association or tourist office actually trademarked it). Which makes some sense, as the crown jewel of their regional identity is the Min-Aqua Bats Water Ski Club. The club dates back to 1950 and claims to be the oldest continually running amateur water ski show in the United States.
I saw the Min-Aquabats show in 2005, and it was really neat. This time though I wanted to return to what I think is the coolest local spot in the area—Paul Bunyan’s Cook Shanty.
After back-to-back theme parks, it was nice for a change of pace to take in a good ol’ fashioned American roadside attraction, much like South Dakota’s Wall Drug which I posted about some time back.
The giant lumberjack Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe, are famous figures in American folklore. Many places claim to have birthed him:
Maine - Bangor
Michigan - Oscoda, Ossineke, St. Ignace
Minnesota - Akeley, Bemidji, Brainerd
Wisconsin - Eau Claire, Stevens Point, Wausau
Given his iconic status, Bunyan is honored by several roadside attractions. Perhaps the most famous is in Bemidji, Minnesota. Paul even has a cameo in the Coen brothers’ 1996 film Fargo (though the statue depicted does not actually exist).
The original Paul Bunyan’s Cook Shanty opened just to the south in Wisconsin Dells in 1958. The Minocqua location followed in 1961. The Dells Shanty was made famous by their “Lumberjack Show” which still runs today. As their website describes:
The Dells Lumberjack Show features events such as the standing block chop, axe throw, spring board chop, obstacle pole, hot saw, log roll, and many more performed by professional lumberjacks, medalists and athletes.
Both Shanty restaurants feature an all-you-can eat “camp style” breakfast in which shared portions are served to long tables of various parties of diners. In 2005 I ate this breakfast, and it was terrific. For this second visit, I arrived after the menu had shifted to lunch for the day.
While the metatheme here is the myth of Paul Bunyan the giant lumberjack, design-wise the dining areas are a cross between a frontier log cabin and a traditional North Woods hunting lodge. This is a common motif from Maine to across the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest—any heavily forested area, really.
Like many common American themes, there are requisite trappings to this setting: metal camping coffee cups (typically painted a solid color with white spackling), metal dishes, red and white checkered table coverings, and bench seating. Typical Western / frontier props include hurricane-style kerosene lamps, assorted tool and rifles, and mounted hunting trophies.
The raftered ceilings are also filled with numerous props—a trope I detailed while at Six Flags Great America. Lots of taxidermied fish (real or otherwise). And there are small skylight areas that brighten up the dining rooms.
This postcard from the early 1970s shows how little Paul Bunyan’s Cook Shanty has changed over the years. Given how many such mid-century roadside attractions and restaurants have been heavily remodeled or even completely destroyed, the Shanty is a thematic time capsule.
Some dining areas are more densely filled with props and decoration than others, including fake trees. This reminded me quite a bit of the Clearman’s restaurants in Southern California, which carry a similar theme (albeit with fake snow on their roofs year-round). I wonder if, like Clearman’s, the Shanty is decked out in special decor for the holiday season.
One subtle feature I thought quite clever is that the closer you get to the kitchen entrance, the more cooking props (basins, pots and pans, etc) show up hung from the rafters. The vibe is like a mining camp.
Part of the main dining are completely over the top, however. There’s a complete horse wagon here hanging mere feet from diners heads! Thank goodness Wisconsin is not traditionally earthquake country; this would not likely fly in California.
Enter (and Exit) Through the Gift Shop
Attractions and restaurants such as this probably garner a good portion of their income from the gift shop and (like the Shanty has) a bakery. This is a small owner-operator tradition that was latter corporatized by chains like Cracker Barrel which has nearly 650 locations across the United States. There are also smaller, regional chain examples like Van de Kamps.
The idea here is to present the merchandise exactly as the propping is staged throughout the restaurant, so you feel like you’re “buying a piece” of the place. All the expected kitsch is present. And yes, I’ll admit I bought a couple t-shirts.
Although I really liked the overall thematic design of Paul Bunyan’s Cook Shanty, I think it had one major thing going against it. The restaurant was overlit. So for a few of my photographs, I decided to play with my exposure settings. These were further enhanced digitally. I think the Shanty is much more dramatic and interesting when lit this way.
High contrast, oversaturated photography is not usually my thing. But I really like the mood present in these shots.
There’s something about the blown-out brights which heighten the sense of gas lighting as opposed to electricity. And I love the drama of the trophy buck head in silhouette. North Woods noir?
Minocqua Theming v. 1.0: Euro-Town
After a couple nights, I headed out from my friend’s family cabin and spent some time photographing the downtown area before leaving for Minnesota. It would appear that Minocqua underwent the same kinds of aesthetic changes throughout the middle of the twentieth century that many other similar sized Midwestern towns did. In order to capitalize on their various European immigrant histories, they took a cue from Disneyland and ‘sweetened’ these associations, providing cultural tourist draw in the form of dining, retail, and entertainment.
Many of these themed buildings clearly date to the 1950s and 60s, just like I found in Frankenmuth, Michigan. Some have been retrofitted over the years. It’s especially easy to spot the seventies creeping in, in the form of dark shingles.
This step panoramic of a single block is a typical example of what I found—a somewhat generic-yet-Germanic presentation.
There are also restored brick buildings which appear much older, some of them turn of the century. Many feature augmentation of one kind or another, like this shop which clearly added the A-frame roof to the first story to “Alpinize” the structure. But the level above belongs to the Victorian era.
This postcard appears to be from the late sixties or early seventies based on the automobiles in the shot, which makes me wonder about the age of some of thematic elements I found. Perhaps some came later, in the 1980s and even the 90s.
The “Clock Tower Centre” feels very late-seventies or early eighties, again based on other examples I’ve seen throughout the country. I know Carter was big on wearing sweaters and turning the heat down to save energy…did he have a similar mandate to install wide, dark roof shingles on everything?
This block was composed of mostly older brick buildings, with less thematic alteration.
Except for Otto’s Beer & Brat Garden, which is rocking the Ski Lodge vibe. I found the mounted barrel curious. How is anyone supposed to access that? It seems like an unwise place to store surplus beer.
Their website doesn’t reveal anything about the history of the place or even the date it opened. But based on the exterior and the interior (I had eaten here back in 2005) I’d guess the mid-sixties.
Again, just like at themed Euro-towns like Michican’s Frankenmuth, I found lots of great hand lettered (routed and/or hand painted) blackletter typography. The serif treatments on the upper lines suggests anywhere from the 1950s–1970s.
Wonderful wrought iron as well, just like I found in Two Rivers, Wisconsin.
Minocqua Theming v. 2.0: Disneyland, Wisconsin
But one particular block of downtown Minocqua really got my attention. This was not only theming in the Disneyesque tradition, but it was of a much, much newer vintage. I’d say late 1990s to early 2000s, much like the Mackinaw Crossings shopping development I had described earlier.
This is the Main Street U.S.A. approach, straight out of central casting (so to speak), crossed with a kind of Old West Frontier Town design that I saw in Deadwood, South Dakota.
I realize that the developers wanted to find a way to drawing attention for their Gaslight Square Shoppes indoor mall, but in the context of the rest of Minocqua, it’s very odd indeed.
The “shoppes” don’t represent the oldest buildings in town (original brick structures which date to the early twentieth century) nor the oldest theme (that’s the European stylings added around mid-century which portray nineteenth century settlements). Rather they depict a setting somewhat in between. But paradoxically, Gaslight Square Shoppes appears to be the newest actual development in Minocqua.
The mall’s website claims the theme is the 1920s and draws from St. Louis, Missouri. But that doesn’t jive with the architecture in my opinion. I do regret that I didn’t take a few moments to venture inside, as the retail spaces on the first floor are “indoor for outdoor” and resemble city streets. This place needs a casino!
The intersection block has been painted with a large mural that suggests faux storefront balconies and signage. It’s a bit cheesy, sure, but at a distance (from across the street) I kind of liked it. I just wish the lettering wasn’t so clumsy.
I finished my visit to Minocqua with a stop at their “Welcome to” sign on the edge of town. Every settlement of a particular size throughout the United States has one of these, and they’re always from different aesthetic eras. By the typography, wood carving, and paint colors, I’d say this is anywhere from the mid-seventies to the mid-eighties.
Well, farewell to “The Island City.” Next stop: Valleyfair!