Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Oshkosh, Wisconsin

Illinois neighbor to the north is the state of Wisconsin, known as "America's Dairyland". I sometimes say, only half jokingly, that as you leave they check your car at the border to ensure that you have purchased cheese during your stay. In truth, there are shops selling a variety of cheese products at all state border crossings.

I have a friend who grew up in, and whose family still lives in, Oshkosh, a city famous for the clothing company which carries it's name. It is a relatively small city in both physical size, 24 square miles, and population, around 66,000. It contains a number of historic structures, primarily due to the wealth generated by the timber industry in the late 19th and early 20th century, including a modest home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

My friend's family lives on a county road, yet still within the borders of the city. The home was part of a dairy farm, it is Wisconsin after all. A second home, a classic example of the Arts and Crafts movement, was rescued by the family from demolition during an urban renewal project. It sits next door to the original house on the property. There is a hay barn and the dairy barn, some of the milking equipment still in place. The grounds around the homes and outbuildings are well manicured. The rest of the property has been allowed to return to it's former state of prairie grasses and wildflowers. Wild hares and mice thrive in the tall grasses. Hawks float overhead. My friend's father and I once stood at the edge of the wild growth watching two adult hawks teaching their young to hunt.

My friend once told me the story of the house. Originally a much older home stood on the site. Apparently the husband who owned it was constantly telling his wife he would build her a new home to replace the old one. After postponing construction time and again the wife's patience wore out. She took a sledgehammer to the house causing so much damage that tearing down and rebuilding was the only option. What resulted was the charming one and a half story home that stands today.

The upper floor, where the bedrooms are located, is a cozy space of sloping ceiling lines and dormer windows. The mix of furnishings, punctuated by country antiques, makes the home feel comfortable, loved and lived in. Off the master bedroom is a deck built on top of the home's first floor mud room. The mud room is the entrance to the house. It opens into the kitchen, which is the heart and soul of this home. There is a front door the the house as well, but I can truthfully say that in all my visits there I have never seen anyone use it. The dining room has built in cabinets in it's corners showcasing a collection of transfer printed pottery. Racks containing a collection of silver spoons hang on one wall. A small book lined study sits at the back of the house. Out the living room's window cows can be seen grazing in the field across the road. Alas, the last time I was there this bucolic scene had begun to morph into the tract homes of a subdivision. In the basement a bar and pool table share space with the family's Christmas decorations.

Each year the Experimental Aircraft Association holds an event called AirVenture. People flying in from all over the world to display their small aircraft gives the city's municipal airfield, for this one weekend each year, the distinction of being the busiest airport in the world. Oh those magnificent men in their flying machines! My first visit to Oshkosh was to experience this aeronautical spectacle. 5 of us, plus their son, descended upon this hapless family that weekend. We took over the upper floor of the house, his parents graciously giving up their bedroom, sleeping on the sofa bed in the living room. I went to the air show knowing almost nothing about experimental aviation. I left knowing that it was a venture entirely out of my price range. The visit ended with a Sunday family lunch of hearty country fare prior to our drive home. 3 generations of this wonderful family graced the table that afternoon.

Subsequent trips revolved around the family's annual fall barn dance. Shopping at Goodwill and antique malls filled the afternoons. On occasion short visits to a local lighthouse were made, as a constant fellow on these trips is fond of them. He was fonder still when he discovered that this particular lighthouse carries his last name. Further investigation revealed that he is distantly related to the family that owns and maintains the structure.

In the evening the dance commences. It is a major event in the area and draws a large crowd. As it is Wisconsin there is a fair assortment of Packer's attire on display. The scene is peppered with guests sporting combinations of Green and Yellow and G's and B's. Hay bales provide seating, plank tables groan under the weight of kegs of beer and plates of candied apples. Jack o' Lanterns, carved by the lighthouse lover, flicker and two stepping couples fill the floor.

One dance of the night is reserved for the hosts, the parents of my friend. After over four decades of marriage the look they shared as they moved across the dance floor to the strains of "I Only Have Eyes For You" displayed a deep and abiding love that is beautiful, inspiring and enviable.

I wander outside. The barn blocks out the lights from the house and grounds as we sit behind it. I enjoy the crisp, fresh coolness of the fall night air and look up through the darkness at the multitude of twinkling lights in the broad, crystal clear, midwestern sky. I could not live in the country, but it's a great place to visit once in a while!


  1. Driving to Oshkosh with you and Scott remain some of my fondest memories ever. Thank you.

  2. Wonderful description of the homes and the people.

    Merry Christmas btw