General 11-13-2006

Letters from a Writer: I Love Wisconsin

Jean Sramek takes her Minnesota eyes on a trip to our peculiar neighbor: Wisconsin. I wonder what they'd think of us? After all, we have no telephone museums.

Brush Museum
Trempeleau ornament.

If you clicked on this link expecting irony and sarcasm, I’m going to disappoint you. I really do love Wisconsin. But please stay: I’m going to use sarcasm to explain why I love Wisconsin’s ironies, so there will be something for everyone.

Wisconsin is weird. In fact, there is a Weird Wisconsin website and companion book, detailing everything from roadside oddities to bona fide spooks and hauntings. I suspect there are Weird Minnesota and Weird North Dakota guides as well, but I also suspect that you can’t do in Minnesota or North Dakota what you can do—every damned time—in Wisconsin: cross the border, and within ten minutes, see/do/smell/feel/eat something weird and worth telling about later. Camera phones were surely invented with Wisconsin in mind.

I go on a little Wisconsin vacation every October. I’ve seen the Museum of Woodcarving (Shell Lake), the Dickeyville Grotto (Dickeyville), and the Fred Smith Memorial Concrete Park (Phillips). Like everything else in the Badger State, these attractions are equal parts earnest and creepy. This year I added the Brush Trophy Museum and PhoneCo (both in Galesville) to the list.

Galesville is located in tiny Trempealeau County, geographically known as the driftless region. Its towns and villages, nestled in postcard-style rolling hills dotted with working orchards and farms, contain quaint little squares with historic buildings. Pie shops featuring fair-trade coffee coexist happily with Go-Packers bars in which Leinenkugel’s is considered an exotic import consumed only by the elite. There are more Amish buggies than Toyotas in Trempealeau county, but furren cars are tolerated, because they usually have bicycles and kayaks strapped to the top, and that means tourist dollars. Ugly vinyl-sided McMansions have crept in, but only on the margins (see sidebar and photo).

The Brush Trophy Museum is someone’s tax-write off. Jim Brush, entrepreneur and big-game hunter, had killed and collected enough stuffed wild animals to make his mansion (no “Mc” on this one) burst at the proverbial seams, so a 14,000 square foot addition was just the ticket. And speaking of tickets, why not call it a museum and charge admission? And so it came to pass: $12 per adult, plus sales tax. That’s steep by any standards—ludicrous by rural Wisconsin standards—and although the brochures for Brush Trophy Museum enthusiastically and somewhat desperately promise “GROUPS AND BUS TOURS WELCOME” along with “FREE PARKING” (it’s in the middle of nowhere, no neighbors for miles … free parking, gee thanks!), they also specifically state “NO GROUP DISCOUNTS.” Make no mistake: as soon as Jim figures out a way to install parking meters, he’ll do it.

Museums generally help their visitors learn and discover because, uh, that’s what museums do. But interpretation of the Brush museum is only available in Jim Brush’s self-published coffee table book, $37 plus sales tax. Visitors to the museum will have to guess the rest, aided only by the occasional arrow indicating “Jim’s kudu” and “Cindy’s kudu,” accompanied by proud photos of Jim and Cindy on safari. (Cindy is the wife; I know you’re waiting for me to say “trophy wife,” but even I have some dignity). The museum, unstaffed except for people who milk your debit card of the admission fee, contains over 300 formerly dangerous animals in realistic settings.

The animals are realistic, all right. You must fight the urge to run outside to your Toyota and drive away as fast as possible, not because you are afraid the animals will come to life, but because you realize that you are basically alone in the home of a big-game hunter, who could kill you on a whim and send you off to the taxidermist, and no one would hear you scream except passing Amish families, and what are they going to do, call 911?

All in all, the Brush Museum is completely worth the price of admission and I highly recommend it, but only with PhoneCo as a chaser. PhoneCo is also a museum which grew out of some guy’s weird hobby, in this case hunting and capturing telephones. It is a working business—for example, they supply film and television sets with historically correct telephones. They also do repairs and house an impressive array of telephones and related equipment. The “museum” is crammed into hallways, spare rooms, the PhoneCo business office, and the shipping room. It is grubby and poorly lit, so I may or may not have seen cockroaches. There is no admission fee, and visitors are welcome to wander about at will, the lines between business and museum happily blurred.

It’s every bit as weird as the Brush Museum. But you will not have the urge to run outside to your Toyota and drive away from PhoneCo as fast as possible. Worst case scenario, they kidnap you and force you to work at PhoneCo and no one can hear you scream except the Amish. Eh—it could be worse. At least in downtown Galesville, they have that nice coffee place with the good bread, and one of the bars on the square has New Glarus Spotted Cow Ale on tap. It’s no Edel-Pils, but it’s a start, so go ahead and call 911. I’m staying in the Twilight Zone, and maybe they’ll let me use the Brady Bunch phone, or the one with the rodeo cowgirl painted on the front.

The way I figure it, I spent an average of $6 to see the Brush Trophy Museum and PhoneCo. That’s a pretty good deal. A good, weird, Wisconsin combo platter. I’m going back again next year for more. Possible destination: Queen of the Holy Rosary, Mediatrix of Peace shrine (Necedah).