Appleton put on map by more than baseball

Ties to Houdini, liberal arts college, bountiful history combine in hot spot

(Gerald Herbert/AP)

March 2, 2006 3:00 AM

Quick: What do you think of when you hear Appleton, Wis.?

If you said farmlands, cheese and beer, you probably wouldn't be alone. But you wouldn't be entirely correct, either.

Located just a half-hour south of Green Bay, Appleton was founded in the 1850s in the middle of Wisconsin's paper industry boom when the nearby Fox River carried timber down to Appleton's mills. The paper industry is still a major force in the region, with companies such as Georgia Pacific, International Paper and the Banta Corporation setting up major operations.

Now it is the heart of the thriving Fox Cities community in eastern Wisconsin that boasts a great deal of diverse entertainment and attractions. Appleton is home to a bustling downtown district, a nationally recognized liberal arts college, one of the state's largest shopping centers and is considered the hometown of one of the world's most famous magicians. Not bad for a small community in the heart of the Midwest.

Appleton even caught the eye of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004. Community members came out in force for a campaign rally, armed with "Fighting for Us" signs and a huge "Wisconsin is Kerry Country" banner.

On the outskirts of town are two of the area's biggest attractions. The Fox River Mall is the second-largest shopping center in the state but might just be the most popular.

You can find the typical anchor stores such as J.C. Penney and Sears while picking up the best new clothes at Abercrombie & Fitch. It also features two signature stores: the Fox River Brewing Company and Scheel's All Sports. Fox River is regarded as one of the best microbreweries in the area, with the Caber Tossing Scottish Ale being its top seller, and offers a family-friendly atmosphere that keeps it a well-attended establishment.

"People come all over from the Midwest to shop here. I've seen people from Minnesota, Michigan, Iowa and Illinois walking around, just taking in the sights and trying to see how much is really there," said Nikki Clipperton, director of community and media relations for the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers.

Clipperton's franchise isn't doing that bad, either. The Timber Rattlers, a Class A affiliate of the Seattle Mariners, got to the 2005 Midwest League Championship Series before falling in five games to the South Bend Silver Hawks. Jeff Clement, the Mariners' first pick in the 2005 draft, helped power the Timber Rattlers on their playoff run. He is regarded as one of the Minors' top catching prospects.

The ballpark is a hotspot of activity for the region. Fox Cities Stadium, which holds about 5,500 fans, is entering its 12th season of operation and still going strong. Attendance jumped from just over 75,000 in their last year at Goodland Field to nearly 210,000 in 1995, when Fox Cities Stadium opened.

The center of Appleton's activity is College Avenue, a five-mile strip that cuts through the middle of the city. On and around it, you can find an array of restaurants, bars and clubs.

"There really is a ton of stuff to do in downtown Appleton," Clipperton said. "The whole area can be whatever you want it to be because of all the choices. You can go find places to sit back and relax just as easily as you can find big clubs and a good bar scene.

"It really isn't what you'd expect for someplace in the middle of the Midwest."

For those from suburban areas in the Northeast and Southern California, there are the familiar franchises such as Chili's, Applebee's and Outback Steakhouse, but there are more than enough local establishments to go around, such as Flanagan's Wine Review and Frank's Pizza Place. There's a multitude of ethnic eateries available, ranging from the Greek establishment Apollon to two Mongolian restaurants. One of them, Mongo's Mongolian Barbecue, even offers a unique room, where patrons lounge on large and comfortable pillows while they eat off an oversized coffee table.

Since this is Wisconsin, you cannot go too far without finding reminders of the Green Bay Packers. There is no better place to satisfy the inner Cheesehead than Vince Lombardi's Steakhouse, which is considered one of the best restaurants in the entire area. Not only is the green-trimmed and wood-lined interior decorated with memorabilia from the legendary coach, but it was awarded the 2005 Wine Spectator Award of Excellence by Wine Spectator for having one of the world's best restaurant wine lists.

College Avenue offers more than a good meal and a good night, though. It is also the home of Lawrence University, a liberal arts school of just under 1,500 undergraduates with a range of courses from anthropology, East Asian studies and environmental studies to mathematics, physics and neuroscience. Their athletics also have garnered some recent national attention, as the Division III Vikings are the lone undefeated men's basketball team in the NCAA, drawing praise from such outlets as, the Los Angeles Times and the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger.

One block west, the three-story Outagamie Museum stands at the corner of East College Avenue and Drew Street. Some of its attractions include artifacts from the Fox Cities' old industries, such as a wire weaving loom, a working 19th century reproduction paper room and original documents and first-edition works by noted author Edna Ferber. The biggest attraction, though, deals with Appleton's most celebrated resident: Harry Houdini.

He was born Ehrich Weisz in Hungary but relocated to Appleton with the rest of his family in 1878. Weisz later moved to New York City and changed his name to honor his favorite magician but always looked fondly back to Appleton as his hometown. The Outagamie County Historical Society keeps Houdini's memory alive year-round with tours and interactive exhibits of some his most famous tricks, as well as live performances during the summer and Halloween, the anniversary of the famed escape artist's death.

After a few days in Appleton and the surrounding Fox Cities, escape may be one of the last things on a person's mind. Other places of interest include the impressive 1,000 Island Environmental Center and the Barlow Planetarium for those looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the downtown district and malls.

For a state known for nearly endless stretches of rolling hills and farms, Appleton serves as a small oasis of modern life in the middle of the Midwest.

Michael Echan is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

View More