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Chippewa Falls pours on the charm

October 24, 2016

Lake Wissota, at dusk. In the movie "Titanic," Leonardo DiCaprio's character mentions growing up on Lake Wissota -- though the reservoir was actually created after the ship sank in 1912.

CHIPPEWA FALLS, Wis. — This county seat just beyond the fringes of Eau Claire may have discovered the elixir to attract new tourists and millennial-friendly businesses.

It’s the water residents have been drinking for centuries.

The downtown is knee-deep in a $10 million redo of its Chippewa River frontage, which includes a 10-acre park connected to an existing bike-path network. The ambitious project is already seeing results. The main drag has sprouted shops and cafes. A new downtown hotel — the first since 1919, and a rarity among downtowns in the Northwoods — opened in late September.

Chippewa Falls may be best known as the home of Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing, the regional powerhouse now owned by mega-brewer SABMiller. The 1867 brewery on Duncan Creek is still in operation, and Leinenkugel descendants are still in charge. The welcome center and brewery tours attract more than 100,000 suds lovers a year.

Thing is, there is no physical Chippewa Falls in this city of 14,000. In pioneer days, loggers farther up the large Chippewa River watershed would float felled timber to sawmills here. The fast-moving rapids were replaced by a succession of dams. Since 1928, one of the most visible downtown landmarks has been the enormous hydro dam that helped make the town a manufacturing center. It’s still in operation, but the downtown factories it spawned closed long ago.

Though new technology is a substantial citywide economic driver — we’ll get to the Cray effect in a minute — the Riverfront Park project, which broke ground this spring and will be completed by 2020, looks like a game-changer.

"The tipping point," is what Chippewa Falls tourism director Jackie Boos calls it. "Our backs had been turned to the water; now the riverfront will be interactive." Plans call for walkways, overlooks and an amphitheater.

The revival buzz is working its way up Bridge Street, where brick commercial buildings built in Victorian times are being repurposed into boutiques and cafes at street level, with condos and apartments upstairs.

The new 45-room Cobblestone Hotel & Suites is targeting business travelers and tourists with its upscale Wissota Chophouse and an indoor/outdoor beer garden facing Bridge Street.

The four-block commercial stretch of Bridge Street also has the popular Mahli Thai Asian Cuisine and Duncan Creek Wine Bar, where you can drop a bundle on steak, lobster, snapper and such. It’s in a brick storefront that — according to the worn paint above its windows — once housed the Farm Store.

To go old-school Chippewa Falls, grab coffee and breakfast or lunch at Bresina’s Old Home Restaurant, 704 E. Grand Ave., or get a cone at venerable Olson’s Ice Cream, where 28 flavors are offered daily at the shop at 611 N. Bridge St. Before or after your requisite trip to Leinenkugel’s, get fried fish or chicken at Bresina’s Carry Out, across from the brewery.

Combine food and spirits at Sheeley House, 236 W. River St., set in an 1864 livery stable. It’s said to be the most haunted place in town. Ask the owner, 30-year-old Jessica Moran, for a story or two. (Her best encounters transpired after closings on Wednesdays.)

A notable boutique on Bridge Street is Brown Barn, the retail outlet of a fragrance farm outside town that ships soaps, lotions and other artisan products nationwide. At the counter, use a paper swab to mix up to three of the 35-plus scents, and they’ll bottle your custom creation on the spot.

The five-block Riverfront Park will tie into a massive network of bike trails. To rent a two-wheeler or get route advice, see Nate Seckora at Spring Street Sports, 12 W. Spring St.

"Off-road biking is becoming a big scene, mostly because of the availability of trails protected from county roads," he said.

Paved paths can take you south to Eau Claire, or north on the nearly 20-mile Old Abe Trail that connects Lake Wissota State Park with Brunet Island State Park in Cornell.

Many of the paths hug the river, where you’ll find Loopy’s Grill & Saloon (www.723loop.com). Loopy’s offers kayak, canoe and tube rentals. A Loopy’s shuttle will drive you to a put-in, where you can then paddle or float back down the lake in roughly 2.5 hours.

The growth of Leinenkugel and the legacy of Seymour Cray are credited with keeping the city’s hopes alive during lean decades. Cray (1925-1996) was the homespun, maverick electrical engineer whom many consider the inventor of the supercomputer. In the early ‘70s, this recognized genius in the computer world left Control Data Corp. in the Twin Cities to start Cray Research and build powerful, advanced machines in his hometown of Chippewa Falls.

Now based in Seattle, Cray still has its manufacturing plant here. For a close-up and no-cost look at Seymour Cray’s wizardry, stop downtown at the Chippewa Falls Museum of Industry and Technology (www.cfmit.org). Museum coordinator Alitia Kerr offers a remarkable show-and-tell.

Among the machines on display is the Cray-1, the first supercomputer built by Seymour and his crew in the pre-circuit board 1970s. It’s the size of a large refrigerator and is filled with 67 miles of wires. The back is off; peek inside. It looks like a tangle of angel hair pasta that only a robot would eat.

Sooner or later, a visit to Chippewa Falls takes you to Leinenkugel’s, 124 E. Elm St. Tours of the brewery are offered daily for $5 and include five, 5-ounce samples at the Leinie Lodge. Despite its name, the lodge isn’t a hotel. But it is fully stocked with all sorts of branded apparel and Leinie’s gear. You can also arrange for a two-hour family tour Thursday afternoons. Those cost $25 a person and are led by one of four Leinenkugel descendants on staff. A beer-cheese pairing sampler follows the tour (www.leinie.com).

At the lodge, you can buy beer varieties that are harder to find south of the Wisconsin frontier.

These days, Leinenkugel’s has a large Milwaukee plant. But 25 percent of its suds are still made right here at this historic brewery on Duncan Creek, a tributary of the ever-changing Chippewa River.

 

 


Associated Press