Wednesday, June 26, 2002


Trempealeau: A Tourist Meca


by Cynthya Porter

Although it is hidden from view along Wisconsin's Highway 35, the tiny hamlet of Trempealeau cannot keep itself a secret. Each year, thousands of tourists flock to the quaint community in search of the world-class food, postcard beauty and small-town charm that have kept Trempealeau on the map for more than 150 years.
Ideally positioned between Winona and La Crosse, the town has actually grown while other rural communities shrink, and to the residents of Trempealeau, the reasons are obvious.
As Wanda Emerson, owner of Sheer Excellence, deftly styled a client's hair, scheduled appointments and visited with those waiting, she explained the lure of Trempealeau that made families call it home for generations. "It's beautiful here," she said, "and the people who live here enjoy all kinds of tourist town benefits like great food and the river, but still have the safety of a small town."
Emerson, a lifelong resident, opened her salon last August after working in Onalaska for 17 years. Bringing her business closer to home allowed her to magnify the connection she already felt for the small town. "You grow up with everyone, and the community is very close," Emerson said. "If someone is in need in this community, it really comes together. The whole town is affected when someone suffers, and 1500 people can come up with $65,000. It's just unbelievable to me how people reach out here."
For Deb Lakey, a resident for 18 years who provides spa and nail services at Sheer Excellence, Trempealeau is the perfect place to raise her children. "Here you have parents who know where their kids are all the time. Everyone knows everyone. It's pretty hard for kids to get away with much of anything." With a laugh, Emerson agreed. "When I was a kid," she said, "if I did something, my parents knew the next day."
Part of the reason Trempealeau's permanent population has grown is because of the way it captivates tourists, compelling them to return for good in search of the idyllic life they sampled there.
Such was the case for Angie Racich, who explained from the styling chair why she and her husband transplanted their family 20 years ago from the bustle of Chicago to the tranquil town on the shores of the Mississippi. "I used to come here fishing with my dad. Then my sister married the lockmaster in 1980, and called us up to say there was a hardware store for sale. The kids were small, it was the perfect time to move. We love it, and we've been here ever since."
The trio acknowledged, though, that with the benefits of a small town also come a few challenges for residents. "We need more for kids to do, especially in the winter," Emerson said. "We also need a grocery store, or even a Kwik Trip."
When the owners of Trempealeau's only grocery market retired, Emerson explained, no one stepped in to fill the void. As a result, residents cannot purchase many of the most basic staples in town. "I was the first place to sell shampoo in town," Emerson said. "And with no competition, milk is $3 or $4 at the only convenience store."
Still, these women say they would choose quiet charm over big city conveniences any day.
But don't let the quiet charm of this small town fool you. Hidden behind its historic facades is some of the best food available for hundreds of miles, even drawing stellar reviews from the food critic at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
At the historic Trempealeau Hotel, a guest register testifies to the national appeal of the fare that has made them famous. Entries from as far away as the imagination can wander dot the pages, often sprinkled with comments like "Superb!" and "We'll definitely be back!"
According to employee Jori Bittner, the crowd favorite is their signature walnut burger, although many of their other vegetarian dishes, as well as their assortment of grilled fish and steak entrees, follow closely behind.
From the expansive windows of the hotel's restaurant or from a sunny deck, guests can watch the Mississippi flow quietly by, making the hotel a favorite Trempealeau landmark since 1871.
About once a month during the summer, this otherwise quiet town explodes to life, as the hotel's concert series fills the streets of Trempealeau with music and lots of it, not to mention thousands of people. Home to one of the best known summer concert venues in the area, the Trempealeau Hotel hosts internationally famous performers on an outdoor stage, drawing crowds from across the Midwest.
According to bartender Marc Bateman, aside from the concerts, guests come for the relaxed atmosphere. "It's pretty laid back. People aren't in here for a quick meal, they're here to enjoy the place."
Out at the curb, a couple parked their motorcycle and paused to gaze up and down Trempealeau's Main Street. On vacation, they had heard stories of Trempealeau, and decided the town was worth a stop as they trekked from Stevens Point to Prairie du Chien. Their first impression? "It's really pretty," Sandy Braun said. Meanwhile, her companion, P.J. Whitney, was eying up the balconies of the Riverview Motel, situated just off of the Mississippi River. "We want one of those rooms on the second floor, where we can just sit back and look out at the river. That would be great," he commented. With that, the couple was off to secure a room and acquaint themselves with the the town.
A while later, Braun and Whitney wandered into Rhino's Bar, one of Trempealeau's favorite gathering places. Braun raved about their short venture down the road into Perrot State Park, marveling at its serene beauty and informative displays. Now, relaxed on stools, they had clearly made themselves at home in the friendly community.
Although operating under a variety of names during the past century, Rhino's has been a feature of Trempealeau's Main Street for well over a hundred years. Under the management of Linda Baardseth for the last two years, the historic bar is about to undergo one more name change, but this change, Baardseth said, will last for a very long time.
Fulfilling a dream, Baardseth recently purchased Rhino's, and on July 1 it will officially become Linda's Place. "I'm changing the name to Linda's Place because I'm going to be here the rest of my life," Baardseth said.
When asked what made her plan out her entire future in Trempealeau, Baardseth replied, "It's the people. You won't find any better people anywhere. I've been in other towns, and there's nowhere like it."
Having lived in the area her whole life, Baardseth did not hesitate to raise her three teenagers in the same place. "Everyone pretty much watches out for each other. It's one big family in Trempealeau," she said. But this family, she added, welcomes new members and kindred spirits with open arms, and as a result, most tourists are only a stranger once in Trempealeau.
As she spoke, an eclectic blend of songs streamed from the jukebox. One after another, groups of people filtered in, arranging themselves around comfortable tables for a little conversation. Of the 30 or so people in the establishment, Baardseth knew most by name. "If you want to know something, you can come down here, because everyone knows it here," she said of the chatting clusters of people. "I've got all my locals in here, and we've always got something to talk about."
Baardseth's 18-year-old daughter, Carli, just started working for her mom in the bar, a move that caused Baardseth little concern. "It's helped my daughter mature a lot. These guys look out for her," she said with an expansive sweep of her arm across the crowded room. "They give her advice, it's like having a bunch of dads and grandpas, and she listens to them."
A running joke in the bar is that it might be haunted, Baardseth said. Several times a week, one of the TVs either turns itself on or off out of the blue, causing quite a stir among patrons. "Maybe I have ghosts, but they're nice to me, so it's okay. Nothing else like that goes on around here, except sometimes people will say, 'Hey, someone drank my drink!' and I'll say, 'No, that was you,'" Baardseth joked, drawing laughter from patrons along the bar.
At the end of the bar, Bill "Mack" McLaren sipped a drink, and spoke of the days as a young man when he used to hitchhike from Racine to Trempealeau. "I loved the Mississippi, and the mountains around it," he said. A fisherman and 25-year newspaper veteran, McLaren was drawn to the area after he retired, having had his fill of Lake Michigan and all those newfangled "fish finders and push buttons that take the fun out of fishing," he said. In Trempealeau, he fishes the "old way," casting out and waiting. "You've got to feel the fish on there. You can't do that with all that new stuff," he said.
Of all the places in the world to retire, McLaren says he wouldn't have gone anywhere else. "I love this area. I like the people in this area," he explained. "They're nice to talk to. They talk real easy compared to those big-city types."
In fact, the only time Trempealeau resembles a big city is during Catfish Days, an annual celebration scheduled for July 12, 13 and 14 that usually draws more than 30,000 people to the usually serene little town. Visitors and locals sample the river's bounty in the form of every catfish dish imaginable, as well as dance in the streets and participate in a little good-natured mayhem.
From its culinary reputation to its national performers to its laid-back charm, Trempealeau may have something for nearly everyone. But if you go, whether for a rollicking celebration or a relaxing dinner, remember, if it's your kind of place, you're only a stranger in Trempealeau once. And if you visit Linda's Place, bring a few quarters for the jukebox and some easy conversation, and don't talk to Mack like one of those big-city types.

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