In August I had the opportunity to visit Fox Cities, Wisconsin, a region of Northeastern Wisconsin along the Fox River. It is made up of 19 communities, including the cities of Appleton, Kaukauna, Menasha, Neenah, and Oshkosh. The trip delivered all that I had anticipated in small town charm. What I had not expected was the region’s enthusiastic support for the arts, vibrant live music scene, and friendly, artsy vibe.
My focus during the four-day August weekend was the Mile of Music festival in Appleton. The walkable event is unique in its focus on listening. It’s not about bringing in headliners but about supporting artists of any genre and their original music. The organizers’ painstaking efforts to welcome performers were impressive. The festival goes beyond mid-western hospitality—assuring the acts were all paid and musicians fed and housed—but that there were high-comfort amenities, like massages and free dental care.
The admission-free Mile of Music festival is held at various venues and stages in a one-mile stretch of Appleton. One thing that makes this festival special is the focus on respect for the artist. One of the festival taglines is: “The only thing you pay is attention.” Appleton Mayor Timothy Hanna likes to think of his city as “a place where people can use their talents to thrive.”
“The intent is a walkable festival designed to show off our downtown,” he says, adding that he works towards creating a year-round vibe that attracts musicians and artists. More than 60 sponsors have stepped up to support the festival.
This year, 65 of the bands hired were from Wisconsin, and the rest traveled from 30 other states. Festival co-founder Dave Willems explains that the event has become so popular with musicians that organizers have to weed through around 500 performer applications. For this sixth Mile of Music they hired 91 new acts, while 117 were returning to the festival. A total of 650 individual musicians were involved.
The heart of the Fox Cities music scene and headquarters for the annual festival is the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in Appleton. The $45 million facility was built on donations from more than 2,700 individuals and businesses, and was completed in just 31 months, opening in the fall of 2002. Last year alone the center hosted 395 events in the 2,100-seat main hall and the smaller theater. In all, the complex has had a $12.9 million impact on the Fox Cities community.
Among the unique events included in the Mile of Music were pop-up opportunities to play instruments with a second-line style marching band (no experience necessary), songwriting workshops, drum circles, and a chance to sing in the shower or while riding the Mile of Music bus. From Americana to rock and jazz the live event is family friendly.
Known for its arts and music programs, Lawrence University sits at one end of the mile. Profits from the Mile of Music Festival support the Mile of Music Education Fund (funding music opportunities within Appleton public schools through Appleton Education Foundation) and Creative Downtown Appleton, Inc. (funding projects to support Appleton’s creative economy).
With its hip downtown spaces and shops—where poetry is carved into sidewalks and artwork is displayed on the streets—and ample live music venues, Fox Cities was fun to explore. From November to May, Mile of Music and Stone Arch Brew House present the Rhythms & Brews concert series at Riverview Gardens.
Among Fox Cities’ sites you won’t want to miss is the House on the Rock. This maze-like building on top of a chimney of rock was once the home of Alex Jordan. Not just a mansion with an inspiring view, it is part museum, part fun house, and part gallery. Musicians will be fascinated by the Music of Yesterday exhibit showcasing Jordan’s music machines. Other House on the Rock attractions are the world’s largest carousel (with 269 hand-carved animals, 20,000 lights, and 182 chandeliers) and an infinity room jutting out unsupported for 218 feet, 156 feet above the valley floor.
Once a month, from October to May, the Trout Museum of Art in the heart of Appleton doubles as a jazz venue. Museum exhibits change every three or four months and it holds many community events, including speakers and art classes for families. The History Museum at the Castle, also in Appleton, celebrates Fox Valley history and personalities, including magician Harry Houdini, notorious Senator Joseph McCarthy, and novelist and playwright Edna Ferber.
Every July for the past 40 years, the Bergstrom-Mahler Museum of Glass in Neenah has hosted its Arts Festival combining live music, fine art, and food. Inside the museum, founded by Evangeline Bergstrom, is an extensive collection of more than 3,500 glass objects. As a child, Bergstrom was allowed to play with her grandmother’s glass paperweight as a reward for practicing the piano. Thus began her lifelong passion for collecting antique glass paperweights, eventually opening the museum in 1959. Today, the admission-free museum holds the largest collection of paperweights in the world and offers glass studio classes.
Among the many unique gift and specialty shops in Appleton, I discovered Heid Music. This music store, carrying a full line of musical instruments and accessories, is also a community gathering point. It hosts clinics, performances, lessons, and other special events on a weekly basis. (Other store locations are Green Bay, Madison, Oshkosh, and Stevens Point.)
There was no shortage of tempting food in Appleton, with a wide variety of both casual and fine dining. Sticking close to the Mile of Music festival, I tried several restaurants. Among my favorites were Author’s Kitchen & Bar, Osorio’s Latin Fusion, and Pisco Mar, which offers Peruvian fare.
Finally, no trip to the state of Wisconsin would be complete without cheese. At the Downtown Appleton Farm Market I tasted cheese curd so fresh it made my teeth squeak! Another visit to the Simon’s Specialty Cheese store offered a taste of the Wisconsin master cheesemakers’ world champion cheeses.