Why You Should Visit Wisconsin Rapids

On cranberries, papermaking and one great golf resort

It’s a crisp Saturday morning in early September. I am sitting in my home office in Downtown Milwaukee, watching the diehard sailboaters maneuvering on the choppy waters of Lake Michigan and the first of the massive kites flying like strange birds that own the morning sky. The streets are weekend quiet, and fall is in the air. I can feel it, and I love Wisconsin falls. They seem to come on fast and usually last longer than I think they will. We record “Around the Corner” all summer and into early October. There is method to our madness when we pick the communities we choose to shoot late in our season. We want to share the seasonal beauty and bring to our audience a reason to plan a visit outside the limited summer months. We shot both the Northern Door County and the Fish Creek/Ephraim episodes in the fall, because Door County is a great autumn destination.

For our 2016 fall community we chose Wisconsin Rapids, which is smack-dab in the middle of our great state. We chose it because of our desire to stand knee-deep in a cranberry bog. I have to admit I had no idea that Wisconsin is the largest cranberry producer in the world. Cranberries were native to this sandy soil and grew wild, and it’s those native vines that have been developed. There are 14 marshes in the immediate area, all over 100 years old. These marshes are used with the help of man-made dikes and ditches to cultivate the annual cranberry harvest. We were fortunate to spend a morning working with Phil Brown and Mary Brazeau Brown, the owners of Glacial Lake Cranberries. On a chilly late September morning, I was given a crash course in all things cranberry and offered a hands-on experience so I could say that I once helped in the production of this Wisconsin crop that is supplied to the world.

What happens to all of these cranberries? I asked that question at Mariani Packing Company, in business for the last 109 years, and found out about cranberry processing and cranberry products. The processing plant we visited makes sweet and dried cranberries and cranberry concentrate. They process 80 million pounds of raw fruit each season, making Mariani the world’s second largest handler of cranberries. If you love Kellogg’s Raisin Bran with cranberries, those cranberries were grown, harvested and processed in and around Wisconsin Rapids. We left Mariani and stopped at Rubi Reds, a retail store that sells cranberries in any way imaginable. Would you like cranberry jam, chocolate-covered cranberries, cranberry salsa, cranberry tea or a 10-pound bag of sweetened, dried cranberries? Trust me. Any way you want it, they have it – and sell it – at Rubi Reds. I couldn’t have been more surprised and completely grateful to get this one-day cranberry education. Thanks to all in the cranberry industry. I felt very honored to have been able to tell your stories – stories that are so important to the economy of Wisconsin.

In addition to loving cranberries, I love John Gurda. He spends three minutes at the top of every episode sharing the history of the community we are highlighting. He does his research and makes it easy and interesting to everyone. Over the course of the last seven seasons, there are a few things I can predict that John will say when it comes to how a town got started. It almost always has to do with access to water, used for power or transportation of lumber, and then a railroad came through and increased the population. Wisconsin Rapids is no exception. It grew up as two communities on either side of the Wisconsin River. In 1900, the Wisconsin villages of Grand Rapids and Centralia combined to become Grand Rapids. But because Grand Rapids, Wisconsin, kept getting the mail for Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1920 the name was changed to Wisconsin Rapids. And the mail has been properly delivered ever since.

This city of about 18,000 owes much to the paper industry. One of the largest employers in the Rapids area is Domtar Inc., with 450 workers at what used to be the Great Northern Nekoosa Paper Company. This paper company started in 1840. Please visit the Wisconsin River Papermaking Museum, housed in the 1901 mansion of the papermaking Mead Family. The mission of this museum is to tell the story of the importance of paper to the growth and the economy of this community.

But maybe history isn’t your thing. We spent time on the banks of the Wisconsin River talking with Kim Kinsey about her company SUP (Stand Up Paddleboarding) The Rapids. Kim promises it’s an activity you can master in 10 minutes, and generations of families enjoy doing this together any time of the year. I, however, am from a family of golfers. My sister Colleen is a past champion at her club, and in summer I know not to try to reach her or her husband, Ed, any time after 9 a.m. My brother Jim in Atlanta has played top courses all over the world. When I told them our show was going to Wisconsin Rapids, my sister and brother told me they were extremely excited by a new course just opening near there called Sand Valley Golf Resort. When the property was purchased, it was a red pine plantation forest. When they removed the trees for the golf course, they found a native seed bank that had sat in the soil for 90 years. As soon as the seeds were exposed to light, all of these flowers and prairie species and prickly pear cactus just blossomed. This is a special landscape and ecosystem. The pure sand is a dream to a golf course architect. It is built for the average golfer and is unlike any course they will have ever golfed. My sister and her husband spent a weekend this last August and have already made reservations for next season.

I will always think of Wisconsin Rapids as a perfect fall destination. We began our relationship when the cranberries were ready to be harvested, the sharp breeze on Sand Valley Golf Course spoke of a changing season and the rapids, in the middle of town, seemed to warn of coming winter.

As I look out my window, I now see the tall ship S/V Denis Sullivan dwarfing the small sailboats on Lake Michigan. These weekend sailors are out there with a purpose, because summer has turned to fall and soon fall will fade into winter and they’ll stow their boats until next year. But for now, on a gorgeous Saturday as I think of Wisconsin Rapids, I celebrate the fact that our Wisconsin falls are remarkable. ◆

‘Autumn in the Rapids’ appears in the November 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning October 30, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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John McGivern is best known for his Emmy-award winning work on PBS, Around the Corner with John McGivern. His one-man-shows, THE EARLY STORIES OF JOHN MCGIVERN, MIDSUMMER NIGHT MCGIVERN AND JOHN MCGIVERN’S HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS tell the stories of being the third born of six kids in a working-class Irish Catholic Family in Milwaukee. John has been the keynote speaker for The Alliance for Children and Families, The State Department on Aging, The Children and Family Service Agency of Wisconsin, The Wisconsin Defense League, Christ Child Association, Foundation for Children with Cancer, Employee Assistant Professional Association and has been fortunate to entertain companies such as Time Warner, Northwestern Mutual, Kohl’s Department Stores, Baird, Acuity, and M&I Financial.