Chippewa Falls: wood chips to microchips

CHIPPEWA FALLS – Water, be it a pounding falls or sparkling river, seems to command respect here – regardless of the season.

This is an old lumber town, birthplace of Seymour Cray’s supercomputers and home of the nation’s seventh oldest working brewery. At population 12,925 and about 10 miles north of Eau Claire, Chippewa Falls also has earned national recognition for its respect and preservation of the past, particularly downtown.

Time magazine called it one of the nation’s top 10 small towns in 1997.

“Once home to one of the world’s largest sawmills, the town moved from wood chips to microchips,” the article stated, to explain why Chippewa Falls didn’t die. “After hours, computer mavens snowmobile across Lake Wisotta and drink Leinenkugel beer.”

The National Trust for Historic Preservation chose the city as one of a dozen “distinctive destinations” nationwide in 2000.

The oldest building here? It’s reportedly the only historic wooden one remaining (an 1885 ordinance required construction with brick materials).

All of the hubbub began around 1996, when Chippewa Falls earned a Great American Main Street Award. Dozens of business and residential facades had been renovated.

That also was around the time The Metropolitan Shops, in an 1889 lumber company building, were being introduced. Tenants presently range from Bohemian Ovens to Cow Caviar (a food gift shop with local products). The three-story structure also contains factory outlet space for XMI, a local manufacturer that is a national distributor of fine men’s fashions, particularly neckwear. For more, call (715) 723-1999.

Mason Shoe Manufacturing Co., called “the world’s largest shoe catalog sales company,” also has an outlet store here. For more, call (715) 723-4323 or go to www.bamason.com.

In the early 1900s, the city had five shoe factories. At its peak, there were almost a dozen; one of them made 1,500 pairs daily and employed 175 people.

The Chippewa Falls Museum of Industry and Technology includes “the world’s only complete supercomputer collection” and other history lessons about local industry that date back to the 1840s. For more, call (715) 720-9206.

Some industrial fingerprints have withstood aging well. Tours of the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co., which opened in 1867, are available by appointment. Call (715) 723-5557 or go to www.leinie.com.

But on a recent Sunday morning, it’s Gordy’s IGA as the sole shopping hive downtown. Most everything else seems tidy and thriving but quiet. Church steeples pop out above hilly treetops. Huge murals are laden with images of wildlife.

There have been tidbits of fame that have little to do with history. This was the hometown of the title character in the Woody Allen movie “Annie Hall.” XMI has sold neckties to celebrities, including David Letterman.

Nearby Lake Wissota was mentioned clearly but inaccurately in the blockbuster movie “Titanic.” It is a 6,300-acre manmade lake that wasn’t created until a few years after the “Titanic” sank in 1912.

So the notoriety appears fleeting, but that’s of little consequence to Ruth Dahms, a former junior high teacher here. She says it is simply community spirit that will help Chippewa Falls and its residents thrive for the long haul.

“We take care of each other,” she says. “Early on, a neighbor saw me working late one night and brought over a plate of spaghetti. I didn’t even know her then.”

For seven years, Ruth has run a shop that sells crafts made by people who are disabled.

A significant part of future city development will use the water as a magnet for tourists, including a riverfront park for outdoor concerts and a bike path that follows Duncan Creek – downtown and to the brewery.

A challenge will be the negative impact that the rerouting of Highway 29 will have on businesses. The new highway, designed to improve traffic flow and safety, will bypass the city instead of cut into the heart of it.

To get more information about Chippewa Falls, call (888) 723-0024 or go to www.chippewachamber.org and www.chippewafallsmainst.org.

The city’s next big celebration is its Christmas Village, a display of 50,000-plus lights in Irvine Park. It opens at 6 p.m. Nov. 29. For more, call (715) 723-0051.
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It’s not a tourist lure yet, but a new book about small-town life about 20 miles north of Chippewa Falls is attracting attention to the area.

“Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at the Time,” by Michael Perry, recounts the pleasures, perils, humor and humility of being a volunteer firefighter in New Auburn.

One book reviewer says the book “may be simply the best book about small-town life ever written.”

“Book Sense 76,” a list of the 76 books most recommended by independent booksellers in the country, ranks “Population 485” as No. 2 on the November/December list.

Perry, presently on a national book tour – “in Nashville right now, headed for Memphis” — says he intends to return home for the opening of deer hunting season.

“So far things are the same,” he says of New Auburn. “A few folks stop by the gas station to buy copies of the book, although at the moment they are sold out.”

What were New Auburn’s biggest attractions, before this? “Friday night football games,” Perry says, “and the Jamboree Days parade (all five minutes of it).”