Laue House, Alma: retro decor, honors-system B&B

Last in a series about the wide range of bed and breakfast lodging in Wisconsin. The state contains 300-plus licensed B&Bs, including this one.

Open the front door of the Frederick Laue House in Alma, and the first thing you see is an old easel that props up a chipped, embellished frame with a faded, hand-printed note. It reads:

“Please sign the guest book.

“If we are not here, take a room with the key in the door.

“The charge for each room is posted on the door of each room (inside).

“Please leave your money and key on the dresser of the room you are leaving and lock the door.

“Have a pleasant stay. Thank you for stopping. Please come again.”

A spiral staircase leads to at least four bedrooms, each clean and neat but a mismatch of furnishings, castoff furniture, bedding that sometimes doesn’t coordinate, flowery wallpaper and randomly placed art. Think retro, thrift-shop quality.

The overnight rate is as little as $18 for an alcove barely big enough to fit a twin bed, but you’re positioned to see the Mississippi River – right across the street – as soon as opening your eyes.

Across the hall are marquee accommodations that go for no more than $45 per night. A quartet of windows faces the river, and the room is big enough to sleep four in two beds. An area rug covers much of the hardwood floor. Three chairs are rockers and a fourth is an orange easy chair.

A one-week stay includes one free night of lodging. Other guest rooms are small and lack a river view. On top of each bed is at least one neatly folded but far-from-new towel. Everybody shares one tiny, narrow and near-bare bathroom, which contains one basic shower stall (with curtain), a toilet (with plunger), a small sink and no shelf space for bring-your-own toiletries.

Not arranged in a fashionable way downstairs is a lounging room with about everything that overnight guests need: refrigerator, microwave, coffeemaker, sink, tables, couch, chairs. Muffins and hot coffee appear in the morning.

“The place is loaded with antiques and looks like Bret Maverick just stepped out to court a fair lady,” wrote an anonymous online reviewer in 2007. “You can sit on the front porch in a wicker chair, your feet up on the rail, and watch Ol’ Man River flow past. … They just don’t make ’em like this any more.”

Innkeeper Janis Schreiber runs the show at Laue House, but she’s elusive. That means some guests never see her and she didn’t return my phone calls. The Italianate brick house was built as a sawmill operator’s home in 1879. Like much of downtown Alma, population 781, it is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Frederick Laue, a native of Schauenburg, Germany, migrated to the United States at age 16 and worked as a mechanic in Pennsylvania before moving to Buffalo City, seven miles downstream from Alma. He was the father of nine children, which gives you an idea about the size of Laue House.

Wisconsin Public Radio “Whad’Ya Know?” researcher Diana Cook stayed there in 2003, while working on the book “Wisconsin Curiosities,” which she co-wrote with Michael Feldman. “I seemed to be the only guest that night (a Saturday night in July) and had my choice of all the rooms,” she says. “A curious experience – just the kind I like!”

All bedrooms are upstairs at the mysterious Laue House Inn, 1111 S. Main St., Alma. 608-685-4923; there is no Web site.

Five reasons to visit Alma:

Castlerock Museum: Inside a new, castle-like building is a vast, well-organized and carefully curated collection of arms and armor, illustrated with artwork and other artifacts from the era represented. The weaponry evolution that is shown begins with a 2,000-year-old Roman dagger. This is the personal and lifelong collection of Gary Schlosstein, a retired Circuit Court judge.

Buena Vista Park: Panoramic and uncluttered views of the Mississippi River Valley await 500 feet above the city, in a small but fine park whose blufftop perspective – on a clear day – stretches several miles.

Danzinger Winery: Just beyond the Alma bluffs are 15 acres of grapes that turn into award-winning wines. Mississippi Mist, a sweet white, took top honors – Best of Show and Best of Class – at the 2012 Wisconsin State Fair. Midnight Voyage, a red dessert wine, was one of two wins to earn a Double Gold at the 2012 International Cold Climate Wine Competition. Sample, linger and soak up the peaceful, countryside and river views.

Walk the city, whose National Historic District encompasses 200-plus buildings on 346 narrow acres between river and bluffs. Some short passageways are “stairstep streets” that are only accessible by walkers.

Great Alma Fish Float: In the shadow of Lock and Dam No. 4 is a place to fish on the water, catching bass and catfish to sunfish and walleye. Some people just go for the novelty of ordering a burger or “The Mess” (a breakfast platter) at the box-sized Float Cafe. To get there, find the chipped red bench at riverside and pull up a hinged slab of wood painted yellow and orange. That lets the float operator know you need a ride over. The cross-river ferry is $5, roundtrip. Open seasonally.

For more about tourism in Alma, which is on Hwy. 35, the Great River Road: almawisconsin.com, 608-685-3303.