Ingenuity, earthiness plentiful in Spooner

The quartet of teen girls was clean-cut, friendly, matter-of-fact – and the sales pitch went something like this:

“We’re raising money to help buy clothes for children in Trinidad. For a $1 donation, you can crack a raw egg over Sara Jane’s head.”

Sara Jane was wearing a plastic trash bag, carrying two egg cartons, a bit of dried yoke on her forehead. She nodded congenially and waited fearlessly. A cohort toted a photo collage of children in need.

We were relaxing outdoors, along the main drag downtown, waiting to be seated for dinner. This creative approach to fund-raising got our attention and added a couple of bucks to the cause, but with our insistence that no eggs be sacrificed.

The gimmick, we were told, raised $96 in 90 minutes earlier in the year, for another charitable cause. Efficient and effective.

“Even if it was a scam, it was a great one,” a friend noted, as the girls headed across the street, to do business at Big Dick’s tavern.

This is Spooner, which at population 2,700 is the largest community in Washburn County. “We are surrounded by woods, lakes, rivers and friendly people,” the community website states.

Downtown are unusual shops: the Purple Pelican and Black Iris galleries for artwork, Northwind Book & Fiber for reading material and gifts.

In this part of northwest Wisconsin, people sometimes feel more like a part of Minnesota. Our state’s media outlets tend to ignore the triumphs, challenges and everyday life here.

Such a shame. There is great evidence of ingenuity, beyond the egg cracking.

For example:

Supper was worth waiting for at Spooner Market and Grill, which changes its five-entrée dinner menu weekly and fills it with locally grown and organic ingredients. The Spooner Market Stir Fry is a fixture during summer and autumn. Roasted Vegetable Lasagne was another recent option.

Our introduction to the vibrant, casual restaurant was in spring, for a meal of morel mushrooms and asparagus with pasta, tossed in a creamy sauce. For dessert: rhubarb crisp.

“We were tired of commuting in Chicago,” says Betsy Helgesen, to explain why she and Joel Weiner made the move north in 2002. On her culinary resume is an internship as sous chef with Tom Peterson of “Frugal Gourmet” fame.

Hands-on cooking classes for five to 10 people, or up to 20 in a demonstration format, can be arranged. The chef’s goal is to produce menus that are 75 percent local/organic; locally raised, grass-fed lamb and chicken help this mission along.

Head to the railroad tracks to witness another labor of love. At its peak, 22 passenger trains per day came through Spooner.

Traffic has quieted, but the Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad offers excursions through the countryside on restored railroad cars. A three-hour trip with buffet dinner is one option, thanks to the work of Greg and Mardell Vreeland. He’s the cook; she’s the hostess and conductor.

“We cover it all,” he says. The couple rebuilt a chapel car so they could get married on it in 2004; now they rent it out as a wedding train.

“We have a lifetime of work here,” Greg says, referring to the restoration of old train cars that are parked near the once-grand Spooner depot. The Vreelands have restored 10 cars so far; their locomotives are from the 1940s and passenger cars go back as far as 1910.

Fall color tours end Oct. 5. The child-friendly Great Pumpkin Train, during the other October weekends, takes train riders to a pumpkin patch and carnival/game area in Trego.

The Vreelands’ business is one example of originality. Another is Kathy Shattuck’s work at her rural Namekagon Waters Retreat, where a roomy yurt on 37 acres easily accommodates four adults for an overnight adventure in a nature-rich setting.

“We thought about starting a bed-and-breakfast, but this is something that doesn’t have as high of an impact on the land,” says Kathy. Consider this a luxury camping experience.

The yurt, a dome of canvas with a wood floor, contains homey furnishings and a wood-burning stove. Containers of water are brought in for cooking, drinking and washing. Steps away: a cute, tidy outhouse.

Jim Shattuck, Kathy’s husband, is a licensed masseuse whose work takes place next to the resort’s traditional Finnish sauna. It’s not uncommon to see bald eagles nesting as muscles are kneaded.

A disc golf course, labyrinth, hiking trails and nearby canoeing provide ways to connect with the natural world. “Whatever the season, it’s a unique experience,” says Kathy. That includes winter, when cross-country ski trails extend two kilometers.

“The hardest part for people who come here is to totally relax.”

For more:

Spooner Market and Grill, 110 Walnut St., Spooner, www.spoonermarketandgrill.com, 715-635-6833. Dinner entrees are less than $20.

Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad Historic Excursions, 426 N. Front St., Spooner, www.spoonertrainride.com, 715-635-3200. Rates to ride depend upon the type of excursion.

Namekagon Waters Retreat, N8760 River Road, Trego, nwretreat@yahoo.com, 715-635-2027. Rates are $75 for one or two people, then $25 for each additional person.

Spooner Area Chamber of Commerce: www.spoonerwisconsin.com, 715-635-2168.

Note: Our one-night stay at the yurt was donated by Namekagon Waters Retreat.