Last week, I went on a road trip and mini-vacation with my boyfriend. We decided a few weeks prior that we wanted to go somewhere that required minimal planning in our short window of time. We researched a bit, compared prices, and decided to head up to Wisconsin Dells for a few days – a nice little getaway about three and a half hours outside of Chicago.
The myth of growing up in Chicago or surrounding Midwestern cities is that a summer family vacation at Wisconsin Dells is a given. As I had never been to the Dells before, what many might think of as a “lame” vacation turned out to be the highlight of my summer.
I knew little to nothing about the Dells, so researching where to go proved to be a challenge. Apparently the Dells is actually a small tourist town with multiple water parks, hotels, and Zoltars (I’ll get to that later). For some reason, I had always thought it was a big city with one giant water park, plenty of upscale shopping and dining establishments, and a nightlife that contested even the liveliest Friday in Chicago. Boy, was I in for quite a shock.
But before I get into the details of the Dells, let me tell you about a quick stop we made…
En route to the Dells, we stopped off at a well-traveled tourist attraction in Iowa County, WI, called House on the Rock. With no clear indication of what the House was, we went in with open minds, excited for what we might see. Upon entering the guest service area prior to reaching the House, there was a museum-like vibe. Filled with artifacts, pictures, statues, music, and documents encased in glass, the first few steps into this building seemed no different than a typical museum.
We read from displays that the House is built on a chimney of rock; in order to reach the entrance, we had to pass over a walkway that brought us to part one. The walkway curved around a beautiful reflection garden outside, lush with green foliage and the sound of water falling onto the rocks below. Once inside the House, however, the natural light from outdoors disappeared. The fresh air became stale with strong scents of dust, water, and mold (invisible to the eye).
The swift shift in sensory and visual elements foretold the next three hours of our time.
With low ceilings under which my boyfriend had to duck to pass, we let our hands help guide our way through the dim, hazy, maze-like hallways. The walls were rocky and cool to the touch, apropos for a House situated on a rock. We immediately were drawn in to the narrow coziness encompassing the first rooms we passed through. With abundant seating areas, it was surprising that nobody stopped to catch their breath after the incline-fueled walk. The cloth on the couch-like benches was clearly worn and tearing at the seams; the surrounding area was covered in bookshelves, knickknacks, and a variety of artistry.
The dinginess of the House’s entrance was promptly negated after we exited the room and sent into the sunlight. The seemingly endless room of darkness took us back outside to the Infinity Room. As the name indicates, the Infinity Room is an elongated, suspended “room” (bridge) that extends outward – to infinity (and beyond)! We stood inside taking pictures of each other walking into oblivion before making our way through the remainder of part one of the House.
We had been given 10 tokens at the beginning when we purchased tickets, with little instruction on their purpose. As we passed from room to room, we noticed small music boxes or interactive art pieces that required one to two tokens to be seen. Naturally, our curiosity bested us and we shared the coins, playing music boxes and automated pianos as we walked along.
After we moved from the outdoor portion, our first of three stops inside the House was “The Streets of Yesterday”. We followed an indoor brick road on a darkened early 1900s street, lit only by dim streetlights. Along the road a variety of shops, displays, and interactive puppet shows sat. One storefront was filled with creepy girls’ dolls, many reminiscent of the infamous, haunted Annabelle. We passed an apothecary – equipped with a sign recommending tapeworms as the ideal method for weight-loss (innovative!), cocaine for other ailments (as it was not illegal ‘back in the day’), and other magic pills and salves to keep healthy in an early 20th century world.
One of my favorite parts of “The Streets of Yesterday” was a box puppet show called The Magician. After inserting a token, the magician inside of the box, along with his talented assistant, put on a mini magic show for all to see! The music allured me like a siren’s song; I ended up playing it twice. Two tokens down. My boyfriend got a kick out of that.
After walking down the remainder of the “Streets of Yesterday,” we reached the second part of the House: “The Heritage of the Sea,” a completely nautical-themed series of rooms and artifacts. There were large handcrafted boats on display, as well as smaller nautical trinkets, like anchors, sailors, marine life, and even a giant 200-foot long replica of a whale. There were also various toys in the display cases along the walls, kind of misplaced – like someone didn’t know where to put their doodads.
The exhibit’s walls were painted a dark color, giving off the “underneath the ocean” vibe as we swam through the sea of onlookers. At the beginning of our tour, we were advised that walking through and viewing the entire House would take upwards of three and a half hours. With roughly an hour left before closing at this point, and still a full third exhibit to view, we had crowds of people rushing past, pushing into us to make their way by.
We made our way through the remainder of the “Heritage of the Sea” and almost reached the final section, “The Music of Yesterday”. But before we made our way through section three’s doors, we stopped in awe of the most spectacular marvel in the entire House: the world’s largest indoor carousel. With unmatched beauty, craftsmanship, and size, the spectacle of this carousel was not to be overlooked. Adorned with over 20,000 lights and 269 “creatures” (there are NO horses on this carousel), its magnificence is nothing short of a sensory overload – in the best way possible.
After gawking at the incredible carousel, we finally made our way inside “The Music of Yesterday”.
Ironically, the very beginning of the “Music of Yesterday” section had no music in it at all. Instead, we traveled a long, empty hallway filled with glass display cases. Inside, a circus took place. It was magical – like Ringling Bros. minus the animal abuse! (Who said that?) We saw lions and tigers jumping through rings; glamorous women showing off their physiques; acrobats performing daredevil tricks on tightropes and swings; ringmasters challenging talented animals; and the wonderful white top we all associate with the once timeless, formerly beloved tradition. Oh, and we also saw figurines of three clowns taking a bath together. Maybe it was a nod to the childhood classic “Rub-a-dub-dub” nursery rhyme. One can only hope.
We then followed a long, winding hallway with rooms off to the side, ears turning at the hints of jumbled music playing simultaneously. Finally, we had reached the pinnacle of sound.
Though we had already passed at least 100 or so music boxes, music-filled puppet shows, and other various music-based memorabilia, this exhibit was nothing like the rest. Every inch of the “Music of Yesterday” exhibit was filled with music; the enormous automatic machines either played independent of human interaction or when a token was inserted.
Many of the machines had a theme to them, with notes of Chinese artistry and song at the forefront, as Alex Jordan Jr. highly appreciated and respected Asian culture and music. One of the main sub-exhibits was a room called “The Red Room”. Now, if you have any familiarity with pop culture literature within the last seven years, your mind likely thinks of this “red room” – a far cry from the music and artifact-filled exploratorium Jordan Jr. envisioned.
“The Music of Yesterday” exhibit was, in part, my least favorite section at the House. Each of the machines played music over each other, either drowning out the other exhibits’ sounds, or clashing with other rooms’ music, making the varieties of music more like an assault of sound. To be fair, individually, the music was wonderful. At this point, we only had one token between the two of us, and since every music machine was massive (the larger ones always cost two or more tokens apiece), we didn’t have enough “money” to play anything else.
Another oddity about this section were the misplaced artifacts within the main attraction. For instance, there was a whole section dedicated to broken or detached ship parts – independent of the nautical room – that came immediately after we viewed the carousel. This warm, dimly-lit area was made up entirely of old ship parts: engines, pressure monitors, tools…you name it. The arrangement of much of the House made sense, but the placement of this still-nautical ship graveyard of sorts threw the whole dynamic of the “Music of Yesterday” section off.
In ending the self-given tour, we were directed by signs to go outside to fully immerse ourselves in the reflection pond and garden. Beneath the wooden walkway, lily pads softly covered dark, clear water filled with bright orange fish (possibly koi). The fish swam at a moderate pace, unfazed by the giant feet walking overhead. Families stopped to take selfies and bask in the serenity of silence surrounding the garden. A mini waterfall poured down over a rock formation, creating the perfect ambiance of relaxation and invigoration.
As the House is surrounded by a healthy, thriving forest, the unfortunate reality of this is that we could never actually get a complete look at the House from the outside.
Our final stop at the House on the Rock was the gift shop. We browsed briefly, inhaling delicious scents of homemade fudge (yeah, they make and sell fudge in their gift shop!), and deciding which shot glasses and magnets we wanted to bring home to our families. He bought me a magnet, and I got him a shot glass (cute, right?). Before we continued our journey to Wisconsin Dells, we took a minute to situate ourselves and absorb all of the magnificence we had just been immersed in for the past three hours.
Deep breaths, deep breaths.
Check back soon for Part 2 of my Wisconsin adventures!
5 thoughts on “The House, the Dells, and the Stories No One Tells: Part 1”
What a dream~
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Makes me feel I’ve been there, which I may have been as a kid but can scarcely recall.
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I’m surprised I had never been until now! It’s like one of those hidden gems. Definitely worth a trip with the kids when you get a chance!
Love it! Can’t believe I never made it there when I lived in Chicago. This reminds me of a lit. Journalism assignment when I send students out to “weird” places. Such a strong travel piece. Think about selling this to one of the local trendy arts Chicago papers. An editor might want it!
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If you get a chance to take a little road trip if you’re back visiting Chicago, it’s well worth the drive. You’d enjoy it- so much to see and write about! And hey, maybe I will. I appreciate the boost of confidence! 🙂