One of the more scenic river towns along the Upper Mississippi River, Alma has attracted new residents in recent years, including many artists, who are bringing the town a new energy, at least in the summer months. Many businesses close or dramatically reduce their hours after the fall foliage season but don’t let that dissuade you from visiting any time of year.
Get your information fix at Wings Over Alma (110 N. Main St.; 608.685.3303), which also doubles as an art gallery (see below).
River pilots named this spot Twelve Mile Bluff because of a rock formation that was visible from the mouth of the Chippewa River 12 miles north of the bluff. Sadly, the rock outcropping that gave the bluff its distinctive shape collapsed in 1881, sending a giant boulder rolling down hill. No one was hurt, but a couple of buildings were damaged and the town lost its most distinctive landmark.
Settlers began arriving in 1848. The first to set up stakes were Swiss immigrants Victor Probst and John Waecker; they made a living selling cordwood to passing steamboats. And the Swiss just kept coming, supplemented by a smattering of Germans. The village was platted in 1855 with the name Alma, suggested by W.H. Gates.
Alma’s growth began with the usual things—hotels, a general store, and a brewery—but the very first business in town was supposedly a saloon opened by a guy who came upriver from Keokuk. The town’s economy got a boost when Alma won the county seat election in 1860. Zany county seat shenanigans often found on the frontier ensued. Fountain City challenged the election results, but the Wisconsin Supreme Court wouldn’t play along. In 1861, Charles Schaettle led a group of Watergate-quality burglars from Buffalo City in an attempt to steal the county papers from Alma and bolster Buffalo City’s claim. They failed, and, according to one account, the bungling burglars were chased from town while a fiddler played the tune Wender nit bald heigo, ihr Chaiba, which means something like “Won’t you please decamp, you rascals.” Alma beat Buffalo City in the 1861 county seat election and never looked back. Many of the disappointed settlers from Buffalo City relocated to Alma in the 1860s; probably not the same ones that tried to steal the county papers, though.
The single most important reason for Alma’s early growth was logging. Beef Slough, an area just north of the village, was the site of a major operation where, from 1867 to 1889, logs coming down the Chippewa River were sorted and assembled into log rafts. The Beef Slough Manufacturing, Booming, Log Driving, and Transportation Company was founded in 1867 and grew into one of the largest operations in the US. The company later merged with the Mississippi River Logging Company, which chose Frederick Weyerhaeuser as its leader in 1873.
Alma had a couple of sawmills of its own, plus ice harvesting, lime kilns, boat manufacturing, and a robust cigar manufacturing sector. The Martin Exel Company rolled nearly 60,000 cigars a year in the 1870s, mostly for the local market. By 1897, Alma counted three cigar factories that produced a collective 138,000 cigars every year; the factories closed by 1928.
One of the most celebrated local residents was Gerhard Gesell, an early photographer and contemporary of Ansell Adams (his studio operated from 1876-1906). Gesell was a gifted photographer who spent a lot effort documenting daily life in and around Alma. He made a composite photo called Pioneers of Buffalo Co., Wisconsin that was created from 156 individual portraits of folks who settled in the area prior to 1857; it is on display in the courthouse.
The last of the logging-related businesses shut down in 1905. Alma began attracting artists for the summer in the 1920s but only recently have more made Alma their year-round home. Lock and Dam 4 was built in 1932, which ended Alma’s days as a port of call for riverboats but provided employment during the Depression.
Buena Vista Park (Buena Vista Rd.; 608.685.3330) has one of the most dramatic overlooks along Upper Mississippi. From a vantage point some 540 feet above the river, you can see Lock and Dam 4 and the Whitman Bottoms, the area that Kenny Salwey once called home. You can drive to the top via County Highway E and Buena Vista Road, or, alternatively, you can hike to the top; go to the trailhead at 2nd and Elm.
The Alma Area Historical Society (505 S. 2nd St.; 608.685.6290) is housed in a former two-story schoolhouse and therefore has a lot of space to use, which they use well. My favorite displays are on the second floor, which has fun, historic photos (including some by local son Gerhard Gesell), an informative display about logging tools and logging camps, and a touching display about the 1940 Armistice Day blizzard.
The Castlerock Museum (402 S. 2nd St.; 608.685.4231) is a unique, if somewhat out-of-place, wonder. The museum is the brainchild of Gary Schlosstein, who began his life as a collector at age 10 when he bought a Civil War-era musket and has not stopped since. He and his partners do a phenomenal job of telling a good story about the evolution of arms and armor from the Roman Empire to the cusp of the gun powder era. The museum has a number of impressive pieces, like the 16th century German Maximillian-era armor—rare for being a complete set. I especially like the way the museum uses art to illustrate how the pieces were worn.
The current St. Lawrence Catholic Church (206 S. 2nd St.; 608.685.3898) was built in 1956 for a parish that traces its roots to 1868. Normally, I wouldn’t include a church that is only 50 years old, but I like the story behind the windows in this building, which were built in Innsbruck, Austria and installed in the 1960s. One window is called Christ of the Mississippi and was designed by the priest at that time, Father Thomas Ash, who was an avid fisherman. The window depicts Jesus with a fishing pole standing in a boat on the Mississippi with Lock and Dam 4 in the background.
Here’s one for the architecture geeks (like me). The building at 101 North Main is the oldest structure in town—the top half, anyway. The previously mentioned W.H. Gates built it in 1855 as a general store. In 1872, a lower addition was built by excavating the ground under the upper level, so the upper half is nearly 20 years older than the lower half.
Lock and Dam 4 (608.685.4421) opened in 1935 and went through rehabilitation from 1988 to 1994. The lock has an average lift of 10 feet; the dam is 367 feet long.
Riecks Lake Park (North Highway 35; 608.685.3330) is just north of town and is a good spot to enjoy a picnic; this spot attracted thousands of migrating tundra swam a few years ago, but the lake’s ecosystem has changed in recent years and become a less attractive spot for them to rest and snack.
Alma is included in these products:
Getting on the River
Brothers Tim and Jim Lodermeier have spent every summer since 1986 running the Great Alma Fishing Float (608.380.7296/608.380.5322; open from mid-March–Oct), a good place to do some fishing if you don’t have a boat with you. A boat will pick you up at a small dock across the tracks at the foot of Pine Street; lift the board to signal you need a ride. The shuttle runs frequently until 11am, then only runs hourly; don’t forget your fishing license. You are welcome to ride the shuttle and hang out without fishing (fee for the shuttle ride).
If you want to captain your own boat, you have a few options. Fun ‘N the Sun (Great River Harbor, S2221 State Highway 35; 888.343.5670) rents houseboats in a variety of sizes, from 12’ x 32’ to 18’ x 60’. You can also rent pontoon boats or a fishing boat.
Alma Marina (125 Beach Harbor Rd.; 800.982.8410/608.685.3333) also has some rental boats: a 40’ Skipper Liner that can sleep 6–8 or the 52’ Skipper Liner that can sleep up to 11; they also rent a pontoon boat.
For something human-powered, turn to Riverland Outfitters (1008 S. 2nd St.; 608.385.4351) to rent a kayak or canoe.
Culture & Arts
Wings Over Alma (110 N. Main St.; 608.685.3303) displays the work of local artists.
Stump Town Gallery (109 S. Main St.; 414.630.5954; by appt) hosts curated exhibits of local and regional art.
At the visitor center, pick up a self-guided walking tour of Alma’s historic buildings.
Entertainment and Events
The Big River Radio Wave (Big River Theatre, 121 Main St.; 608.685.4859) is an old-time variety show that tapes a few times a year in Alma for later broadcast on Wisconsin Public Radio.
The Alma Music and Arts Festival (608.685.4975) brings together local art and local music on Labor Day weekend.
The Buffalo County Historical Society sponsors a driving tour of historic sites around the county in late September (608.685.6290).
Sports and Recreation
The Mossy Hollow Trail (South Highway 35; 608.685.3330) is a splendid network of trails through the woods and up the back of a bluff. You can stick to the main trail, which is wide and regularly mowed but won’t get you to the top of the bluff unless you scale a short, steep hill near the end of it. The side trials are more rugged. Give yourself at least an hour to get up, take a side trail, lose the trail, get lost, and find your way back down, like I did.
Hey, what’s that? When you are near the Dairyland Power Cooperative plant on the south end of town, look up. About 450 feet above the ground on the stack closest to the highway, you can see a nesting box for peregrine falcons. Like bald eagles, peregrines were on the verge of extinction in the 1970s because DDT caused the shells of their eggs to be too thin. A concerted captive breeding and release program brought them back from the brink, and they are no longer endangered. They are remarkable birds. About the size of a crow, a peregrine on the hunt folds its wings back and dives at speeds over 200 miles an hour.
The Alma Beach and Recreation Area (North Highway 35; 608.685.3330) is just north of town by Alma Marina.
Riverland Outfitters (1008 S. 2nd St.; 608.385.4351) can help with your winter outdoor exploration by renting you a pair of snowshoes.
Eating and Drinking
At Danzinger Vineyards & Winery (S2106 Grapeview Rd.; 608.685.6000) enjoy five free tastings or sample all ten of their wines for $2 at their scenic blufftop location.
Get your caffeine fix at Fire and Ice (305 N. Main St.; 612.423.3653); don’t miss the beautiful garden in back where you can sip your coffee or slurp a scoop of ice cream.
For something completely different, head out to the Great Alma Fishing Float for breakfast. The Mess is a wild combination of flavors that work surprisingly well together: eggs, bacon, ham, sausage, potatoes, cheese, tomatoes. But, to really make it work, you need to go all way and get it with sauerkraut. See the entry under Getting on the River for more details on the float.
Apparently you don’t have to go all the way to Memphis for good barbeque; you can enjoy it at the Pier 4 Café and Smokehouse (600 N. Main St.; 608.685.4964); get it as a platter with two sides or in a sandwich and watch boats lock through from the screened porch. They also serve a very popular breakfast.
Most of the sites with services at the Great River Harbor Campground and Marina (S2221 State Highway 35; 608.248.2454) are occupied by seasonal campers so call ahead to find out if any of the overnight sites are available; if you just need a place to pitch a tent, though, they should have room for you.
Riecks Lake Park (608.685.3330) has 20 sites with electricity, shared water, and coin-op showers on a narrow strip of shaded land between the highway and a backwaters lake.
Alma has some unique lodging options for folks on the smallest of budgets; buyer beware. The Felice Patra Inn (609 N. Main St.; 608.685.4512; WiFi; generally open April–January) has two bunk beds in a room that feels like a closet that are available for overnight rentals; they share a bathroom. There are additional rooms upstairs in a rambling warren of dusty spaces that haven’t been updated in a while and might remind you of your grandparent’s house. One guest room has a private bath; the other three rooms share one bath. Guests have use of a full kitchen upstairs and spacious, shady decks.
Another cheap option is the Alma Hotel (201 N. Main St.; 608.685.3380; WiFi); the 12 sleeping rooms don’t get more basic—just beds in rooms without AC and with shared baths. Hey, the place started life as a brothel, so a bed in a small room was good enough.
Ever slept on a fish float? I bet not. Now’s your chance at the Great Alma Fishing Float (608.685.3786/608.685.3782); accommodations are not luxurious unless you consider plywood walls fancy but, hey, you’re on the river, and you can fish. They have two rooms with four bunks in each; you will need to bring a sleeping bag and pillow, and there are no showers).
The Laue House Inn (1111 S. Main St.; 608.685.4923; open mid-April–mid-December) is an adorable 1863-era home with a casual atmosphere. Adorned with period furnishings but not stuffiness, the Laue is a throwback to an earlier era when a B&B was more like a homestay and not a fancy inn. Guests can use the player piano in the parlor. There are five guest rooms, including a large room in front with good river views; they share a bathroom.
The Hotel de Ville (305 N. Main St.; 612.423.3653; WiFi in some units) offers a variety of lodging options in tastefully rehabbed historic buildings along Main Street. In the main building, they have three lovely second floor rooms that are a good budget option; they share a bath.
The Hillcrest Motel (240 State Highway 35 North; 608.685.3511) has seven moderately-sized rooms with cable TV in good shape and with views of the river.
Reidts Motel and Cabins (S1638 State Road 35; 608.685.4843; open mid-March–December) has five cozy motel rooms just off the highway a few miles north of Alma.
Bed and Breakfast
The Tritsch House Bed and Breakfast (601 S. 2nd St.; 507.450.6573; WiFi; open April–November) is a 1902 Queen Anne mansion redone top-to-bottom in impressive fashion by owner Johnny Elliott. The five guest rooms have private baths, four with Jacuzzi tubs, and flat screen TVs that are hooked up with cable TV); you can pass the time sitting on the deck or screened porch or playing pool in the billiard room.
Great River Harbor Campground and Marina (S2221 State Highway 35; 608.248.2454) has one cabin for rent that manages to feel like a houseboat in its configuration. The cabin is narrow but in good shape and clean and can sleep six comfortably; it has one full bath, a fireplace, and a full kitchen.
As you may have noticed above, Great River Harbor also rents houseboats; if any of those boats have not been claimed, you may be able to rent one overnight for dockside lodging; call a day or two in advance of your stay to find out if one is available.
A mile north of Alma, the Hillcrest Motel (240 State Highway 35 North; 608.685.3511) rents three cabins of varying sizes that are equipped with microwave, fridge, and coffee; guests have access to a shared kitchen.
Reidt’s Motel and Cabins (S1638 State Road 35; 608.685.4843; open mid-March–December) has four cabins in very good shape; all have cable TV, microwave, small fridge, and coffee; the cabins are large, two bedroom units with a full kitchen.
Audrey’s Riverview Inn (101 Orange St.; 715.495.8880) is a bright space with big windows to enjoy one of the best views in town from a hillside building rehabbed from top to bottom; the house has a full kitchen, two bedrooms, and a pleasant deck.
The Alma Town House (104 S. Main St.; 715.926.5743/608.685.4555) is a two-bedroom, one-bath apartment on the riverfront, with a full kitchen, washer and dryer, cable TV, screened porch, and rotary phone that could sleep six comfortably; it is only available from May–November.
The Hotel de Ville (305 N. Main St.; 612.423.3653; WiFi in some units) is the most exclusive place in town according to Dan, the owner. All units have pillow-top mattresses and French-inspired décor in tastefully rehabbed historic buildings along Main Street. The suites and cottage all have a private bath and full kitchen or kitchenette: the two-bedroom Garden Suite is above the art shop; the two-bedroom Falcon Cottage is next door; and the Swan and Eagle suites are across the street and along the riverfront.
Post Office: 205 S. Main St.; 608.685.3561.
Alma Public Library: 312 N. Main St.; 608.685.3823; WiFi.
Heading upriver? Check out Nelson.
Heading downriver? Check out Buffalo City.
© Dean Klinkenberg, 2011