Fountain City is a laid back rivertown with a few quirks and some cool old saloons. My kind of place.
Your best bet is to visit Lefse Time (115 North Shore; 800.687.2058/608.687.4299) and chat with Gwen. Besides offering information, Lefse Time sells Scandinavian-themed gifts, including the thin pancakes known as lefse. They don’t sell ludefisk, though, and they don’t think it’s funny anymore when fools like me ask.
Thomas Holmes showed up in the fall of 1839 with a small party of 13 people and established a trading post; this gave the site its first name: Holmes Landing. He ended up staying until 1846, at which time he felt civilization was getting to close to him, so moved further west, founding about 30 other communities including Helena, Montana before retiring in Culman, Alabama.
After Holmes left, Holmes Landing became known by the Native American name Wah-mah-dee, but it was changed to Fountain City in 1852, inspired by one of the many springs oozing from the bluffs that resembled a fountain. The busiest period of settlement was from 1847 to 1862; the city had a modest amount of success as a trading and shipping center, aided by a ferry connection to Winona. Early businesses included a cigar factory, lumber yard, foundry, brickyard, rock quarry, planing mills, agricultural implement dealers, commercial fishing operations, and a boat yard.
Most of the early settlers were German or Swiss. In 1860, Judge Gale described Fountain City as feeling very much like a German village. The town officers were all German, the primary language used around town was, yes, German, and a number of social clubs organized according to German traditions: Der Turnverein (gymnastic society); Gesangverein (singing society); Schutzenverein (shooting society); and Bierverien (drinking society)—just kidding on that last one.
Fountain City has maintained a strong connection to the river to this day. The construction of Lock and Dam 5A in the 1930s provided some much needed work for residents. In addition, the Army Corps of Engineers has had a boatyard at Fountain City since the 19th century. The yard is used for maintenance and to store dredges and other equipment used by the Corps to maintain the shipping channel.
Lock and Dam 5A (507.452.2789) went operational in 1936 and was rehabbed from 1989 to 2000. The lock has a maximum lift of six feet; the dam is 682 feet long. It was not part of the original plan but had to be built when someone figured out that building Lock and Dam 6 as planned would have flooded Winona’s sewers. You can reach the viewing area by passing through a concrete-lined walkway under the railroad tracks, but you are across the river from the locks and don’t get a close-up look. On the other hand, standing in the pedestrian underpass when a train rumbles over your head is a wild experience.
The Fountain City Area Historical Society (7 Main St.; 608.687.7481) maintains an interesting collection of displays on steamboats and Fountain Brewery memorabilia, but the most impressive section is the wall-sized display of 1700 Native American arrowheads, ax heads, spear points, and other artifacts collected by Roscoe Stoll (1891–1982), who kept this display at his hardware store until he retired.
Elmer of Elmer’s Auto and Toy Museum (W903 Elmers Rd.; 608.687.7221; open two weekends a month from May–Oct; check the schedule at their website) is a serious collector who has accumulated a fascinating collection of cars, toys, and pedal cars. Three sheds full of cars from the glory days of US car making, including a ’57 Corvette I could easily see myself driving, scooters, motorcycles and some unique cars like the ’64 Amphicar that could drive on asphalt then boat across a lake. To reach Elmer’s, go one mile east on State Highway 95, then left on County G.
On April 24, 1995 at 11:38am, a 55-ton rock rolled down a hill and into a house at the north end of Fountain City. No one was harmed, thankfully, or it would not be nearly as much fun to visit the Rock in the House (440 N. Shore; 608.687.3553; open from Apr–Oct). When you walk in and hear the radio playing, you half expect someone to chase you out with a shotgun. It’s kinda creepy, basically frozen in time to the date the rock hit the house. Oddly enough, on April 5, 1901, a five-ton rock rolled into the house next door, killing Elizabeth Tobler. You may not want to buy a house on this block.
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Getting on the River
River City Kayaks (123 S. Main St.; 608.687.8158) rents kayaks and a canoe, but you are responsible for your own transportation; call to arrange a rental.
Rent a canoe and explore the backwaters via the signed water trail at Merrick State Park (608.687.4936).
Culture & Arts
The post office has a mural of Wisconsin’s endangered species painted by Suzan Pitt in 1996.
Entertainment and Events
Fountain City hosts a Farmers Market at the Fountain City Community Park on Thursday evenings.
Fountain City Old Tyme Farm Fest (Labor Day weekend) is an annual antique tractor reunion with demonstrations of old time farm chores with plenty of food and music; the festival grounds are three miles east of Fountain City on County Highway 95.
The annual Polkafest at the Hilltop Bar (S3135 County Road M; 608.687.8739) will have you kicking up your heels to old world sounds (second weekend in August).
Sports and Recreation
The Mississippi Thunder Speedway (2895 State Highway 35; 608.687.3282) roars to life on Friday nights with the sound of racing stock cars and something called USRA modifieds and B-Mods; I hope that means something to you. Races begin at 6p and 7p from April through August. The track is three miles north of Fountain City.
Merrick State Park (S2965 State Highway 35; 608.687.4936; $7/Wisc resident, $10/non-resident) is another park that exists because of John Latsch, who donated the land and had it named for George Merrick, a steamboat historian and cub pilot. The park’s main attractions are camping and fishing, but there are some easy hikes, too.
If you need a quick fix for your bicycle or a new one altogether, head to Brone’s Bicycle Shop (615 S. Main St.; 608.687.8601). They are also a good source of information on where to ride in the area.
Eating and Drinking
Seven Hawks Vineyards (17 North St.; 866.946.3741) makes a variety of wines of good quality at reasonable prices; you can sample before you buy.
Just north of town, Bay’s End (S2931 Indian Creek Rd.; 608.687.8216) is a friendly watering hole; they host live music a few times during the summer.
The Golden Frog Saloon (112 N. Shore Dr.; 608.687.3335), known originally by its German name zum golden frosch is a long-time local watering hole and still a good place to enjoy a drink.
At Nana J’s Java Junction (2 S. Main St.; 608.687.3313) grab a seat at the lunch counter and enjoy coffee and ice cream with local residents, all while washing your clothes in the adjacent laundromat.
The Wing Dam Bar & Grill (1 N. Shore Dr.; 608.687.4144) is the only spot in town that serves breakfast.
If you like Irish pubs (if you don’t, don’t talk to me), you’ll love the Monarch Public House (19 N. Main St.; 608.687.4231). Housed in an 1894 building that has been a tavern from the start, the pub still has many original furnishings, including the impressive bar. They serve a couple of local beers, but they are not brewed on-site. The menu includes Irish stew, Galway pot pie, and many other dishes inspired by the Emerald Isle.
Drift Inn Resort (S2945 Indian Creek Rd.; 608.687.9581) is a small fishing resort that has a campground next to the backwaters occupied primarily by seasonal campers but might have a site or two available for overnight rental; call first to find out if they have a site.
Merrick State Park (S2965 State Highway 35; 608.687.4936) has three different areas to camp. The sites at the north campground are shaded and close to the shower house but packed in tightly. The island sites are primitive walk-in sites that are more private and on the water (sites 49 and 50 are the most private). The south campground sites are all primitive and a bit of a hike from the shower house but not as crowded and many are close to the water (sites 51 and 52 are walk-in sites that are on the water and have no neighbors). Mosquitoes can be very active here in summer (daily fee of $7/Wisc resident, $10/non-resident + camping fee).
The Fountain City Motel (810 S. Main St.; 608. 687.3111; WiFi) is a bargain, with 13 moderately-sized rooms in good shape that have been going through a gradual overhaul. All rooms have cable TV, fridge, microwave, and coffee; some rooms are decorated with a theme, like the Harley room.
Drift Inn Resort (S2947 Indian Creek Road; 608.687.4936) has four cozy, simple cabins, two of which are kitchenettes.
For something completely different, consider a getaway at Room to Roam (W656 Veraguth Dr.; 608.687.8575), a 300-acre farm where you can participate in the daily activities of farm life and connect with your food source or just kick back and relax. The century-old, four-bedroom farm house is at the end of the road atop a bluff with views of the river valley toward Winona. While the house is not loaded with amenities, it does have a full kitchen and air conditioning and includes a chance to learn about farm life.
On the other hand, the Hawks View Lodges (320 Hill St.; 866.293.0803/651.293.0803; WiFi) is the choice for a relaxing weekend in a luxurious setting. The folks at Seven Hawks have an eye for dramatic locations, and the two lodges are no exception.
- The Osprey is a two- story, two-bedroom house set on a hillside in a heavily wooded location at the top of several dozen steps. It has good, partially obstructed views of the river, a unique outdoor shower, and plentiful deck space. Inside, there is a full kitchen and several fireplaces.
- The Blackhawk Lodge is a four-bedroom house atop a ridge with expansive, unobstructed views of the Mississippi Valley and surrounded by vineyards. The house is loaded with amenities like fireplaces, a full kitchen, whirlpool tub, and easy access to a ridgetop hiking trail.
- The five houses that are the Hawks View Cottages (320 Hill St.; 866.293.0803/651.293.0803; WiFi) are built into the hillside and feel more than just a little like treehouses; all but one require climbing several steps to reach. Each cottage has a comfortable, modern décor and is flush with niceties like fireplaces, a full kitchen, and a whirlpool tub.
The local newspaper is the Cochrane-Fountain City Recorder (608.248.2451).
Post Office: 1 S. Main St.; 608.687.6851.
Heading upriver? Check out Cochrane.
Heading downriver? Check out Bluff Siding.
© Dean Klinkenberg, 2011