Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - February 24, 2023

A winter weekend in Wisconsin

While most retirees go south to avoid cold weather, husband Art and I often head north in what some would characterize as winter’s "worst months." We spent three weeks in his home state of Wisconsin in January and an additional two weeks this month. So why do we drive 12 hours to be in a landscape that is occasionally breathtakingly beautiful after a snowstorm, but many times is just plain gray and gloomy? Some people, including my brother, just shake their heads and say we're nuts.

Perhaps. After all, neither Art nor I participate in cross-country skiing, snowmobiling or ice fishing - although Art did a lot of the latter in his younger days.

Two primary things draw us. One is that the stay in Art's boyhood home in Appleton gives us the opportunity to work on family history and writing projects without the normal distractions of life at home. Some people have a little getaway in the mountains or in the sunny Southwest. Fate happened to locate ours in the wintry North.

The second is that our daughter Katie and son-in-law Matt are only a couple of hours away, Art's cousins are nearby, and friend Jo is just a "hop, skip and a jump" from us.

I've previously mentioned that most people in the Badger State grow up embracing winter rather than withdrawing from it. When snow arrived late one afternoon, people were out sweeping sidewalks and shoveling driveways in the dusk - even before the flakes stopped falling. Our embrace was easier than some as we paid the young man across the street to clean ours.

Of course, just as some folks put on Christmas-in-July events when the yuletide seems distant, people in the cold climes host indoor markets featuring items typically sold in the outdoor variety in more hospitable months.

Every third Saturday from November through February, Art's hometown has such an event. Art, Katie, Matt and I joined Art’s cousin Jeff and his wife Lorraine at the January version in the Appleton City Center Plaza, a multiple-story mall that houses offices and retail stores. Tables laden with fruits, vegetables, jams and other produce enticed visitors with their bright colors and signs, such as: "You can't 'beet' our produce." Other vendors lining the interior perimeter of the courtyard sold earrings, smoked trout - not something one typically finds in such a venue, greeting cards, soaps, scarves, wooden bowls, caricatures, and many other hand-made items. The retail businesses also appreciated the increased Saturday traffic.

Katie and Matt spent some time in a shop that sold pens, inks and other calligraphy items. Again, not a common offering, but they seemed to be doing a lively business. Art enjoyed chatting with the owner of a camera shop that handles old cameras and equipment, sells and processes film, and converts old movies and tapes into digital format. From the time Art was 13 until he was 21, he earned money repairing overhead projectors, tape recorders, and movie projectors for a similar shop down the street, so there was some considerable reminiscing.

I enjoyed conversing with a woman who makes scarves, purses and bandanas using enlarged images of flowers she has photographed. I'm forever taking close-ups of geraniums, poppies, tulips and other flora and fauna so I was fascinated with the idea of having such images on clothing. She was a great salesperson, showing me the multiple ways I could tie the scarf around my neck or drape it across my shoulders. I walked away a couple of times, telling her I would think about it. But I eventually succumbed and bought a scarf with red-orange geraniums emblazoned on the wispy fabric.

I watched two women spinning. One was converting alpaca wool into thread, reminding me of my Peace Corps days in Ecuador where they are a common animal. The two women and the two men next to them were promoting the Appleton Historical Society. We zeroed in on them because of our intense interest in local history.

Soon connections began to emerge. Art graduated from Appleton High School in 1962 and Richard graduated two years later and John one year before. When’s Art's high school class had its 50th anniversary celebration, Art was in charge of putting together a history. He did research and wrote about the exploration by the French and British, the origin of the city, the history of the grade schools and high schools and obituaries for classmates who had died. He put everything onto flash drives and gave one to every class member who attended the reunion. I mentioned this to Richard and John and they said it would be excellent information to have at the historical society.

Talk turned to the street cars that plied the city's streets from the 1880s to the 1930s. Art called Jeff over to meet Richard and John because Jeff's grandfather was a conductor for the street car company and died in an accident while on the job.

Feeling the conversation had run its course, we began to walk away when John commented about his great-grandfather who had a fistful of patents. Art stopped dead in his tracks!

"You’re not talking about Richard Miller, are you?” he asked.

He hadn't said anything before because, despite John’s name tag, Miller is a very common name in an area with so many people of German descent.

John looked startled and acknowledged he was.

Art said, "We're relatives!”

It seems John's great-grandmother and Art's great-grandmother were sisters!

After a considerable amount of story swapping and the exchange of e-mail addresses, we headed down the street for a late lunch at Victoria’s - a favorite Italian restaurant.

The day hadn't been one of blue skies and warm temperatures that we might have experienced in Florida or Arizona. But I doubt we would have had any more fun in those places. It was a great way to spend a winter weekend in Wisconsin ... or anywhere!

Top-left: more snow is on the way, but a neighbor is already working on what has fallen; lower-left: her salesmanship broke my resistance and now I have a new scarf; middle-left: Art (burgundy sweater) and Matt (plaid shirt) peruse the vegetables on sale; top-middle-right: Katie (right) is always looking for earrings; top-right: Art explains to Katie that his cousin Jeff (center) had a grandfather who worked for the local streetcar company, while two members of the local historical society - Richard (seated) and John - look on; bottom-right: Matt takes a selfie of the gang - Jeff, Art, Gloria, Lorraine and Katie (l-r) - during our lunch-time feast.

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