“Right in the middle of everywhere” is the tagline under the Chamber of Commerce logo for the Greater Menomonie area in Wisconsin. Seemingly remote Menomonie has just 16,000 residents, but this vibrant community an hour’s drive east of St. Paul, Minnesota, earned a spot on Smithsonian magazine’s list of the best small towns in America in its May 2012 issue. A rich cultural tradition that includes outdoor Shakespearean performances, plus the intellectual influence of University of Wisconsin-Stout, a highly-regarded technology school, are two reasons this tiny community made the list.
At the heart of city nightlife is Mabel Tainter Memorial Theatre, which has become a Menomonie tourist spot as much for its architectural flair as for its theatrical and musical stage shows. Using local sandstone to fashion this Victorian icon in 1889, the builders created a fitting symbol of a town that employs its native assets in pursuit of the best the world has to offer. The interior of this 269-seat theater, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has Moorish styling. Turkish rugs and Mecca drapes complement brass fixtures and hand-carved lattice work. An eclectic performance schedule includes concerts, ballets, musicals and stand-up comedies.
Just around the corner from the theater is a dream come true for chocolate lovers. Legacy Chocolates opened in 2002 on Earth Day, a fitting moment for a company dedicating itself to high-quality chocolates made with the most nutritious ingredients. Using real butter and cream rather than artificial substitutes, and cocoa from Venezuela, the chocolatier takes pride in its hand-crafted truffles, sauces, wafers and barks. Anyone with a sweet tooth would be wise to consider this Menomonie tourist spot a must to see.
Spoiling the palate continues in the best sense at Cottage Winery and Vineyard. Enjoying wine tastings at this family-owned operation is among the most satisfying things to do in the Menomonie area. Three miles north of town, the winery sits among gently sloping fields of grapes in an idyllic setting that features a stone bridge and an English cottage. This vintner specializes in cold-resistant varietals, such as Frontenac, Frontenac Gris and La Crescent grapes. It also offers wines made from Marquette grapes, a variety descended from Pinot Noir.
History buffs might want to visit Wakanda Park in North Menomonie, which is the site of three of the county’s historic structures. Among them is a one-room schoolhouse, the Hilcrest School and the Tainter Playhouse, which once kept the children of 19th-century lumber tycoon Andrew Tainter occupied.
For outdoor enthusiasts, one of the best things to do in Menomonie is hike or cycle down the 14.5-mile Red Cedar State Trail. Passing through terrain that ranges from marshland bottoms to prairies and from forests to sandstone bluffs, trekkers and cyclists who go the distance will reach the Chippewa River State Trail. Eventually this system of trails will span 80 miles, connecting Cornell, Chippewa Falls and Eau Claire to Durand and Menomonie, and making the city’s “middle-of-everywhere” motto more poignant than ever.