Wisconsin's last original covered bridge. For more photos, launch the gallery »
DESTINATION Cedarburg, Wisconsin
DISTANCE FROM CHICAGO 115 miles
You could go to the mall. Or you could skip the generic, overcrowded chain stores and go back in time to do your holiday buying at one-of-a-kind locally owned shops and galleries. Head to Cedarburg, Wisconsin, and you’ll find that the Goodman Theatre isn’t the only place where the ghosts of Christmas past emerge for the holidays. In this turn-of-the-century town, more than 100 buildings stretch seven blocks, from Washington Avenue to Hamilton Road. Almost every one of them was built between 1840 and 1900 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, thanks in part to strict zoning laws.
Art and history merge in Cedarburg as artists from throughout the Midwest turn the town’s historic district into a gallery walk from December 3rd through 5th. Christmas in the Country may sound like just another kitschy attempt to manufacture nostalgia for a Currier and Ives past that never really existed. But Cedarburg’s version of a country Christmas is instead a refreshingly authentic celebration of history juxtaposed with artists’ contemporary creations. Where else will you find the likes of Luella Doss’s Hot Flash—a life-size chicken sculpted with hot pink and flaming orange fabrics—housed in an architecturally significant brick storefront? Rest assured not at Walmart.
Doss’s work will be on display in the Civil War–era mill perched on the shores of silvery Cedar Creek. More than 150 years have passed since a largely German immigrant population built the mill from limestone blocks laboriously cut out of the quarry now covered by a pond in Zeunert Park. But the onetime mill—now called Cedar Creek Settlement—remains the town hub, a place of bustling commerce and community, its looms replaced by shops, restaurants, and a winery where cabernets and sauvignons share space with some 10,000 pieces of art during the holiday fest. A few blocks south, the Cedarburg Cultural Center hosts a display of heirloom quilts. Steps away at the Cedarburg Community Center Gym, the 200-plus members of the Cedarburg Artists’ Guild exhibit paintings, drawings, and mixed-media creations.
In a town that prides itself on a thriving arts community, the elder statesman is Ed Rappold, 92, a photographer who has been capturing Cedarburg’s history on film since joining the high school’s camera club in the mid-1930s. He’s worth seeking out: While many of his photos hang in the cultural center, Rappold himself occasionally mans the dry-goods counter at Washington Avenue’s General Store Museum, fielding queries from tourists and maintaining Cedarburg’s archival photos—more than 2,000 images that dating to the 1840s. For every picture, Rappold seems to have a story, each one illuminating an aspect of Cedarburg’s colorful history of millers, farmers, and raucous forty-niners stopping off at the Stagecoach Inn before heading farther west.
If Cedar Creek Settlement is an example of history reappropriated for contemporary shoppers, the General Store Museum is geared toward preserving the past precisely as it was. The dry-goods counter is adjacent to a barbershop replicated right down to the red-and-blue pole and a potbelly stove. The museum also houses a malt shop that looks like it was lifted whole from the set of American Graffiti. At the druggist’s counter, potions to cure ladies of “the vapors” are displayed alongside Chesterfield cigarette ads extolling the health benefits of smoking.
Cedarburg’s Washington Avenue Historic District may be a haven for both holiday shoppers and history buffs, but the town’s charms aren’t limited to its main drag. A five-minute drive north from the Cedar Creek Settlement puts you in the middle of a photo op at Covered Bridge Park. Take in the sunset from the riverbanks, and the most intense holiday stress tends to soften. That’s an amenity you won’t find at any mall.
Cedarburg’s Christmas in the Country, December 3rd through 5th. This annual event features Midwestern folk artists, exhibits, and sales at various locales throughout Cedarburg’s Washington Avenue Historic District, including Cedar Creek Settlement, the community gymnasium, and the cultural center; $3 admission. For more information, call 866-626-7005 or go to cedarcreeksettlement.com.
WHERE TO STAY Stagecoach Inn Bed and Breakfast, W61 N520 Washington Ave., Cedarburg; 888-375-0208, stagecoach-inn-wi.com. Rates range from $95 to $150 per night. Washington House Inn, W62 N573 Washington Ave., Cedarburg; 888-554-9545, washingtonhouseinn.com. Rates range from $125 to $315 per night.
WHERE TO EAT Cream and Crepe Café, inside Cedar Creek Settlement at the corner of Washington Avenue and Bridge Road; 262-377-0900. Anvil Pub & Grille, inside Cedar Creek Settlement at the corner of Washington Avenue and Bridge Road; 262-376-2163, anvilpubandgrille.com.
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Photography: Adam Senatori