My ears pop as I descend into the Mississippi River valley and pass the houses jutting out into the water across from Copeland Park, La Crosse’s home for the national pastime. On my way to a baseball game (the Loggers are the city’s Northwoods League representative) I stumbled across a slice of history in this town on the western border of Wisconsin. Sandwiched between City Hall and Western Technical College stands the Hixon House, an 1859 Italianite-style architectural treasure that was once home to lumber baron Gideon Hixon and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Visiting a place like this brings you in contact with those who share a love of preserving history – when I ask the elderly man standing in what passes for a visitor’s center (a structure that looks like a renovated barn) if they take credit cards he says, “Well, I try not to…if you have to I’m gonna need you to write down all of your info here so they can run it in the office.” After I pay for my tour, he proudly proclaims that my handmade ticket can also be used as a bookmark.
The original 1867 rod iron gate squeaks open as I spy the yellow, purple and pink flowers in the garden to the left of the house. The double wooden front doors lead to a rich, dark hallway lined with walnut woodwork, a brass radiator to my right and a marquetry card stand with an inlaid Limoge plate on my left, awaiting anyone with a calling card. Impressively, this Victorian home contains approximately 90% of its original furnishings – a 1907 picture in the parlor shows the same placement more than 100 years later.
Green, gold and brown hues abound and the ornate drapes flanking the bay window remind me of the famous dressmaking scene in “Gone with the Wind.” In the sitting room, my eyes are drawn to the quote from British poet Alexander Pope inscribed above the fireplace: “Regard not then if wit be old or new but blame the false and value still the true.” The docent points out a couple of those secret touches from a bygone era – the buzzer under the dining room table used to signal the staff to serve the next course and the stained glass windows, installed so you didn’t have to look at the barn.
One of the unique features of the Hixon House is the passageway between the sitting room and the dining room. Known as the “Turkish Nook,” it’s one of the few remaining such rooms in the country. This turn-of-the-century addition is lined with gold linseed wallpaper and furnished with Oriental treasures Ellen Hixon had collected in her travels. What strikes me as garish today was “en vogue” and exotic at a time that when people had been to the Orient.
Taking a step back into history doesn’t have to end with a tour of the Hixon House – one of the other summertime activities is a “Dark Side of La Crosse” tour. For $9, you can hop aboard a red trolley and listen to stories from the city’s macabre past, such as the day John Dillinger walked into Ted’s Barber Shop (now the Tree Hugger’s Co-op) and requested a shave.
The Hixon House is open and the Dark Side of La Crosse tours are given during the summer. For more information, visit www.explorelacrosse.com.
Where to stay: Steps away from Riverside Park and the riverfront boardwalk lies the Charmont Hotel, an 1898 candy factory renovated into a boutique hotel.
Where to eat: On the corner of Fourth and Pearl, you can find Fayze’s, a family owned restaurant and bakery, serving homemade comfort food for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Sarah Johnson is a Minnesota-based freelance writer who covers topics including history, sports, food, travel and movies for a variety of publications. Visit her website to read more of her work: http://www.sarahjohnsonwrites.