Head roughly twenty miles down Hwy 12, southeast from Eau Claire, and you’ll come upon a rather nondescript intersection called County Road V. Hook a left and coast by a charming tree farm to your north, grazing bovines to your south and about another mile-and-a-half or so of typically calming Wisconsin pastureland. At the T in the road, take a hard left, then several hundred yards ahead, a quick right. There, directly in front of you lies a short, narrow country bridge. If there are no cars behind you, slow your vehicle down to a near crawl because you’re about to get smacked right in the proverbial kisser. BaBoom! There at the bridge, on your right, stands the enormous, hulking beauty of a 19th century marvel of engineering and ingenuity: the Dells Mill.
Built in 1864, this massive, stunning, five-story behemoth-of-enterprise now proudly serves its visitors as a living museum. Carved into the sandstone dells of Bridge Creek, the structure was crafted from hand-hewn timbers, fastened by wooden pegs, and slathered in that particular all-American red paint and framed in white trimmed windows that only seem to exist in Norman Rockwell paintings. Its insides stuffed with honest-to-goodness curios, artifacts and odds and ends, the likes of which would make the Smithsonian salivate.
It’s owned and operated by a charming fellow named Gus Clark. He’ll guide you, in his trademark Civil War kepi, through a colorful heritage recitation of the building, its history and heritage, its functions, its adaptations, its retirement and its legacy. Leaving you with a grateful head of fresh knowledge, and an appreciation for the hardworking times in our Country’s past where all our rough-and-ragged progressions weren’t followed on iPads and Twitter accounts.
Gus shares his story of the Mill, not like some typical amusement park worker with happy smiles in every sentence but as a weathered sage, seemingly extruded directly from the building’s nearly 150 year past. Having repeated his tale so many thousands of times, it comes off to the listener a bit more like hearing an old prospector weave his yarns while sitting across from you at the old potbellied stove inside the local general store.
Then remarkably, at your tour’s conclusion, Gus lets you do something that is positively unheard of anywhere else. He gives you free reign. Seriously. He lets you wander floor to floor unrestricted, where you can poke your head into any nook and cranny you feel like, including down next to the gigantic waterwheel! Take your time. If you have any questions, he’ll be up in front to answer them, ‘cause the tour ain’t completely over quite yet you see. Before you head out, Gus is going to sing you a little song he wrote. No sense trying to wave it off. You’re going to hear. When a host is this affable, knowledgable and generous, you’re not going to even think of bolting. You’re going to be absolutely charmed by it.
Oh the melody might seem a tiny bit pilfered, but you’ll give him a pass on that. His spoken-verse narrative will teach you more than your schoolteacher and Alex Trebek combined could have. Your visit may last only a few hours. But I guarantee you, it’ll stay with you for years to come.
Jay Filter is a photographer from Milwaukee. You can see his work at: http://www.jayfilterphotography.com.