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Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2008

Winter in Wausau

Art, dining, skiing

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It’sbeen decades since that precocious little girl at the spelling bee lectured us, through a Wausau Insurance TV ad, that “it’s Wausau … W-A-U-S-A-U. Wausau, a small town in northern Wisconsin …” All right, already. What else do you have for us? The company’s logo—a little brick railroad depot—made its debut in Time magazine in 1954 and has since become an icon of the city. It is a symbol of pride in smalltown roots as well as the trademark for the insurance company that in 1911 was the first in the nation to issue a workers’ compensation policy.

A train station still stands at 720 Grant St., but today it houses a Head Start program. A half-dozen blocks away is the City Square, where the peal of church bells at noon reassures the soul, and entrepreneurial enterprises easily lighten the pocketbook.

City leaders realize this is the heart of the city, so they are pursuing plans to add a stage, fountain and public patio to the park benches and walkways that already exist on this square block of green space. Dotted around and near it are sweet treasures—literally, in the case of JanMar’s Chocolate Emporium, 300 Third St.

On the opposite side sits the Gallery on ArtsBlock, part of a ripening fine arts complex that embraces Wausau’s character and heritage instead of aiming for pretentious sophistication. The ArtsBlock is a revival of sorts: The 1899 Grand Opera House, razed to become the Grand Theater in 1927, today lures touring Broadway shows (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels arrives in March) and community theater (Gypsy opens next week) for multiple play dates at 415 Fourth St.

The Gallery’s recent “Midwest Winter Exhibit” was a cozy and sly celebration of the season, full of wildlife in snow scenes and environmental statements. “Electric Nest Warmer,” a zapped-out bird woven together with various metals by Mary Robinson of Wausau, was a whimsical reminder that a neighboring residential area is home to the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, 700 N. 12th St., which shelters some of the world’s most compelling bird art. At this museum, birds of all feathers are depicted through oils, sculpture, Victorian needlework, even Russian icons. There are compelling photographs, technical illustrations from the 1700s, porcelain figurines and waterfowl decoys. The creatures are shown as shy and proud, vulnerable and serene, as both shaky survivors and ruthless predators. This is a deep and thoughtful tribute to one piece of life on this planet.

What else? Lunch at the Back When Cafe, 606 Third St., showcases chefowner Jolene Lucci’s reverence for Slow Food principles, like the luncheon crepes filled with a creamy sauce of chicken and mushrooms (plus broccoli, if you ask). “No canned sauces or cheap ingredients such as powdered spices or imitation herbs,” she promises.

The setting—antique-shop-meets-industrial-design—is a century-old building with two dining rooms. One is full of natural light and contemporary decor; the other mixes more intimate lighting with historical prints and hardwood floors. Both are meant for lingering.

Art and Sports
So this community of 38,000 is honing a cosmopolitan side, and reconsiderations are made as time marches on. The downtown’s Third Street Pedestrian Mall, for example, was reopened to vehicular traffic in 2007. The area had been closed off for 25 years, until customers vanished and too many businesses shuttered.

Wausau also is a city that knows it’s OK to have more than one personality, and it has matured into Wisconsin’s most distinguished and versatile winter sports destination. The 74 runs at Granite Peak Ski Area, 3605 N. Mountain Road, showcase just one of many sporting possibilities. During Pulaski Weekend, the first weekend in March, skiers get three days on the slopes for the price of two. Live music and activities for kids give the event a festival flair.

Stomp the Swamp, snowshoe races of 6 and 12 kilometers, start at noon on Feb. 24 at the Nine Mile County Forest and Recreation Area, 8704 Red Bud Road. For more: 715-675-5850. The Silver Spoon Bonspiel, a curling tournament for veterans and novices, is March 1-2 at Marathon Park, 1201 Stewart Ave. For more: 715-842-3614.

Add snowmobiling, ice skating, snowboarding and that’s Wausau … W-A-U-S- A-U, not Warsaw and not to be confused with Wausau, Fla., the “Possum Capital of the World,” which celebrates that title with a festival in August.

But that’s another story. We prefer the one we have to tell in Wisconsin.

FOR MORE: www.wausaucvb.com, 888-WI-VISIT

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