A Tale of Two Dells

I have always had a vague sense of “The Dells” in Wisconsin, and it took till now to realize what the place was all about.

I always pictured some lovely outdoor amphitheater, where concerts were performed in the summer. Guess I was thinking more of  the Dells of the Wisconsin River, a scenic, glacially formed gorge that features striking sandstone formations along the river’s banks. That is the gorgeous part of Wisconsin we saw from a riverboat tour today.  Fall may be just the right time to explore this amazing cross-section of nature’s puff pastry – layers and layers of thin sandstone heated by the sun. Not very robust, but very very dramatic.

You can really only see The Dells from a boat, as the land itself is mostly protected. If you followed our tour of Oregon, you might remember The Dalles, the town named after the French word dalle, meaning either “sluice” or “flagstone” and referring to the rocks carved by the Columbia River there.  This name has the same source, for the same reason, thanks to French trappers.

The river bank scenes were lovely, but the coves we visited and walked into were spectacular.

And then there is the other Wisconsin Dells. This is a ticky-tacky tourist town of the highest (lowest?) order, known as the “Waterpark Capital of the World,” a title I am sure many other venues crave. We are off-season, so most of the fudge and tee-shirt shops are closed, which makes this a very sad and tacky town. The post-apocalyptic upside-down White House was a kick.  All reminiscent of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge TN, outside of Dollywood! I guess that at a certain point, the scenery lost its glow and the roar of the arcades and the smell of the fudge completely took over.  Now the locals admit that many tourists never even bother to go on the river to experience the amazing Dells. Not really hard to believe, but sad.

Is that why people flock here? Not originally. They came for the lovely scenery.  And they knew about it thanks to an early and innovative photographer, Henry Hamilton Bennett.  Bennett originated the concept of photojournalism, invented a stop-action shutter (which he called the “snapper”), improved the speed of the chemical exposure process and created other photographic innovations.  His photographs attracted throngs of tourists to the beauty of the sandstone gorges of the Wisconsin River Dells. He is most famous for this picture of his son jumping from Stand Rock, “Leap of Faith,” taken in 1886.

Today, our tour included a moment of recreation, with a German Shepherd  jumping the chasm.  Even though I missed the magic moment, what a thrill! And admire the lovely stone creations around Stand Rock.

But the whole town was redeemed by a dinner we had tonight at the Del Bar Supper Club. Supper Clubs are somewhat unique to Wisconsin, so we had to try one.  What are they? A supper club traditionally refers to a dining establishment that also functions as a social club. The term may describe different establishments depending on the region, but in general, supper clubs tend to present themselves as having a high-class image, even if the price is affordable to all. Ours was a bit pricey for the region, but the food was fabulous.  Across the room, a dropout from Duck Dynasty was dining in full camo, hence the affordability factor.

But the Del Bar had something extra special. Established in 1943 as a roadside steakhouse by Jim and Alice Wimmer, it is today still family-owned. Because it was located between Wisconsin Dells and Baraboo, the name Del-Bar was chosen. The “Prairie style” ambiance, renovations and expansions are by James Dresser, a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright. You can see the FLW touches everywhere, and they are just perfect, as was the food.  When we expressed an interest in local sweet corn, they took some off the cob for us and prepared it perfectly.  We loved this place!  It may just be the best dining experience of this trip.

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