Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Day Three: House on the Rock

Aug. 16, 2010

We have had a wonderful day, full but not rushed, and it seems to me that we could spend an entire week in this little corner of southwestern Wisconsin. It is an absolutely lovely area, full of rolling green hills and valleys, many farms, and not many people. In fact, everywhere we go we are struck with how uncrowded it seems, beginning with our first “adventure” this morning.

We started the day slowly, taking care of some housekeeping chores, and taking advantage of the nice showers in the campground. We were feeling remarkably well rested, which at first I attributed to the fact that when the alarm went off at 7 a.m., we slept until 8. But a little while after we woke up, we realized that somewhere along the way, we’d entered the Central Time zone, and although it was only 8am by our cell phones, it was 9 a.m. by our wrist watches, indicating that we’d actually had 9 hours of sleep! No wonder we were so perky!!

We left our campsite in the woods and before leaving Blue Mounds State Park entirely, we drove up on top of the “mountain” (this is the highest point in southern Wisconsin.) There was absolutely no one up there when we got to the parking lot for the scenic overlook. We climbed up the wooden observation tower—even Roxy made it up despite her reluctance to go up open staircases—to find a stunning view of the surrounding valleys. Green everywhere—it was a great vista. We were up there for 10 minutes or so when a family of 4 came up the 8 flights of stairs and joined us. We decided not to stress Roxy any further and decided to climb down.

We left the park heading for the Welcome Center in the town of Spring Green, figuring we could pick up more brochures and maybe even coupons before going to either Taliesin or the House on the Rock. The GPS routed us via county roads, which here are all labeled not with numbers but with letters. We took Road F to Road ID to Road Y, and followed Y for quite a long while, much to Joey’s delight. It was narrow and twisty and went through the countryside and there were NO other vehicles to be seen. That is, until a tractorish truck pulling an oddly-shaped tank trailer pulled out of a side road and passed us going the other way. We suddenly realized what was in his tank—a wide trail pungent brown liquidy stuff was laid on the road, and there was no doubt it was liquid manure. Moments after realizing that “Oy, his truck has a leak!”, we realized that WE had no choice but to cross his path—and at that point, it was Mo with the pungent smell of horse manure clinging to the wheels. The smell stayed with us for a while before fading, but late in the afternoon when we left the RV, I could smell it again. Next time we are anywhere near water, we need to spray our mud flaps! Phew! Lucky for us, we have a good sense of humor about this kind of thing.

We arrived at the Visitor Center in Spring Green and discovered a totally delightful small town (population 1444, twice the size of the village of Blue Mounds.) The architecture of the town is very influenced by the proximity of Taliesin, with many buildings designed by students of Frank Lloyd Wright. The Visitor Center itself, and the bank next door, both show a lot of prairie style influence, and the town’s medical building is modeled after Taliesin. The town itself seemed so utterly quiet—there was little traffic or noise or people—but we could tell it was a thriving place. We parked Mo next to the library, which had beautiful specimen gardens planted around it; the bank, as I said, was a fascinating building, there were parks and little shops everywhere. We walked into some of them, picked up some batteries for my camera and a few small fun items, chatted with shop owners, and generally felt that the town was totally adorable. I don’t think it has a single traffic light. An utterly livable place. Below is a photo of the center of Spring Green at noon!
We had some lunch in Mo, and then headed south again to visit the House on the Rock. This is a major attraction in the area, and we decided it was really a cross between the Winchester Mystery House in (I think) San Jose, and the Shelburne (VT) Museum which we fell in love with last summer. This house was the lifetime project of one Alex Jordan, who was born and grew up in this area. Like the Winchester House, the house has room after room, and like the Shelburne Museum, it houses huge collections of everything from dollhouses (over 200) to circus memorabilia (miniature model circuses, posters, painted circus wagon wheels), pipe organs, weapons, carved ivory, pipe organs, dolls, automatons, Asian artifacts, carousel horses, stained glass, and “stuff” of every conceivable description. The most stunning item of all is the carousel—it has 276 handcrafted animals (not a single horse, but everything else you can imagine!), 20,000 lights, and is 80 feet in diameter. Our jaws literally dropped when we walked in and saw it! It was simply stunning. It is housed in a room with more carved wooden horses stacked up on the walls and the ceiling was covered with angel carvings—or so I thought (more about that later.)

The house itself is original attraction—it is built right into the side of the mountain, and the walls of many of the rooms are the natural stone. One room has a waterfall of natural runoff trickling through it, and many of the rooms have windows which bank out over the edge of the cliff. The ceilings are quite low and some of the passageways are narrowly cut through the stone. The high point of this section is the “Infinity Room”. Opened in 1985, it is a 218-foot room which is cantilevered out over the valley below, suspended in space. As you walk toward the end it physically narrows to a point, making it seem as if it goes on forever. At the end of the room, there is a glass floor with a view straight down into the trees below.
Above: A room with natural rock walls, a waterfall, and trees inside.

The place is so large and houses so many things that it is divided into 3 self-guiding tours with 3 separate tickets. We of course bought the entire package, but because we didn’t get there until 3 pm, we decided we’d never be able to see the entire place. So we went into Tour 1 (the house itself) and Tour 3 (including the Carousel Room, the dolls, the circus collection and all the other things I listed above. We are planning to go back tomorrow for Tour 2 (they let you use any unpunched tour tickets within a year of purchase.) We had mixed feelings about the entire place—on one hand, we loved many of the items we saw, including the carousel, a fabulous calliope playing songs from the Mikado, the automatons, which played along with the music everywhere, the pipe organ room (which was like some kind of science fiction dream), and the collection of Barranger Motion Machines. These were produced during the 1920s-1950s to display diamonds and jewelry in store windows, and are very charming.


Right: Drum Tree in the Organ Room

What we didn’t like so much was that there was literally NO explanation of anything in the place. [Subsequent comment: we read in the book we bought that Alex said, "Don't education them, entertain them"-- but we WANTED to be educated!] They don’t even give you a basic map which shows where the rest rooms are, or what is in the next room. (Speaking of rest rooms, I had a “first” today—I took photos inside the Ladies Room, and even inside the stall!) But anyway, we felt that maybe Alex Jordan actually didn’t WANT people to know too much about it, in order to preserve the sense of overwhelming amazement.

FX there is a room full of armor, displayed in dioramas. I didn’t find out until tonight when I was reading a tour guide that it was all made specifically for his museum. There was a HUMUNGOUS cannon, which we wondered about, and turns out he had it made right there on the premises. The most bizarre thing we saw was as we left at the very end. The tour pathway (which was circuitous and went up and down all the time) ended RIGHT up under the ceiling in the room with the carousel. That was when we could see that many of the angels suspended from the ceiling were not carved, as we’d thought, but they were store-type mannequins with wings attached! They were extremely bizarre and somewhat creepy . Joey felt that the end result was a feeling that Alex Jordan was not quite sane [g],and that for him, enough was never enough. For instance, there was NO need of the room filled with somewhat tacky-looking replicas of all the British Crown Jewels… there was plenty to see without that! Tomorrow when we go back, we will spend time in the Alex Jordan room, which is an introduction to the museum, and see what we can learn about him.
(Above: "Angels" on the ceiling and dozens of carousel horses on the walls)

We finished our tour just at 6 pm, at which point we had a snack in the RV and then, after searching for a gas station, decided to spend another night in a Wisconsin state park, this time the Governor Dodge State Park. This place is much larger than last night’s park, with a very large campground, 2 lakes, beaches, etc. Tomorrow we will go see the waterfall before we leave, and then go south just a little further to find wifi. The park ranger told me where the only place is “around here” with wifi, and we have been out of luck on that subject since we left home. I am not at all sure where we will end up by the end of the day tomorrow…. I am beginning to think that we’d better start planning to spend our entire vacation just in Wisconsin and Minnesota. There is so much to see here, and I am already one day “behind” on my schedule. But it doesn’t really matter…. It is so pleasant here, and relaxing, and we are thoroughly enjoying discovering places which we didn’t plan on but which turn out to be lovely. It was a wonderful day.
[Postscript: Camera malfunctioned--I took more photos, but when I tried to transfer them from my 3rd disk of photos, there were absolutely none. So I have no photos of the circus collections, or anything else from that part of the tour. Too bad, the circus wagon wheels were so beautiful!]

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