Article by David Lang
Eau Claire, located in the northwest part of Wisconsin, may not be the most stunningly beautiful city that gives you an immediate “WOW.” Yet, this college town with a population of 65,000 people brings you a great sense of peace and calm. Eau Claire’s economy used to center around the lumber industry and shipping. However, in recent years, it has successfully transformed into a regional center for education, healthcare, culture and art. Located in the region of Wisconsin known for its fertile farmland and pasture, Eau Claire is well known for its wide variety of vegetables and cheese, thus known as the “American’s Dairyland.” The locals are hospitable, and yet, they are independent-minded and do not compromise on their principles. Therefore, Eau Claire is claimed to be “The Indie Capital” of the Midwest.
Eau Claire is a French phrase, meaning “clear water.” Eau Claire is located at the confluence of the Eau Claire and Chippewa Rivers. It used to be the center of logging, timber transportation, and wood product manufacturing. The two rivers served as the main waterways, transporting the logging down the rivers. When the railroads were built in Eau Claire in 1870, the use of water transportation decreased. In the meanwhile, the logging industry collapsed and was finally replaced by the automobile tire industry.
Uniroyal tire company in Eau Claire used to be the fifth largest tire company in the U.S., with 2750 employees and a daily production of 30,000 tires in the late 1960s. Many retirees recalled that their hourly rate was as high as $11 in the 1970s, which equates to a $51 hourly rate today. It was an impressive rate but it did not last long. In 1990, Uniroyal was acquired by the multinational tire group Micheline. Uniroyal ended its business a year later and the company became a chapter in history.
Eau Claire has undergone years of reconstruction, transformation, gentrification, and residential-commercial hybrid development. The city center is transformed and reviving. During my two-day visit, I saw multiple construction sites, an expanding library and the construction of shopping malls. The Oxbow Hotel where I stayed was a charming boutique hotel in a historic building, within convenient walking distance to many scenic sites. My first stop was to visit the art sculptures displayed around the downtown.
Sculpture Art, Modern Murals
Since 2010, the city council has started to transform Eau Claire into a public art center in the Midwest, by establishing a non-profit organization to collaborate with the sculpture artists. Beginning with twelve exhibits in the first year, the city has now curated fifty-six exhibits, all of which are exceptional artwork from artists all over the world. According to Julie Pangallo, Executive Director at Sculpture Tour Eau Claire, they received over 700 submissions every year, and this year they have selected 56 exhibits. All invited artists were paid a symbolic exhibition fee, but sharing their art with the public was a much more significant honor.
It took me only a few minutes to walk to the main street Barstow Street from my hotel. Along both sides of the pedestrian street there were over 20 sculptures of various shapes, including portraits, animals, scooters, musical instruments and abstract designs. All selected exhibits were displayed to the public for a year, and the local community voted one exhibit as the “People’s Choice,” which would be purchased by the organizer to present to Eau Claire city as a permanent exhibition. Currently, over eleven sculptures have been permanently displayed in Eau Claire.
Moreover, many old buildings went through transformation and beautification through murals, reviving the energy in the quiet corners and alleys of the city. Because Eau Claire was built along two rivers, it is connected through fifteen bridges. It is also called the “City of Bridges.” In particular, when the Phoenix Park Bridge was lit up at night, the moonlight and the night lights made the city more vibrant and exciting.
Meeting an old friend in a distant land
One afternoon, I was visiting the Artisan Forge Studios housed in a large building. The building was divided into more than 20 studios of various sizes for calligraphers, artists, jewelry designers, guitar manufacturers, and other artisans. I was amazed to see an Asian face. Her name was Xin Obaid, running a small studio of Chinese tea and calligraphy. I was pleasantly surprised to meet a Chinese resident in such a small town. We connected right away and shared each other’s stories.
I was very curious to know how Xin Obaid landed in Eau Claire, a town thousands of miles away from her hometown in Wuhan, China. When Xin was about to retire in China back in 2010, she decided to see the world and she came to the U.S. alone. When she was reading The Rose of Time by a Chinese poet Bei Dao at the Minneapolis airport, a man approached her with the same book that he was reading. What a coincidence! This man was named Sal Obaid, an Israeli immigrant in the U.S. He was a medical doctor living in Eau Claire, and he happened to be passionate about Chinese literature. Xin was not proficient in English at the time, so she and Sal relied on translation apps on their cellphones to communicate. Sal invited Xin to visit Eau Claire and experience small-town life. He fell in love with Xin, and they were both divorced at the time. There was a lovely ending to the story. Sal followed Xin back to her hometown and proposed to her parents, after which they returned to the US and got married here. The intercultural couple has been living a happy life in Eau Claire for over a decade.
The number of Chinese residents in Eau Claire is fairly small, and there are not many Chinese restaurants. Before the pandemic, there were over 200 international students from China studying at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, but the current number is not clear.
Interesting Facts of Eau Claire
While in Wisconsin, a must-do is to try all kinds of cheese and dairy products. Ramone’s Ice Cream and Olson’s Ice Cream are famous for their delicious ice creams and milkshakes. The Shift is a unique bike shop that combines bike repair, rental, sale, and coffee brewing. Every Saturday, there is a Farmers Market in Phoenix Park where you can purchase fresh produce, fruits and flowers from many Hmong vendors. Along the sidewalks of Barstow Street, you will see thousands of white lights that cast the city with a warm, festive and celestial glow. Your heart will be warmed by this small town.