Cassette tapes don’t actually date back to the Chippewa Valley’s 19th century era of mighty lumberjacks and buzzing sawmills, but these days they are practically antiques nonetheless. That’s one of the reasons a cassette-tape audio tour of region has been digitally rebooted for the 21st century.
Timber Trails, a series of four driving tours that emphasize the region’s rich lumbering history,has been rewritten, recalibrated, and rerecorded just in time for the summer vacation season. Two of the tours – one for Eau Claire County, one for Chippewa County – were recently launched online, where they can be streamed free on your smartphone; two more, featuring the Menomonie and Knapp areas, will be available in the near future.
The Timber Trails program was originally created in 1998 to coincide with Wisconsin’s 150th birthday. Since then, the passage of time – coupled with new roads and new technology – have made the original tapes obsolete. Enter the Chippewa Valley Museum and Visit Eau Claire, who – with the help of state and federal grants – updated the tours and made them compatible with the iPhone era.
On a recent sunny spring morning, I traveled the Chippewa County segment of the Timber Trails as a kind of beta tester. With Visit Eau Claire marketing director Kenzi Phillips at the wheel and Chippewa Valley Museum editor John Vanek in the back seat, I rode shotgun and served as navigator. With the help of a smartphone plugged into the car stereo, I loaded the appropriate website, tapped on the play icon, and navigated us to the tour’s starting point on Bridge Street in downtown Chippewa Falls. The voice of Lois Hodgins – who narrated the tour with her husband, Don – filled the car.
“Pack some snacks, buckle your seatbelts, and start your engine. It’s time to follow the Timber Trails through beautiful Chippewa County,” Lois said before she and Don launched into a two-minute primer on the history of Chippewa Falls from the mid- to late-19th century lumber boom to the present. The couple, both local theater vets, peppered the facts and directions with witty ad-libs and married-couple banter.
The Timber Trails tours cover a lot of ground, literally and figuratively. This particular tour – which hits 10 sites of “historic, scenic, and cultural significance,” plus some optional side jaunts – traverses about 65 miles and takes 2 to 4 hours to complete. (Set aside half a day so you don’t feel too rushed.) The narration covers the period from the end of last ice age (10,000 years ago) through the present day, encompassing the Native American era, European settlement, the 50- year lumber boom (during which nearly all of the region’s 46 billion board feet of white pine were felled), and the post-lumber era adaptation to agriculture and industry. That’s a lot of history, but it’s done in engaging, bite-sized segments, so it doesn’t feel overwhelming.
From Chippewa Falls we headed north, glimpsing what remains of the long-lost lumber town of Chippewa City along O’Neil Creek. (I’ve lived in the Chippewa Valley for years, and – like a lot of things on the tour – I had no idea Chippewa City existed.) We moved on to the Old Abe Monument in Jim Falls, one of several sites related to the famed bald eagle who accompanied the 8th Wisconsin Volunteers in the Civil War. From there, the trail continued to follow the river along Highway 178, stopping at the quaintly picturesque Cobban Bridge, the towering log stacker in Cornell, and the small community of Holcombe, where you’ll see an enormous hand-carved statue of a Native American and learn about a deadly turn-of- the century logjam.
“In the fall, I can only imagine how awesome the drive is,” Phillips remarked as we traveled through the tree-covered hills.
After Holcombe, the trail became even more rural and scenic as it curved west and then south. The countryside alone is worth the trip, and it includes the sights along County Highway E, the only officially designated “Rustic Road” in Chippewa County, which winds its way through glacial moraine territory. The road follows the old Flambeau Trail, which 19th century settlers used to make their way north.
Along the way, there are historic markers to read, spots for picnics, side trips to wildflower areas and the Ice Age Trail, mom-and- pop restaurants, and small museums.
As the trail loops back down Highway 124, it stops in the Town of Eagle Point (and an unexpected Old Abe statue!) and at the nation’s first cooperative power generating station (built by the Wisconsin Power Co-op in the 1930s) before returning to Chippewa Falls for suggested stops at the Leinenkugel Brewing Co. and Irvine Park (two not-to- be-missed destinations, even if you don’t have time for the whole Timber Trail).
I ended the morning with some good photos, some great memories, and a renewed appreciation for the Chippewa Valley’s history. And that’s the point, says Linda John, Visit Eau Claire’s executive director: “We hope that by driving the routes and following along with the narrative they will come to better understand the stories of our area, and the unique people and places that have all been a part of creating this place we call home.”
Once all four tours are available to be streamed online, the project partners hope to make them downloadable as well. (Currently, you need a mobile device with a consistent Internet connection to listen to the tour.) In addition to the right technology, bring a friend along to safely travel the Timber Trails, with one person driving and the other serving as navigator. (Unless you want to become history, keep your eyes on the road, history buffs!)