Quickie Summary: State “Trunk” Highway 96 begins in Fremont near the Wolf River, where U.S. 10 is now a freeway that bypasses the town. Highway 96 is what U.S. 10 used to be from here to Appleton until 2003, when it was routed onto a new freeway alignment several miles to the south.
The Wisconsin Highway 96 Road Trip
The Drive (West to East): You begin at the U.S. 10 freeway in Fremont at Highway 110. Highway 96 from here east to Appleton basically covers the former route of U.S. 10 before the new freeway opened around 2003. In this area, the Wolf River connects Partridge Lake with Lake Poygan, part of the chain that include Lake Butte Des Morts and Lake Winnebago. Extremely popular for fishing and hunting, this area beckons those who love the great outdoors. Plenty of hunting land and cabins for rent are in the vicinity.
Past U.S. 45 and into Outagamie County, Highway 96 is a straight shot. You go through Dale, an unincorporated community where you can access the Wiouwash Recreation Trail. There’s isn’t a whole lot until you cross Highway 76 and enter the Appleton area. Then, there’s plenty! To the south is Outagamie County Regional Aiport (“ATW” if you know your airport codes). ATW offers Fox Cities residents non-stops not only to regional hubs like Milwaukee and Minneapolis, but to Denver, Atlanta and Las Vegas.
Just as development pops up around airports, the area east of ATW along Highway 96 suddenly brims with office buildings, retail stores, restaurants and housing subdivisions. What was a fairly low-key two-lane road a few miles back suddenly becomes a busy 4- to 6-lane corridor. You’re now in the town of Grand Chute (pop. 18,392), Wisconsin’s largest town in terms of population and land valuation (over $2.5 billion). Grand Chute basically envelops the land north and west of the City of Appleton that the city hasn’t incorporated. As you approach the junction with U.S. 41, to your right is Fox River Mall and a mass of other big-box and smaller retail stores and eateries, part of the largest concentration of retail in Wisconsin.
The Fox River Mall is the largest mall in northeastern Wisconsin and has over 1.2 million square feet of shopping space. Some stores here aren’t found in most of the rest of the state, including a Scheels All Sports and a number of small retailers that specialize in such diverse selections as neon signs, upscale boutique fashions, and model cars. In all, the Mall features over 180 stores, including Macy’s, Aeropostale, and if the kids need to build a toy bear while on your road trip, they have a Build-A-Bear Workshop.
|State Trunk Tour Tidbit:|
|Appleton’s politics tend to be opposite Madison’s. This is where Senator Joe McCarthy came from, and where the John Birch Society maintains their headquarters today.|
BREW PUB ALERT
Connected to Fox River Mall is the Fox River Brewing Company (920-991-0000), which opened in 1997. They brew a wide variety of handcrafted beers, including Caber Tossing Scottish Ale, Trolleycar Stout, Titan Porter, Fox Tail Ale, Winnebago Wheat and a lower-calorie, lower-alcohol Fox Light. Other specialty brews pop up from time to time.
LET’S GET READY TO RATTLLLLLLLLLE!
Play ball! The Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, are a class ‘A’ Midwest League baseball affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers – a relationship that began with the 2009 season. They take to the field just north of Highway 96 at Time Warner Cable Field at Fox Cities Stadium, a great little minor league facility that seats over 4,500, plus grass seating and three luxury boxes. The team, which began as the Appleton Foxes in 1958, has helped launch some impactful players in the Major Leagues, including Tom Gordon, Alex Rodriguez and David “Big Papi” Ortiz, who still maintains connections to the area. I’ve heard that this is where “sausage lauchers” were first used at baseball games to deliver meat products to hungry patrons in dramatic fashion, but I’ll have to verify that. Pending certain permissions, watch for pictures of the games and stadium coming soon!
Yes, Highway 96 has a lot to check out on the west side of Appleton. Once you cross I-41, you’re in the city and on a beeline east once again.
Appleton (pop. 72,000) is the hub of this vibrant metroplex, officially named the Appleton-Oshkosh-Neenah Combined Statistical Area by those in government. The metro area as a whole has over 350,000 residents. Founded as a papermaking city – like many of its neighbors – Appleton’s key location along the Fox River just north of Lake Winnebago made it a center for trade. The city was first settled in earnest in 1847, the same year Lawrence University was founded. Enrolling about 1,400 students every year, Lawrence consistently ranks among the first tier of liberal arts college according to U.S. News & World Report.
Appleton tends to be a city of firsts..Along with power generation and commercially successful streetcars, Appleton led the way with telephones, lighting and even shopping. The Valley Fair Shopping Center was built in 1954 and laid claim to the title of the first enclosed shopping mall in the U.S., although malls in Minnesota, Rhode Island, Seattle and probably everywhere else also make those claims. Like many of the old malls, little of it is left. To see it, though, follow Highway 47 (Richmond Street) south about three miles. See the mall’s Wikipedia entry here.
|State Trunk Tour Tidbit – Appleton Firsts:|
|Appleton had the nation’s first hydroelectric power station (1882), the world’s first residence powered by this method using the Edison system, the first commercially successful streetcar company (1886), the first telephone in Wisconsin and the first incandescent light in any city outside the East Coast.|
Highway 96 goes right across Appleton as Wisconsin Avenue and, frankly, doesn’t go through the most remarkable parts of town. To really see the best of Appleton, you may want to cut south to College Avenue, which parallels Highway 96 about one mile to the south. You can cut south on Bluemound Drive or angle southeast on Badger Avenue to reach College. You can re-join Highway 96 by heading back north on Lawe Street.
Downtown Appleton features a bustling strip along College Avenue. A wide variety of bars and hotels line both sides, including the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel, one of the finest in the area. It’s where visiting NFL players stay when they’re in town to take on the Packers. Bars along College Avenue include Cleo’s, where as comedian Lewis Black notes, “It’s ALWAYS Christmas!” Stop in and check out the holiday decorations – for many, many holidays – that are up all year ’round.
Just south of downtown Appleton along Highway 47 you’ll find the Hearthstone Historic House Museum, the first home in the world lit by electricity. Tours are available and you can not only explore a cool old mansion, but experience interactive exhibits on hydroelectricity and the Edison system that was used to make this home a world first.
After Little Chute and still more or less following the north bank of the Fox River, you enter Kaukauna (pop. 12,983). Known far and wide for the tasty cheese spread brand (now technically made in Little Chute), Kaukauna is considered the easternmost of the Fox Cities. One of the first communities in Wisconsin, Kaukauna was explored by Father Claude Allouez in 1670 and a fur trading post was established at KeKalin Falls in 1760. Back then, travelers moving by canoe had to detour by land around three waterfalls on the Fox.
The numerous small waterfalls on the Fox made Kaukauna a natural choice for hydroelectric power generation, which dates back to the 1880s. With several plants and some of the lowest power rates in the state, Kaukauna embraces the nickname “The Electric City”. They weren’t using electricity in 1793, when Dominique Ducharme secured the first land deed granted in Wisconsin along portions of the Fox River in Kaukauna. On part of that land now stands the Grignon Mansion, built in 1837. Parkland surrounds the mansion; paper mills (and when the wind is right, their essence) dominate across the street.
|State Trunk Tour Tidbit:|
|The first land deed in Wisconsin was granted to Dominique Ducharme in 1793. The initial payment? Two barrels of rum.|
(Above) The Grignon Mansion, built in 1837 on the site of Wisconsin’s oldest deeded land. To the side is the mansion’s outhouse… and yes, they cut crescent moon shapes into the door for ventilation. And because that’s how outhouses always seem to look. It’s not available for public use, but then, why would anyone want to use it?
East of Kaukauna, Wrightstown (pop. 2,257). It’s the first incorporated place since leaving Denmark, and its downtown, though small, has a number of charming little buildings. The Fox River flowing through town is one of the few northward-flowing rivers in the country, and heading west on 96 will have you going against its flow all the way through a string of upcoming towns.
Highway 96 comes to an end at the west end of Denmark (pop. 1,958), a charming hamlet that, well, emulates a lot of Danish things. Racine would probably argue over which city in Wisconsin is the most Danish, but Denmark certainly makes a strong case. Denmark is enjoying a growth period, pulling businesses and bedroom commuters since its’s perched right in between Manitowoc and Green Bay along I-43. Stop in and absorb the Danish atmosphere and then you can head up or down I-43 to visit other Wisconsin locales…or start another State Trunk Tour!
Can connect immediately to: U.S. Highway 10, Highway 49, Highway 110
Can connect nearby to: U.S. Highway 45, about 6 miles east
Can connect immediately to: I-43
Can connect nearby to: Highway 29, about 9 miles north