Road Cheese Hypertour: Day 1
Clown Hammers For Angels
Chicago to Wisconsin Dells
The Chicago area offers a cluster of attractions: the first Ray Kroc McD's in Des Plaines, Leaning Tower of Niles, the Circus Train Wreck graves in Forest Park. Chi-town itself is home to the Museum of Surgical Science, and -- one of our favorites -- the American Police Museum. Easy striking distance, but we've seen 'em all before. After a peek at a few local gems, we're hastening northwestward to cheese country.
Cars on a Spike
Berwyn's Cermak Plaza Shopping Center looks like any other ugly, aging strip of retail stores -- except for the eight cars impaled on a forty-foot-tall spike in the parking lot. Named "The Spindle," this wacky public sculpture by LA artist Dustin Shuler has been confounding passersby since 1989, even after its cameo in Wayne's World. As your car does doughnuts around the spike in the parking lot, other incongruous extrusions catch your eye; it turns out that Cermak Plaza is a group home for oddball public art. Our second-favorite, The "Pinto Pelt," another Shuler masterwork, is a Pinto automobile flattened against a wall just outside Walgreens. [The Spike was demolished in 2008]
We stop to admire the Muffler Man holding a hot dog in Cicero [Muffler Man has moved to Atlanta, IL]. Then it's off in the direction of Wisconsin, via the I-90 tollway. At the Rt. 23 exit, " Shireland" catches our attention; a sprawling theme park that appears to be based on horses. It also appears completely deserted, so we move on.
Further up 23, signs for Donley's Wild West Town, convince us to risk ten minutes investigating. According to its brochure, Donley's opened in 1975 as Seven Acres Antiques Village, apparently as an excuse to display Larry Donley's collection of Victrola phonographs. Now it has mock gunfights, a jail, and a gold mine. There are "actual death masks cast from dead outlaws' faces" on display, the brochure claims, although all we see is kerosene lamps, lots of old phonographs, and a saddle owned by Annie Oakley's sister, Ethel Laufer (she was a schoolteacher in Yorkville, IL). To be fair, we didn't get very far in before the gift shop lady chased us out for not paying admission.
Big Bovine #1
Crossing the state line into Wisconsin, we seek out Beloit's Angel Museum, an old database target with the note: "Owner/collector wears silver angel costume with wings." After a little driving around, we find the church housing the World's Largest Collection of Angels. Joyce Berg, 62, doesn't own the museum, but most of it is her collection... and she does wear an angel costume.
Joyce is diminutive, perky, and silver-haired, clad in a silver space blanket robe, silver garland diadem, and tiny lace wings. She provides peppy commentary about the 6,000 figurines arrayed in glass cabinets around the museum -- she knows a story about each one and she has another 6,000 at home. There are angels made out of spaghetti here, as well as fire alarm angels, animal angels, cartoon devils and angels, bride and groom angels, hobo angels. Oprah Winfrey gave Joyce 600 African-American angels that were sent to her after she asked, "Why are there no black angels?" on her show.
As Joyce chatters away, we begin to notice that nearly all the visitors around us are groups of silver-haired senior citizen ladies. It's not really a kid attraction (too many things to break), and definitely not a "guy" place. One older fellow stands off in the shadows of a nearby cabinet -- Joyce's husband and fellow collector, Lowell. Lowell sheepishly admits that he doesn't wear an angel costume, but on Halloween he's been known to don his Lucifer horns and duds...
Big Bovine #2
Bessie the Cow, at the Oasis Motel, Restaurant & Cheese Shop, Janesville, Wisconsin.
Even though the summer days are long, they're never long enough when you're hypertouring. We don't have enough time to get to the Dairy Shrine in Fort Atkinson or the Mustard Museum in Mt. Horeb before they close. Instead, we make a beeline for Madison. " Perky Dead Animals in Funeral Home" is the promising tip, and once there, we know we have chosen wisely. Sam Sanfillippo is the perfect host at this amazing attraction.
[Read the complete report]
Circus World Museum
With the sun dropping, we head towards our motel in the Dells. Turns out our first planned AM stop, Baraboo's Circus World Museum, is open tonight until 10 pm. Knowing from past experience that it's best to cram when you have a chance, we head there instead.
Baraboo was the winter HQ for Ringling Brothers. The Wisconsin Historical Society has taken over the grounds where the circus folk once squatted, preserving circus memorabilia, commissioning circus miniature scenes, and draping the walls of the former elephant barns with classic posters and other scraps of circus history.
There is interesting stuff to see here but it's scattered: good for ambling families, bad for hypertourists. It's the circus that came to town and never left. Even with live animal shows, authentic circus wagons, wandering clowns, and a one-ring big top, Circus World's energy is diffuse -- is it a show, or a museum?
We seek a specific goal: the replica of P.T. Barnum's fake Cardiff Giant, a wan, neutered version of the blackened behemoth we saw at Marvin's Marvelous Mechanical Museum, itself a knockoff of the original hoaxer at the Farmer's Museum, in Cooperstown, NY. It's in the Circus World freak tent, along with a statue of Siamese twins Chang and Eng.
A few other notable exhibits catch our attention. The museum has a display of giant clown hammers and a few tusks and bones from famous elephants, and a scene of Father Ed, the Circus Priest, administering last rites to a sick lion.
Kids seem to love Circus World, at least when they're not being dragged by their parents to watch men unload circus wagons off of rail cars. The happiest youngsters we see are dancing frantically in front of a steam calliope, blasting at a deafening roar, its toots and whistles echoing off the concrete walls and floor of an otherwise empty building.
You can score a cheese hat in the gift shop.