Electric trains and apple pies

by Brian Jewell 19. October 2011 20:48

In East Troy, a preserved electic railroad gives visitors a passage into some of the area's hidden treasures.

A short drive from Lake Geneva, East Troy is a small southeast Wisconsin town that has a 100-year railroad history. In 1907, the Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Company brought the first electric railway through town, connecting the area to Milwaukee for freight and passenger shipping. Though rail is no longer the primary means of transportation, and much of the electric railroad in the area no longer exists, a stretch of electified rail extending from East Troy makes for great group excursions.

We began with a visit to the depot, which is now a museum detailing the history of the electric railroad. After a short introduction, our hosts helped us board a 1927 trolley car, restored to its original look and outfitted with vintage advertising. The car started on the ten mile journey, and our hosts told us more about their family history on the railroad as we passed through forests, corn fields and small villages along the way.

We stepped off at The Elegant Farmer, an orchard and bakery operation that sits right on the train tracks. This group of farmers has created an outlet store that sells area favorites such as Door County cherry products, cider-cured ham and traditional Wisconsin cheese curds. The Elegant Farmer's most famous product, though, is an apple pie baked in a brown paper bag. Owner Keith Schimdit walked my group through the store, and up to the production facility, where we saw workers kneading pie dough, coating carmel apples and preparing other fall products.

We had a great lunch at the Elegant Farmer, tasting a number of their products. The cider-cured ham was delicious, along with the bottle of fresh apple cider that came with lunch. A generous portion of fresh apple pie made the perfect end to a morning spent exploring these travel treasures of southeast Wisconsin.


Inside the historic electric train car

The Elegant Farmer's famous apple pie in a bag

A batch of freshly dipped carmel apples

A day on Geneva Lake

by Brian Jewell 19. October 2011 20:00

After spending a day on Wisconsin's Geneva Lake (in the town of Lake Genvea), it's easy to understand what made this area such a popular getaway for wealthy Chicagoans of the 19th century. With crystal clear water and beautiful foliage on 20 miles of shoreline, this lake is one of the natural treasures of the Midwest.

Throughout the late 19th and eary 20th centuries, wealthy residents of Chicago bought land along the lake and built "summer cottages" of varying sizes. The most modest are the size of typical American homes; the most oppulent are extraordinary mansions that showcase brilliant architecture and uncommon wealth. Unlike most houses, these homes don't face the road, which can be a quarter mile or more away. Instead, they face out onto the water.

Today, private owners still use most of these mansions as their summer homes. Many of them take advantage of the mail boat service that began in 1916. Each morning in the summer, a private boat contracted by the Postal Service carries mail to the houses along the lakefront. The large boats pull up to each pier along the way, slowing down just enough for young "mail jumpers" to leap onto the dock, deliver the mail, retrieve outgoing pieces, and jump back onto the boat, clinging to its exterior railing. Since the boat never stops moving (for fear of colliding with the pier), the mail run is an impressive display of bravery and athleticism on the part of its delivery crew.

The mail boat has become such a beloved tradition in the area that it is among the most popular Lake Geneva activities for visitors. Groups can come aboard the mail boat for morning runs, where they'll get an up-close view of the impressive dock jumping, as well as great narration about the history of some of the magnificent homes that they pass along the way.

In October, official mail boat delivery has ended for the season, but the sightseeing cruises continue. The jumpers did a few demonstration deliviers so that the group of journalists I was traveling with could see how it worked. The bursts of excitement perfectly punctuated a day spent reveling in clear skies, sunshine and the splashes of autumn color in the trees around Geneva Lake.


A modest lakefront mansion

Jumping onto pier to deliver the mail

Return jump onto the side of the mail boat

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Lake Geneva, Wisconsin

History on the banks of Lake Geneva

by Brian Jewell 18. July 2009 02:12


There’s nothing like traveling in Europe to shake up your perspective on history.

In the United States, we get excited about things that are 200 years old; in the West, where some states have yet to celebrate their centennials, even newer items and places get the historic treatment. But visit Europe, where cities and buildings have stood for over a thousand years, and you begin to see the past along a different timeline.

A classic example is Switzerland’s Chateau de Chillon, a castle built by French dukes in the 800s. Sitting atop a bluff on the banks of beautiful Lake Geneva, this castle was lived in and expanded by nobility for over 1,000 years – the last residents moved out in the 1800s.

The castle was made famous by the English poet Lord Byron, who wrote about it in his popular work “The Prisoner of Chillon.”  During our tour of the castle, we visited the dungeon, where as many as 250 prisoners were held at one time, and saw where Byron carved his initials into a stone pillar.

The tour of the large castle afforded us interesting glimpses into the lives of people who lived there.  We saw the artwork and furniture that was created for them centuries ago, and much of it is still beautiful today. A full-time staff of curators and maintenance personal works to make sure the castle is preserved in its original state.

Along the way, our guide also pointed out how the inhabitants dealt with more mundane affairs, such as cooking and bathing.

“We often think that in the middle ages, people were very dirty,” she said. “They were not – they were very clean. They washed their hands and faces often, and took baths just about every day.”

Nobles, she explained, had baths in their homes, while commoners used public bathhouses. It was only after the bathhouses became frequent spots for illicit rendezvous that that Catholic church ordered them closed, and spread the rumor that contact with water was dangerous.

When  you do a little bit of digging, history is always more interesting than you expect.



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