|I took this photo in 1987 for a college Cultural Geography class.|
For decades, it was the Hollywood Sign of Western Wisconsin!
I was invited this week to Twin Cities Public Television's Almanac show to talk about the Buckhorn Supper Club sign in Houlton, Wis., after I was a source in an article by Mary Divine in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
In our euphoria talking about our shared love for supper clubs and history, host Cathy Wurzer and I forgot to broach the subject of preservation! I hope that the rich history we talked about in the segment below of the Hilltop supper club strip of which the Buckhorn was a part speaks for itself. Cathy is the author of a fantastic book on Highway 61 history.
It is important to note the old Buckhorn site is PRIVATE PROPERTY and trespassers will be prosecuted. Keep reading for more on preservation ideas.
Anyway, I did get carried away on the western Wisconsin frog legacy that the Buckhorn was famous for back then, when those the abundance of leopard frogs in the watershed were caught by local "green-grassers" and processed in the two facilities I mention in the clip located in both Somerset and Houlton.
They were listed as "Wisconsin frog legs" on supper club menus from Milwaukee to Minneapolis and St. Paul to Chicago. I could have blabbed on for an hour about the stories I've collected from customers and proprietors of good times at the supper club when going out was a very special event. There's also a seamier side of border supper clubs when this great cash flow from Sunday's on-site consumption of booze (mentioned the state liquor laws differences) broke up families, brought addiction and infidelity and attracted parasitic underground industries that high cash flow businesses attract.
Advance to about 22:30 to see the Hidden History clip. (you might want to watch the Vault clip before that on the Southdale shopping mall 1957 -- very cool! And watch local meteorologist Ken Barlow bravely share his story of bipolar depression. He's a great guy).
My hope is that local historical organizations such as the Washington County Historical Society and the St. Croix County Historical Society will become interested in preservation of this sign as a project to reinstall it on the pedestrian/bike trails that will be part of a loop connecting the new bridge with the old bridge. I love the neon museum and boneyard in Vegas, and I could see this reinstalled along the trails, maybe by a local sign co. who donates their time, a little rustoleum applied and maybe the "B" recrafted by a local metal shop. Picture interpretive markers under the signs where you could stop on your bike and read about this interesting mid-century history of the Hilltop. An ongoing National Heritage District initiative for the Valley organized by the St. Croix Valley Foundation may be interested as well, and I hope to attend its upcoming meeting on Nov. 3. I would love to donate my time and efforts to a SAVE THE BUCKHORN SIGN endeavor.
It's no secret that Stillwater bridge proposals have been going on for decades, and it took an act of Congress bypassing the National Scenic Riverway Act last year to get approval to be built. I love the Valley and the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, and thankfully, the old Stillwater Lift Bridge will be saved as it is on the National Register of Historic Places as will three historic properties in Minnesota (The Shoddy Mill, which was moved and will be preserved, Club Tara/Phil's Tara Hideaway supper club, built in the 1930s, and the WPA constructed scenic overlook).
Somehow the Buckhorn sign got overlooked! Perhaps because the public has forgotten about it until now. The 15-foot high metal Hollywood-sign style letter boards were once lit with neon and beckoned those from the Minnesota side to come over to Wisconsin and have some fun at Buckhorn! I always thought it interesting that the Buckhorn listed its address as Stillwater, Minn., when it was actually in Wisconsin, but then I was told that all of the Houlton/St. Joseph, Wis. mail was sent to the Stillwater post office.
From my 2011 article in Hudson Patch
The wonderful Pioneer Press article did not get into the fact that the Memorandum of Understanding between WisDOT and the owner was actually signed in 2005 when the site of the bridge crossing was planned to be on the Buckhorn site. The new Stillwater Bridge crossing is now approved for several hundred feet south of the Buckhorn property, and several homes on the bluff are between the Buckhorn property and the new crossing. The 2005 MOU states that the sign will be removed in bluff restoration/mitigation when the project was still proposed under the National Wild and Scenic Riverway Act. Athough the act has now been bypassed by Congress, apparently the MOU still stands in light of the new crossing site that is no longer slated for the Buckhorn site.
As I mention in the clip, there was a very vibrant commercial strip history from starting in the 1930s post-prohibition and continuing to the 1970s of supper clubs, taverns, a bowling alley/bar and a drive-in theater, including Hennes, Holcombs, the Buckhorn, Country House and Highlander supper clubs (not to mention all the places from St. Croix Falls, Wis. to Prescott, Wis. along the St. Croix, of which some supper clubs still remain). This region has long been a destination for tourists and especially Sunday drivers back then.
The Valley House on the site of the Country House is the only one of the "Hilltop" group that remains open as a supper club and is bit south of Houlton. Stop and say hi to owners Sheena, Jerry and Paul, who worked in several of the Hilltop and Somerset supper clubs. They've got a great wall display with historical photos. All that remains on the former Hilltop strip, however, is the crumbling Hilltop Drive-In Theater, the overgrown limestone garden of Holcomb's supper club shown in the clip, and the former Hennes/Highlander supper club that is now a strip club.
It would be a shame if the sign was purchased ala American Pickers and sat in some collector's garage never to be seen again by the public. (I have to say having sold antiques and junque at my mom's shop to put myself through college, I DO LOVE AMERICAN PICKERS! ... Hey maybe AP would be interested in a preservation project or want to do a show on it. Call me Mike, Frank or Danielle and, Danielle, we share some history!)
SAVE THE BUCKHORN SIGN!
Here's some of my writing on Wisconsin supper clubs:
Here's some of my writing on Wisconsin supper clubs:
Supper Club State: A Brief Cultural History of the Wisconsin Institution (Wisconsin People & Ideas Magazine)
State of the Supper Club Scene (Chicago Tribune)
St. Croix Confidential Column: Film Crew Stops in Houlton for Wisconsin Supper Club Documentary (more 2011 photos of the Buckhorn sign) (Hudson Patch)
Savoring the Past: Supper Clubs (Wisconsin Department of Tourism)