|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.
Also I should have mentioned that the old Buckhorn site is PRIVATE PROPERTY and trespassers will be prosecuted.
I did get carried away on the western Wisconsin frog legacy that the Buckhorn was famous for, when those the abundance of leopard frogs in the watershed were caught by local "green-grassers" or "giggers" and processed in the two facilities I mention in the clip located in Somerset and Houlton. My first article of many that I have authored on supper clubs was called "Western Wisconsin's Frog Legacy" for an issue of Wisconsin West magazine in Eau Claire, back in 1995 or so.
The local grenoilles were listed as "Wisconsin frog legs" on supper club menus from Milwaukee to Minneapolis and St. Paul to Chicago. There's many great stories to be shared from customers and proprietors of supper clubs when going out was a very special event. There's also a seamier side to the border clubs when this great cash flow from Sunday's on-site consumption of booze (I mention the state liquor laws differences in the clip) broke up families, brought addiction and infidelity and the riff-raff that high cash-flow businesses attract ... of course you get the good with the bad and vice-versa.
This edition of Almanac's Video Vault also has a very cool 1957 film clip of the Southdale shopping mall, plus local meteorologist Ken Barlow shares his story of bipolar depression. (He's a great guy, and we got to sign the show's guest wall afterward.)
Back to topic. 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 preserving this sign. It would be so cool reinstalled (My guess is about $50 grand for decon/recon and renovation) 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. Picture interpretive markers under the relocated letterboards where you could stop on your bike and read about this interesting mid-century history of the Hilltop. The St. Croix Valley may become a National Heritage District and perhaps that might spur preservation efforts.
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 for a new bridge. 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: 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, all on the Minnesota side.
Somehow the Buckhorn sign got overlooked! Essentially it has been forgotten about it until now. I was on Captain Randy's Lady Chateau charter a couple of years ago (what a great vintage boat) and in his 25 years on the Croix had never seen it (he takes his boat south for the winter). We tried to get up close but it was leafy green season so could not see it so had to show him photos on my iPhone.
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 several hundred feet south of the Buckhorn property, and several homes on the bluff are between the Buckhorn property and the new crossing. I find it curious that 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. It would be cool to see the bridge funds that are slated for demolition to preserve it and move it to the bike trails.
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: taverns, a bowling alley/bar and a drive-in theater, and supper clubs including Hennes/Highlander, Holcombs, the Buckhorn, Country House. Plus there were a ton of supper clubs all allong the Croix from St. Croix Falls, Wis. to Prescott, Wis. Some like the Dalles House still remain. This region has long been a tourist destination and especially Sunday drivers/diners/drinkers 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.
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)