The Far End of the Lake - Fond du Lac, WI

Through the first third of the nineteenth century, Fond du Lac County was part of the Winnebago Indian nation. With the end of the Blackhawk War in 1832, Native Americans began to be pushed farther and farther to the north and west. 

By the close of the 1830's, the central Wisconsin wilderness became a focal point for easterners and eventually many immigrants hoping to create new lives for themselves in Wisconsin.  The rails from Chicago and the lure of pleasure boating on Lake Winnebago ultimately brought increasing numbers of people to Fond du Lac towards the end of the 19th century.

Lighthouse in Lakeside Park, Fond du Lac

The city of Fond du Lac itself was effectively created by James Duane Doty (The very same former federal judge who also purchased over 1000 acres of swamp land that later became Madison, Wisconsin) who, late in 1835 along with George McWilliams, purchased 3,705 acres in the area where the Fond du Lac River flows into Lake Winnebago.

Doty, often credited as “the Wisconsin territory's premier speculator”, once had a plan to construct a canal connecting to the Rock River at the Horicon marsh and another to Sheboygan on Lake Michigan. An ambitious investor, Doty was good for Wisconsin.

In 1847 Fond du Lac - French for "foot of the lake" or "farthest end of the lake" - was incorporated as a village, and on March 19, 1852, the city was incorporated as a full-fledged city with over 2,000 persons living in it. There is an incredible amount of interesting history, about Wisconsin in general and about Fond du Lac in specific.  But I digress. My purpose here is to describe a great excursion possibility for you and a special weekend in May for Heidi and I as we journeyed to Fond du Lac, Wisconsin for a marvelous respite in a marvelous and friendly city with an incredible amount to offer visitors and residents alike.

Fond du Lac is approximately 165 miles from the suburbs of Chicago; in today's fast-paced world, that is really not far at all.  Unfortunately, there simply is no easy way to go directly north from the suburbs of Chicago.  But if one knows a few back roads and has no great need to be in a hurry, the journey is really not difficult at all.  In fact, it can actually be fun and relaxing; we arrived in Fond du Lac in about 3 hours. 

Fond du Lac Marina

Being that close-by makes Fond du Lac a great destination for a long weekend; it's an easy one-hour drive north and a bit west of Milwaukee.  The lake itself - Lake Winnebago - at 137,700 acres is the largest inland freshwater lake in the United States, yet only averages about 15 feet in depth.  (Make a note of the fact that it is considered as one of the nation's top walleye lakes and supports a healthy population of lake sturgeon as well...) 

One of the most interesting things is that there are no resorts in Fond du Lac proper - most of the property on the lakefront is privately owned - making for seemingly limited opportunities for boaters and vacationers.  Don't let that stop you though; there is plenty of excellent lodging available in the city, and there are resorts and campgrounds close by.

Sister Stevens with baby miniature goats

Heidi and I arrived in the early afternoon and were able to get an early check-in to our hotel; we had ample time, so we headed east about 15 miles or so to Mt. Calvary and a unique place called Villa Loretto.  A nursing home originally opened in 1965 and operated by Catholic nuns, it is also offers residence for independent and assisted living, as well as care for the aged, physically challenged and chronically ill. 

Perhaps the most unique feature of Villa Loretto is the rest of the "family" there... Llamas, miniature donkeys, horses, goats, pot-bellied pigs, sheep, emus, cats, dogs and birds - there are several aviaries inside the buildings as well as peacocks, chickens, etc on the grounds.  Whew!  Sister Stephen (with the handshake of a lumberjack and the patience of Job) gave us a tour of the buildings and grounds.  With the animals outside and the care of the residents inside, she has her hands full... all the time. 

Her obviously boundless energy is evidenced by the numerous projects she has going, including a living presentation of the Nativity during the Christmas season and "Fun Day at the Farm" event in August, not to mention nun-driven hay rides, weaving demonstrations, tour busses and constant guests and visitors during all months of the year.  Its a very interesting destination once in Fond du Lac - for children of all ages - so make certain to place it on your list of stops to make!

Wendt's on the Lake

When we inquired about venues for dinner and specified a fish fry, we were directed to Wendt's On The Lake, just a few miles north of town on the west side of the lake... with a heads up that the place is tremendously popular and an urging to arrive early. 

Having skipped lunch, we were pretty hungry and didn't have a problem with an "early bird" dinner, so we headed to Wendt's at about 5:00pm.  Popular was an incredible understatement: the place was wall-to-wall already!  We lucked out with a window/lake-view table becoming available after only a short wait. 

Wendt's specialty is perch - which was perfect - and Heidi and I both ordered the "small" portion ("3 butterflys" or 6 fillets)  Served with fries, slaw and bread, the portion was perfect, the breading crisp and light and the fish tender and tasty.  There were plenty of other menu choices that also sounded mouth-watering and I'm sure were just as good (try the deep-fried lobster!).  It was easy to see why Wendt's is so popular - the picnic tables outside for overflow and outdoor dining during the warmer months were also testament to that. 

Relaxing, friendly and casual with well-dressed and courteous servers, this is a place I would go back to any time.  Owned and operated by the Wendt family for over four decades, the food and service have earned Wendt's a well-deserved reputation for great tasting fish - especially the perch - and seafood.

Lakeside Park on Lake Winnebago

It was still early after dinner and the sun was shining brightly on a warm spring evening when we headed over to check out the 400-acre Lakeside Park.  Numerous picnic areas, ball diamonds, a train ride, canoes, a marina and more are available for residents and guests. 

There is also a 40-foot lighthouse and observation deck that was built in 1933, providing an excellent view of the lake and city.  We climbed the 70-plus stairs to the top for the view and were not disappointed!  although it was early in the season, we witnessed hundreds of people picnicking, walking among the beautifully-landscaped areas and fishing along the canals that run through the park.

After the climb to the top of the lighthouse, our thirst got the better of us and we decided to stop in to the Historic Schmidt Sample Room - aka JD Finnegan's - for a libation.  OK... it wasn't all thirst.  We wanted to see the place where Carry Nation came to swing her ax and cause a disturbance in 1902.  Neat little bar and great place to stop.

Schmidt Sample Room

We crossed the street and returned to our hotel - the Ramada Plaza Hotel (now known as the Hotel Retlaw and scheduled to reopen in 2018) - for a nightcap and some live music at the Tru Blu Lounge in the lobby area.  The hotel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places; it has great style, is extremely clean and is a great place for a restful night's sleep. 

The lobby of the Ramada Plaza Hotel

For business guests, there is high-speed WiFi and a business benter available in this 132 room hotel.  There are also meeting and banquet rooms and a 7000 sq. ft. fitness center with a pool and plenty of workout equipment.  It was only 9:30pm, but Heidi and I were both exhausted from a long day, so we headed up to our room for some well-deserved rest in preparation for another busy day tomorrow.

Stop in at Schreiner's for a great breakfast!

Bright and early we headed over to Schreiner's Restaurant for breakfast.  Much larger on the inside than it appeared on the outside, Schreiner's has been a Fond du Lac tradition since 1938 with its fresh bakery products, homemade soups and entrees and excellent service.  The restaurant is the proud recipient of numerous awards on an annual basis.

After some dynamite Roast Beef Hash and eggs for me and an eye-appealing and tasty Asparagus Quiche for Heidi, owner and president Paul Cunningham gave us a tour of the impressive kitchen (it says the kitchen is open for tours... right on the menu!). It was huge, extremely clean and ran like a well-oiled machine, which it would have to: ours were only two of about 1500 meals served that day... and every day - about a half million per year!

St Paul's Cathedral

Thanking Paul and his fine staff for a super breakfast, we headed to St. Paul's Cathedral.  Now I will be the first to tell you that touring churches just might be last on my list of things to do.  But I must also tell you that I have now discovered an exception to that statement.  Ms. Ruth Spoerri gave us a most delightful and interestingly anecdotal tour of one of the most incredible structures that I have seen. 

Some fabulous examples -both in marble and in wood - of German sculptures of the disciples and American wood carvings, along with beautiful paintings, adorn the interior of this church that dates back to the mid 1800's.  Ms. Spoerri is a living encyclopedia with a wealth of historical knowledge and is happy to share it with visitors.  I was left with a whole new attitude toward churches and history. 

We departed the church and took a short drive around the city to view some of its other historic places, its colleges, industries (Mercury Marine is located here) and fine old homes - many in the Victorian style.  We then decided to stop for lunch at a really neat little venue called Juke Box Charlie's, a casual, 50's and 60's-themed restaurant sporting a 2-story neon juke box and plenty of large-screened TV's on which to watch your favorite sporting event. 

Juke Box Charlie's

An interesting menu - ditto on the atmosphere - and large portion sizes, coupled with prices that are easy on the pocket book make this a restaurant worth putting on your list.  By the way, make sure to order the homemade potato chips... they are fabulous!

A candidate to one day to pull the beer Wagon?

After lunch we headed west out of town to Larson's Famous Clydesdales.  Only about 20 minutes from Fond du Lac (in Ripon actually), Cal and Judy Larson put on a show that you don't want to miss!  It is perhaps the quickest 90 minutes I have experienced lately, but a memory that will last a lifetime. 

Clydesdales are fascinating horses to begin with... I mean, everybody has seen them in television commercials in association with a certain beer. But have you ever been "up close and personal" with a Clydesdale? Well here is a great chance to do just that.  Just being in the proximity of a horse that is 18 or so hands tall is one thing, but being able to actually touch them is quite another - especially if the one that you touch is a newborn!  And the Larsons always guarantee to have a baby Clydesdale available. 

Baby Clydesdale

At the time we visited, there were a total of 11 Clydesdales there; two of them were yearlings and one was a five day old foal.  You'll definitely want to see the Larson's Clydesdales.  It's a great show at a horse farm that is as clean as any I have ever seen, and the horses are obviously quite happy there.  Larson's is open 6 days per week from May 1st through October.

Kristmas Kringle Shoppe

Our very event-filled day still had one final stop in it: The Kristmas Kringle Shoppe.  Featuring about 75 themed Christmas trees and more lights, ornaments and collectibles than you could ever imagine, this is one-stop shopping in a Bavarian style building with year-'round Christmas and other holiday as well.  If you can't find it here, perhaps you'll never find it!  We had decided to spend Saturday night at the Holiday Inn Fond Du Lac ... just because. 

So we headed over there to check in and relax in the whirlpool and sauna for awhile before dinner.  Microwaves, refrigerators, coffee pots and free wireless high-speed Internet made this a perfect place to spend the night. And it was also a perfect time to discuss the past two days' activities over an adult beverage!  Actually, all the sauna did was serve to make me hungry for dinner. 


And dinner was in the hotel at Duffy's Steak House (now closed).  An 8-oz fillet cooked medium rare and topped off with crab, asparagus and Béarnaise sauce was the exclamation point on my day, and a pound of crab legs put an ear-to-ear smile on Heidi's face.  This was really livin'!  It was another early-to-bed night, and pleasant dreams were the "special" on a different menu...  

We had decided to make one last stop in the morning: the Historic Galloway House and Village and accompanying Blakely Museum and CCC Barracks.  In their own special way, they were glimpses back into an era gone by. The Galloway House, replete with its etched glass, hand-carved woodwork and "conveniences" not experienced by middle-class America, and the Blakely Museum, with more really cool artifacts and treasures than Carter had pills, were both - at the very least - impressive. 

A view of the village at the Historic Galloway House

Along with the rest of the buildings in the village (there are over 30!), the look into the past was instructive, insightful and very interesting.  There was far too much to attempt description here.  Needless to say, even if you are not a big history buff, I would recommend a visit here.  There are tours and special activities all season long and the maximum amount that admission costs is $20 for an entire family. 

Before we left town, we made one final stop for lunch.  Our choice was Salty's Seafood and Spirits.  A unique decor reminiscent of an ocean-side town and a menu chock-full of mouth-watering entrees, salads, soups and sandwiches, Salty's was the perfect choice for lunch.  Our understanding is that the place is hoppin' all the time.  After sampling Heidi's blue gills alongside my fish sandwich (haddock), it was difficult to imagine the place ever being slow!

Salty's Seafood and Spirits

It was truly a whirlwind but fun weekend that was jam-packed with activity. Even so, looking at the Fond du Lac Visitor Guide, we barely scratched the surface. Suffice it to say that there is plenty to do in and around Fond du Lac, plenty of lodging available and beaucoup eating venues that are sure to please.

It is a given that we need to return to sample some more of what Fond du Lac has to offer. After all, I didn't even mention things like the Arts and Culture, Nature, Antiques, Specialty Stores, Recreation or Entertainment mentioned in the Visitors Guide. Unfortunately, many folks just pass this little gem by and head farther north.

My strong recommendation is to not make that mistake. Plan a trip there and take advantage of a friendly and fun place to visit - one that has some of the most reasonable prices that you will encounter.

R. Karl

Special Thanks to:

  • Michael Schmal & the entire staff at the Fond du Lac Area Convention and Visitors Bureau for helping to put this weekend together
  • The Owners and Managers of the above-mentioned businesses and attractions for their invaluable assistance and enthusiasm on our excursion

Related Products

Wisconsin Lighthouses: A Photographic and Historical Guide, Revised Edition