The historic buildings almost act as a stop sign along Highway 13, where travelers driving between Ashland and Bayfield, Wisconsin, suddenly find themselves in Washburn and frequently find themselves fascinated by the wealth of brownstone along the roadway.
“Washburn is like the brownstone city of this area,” says Tony Woiak, president of the Washburn Area Historical Society.
Brownstone and water laid the foundations for Washburn, established in 1883. Its waterfront location provided the railroad with a port and the area provided lots of native brownstone for buildings.
Today Washburn is a center of boating, outdoor recreation, art and entertainment.
At first glance, the town doesn’t seem to extend much beyond the curve in the highway. Restaurants, shops and attractions congregate along that strip. But visitors are really missing the boats, if they don’t travel to the waterfront to see the marina and sample the great parks.
Approaching Washburn from the south, Chequamegon Bay is to the right and there’s a sign for Thompson’s West End Park off the highway (more on this later).
The business district contains several blocks of small shops and eateries on both sides of Highway 13, called Bayfield Street, including Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua’s ticket office and gift shop.
If you take time to walk around town, you’ll find that much of the housing is modest. But there are larger ones, including stately homes on East Third Street built by the DuPont Company for its managers. DuPont also built many smaller homes to rent to workers at its dynamite plant, closed since 1971.
Ask Washburn locals for their “must-see” recommendations, and those brownstones usually top the list.
“Definitely see all the brownstones on the main drag,” says Jana Riordan, director of the Washburn Cultural Center, itself in a corner brownstone that is one of the most impressive examples of those buildings.
The center is open all year and has three gallery rooms, two for rotating art exhibits and one used to sell original artwork, antiques and collectibles. It has a permanent art collection and offers space for classes, meetings, weddings and receptions.
The Washburn Historical Museum, another great place to visit, is upstairs. Open June-September, the museum is packed with fascinating artifacts and displays. One of my favorites is an exhibit about the former Dupont Barksdale Works plant 3 miles south of the city, where explosives were made from 1905-1971. It includes a detailed model showing buildings and railyards. A 1952 news report tells of a plant explosion that left eight men missing and shattered windows in Ashland several miles away.
Originally a bank, the Cultural Center building would have faced a wrecking ball years ago if Paul “Skip” Ungrodt hadn’t spearheaded a project to buy, restore and gift it to the city. Robert Ungrodt, president of the Cultural Center board, says his late brother, Paul, had a dream about preservation of the building.
“The town’s got a great history,” says Robert, who retired from his family’s 122-year-old hardware business started by his grandfather in 1886. “I was the third generation. My brothers and I, we bought the store from the family, so we have a lot of history.”
That store is in business today as Washburn Hardware, and is in a brownstone building.
The Washburn Historical Museum, upstairs of the Washburn Cultural Center in an 1890 brownstone at 1 East Bayfield Street, is packed with fascinating artifacts and displays.
There’s a beautiful clock salvaged from the 1905 Sevona shipwreck, whose remains are in 18 feet of water north of Sand Island near Bayfield. A nor’easter forced the steamer hard aground and ripped a hole in its bow, according to Wisconsin’s Great Lakes Shipwrecks’ website, www.wisconsinshipwreck.org, a partnership of the Wisconsin Historical Society and University of Wisconsin Sea Grant. The whole gripping story of the Sevona is available on the website.
During a tour with Tony Woiak, president of the Washburn Area Historical Society, he pointed out some museum highlights, including a display about the ethnic neighborhoods (Finns, Poles and French Canadians) and details about the local quarries.
There’s a tribute to Wisconsin native Tom Blake, a world-class swimmer and surfing legend who invented the hollow surfboard in 1926 and who is credited with adding the stabilizing “fin” at the bottom of the board. Blake also built the first waterproof camera housing used for surf photography and worked as a stunt double in many movies, according to the California Surf Museum. Tony can remember seeing Tom Blake (who is buried in Washburn), surfing on Lake Superior in his later years.
Washburn, Wisconsin: Population 2285
The Name: Washburn gets its name from Cadwallader C. Washburn, Civil War general, governor and founder of Washburn Crosby Milling Co. (forerunner to General Mills).
The Location: Just a few miles north of U.S. 2 on Highway 13.
When You Go
Where to Eat: Pizza comes highly recommended at DaLou's Bistro, 310 W. Bayfield St., 715-373-1125, dalousbistro.com. Coco Artisan Breads & Fine Pastries has tasty homemade soups, breads and pastries at 146 W. Bayfield St., 715-373-2253, www.coconorth.com. Two great burger spots are Patsy's Bar, 328 W. Bayfield St., 715-373-5792, www.patsysbarandgrill.com; and TND Burgers, 631 W. Bayfield St., 715-373-0725. There are other pubs, grills and restaurants in town and just down the highway.
Events to Do: Washburn Brownstone Summerfest, July 24-26, honors local brownstone building history and has a dance, quilt show, carnival, ice cream social, fireworks and picnic. This year the annual event features an all-class homecoming for the high school. Check www.washburnchamber.com.
Where to Shop: Washburn Hardware (formerly Ungrodt Hardware) sells brands such as DeWalt, Makita and Milwaukee tools and accessories. 110 W. Bayfield St. 715-373-5401, www.washburnhardware.com. Karlyn's Gallery has original watercolors and prints, pottery, workshops and custom framing. 318 W. Bayfield St. www.karlynholman.com. For more locally generated art, the Superior Artists Gallery represents nine local artists online at www.superiorartists.com. Just inside city limits is a place to stock up for your fishing and recreation adventure at Outdoor Allure, 1819 W. Bayfield St. 715-373-0551, www.outdoorallure.com.
Where to Sleep: North Coast Inn & Chalets, 26 W. Bayfield St., 715-373-5512; Washburn Motel, 800 W. Bayfield St., 715-373-5580; or Superior Connections, a retreat center for up to 12 people, 325 Washington Ave., 715-209-8303, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Where to find out more: Washburn Area Chamber of Commerse, 126 W. Bayfield St., 800-253-4495, 715-373-5017, www.washburnchamber.com; Washburn Marina, 1 Marina Drive, 715-373-5050, www.washburnmarina.com; Washburn Cultural Center & Historical Museum, 1 East Bayfield St., 715-373-5591.