The ordinary kitchen blender roared to life, whirling and shredding office paper and newspaper comics into slurry. A staffer at the Paper Discovery Center in Appleton, Wis., had coached visitors on making the perfect souvenir with a litany of pre-blender questions: Colored paper? Newsprint? Glitter? How about dyed fibers? The results are always a surprise as the pulpy soup is poured into a framed screen and several more steps wick out all the water, leaving a textured, one-of-a-kind piece of homemade paper.
Appleton, along with neighboring Neenah and Menasha, anchor the Fox Cities, a mash-up of communities with a population of about 250,000.
The towns grew up around the paper industry that took advantage of the surrounding Big Woods for pulp and the Fox River, which drops 170 feet as it flows about 40 miles from Lake Winnebago to Green Bay, for hydroelectric power.
The Discovery Center, housed in a former Kimberly Clark warehouse built in 1878 from cream-colored brick, explains the global origins of paper, from bark and hemp to block printing and stationery, until it played a crucial role in communication for centuries with printing presses, books and newspapers.
Industrial artifacts and kid-friendly activities reveal nitty-gritty details of the industry and explain the evolution to more high-tech products, such as facial tissue, disposable diapers and toilet paper.
Lest anyone forget that these products are luxuries, an outhouse shows visitors what older generations used: imagine cleaning with stiff catalog pages and corncobs.
The warehouse location adds a feel of authenticity, while a gallery and cafe invite guests to linger on a sun-soaked patio overlooking the Fox River as it rumbles past. ($3-$5; 1-920-380-7491; www.paperdiscovery center.org).
What to do
Glass beauty: Among the biggest surprises of the Fox Cities is the Bergstrom-Mahler Museum of Glass.
This lakeside mansion began its collection with a world-class assemblage of paperweights with millefiori work as intricate as lace and Germanic drinking vessels that date to the 1500s.
Its modern exhibits are even better, showcasing giant glass corncobs and elaborate water fountains that bring together regional studio glass talent with national recognition.
Adults and kids also can sign up for a variety of classes. (Free; 1-920-751-4658; bergstrom -mahlermuseum.com).
Test your inner Houdini: The History Museum at the Castle, originally a Masonic temple, grabs its share of attention with its 1920s-era Camelot looks.
But it’s the exhibits dedicated to Appleton’s famous showman and world-famous escape artist, Harry Houdini, that stand out.
Exhibits reveal a few magicians’ secrets and let visitors test their own escaping skills. A food exhibit on display through this fall cleverly dishes up regional history and culture by looking at supper clubs, smelt fishing and “booyah,” and letting guests try virtually spearfishing for sturgeon ($3.50-$7.50; 1-920-735-9370; www.myhistorymuseum.org).
Shop ’til you drop: The area is known as Wisconsin’s retail hub with its concentration of big malls and main-street boutiques. Your best bets: Harp Gallery, Fox River Antique Mall and Urban Evolutions for vintage and reclaimed creations.
In downtown Appleton, discover art and eclectic finds at Studio 213, fashionable baby clothes at Bellybeans and hands-on art at Fire Art Studio.
And in downtown Neenah, check for Vintique’s retro chic and Lucy’s Closet pet boutique. Look for Hey Daisy, which follows the food truck trend by putting its fashion shop on wheels.