Too many visitors to Duluth overlook one of the area’s best-kept secrets: Superior, Wis., a short drive across the bridge. This former shipping boomtown was once pitched by Gilded Age local boosters as “the new Chicago.” Today, Superior has a fraction of the population and cachet enjoyed by its Minnesota neighbor, but it’s well worth a side trip for its historic attractions and delicious dining.
The best way to appreciate Superior’s late-19th-century splendor is by visiting Fairlawn Mansion, completed in 1891 and originally home to Superior mayor and lumber and mining baron Martin Pattison. After the Pattison family moved out in 1920, Fairlawn served as the Superior Children’s Home. The majority of the 2,000 children who passed through Fairlawn during the next four decades weren’t orphans, but instead came from impoverished or troubled homes. By 1962, social welfare programs and the foster care system had supplanted the need for the Children’s Home, and Fairlawn Mansion was purchased by the city and converted to a museum.
An extensive renovation completed in 1999 restored the mansion’s first floor to look as it did during the Pattison era, complete with richly patterned carpets, luxe draperies and gilded ceiling murals. The second floor is furnished with Victorian antiques that reflect the Pattison era, while the third floor features exhibits about the Superior Children’s Home and the restoration.
According to Executive Director Sara Blanck, “the holiday season is when the mansion is at its best.” A crew of volunteers decorates Fairlawn with several Christmas trees and countless holiday decorations. Hourly tours of the mansion are offered daily year-round (1-715-394-5712; superiorpublicmuseums.org).
Just down E. 2nd Street from Fairlawn is Superior’s other must-see museum, the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center. Named after World War II flying ace and local son Maj. Dick Bong, the museum’s centerpiece is a P-38 Lightning fighter plane. One of only 28 P-38s still in existence, the aircraft has been restored to include the distinctive markings of the “Marge” P-38 that Bong flew in the Southwest Pacific — Bong’s wife, Marjorie, is depicted on the aircraft’s nose.
Museum exhibits provide an informative overview of World War II and also highlight specific areas of local interest, such as the importance of the Duluth-Superior port to the war effort. A fascinating exhibit explores the technological developments of the war, from military advances like the V-2 rocket and radar to modern consumer favorites like M&Ms and the Slinky (a side product of an engineer’s efforts to support and stabilize nautical instruments).
In addition to World War II veterans, the Bong Veterans Historical Center also honors veterans of subsequent conflicts, with exhibits covering the Korean War, Vietnam War, the Cold War and Desert Storm. A chilling wall-sized map illustrates how Minnesota was on the front line during the early years of the Cold War — it was feared Soviet bombers would fly over the North Pole. A “duck-and-cover” poster displayed with vintage school desks further evidences the paranoia of the era (1-715-392-7151; bvhcenter.org).
A 20-minute drive south from downtown Superior, Pattison State Park is home to Big Manitou Falls, the highest waterfall in Wisconsin at 165 feet. Winter activities include 6 miles of groomed cross-country ski trails as well as hiking and snowshoeing trails. For a quick visit, visitors can purchase a $5 one-hour pass — just enough time to take some striking photographs of the frozen Big and Little Manitou Falls (1-715-399-3111; dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/pattison).
For Swede tooths
For an edible take on history, Sweeden Sweets offers a huge selection of nostalgic candies, taffy, specialty sodas and house-made fudge and chocolates. There’s also an old-school ice cream parlor, complete with root beer on tap and house-made ice cream served in chocolate-dipped waffle cones. For the rare customer who isn’t tempted by sugar, there’s house-made flavored popcorn with savory seasonings like buffalo blue cheese (1-715-718-0713; sweedensweets.com).
Where to eat and drink
Start your day in Superior at A Dozen Excuses Donuts & More. The light-filled storefront is decorated with vintage photos of the Twin Ports, and the comfortable booths and stash of magazines make it the perfect place to linger over a cup of coffee and a doughnut or two. The lineup ranges from classic cake doughnuts and apple fritters to creative offerings like banana split long johns and key lime bismarcks. If it’s available, the blueberry bismarck is a must (1-218-409-2525; adozenexcuses.com).
For lunch, try Red Mug Coffeehouse and Bake Shop, a funky cafe housed in the basement of the historic former City Hall. There’s a nice selection of paninis and salads, and a daily vegetarian soup served in generous portions. Pastries are made in-house — the thick, fudgy brownies are highly recommended. The shop’s walls are decorated with works from local artists, and evenings occasionally feature live music (1-715-392-2662; redmugcoffee.com).
The Anchor Bar offers famously bargain-priced burgers in a classic dive-bar setting. The clientele is a mix of locals who don’t bother consulting the menu — a brief listing of burgers and a few sandwiches — and out-of-towners who discovered the place through the Food Network show “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” Be prepared for a bit of a wait, since everything is made to order by one cook on the kitchen’s small grill and deep fryer. Use the opportunity to admire the collection of nautical memorabilia, from a harpoon hanging over the bar to vintage photos of Great Lakes vessels. Although credit cards aren’t accepted, there’s a handy ATM on-site (1-715-394-9747; anchorbarandgrill.com).
Thirsty Pagan Brewing serves up a wide range of beers, sandwiches and pizza in a former creamery still covered in glossy white tiles. Popular beers include North Coast Amber, Derailed Ale, Burntwood Black, India Pagan Ale and Lawn Chair, plus a variety of seasonal offerings. Pizzas are served in deep-dish pans, with chewy crusts that form the perfect base for loads of cheese and an assortment of classic and specialty toppings. Try the veggie pizza, with a spicy pop of pepperoncini that makes it anything but standard (1-715-394-2500; thirstypaganbrewing.com)
For more on Superior’s sights, restaurants and lodging, visit superiorchamber.org.
Stacy Brooks is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She blogs at tangledupinfood.com.