A group of teenagers, with their hipster hats touching their eyebrows, and TOMS shoes treading lightly across the path, open the door to New Moon Café. Once inside, they are barraged by the sound of acoustic guitar, and a mixture of live singing and hushed conversation that so often dominates this downtown hotspot. On the other side of the Fox River, which once hummed with the traffic of lumber for over 47 sawmills, a rock concert is being performed to a staggering audience. The performer? Van Halen. The event? Rock USA. The city? Oshkosh, home to roughly 66,083 people and located in the quiet, often misunderstood, heart of Wisconsin.
However small it may appear on a map, the “Event City” of Wisconsin has truly lived up to its name. Rock USA, Country USA, LifeFest, and of course, EAA AirVenture, pull thousands of people around the world to the usually quiet city each year. The last part of July is bustling with activity; it is tradition for families to rent their homes to those arriving for EAA, and hundreds of planes circle around suburbia, finally landing at Wittman Airport, which for the week, is the busiest airport in the world. The rest of the summer is bombastic with events, including a downtown farmer’s market, a live concert series at an amphitheater, and more. However, as the temperature cools, and the chilling Wisconsin winter descends, the city slows down and adopts its normal routine. Although Wisconsin does not typically have the best reputation as an excitable or interesting state, Oshkosh itself is consumed with a rich, proud history.
Originally named after Menominee Chief Oshkosh, which translates into “claw,” the city was incorporated in 1853, although it had been growing since 1818. Despite its location on the Fox River, Lake Buttes Des Morts, and Lake Winnebago, Oshkosh never played a key role in the booming fur trade. What ended up placing the city on the map was not the animals that lived in the forest, but rather the flora shooting high above the forest floor: lumber. Oshkosh soon became known as the “Sawdust Capital of the World,” and although the lumber industry has since faded, the remnants of its success may be witnessed throughout the city. One example of how the lumber legacy continues to move people today is the Paine Art Center and Gardens, a gorgeous Tudor revival-style home built by president of the Paine Lumber Company, Nathan Paine, in 1927. The Paine’s beautiful gardens remain a popular site for Oshkosh weddings and prom pictures. One recent exhibit at the Paine included the photographs of Lewis Hine, who used his talent as a catalyst for child labor laws and social reform. This man, who touched thousands of lives and began a call for change, was originally from Oshkosh. Visitors to Oshkosh may also frequent the Grand Opera House, which opened in 1883, and has hosted performers as iconic as Mark Twain, Harry Houdini, and President William Howard Taft. Concerts, comedic acts, plays, and musicals are still performed on its stage.
From the outside, Oshkosh may seem like a typical Wisconsin city, nose-deep in snow and with a sticky humidity to match. However, its history extends far beyond the surface, and its heavy Irish and German culture continues to shape its future. From rock concerts, to bluesy country, Oshkosh has an event for any party-seeker, or book-reader. Here, one can roam the streets that Johnny Depp walked while filming Public Enemies, visit the home of a lumber magnate, or shop at OshKosh B’gosh. The “Event City” has a claw in the door.
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