We arrived in Alma and met Dan Kordiak – everyone probably does when they arrive in Alma, Wisconsin.

He met us on Cedar and Main just as we landed, giving explicit instructions on how to get to our room at the @Hotel de VILLE – a complex of buildings he owns and operates. Then he was off for some other urgent business. We’d run into him again later in the day. Everyone probably does.

We missed a call from Mayor Jim Wilke on the way in, but no worries – Victoria and I are meeting him for dinner later. We quickly mobilized for our interactions. 

Tom walked up to The Burlington Hotel and Quilt Shop and met Kathi Anderson – owner of the Burlington Hotel, Quilt Shop, Wine and Beer Bar. She’s originally from Minneapolis and didn’t think much about the Great River when she lived there, even though her family history traces back to the Bohemian Flats along the Mississippi in Minneapolis. 

The river is now central to her life. She understands the movement and rhythm of this place – water, barges, trains, Harleys and people – moving up and down the river, moving up and down Main Street and moving in and out of seasons (leaf people come every fall). Early into our talk, we sprinted up the stairs to see a passing barge and Burlington Northern train – the engineer waved to us! 

Kathi, like her grandfather, talks to everyone. She allows plenty of extra time for any walk through Alma, knowing that she will be stopping to connect with another local or visitor. She’s writing a book, too. History of the Burlington Hotel in Alma – coming soon!

Victoria visited Lockmaster Judy at Lock and Dam #4, walking the whole dam and seeing the nuts and bolts of this incredible operation. They even have bicycles and a garden!

As they met, a barge came through and Victoria got to experience the up-river to down-river operation through the lock. Judy says that it’s easy to tell the experienced tow boat pilots from the rookies. 

Tom walked from the Burlington up to the Alma Area Museum – formerly the Buffalo County Normal School to meet Max Bachhuber and fellow volunteer Dorothy Peterson. Max is a self-proclaimed river rat and community icon – trapper, commercial fisherman, past owner of the The Great Alma Fishing Float and so much more. Dorothy is “not from here”. She’s from Nelson, Wisconsin – just a few miles north.

Dorothy and Max shared so much of the history of Alma and the region – and took me on a curated tour of the museum. Most importantly, they shared their individual histories and connections to the river and connections to this community. 

As we completed our circuit of the museum’s second floor just before leaving, we came across a small grainy black and white photo of Palmer Peterson. He’s a WWII veteran from this area. He passed away a while ago. He’s Dorothy’s husband.

At some point, Victoria and I stopped off at the Red Ram Saloon for a quick bite and a cold beverage. We met Nancy (who cooked us a delicious burger) and heard some things that won’t be repeated here . . . We also met Michael (who brought us some cold beverages). Michael spent a year down-river in Louisiana – another connection with the Relay!

Victoria walked down to meet Kathy (Kathy of the South) – owner of the Blue Door Inn. She didn’t grow up here, but she’s “from here” – related to almost everyone. Working with Irene and Scott, she’s renovated the space above the Big River Theatre and manages it as a hotel. She says that if you want a good breakfast in Alma, stay with her.

Tom visited Dave and Sonja Bautch at Wings Over Alma Nature & Art Center. As expected . . . a nice combination of nature and art. Dave is a Viet Nam vet, active in the community and really connected to the history of this place. We talked about the community past and present. So much information – not enough time to record it all. More to come . . .

Victoria met with Lee Salisbury at the Burlington Hotel Bar. Lee was born in Alma and moved away for many years. When he tells his story of life in Chicago working in advertising, he references the television series Mad Men to explain the way things were and also what has disappeared. But Lee changed his mind and his life at a certain point, deciding to close up his advertising and print shop in Milwaukee and move back to Alma to start a small furniture shop on Main Street. 

For a while it was great, until he began spending more time visiting with passers-by than making the furniture they might purchase. Eventually he had to sell everything, the business, the equipment, and building, but he still works with his hands for a few different folks around town and is happy to be in Alma—it’s home.

Dinner with Mayor Jim Wilke at Alfresco Pizzeria. Dan K stopped by to give a group of motorcycle riders instructions on how to access their rooms – he owns the Pizzeria, too. Sonja came by to drop off the book we heard about back at Wings over Alma – Feasting on Asphalt. We added it to our ever growing reading list. 

Next was the big event at the Big River Theater in the evening! A very nice turnout in such a great venue. Many thanks to Irene, Scott, Jeorg and Kathy, Captain Beth, Dorothy, Kathi and her quilting team, and all the others. Voices shared and such good stories of rootedness in community. Many thanks to the Pepin folks who came and contributed!

Strolled back up Main Street to the Hotel de VILLE. Beautiful sunset. Beautiful day . . . 

. . . followed by a panic attack – recharge electronics, update route maps, mentally process the day, transcribe notes, clean and reorganize the van, try to get posts and blogs written, research the next community, laundry, etc.

Life on the River 2019.