I spent two and a half years traveling around Wisconsin looking for a place to start a new life. In October of 2009 I decided on Chippewa Falls. In the next six weeks several Godincidences occurred and I began seriously considering relocating to Southwest Missouri. This, somewhat long, story tells how I came to live in Branson West, Missouri.
You’re Moving Where?
In the years before Maxine’s death in 2005 we had several discussions about that day on the horizon when we would not be able to take care of our property. Over the years we had created about 2000 square feet of Hers, His, and Ours gardens. Maintaining an almost 100 year old house and the lawn was also an issue. With reluctance we agreed we would need to move into something smaller with less work.
After her death I decided it was time for me to move to a new location and start a new life. I liked Wisconsin. Maxine and I fished in Birchwood, Wisconsin for many years. It was our retreat to get away from the world and be together. We made an annual trip to Gays Mills for fall apples as we celebrated Maxine’s birthday. My uncle Art had a farm in Wisconsin that we visited often. Wisconsin was like my second home with its picturesque farms, fishing, and vast woodlands. I also had five cousins there, Uncle Art’s girls. Uncle Art had been one of my mentors in my adult life. I had great memories of the times I had spent in Wisconsin. I began looking for a place in Wisconsin to start a new life.
I looked at many places, the Duluth / Superior area with it’s great harbor and access to the north shore of Lake Superior; the Manitowoc / Two Rivers area with access to Lake Michigan and the Maritime Museum; the Green Bay area with its model train store, hardware store, woodworking store, and of course the land of the frozen tundra and the Packers; and the Rice Lake area with its fishing and home of the Norske Nook restaurant (you gotta be Scandinavian to understand the enticement of a restaurant named the Norske Nook that serves lefse everyday and requires reservations for a lutefisk feed on weekends between Thanksgiving and Christmas, ya)
In the winter of 2008 I went to DePere, a burb of Green Bay, to spend several weeks with Uncle Art’s eldest daughter, my “sister” Marilynn. My dad had died in October of 2007. There had been eight deaths in the family in the last three and a half years and I needed time away from home. Sis needed some handyman work done. We both needed some “cry on my shoulder time” with each other. Part of the time I did handyman work and part of the time I worked on my story writing, and we cried on each others shoulder.
We spent some time looking at houses during the Green Bay Area homebuilders open house event. We also visited several small towns in the area to look for possible places for me to start a new life. With a realtor, we looked at several houses. None were exactly what I wanted and I never got the feeling that “this is it.” I was feeling frustrated and I wanted action. In her most sisterly voice, Sis told me I needed to have some patience. History will tell you I don’t often listen to advice women give me, at least not the first time. However, as my sister, I do listen to Marilynn. So in the spring I went back to Iowa and continued to ponder where I wanted to go to start a new life.
On October 13, 2009 I went to the Eau Claire / Chippewa Falls area of Wisconsin. I liked the small town of Chippewa Falls. I visited the city hall to gather information on building permits and remodeling. The folks were very cordial and helpful and welcomed my interest in their town. My reception was opposite of what newcomers get in my home town of Hudson, Iowa. I left the Chippewa Falls city hall thinking “this might be the right place.”
I also explored Eau Claire where the “big box” stores were located. I had two requirements for my new location. The town must have a hardware store and a Ford dealership. Chippewa Falls did not have a Ford dealership. Eau Claire was just a short drive and had the big box stores I wanted, Home Depot and Lowe’s, and a Ford dealership. This area would fit my needs. I returned to Chippewa Falls and continued my exploration.
An on-line search of houses in Chippewa Falls yielded a house that was of interest to me. I located the house and drove around the neighborhood. The neighborhood looked friendly and well kept with all the houses about 10 years old. That fit the type of neighborhood I was looking for but the house I had found on the internet was on a corner. That slightly reduced my interest but locating a house to buy was not on my list of priorities for this trip.
Next on my list was a visit to the Leinenkugel Brewery. I had been to the Leinie Lodge on a previous trip but it was a short visit. My sister and I were with another couple on a day of antiquing. We got to the Lodge 5 minutes before closing and only got a brief glimpse of the Lodge. Ever since that brief visit I had been looking forward to a tour of a small family owned brewery. Today would be that day. I was anxious to compare Leinenkugel to the big breweries I had visited in Milwaukee. The tour included a history of the family and the brewery itself. The equipment and technology had been recently updated. We were shown the various points in the brewing process where samples of the brew were tested for smell, taste, and clarity. The aromas were refreshing as we toured the old and the modern sections of the facility. After the tour I held down part of the bar in the Leinie Lodge and partook of various samples of their fine beer.
I continued explore other neighborhoods looking for places I might like to live. I found several. To gain additional perspective of the area I decided to explore the Lake Wissota State Park just outside Chippewa Falls. The park was on the east side of Lake Wissota. I was disappointed the ranger station was closed but not surprised. Wisconsin had been making drastic cut backs in staffing state parks. I drove into the park a ways and found a small parking lot. The park was well kept and inviting which is typical of Wisconsin State Parks. I decided to hike some of the trails. No one knew where I was at and I didn’t know where I was going. It was not wise but I did not leave a note in the truck, trusting to my luck not to get lost or hurt.
I picked a trail that was short and began my trek through the beautiful woods of the park. In a short while I came upon a sign pointing down the trail to the duck pond. As I walked on the bridge the spectacular beauty of the pond took my breath away.
A covey of ducks was resting on the pond. My footsteps on the bridge startled them and they rose to the sky. The sound of the flutter of their wings and the ripple on the water was a pure Northwoods moment. The site of the ducks rising up against the background of the pine trees was a Norman Rockwell picture. I didn’t capture a digital picture of that moment, I just enjoyed it. The beauty of that moment is forever in my memory.
I continued my hike, taking in the beauty of Wisconsin. I got deeper and deeper into the woods. There was a moment, when I paused to get my bearings, that I wondered if I would ever find the end of this trail. The day was cloudy so the sun was not any help with directions. I had a sense of the general direction I needed to go to return to my truck. Only in desperation do you retrace your path; I was not there yet. After a short distance the trail turned and I knew I was going in the right direction. I came upon a spot where I could see the main road through the woods. I decided to meander around on some of the other forks in the trail. Eventually I returned to my truck.
The hike through the woods was the deciding factor. After more than two years of meandering around Wisconsin I would choose Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin as my new place to live. Next spring I would begin in earnest to buy a house and then move to Chippewa Falls.
My decision was made and I was happy as I headed west to Owattona, MN for a stop at Cabela’s, I was in need of a new fishing pole, before returning to home in Hudson, IA. During the trip I stopped in Colfax, WI to see some friends. As I left their house and headed west on I-94 it began to snow. Was this a mid-October omen? It was mid-October and I had chosen this week to visit Chippewa Falls because it was the week of Maxine’s birthday. For many years we took time off during this week to visit Wisconsin. One year Maxine and I were fishing on Lake Chatac at Birchwood, WI during this week and it snowed while we were fishing. We about froze our butts off but the walleyes were biting. You gotta be a walleye fisherman to understand this. The snow continued as I drove west but the roads never got bad and eventually the temperature rose above freezing.
When I got to Hudson I began preparations for a fishing trip to Table Rock Lake in Branson, MO over Halloween. Back in September I decided I was going to splurge on a fishing trip to Branson. I would stay in an upscale resort, hire a pro guide, and spend a day on Table Rock fishing for bass.
I wanted someone to go with me and I decided to ask Cheryl. Cheryl was a friend and a neighbor. Our families had fished and camped together when our kids were young. We had both lost our spouses and were making our way down a road by ourselves. We went out to eat together and did things together but we were not romantically involved. We had taken a bus trip together to Nashville. In December of 2008 Cheryl and some of her girlfriends had planned a New Year’s Eve bus trip to Branson, MO. One of the ladies was unable to go. The other girls, said call Gary. Cheryl called me and asked me if I wanted to take a bus trip to Branson with her and five other women to celebrate New Years. I’m no fool, I said yes. Down to Branson we went. New Year’s Eve we toured Branson followed by an early dinner and show on the Branson Bell Show Boat. From there we went to the Dick Clark Theater for a New Year’s Eve show by Paul Revere and the Raiders.
It was a hoot. New Year’s Day we headed back to Iowa. Cheryl and I got home just minutes before a winter storm unleashed its fury.
Cheryl and I were not able to work things out for her to go with me on my fishing adventure. I was disappointed about going by myself. I mentioned to my brother Gale that I was going to Branson to fish and would be going by myself. To my surprise he sent me a note saying he would go with me if I wanted. I was surprised because I was retired and Gale was still working. Like me and our father, work always came first, and I didn’t expect that Gale would take off several days for the trip. I told him that was fine. I had already paid the guide so he only needed to get a fishing license. After a few days I decided that his wife Kae could go along if she wanted. So the three of us decided we would go on this adventure.
I booked rooms at the Big Cedar Lodge. The pictures of the rooms were inviting and the room price was less than I expected for a destination resort. However, getting there was an adventure in its self. I drove to Gale and Kae’s house and left my truck. I rode shotgun and Kae was in the backseat of Gale’s truck for the drive to Big Cedar Lodge. On the way to Branson it started raining. It would be an all day rain and it was still raining when we stopped to eat supper. It was dark as we continued our journey in a heavy rain. You need to know that Gale is a very cautious driver, much more than Kae and I. Driving on unknown roads, in the mountains at night, and in the rain, would not be on his agenda.
As we departed Branson we headed south on Hwy 65. As Murphy’s law would have it the rain intensified to a down pour. With the windshield wipers on high, visibility was limited as the headlights tried to peer into the blackened night. I had a map and Kae had a map but they came from different sources. Gale was not thrilled with two backseat drivers giving him instructions, particularly the part about “keep going, we’re doing ok”.
We turned off Hwy 65 on to Hwy 86 and a short distance down the road we found the turn off for Big Cedar Lodge. The road was hilly and curvy with no shoulders. Navigating it was a challenge for flat landers used to Iowa roads that are flat, straight, and have wide shoulders. For goodness sake, there are places in Iowa you can drive for 30 or more miles without a hill or curve in the road. On this road you couldn’t go 300 feet without a hill or curve. Did I forget the downpour of rain, now in cloud burst mode.
Going about 10 mph in the cloud burst rain we found the entrance sign for Big Cedar Lodge. We were taking our half of the road out of the center. No other fools were out on a night like this. It was just pouring rain, not even lightening to help light the way. As we turned into the drive we saw a sign stating no motorcycles or large vehicles. Gale and I had seen cow paths wider than this drive. Kae and I encouraged Gale, “keep going, we’re doing ok”. He was not enthused as he tightly gripped the steering wheel. We started down the path. The next sign about motorcycles was more emphatic. Then we came to the sign, Motorcycles Exit Here”. You gotta give fools an option. We continued down the path. By now Kae and I were beginning to wonder. Kay, in the back seat, was thinking “I can’t stay here while these guys go fishing”. It truly looked like we were entering a wilderness of no return. Kay and I never said a word except “keep going, we’re doing ok” as Gale drove 5 mph and leaned forward to try to see is this really was a road. The winding path wentdown and around, and around, until we saw the lights of the welcome center and the lodges. Kae was relieved, she could stay here while we fished. The rain had started to let up. We got checked in and went to our rooms. They were wonderfully decorated in a woodsy style and we all settled into a good nights sleep.
The next morning we were up early. It was a windy chilly morning with the chance of rain. We dressed, put our lunch together, and Kae drove us to the Big Cedar Marina. The guide was right on time. We stepped into the bass boat, put on our life jackets and off we went. Early on we caught some small fish but nothing big enough to keep. We asked the guide a lot of questions about bass fishing. He provided all the gear and the lures so that was an education in itself. Gale asked about the weather in the Branson area. The guide told us about the terrible ice storm of 2006. He ended it with the statement “It took four days for the ice to melt” in a tone that indicated that was terrible. For two boys from Iowa who were familiar with temperatures below freezing for weeks at a time we just smiled and rolled our eyes. We kept moving and looking for fish, just like the pros say in the magazine, if they aren’t biting, keep moving. We pulled up behind the Branson Bell Showboat and caught some fish. Gale and I were amazed when we saw the depth finder hit 200 feet as we approached the steep bank. This was amazing to us as most of our fishing life had been spent in lakes and rivers no deeper than 35 feet. We continued to move about the lake and the guide explained what he was seeing on the depth finder. It was educational for us because we had never had a high end depth finder that could differentiate fish and bait.
The sky cleared and the sun came out but the wind continued to increase. Fishing on the main lake was becoming difficult. The guide moved us into a cove and we changed lures again. Fishing was slow, we weren’t catching anything. We continued to move up the cove. It was just about the end of the day when we reached the end of the cove. The bass boat was literally up in the stumps and trees. Gale was in the middle of the boat and the guide told him to pitch the lure next to the tree. Gale put it exactly where the guide told him. Immediately the line tightened up. Gale landed a five pound bass.
We ended the day with a fast bass boat ride across the rough lake back to the Big Cedar Marina. Kae met us there. She had spent the day buying quilts at the many shops in Branson. All of us had done our part to contribute to the economy of the Branson area.
Prior to the trip I did an on-line search for fishing resorts on Table Rock Lake. I hoped we would have time to visit some of them. As we started our second day of this adventure I told Gale and Kae about my desire to visit fishing resorts and asked what they had planned. Visiting fishing resorts was okay with them but they wanted to stop and see a realtor because they were thinking about retiring to the Branson area. I was speechless.
I didn’t think Gale was ever going to retire. He often talked about working until he was seventy and that was seven years away. I did not realize Gale and Kae had visited Branson several times for his Army reunions and came to like the area. I also did not know that Kae’s family had vacationed and camped in the Kimberling City area when she was a child. So we visited some fishing resorts before seeing a realtor. We stopped at one resort that Gale and Kae’s daughter stayed at several times. That was the resort where the keys got locked in Gale’s truck but that is another story. After the truck was opened by a friendly sheriff’s deputy, we went to a realty office that Gale and Kae had identified on an earlier trip.
We walked in the office and were greeted by the receptionist. Gale said we wanted to talk with a realtor. Dave Mattix walked into the lobby and greeted us. Long story short, Dave Mattix is a top notch, outstanding realtor. Later I would look back on this as a God incident. I decided I would just sit quietly in the corner and listen. The house they described to Dave was similar to what I was looking for. Dave said he could show them several examples in the area. With a few key strokes into the computer, several summaries began printing. Dave handed them out and I decided to look at one. The examples were what both of us were looking for. I began to read the details and came to the section on property taxes. Being from Iowa I thought the values printed must be taxes per quarter. I asked Dave, and no, that was the yearly taxes. That got my attention. Dave also told us that it was cheaper to live in Stone County instead of Taney County where Branson was located. The office we were in was less than a mile inside Stone County. Property values were comparable with property values in Chippewa Falls. Taxes were way cheaper than Iowa and Wisconsin taxes were twice those of Iowa. Dave offered us his business card as we left. All three of us were impressed with Dave’s cordial interaction with three people who just walked in off the street.
The late afternoon was a perfect fall afternoon. Bright sun, warm temperatures, and a gentle breeze. Fall colors in the trees were at their peak. Memories are made on days like this one. We decided to hike the walking trails at Big Cedar Lodge. The water falls and water features of the Lodge were beautiful and relaxing. The warm sun on my back, the ducks feeding in the shallow waters of the gurgling streams, and the solitude of the walking trails gave me that feeling of serenity and peace we all long for. On this day it engulfed me.
That evening we went to the Presley’s show in Branson and the next day we headed back to Iowa. When we got back to Iowa I repacked by suitcase and headed to my son’s house in Iowa City for grandpa duty. My daughter-in-law had a business trip and my job was to get the kids off to school and day care. The rest of the day was free until time to pick up the kids in the afternoon. I will be forever grateful she left me detailed instructions because I knew they would not come from my son. I survived via improvise, adapt, and overcome but her instructions made it easy.
On the way back to Iowa and while I was repacking I began to ponder the recent chain of events. There had been an abundance of God incidences. Although I am noted for detailed planning and preparation, these God incidences meant there was more to this adventure than I had planned. Cheryl and I had not been able to work things out; Gale offered to go with me, totally out of character by my recollections; Kae agreeing to go on fishing trip with both Stratton boys; Gale announcing thoughts of retirement; a chance meeting with a first class realtor; and affordable housing that would meet our needs. After the death of my daughter in 2000, I had become better at recognizing these God incidences. That was because so many of them occurred after her death. You know, the right person showing up at the right time; someone telling you the right words at the right time; some good deed unexpectedly happens. I pondered all this and decided I should explore moving to Branson even though two weeks ago I had decided on Chippewa Falls.
In my free time from grandpa duty, I sat down at Garrett’s computer and began to explore Branson. My first interest was the weather. I knew nothing about the weather in Branson except being 500 miles south it had to be warmer in the winter. When my oldest son, Galen, was a student-athlete at Northeast Missouri State in Kirksville, MO we learned a lesson about Missouri weather. Kirksville was 180 miles south of Hudson, IA. As we attended football games we learned that Kirksville got an extra month of decent weather in the fall and the spring. A welcome change from a five to six month Iowa winter.
I searched the internet for weather data and to my astonishment there was a massive amount of data available. Give me a spreadsheet. I began to down load and print out data for Chippewa Falls, WI, Hudson, IA, and Branson, MO. Monthly data for high temperatures, low temperatures, average temperatures, rain, fog, humidity, etc. As I searched one statistic jumped out at me. The number of days per year the average temperature was below 20 degrees. It was a low number for Branson, just thirty percent of the Hudson number. That got my attention. By the end of the week I had assembled all the data I needed for my spreadsheets. When I got back to Hudson I began construction of the spreadsheets I would need to plot a comparison of the three towns. The data for Hudson and Chippewa Falls were similar but Chippewa Falls was slightly colder in the winter. Still, it was the number of days per year statistics that captured my eye.
|> 32 deg||24||60|
|< 20 deg||49||15|
|< 10 deg||25||7|
|< 0 deg||16||0|
The data indicated summers were hotter in Branson but nothing like Phoenix where I had worked in the summertime. The data also showed, and experience has supported it, that I would be trading six months of cold winter for three months of hot summer, with spring and fall being very comfortable temperatures. Unlike the two seasons of Iowa, scoop and swat, the spring and fall seasons of Branson would be much longer than those of Iowa. I pondered all the data, weather, taxes, affordability, recreation, hardware stores, Ford dealerships, and several other things of interest. I decided Branson should be given serious consideration for my next home.
In mid-November of 2009 I went back to Wisconsin to visit my cousin-sister and to attend the model train show in Milwaukee. Sis and I made a trip back to Manitowoc to visit a retirement community that was just starting up in early 2008. In the last year and a half, not one new home had been built in that community. The economic crash and recession of 2008 had brought housing starts to a halt. The Manitowoc / Two Rivers area was scratched from the list. Remembering Uncle Art’s farm and how cold it can get when a northeast wind blows across a frozen Lake Michigan, I was not terribly disappointed about scratching this area.
In December I logged onto Dave Mattix’ website and began to look for a house. There were several homes that would fit my budget. I created a spreadsheet listing what I wanted in a new house and prioritized each item. In January I sent the spreadsheet and a list of properties I was interested in to Dave. I asked him to look for homes compatible with my spreadsheet. We made an appointment for January 19. I drove to Branson, most of the way in thick fog, on January 17th to spend the 18th looking at various neighborhoods. The fog was so thick it was like driving in a bubble just a little bigger than the truck. The drive was hard work. I noted the snow line, from what had been a bad winter so far, ended at Nevada, MO, about a 100 miles north of Branson. Exploring on the 18th I discovered houses and neighborhoods had steep back yards, a point often missed in the on-line realtor pictures. I set a new criteria. I was only interested in properties that I could walk up the hill from the back yard.
On the 19th Dave and I began to visit homes for sale. Nothing had the “this is it” appeal to me. Dave agreed to look for more homes for the next day. By the end of the next day we had looked at more than 20 homes. Two or three had possibilities. We decided to take the next day off while I reviewed all the paperwork and information about the homes we looked at. At our next appointment we went to look at two additional houses. One had a great view of the lake but it was a tri-level with no bedrooms on the main level, which eliminated it from consideration. The second house was a revisit and it was a foreclosed house. The driveway needed to be removed and redone and the entire lower level was finished. I would have to gut the lower level to make it a man cave and that eliminated it. After my review, and the revisits, I considered the possibility of increasing my budget limit for a new house. I approached Dave with this idea and he responded that he was going to make that recommendation to me. He suggested a ten percent increase and I indicated I could do that. He suggested looking at properties in Stonebridge Village, a gated community with a golf course. Living in a golf course gated community was not even an idea in my search. Dave reviewed the community. The property owner association fees were in the low end category of other developments we had looked at.
Dave had selected three properties for me to look at. One of my requirements was an unfinished basement. The availability of houses with unfinished basements was limited. The first house we looked at fit all my needs but the garage was too short for my pickup truck to fit in. I had discovered garages built in this area are much smaller than Iowa garages. The second house had issues with the unfinished basement. The only entrance was an outside stairway entrance and the basement was not plumbed for a bathroom. It would not work for me. We walked into the third house which was fully furnished as the owners were in Florida to escape the cold winters in Branson. I couldn’t believe it. It was 55 degrees that day, it wasn’t winter. We walked into a spare bedroom and opened the blinds. In a moment I got that, “this is it,” feeling. This room was perfect for my office. My desk would look out the window over the cedar and oak trees and I would write my stories looking out over the Ozark Mountains.
We explored the rest of the house and the property. It would work. I wanted to spend some time exploring the outside of the house and checking the foundation. It was 55 degrees, cloudy, and a little wind. I had on my flannel shirt and was comfortable. Dave with his leather jacket said take your time, I’m freezing and I’m getting back in the SUV. We went back to Dave’s office and discussed an offer. I wasn’t ready to make an offer on the spot with my increased budget. I told Dave I would think about it and call him in a few days. I headed back to Hudson and real winter on January 22, 2010.
I got on-line and reviewed the property owners association rules and decided I could live with them. However, hindsight says I underestimated the amount of red tape and micromanagement. On January 26th I made an offer on the house and it was accepted on January 29th. The moon on the night of the twenty-ninth was the brightest and fullest moon of the year. I took it as a sign from God and Maxine. Memories of Maxine and her full moons and sunsets flooded my mind.
On March 10th I picked up the new cargo trailer I purchased to help move some of my workshop stuff to Branson West, MO. I closed on the house on March 12th and on the 23rd I moved the first load of “stuff” into the house. My sister Marilynn and friend Cheryl helped me. They thought I needed assistance in creating a plan to arrange the furniture. I didn’t but I’m sure Maxine guided them to make sure I didn’t turn the whole house into a man cave.
On June 7th the movers packed up my house. They loaded the semi on the 8th. One third for the house stuff and the rest of the full semi was for my workshop stuff. They unloaded on June 15, 2010 and I started my new life. A day, exactly ten years after my daughter Kim was killed by a drunk driver. Coincidence, I think not.
And that, my friends, is how I came to live in Stonebridge Village in Branson West, MO. The lower level is my man cave, biscuits ‘n gravy and BBQ are readily available, and I’m assimilating into the red neck life style. Five years later it continues to be a great adventure as I look out the window at the Ozark Mountains and write my stories.