This Adorable Midwest Town Is Like the Twilight Zone of Weird News
Escaped elephants and mythical gnomes await.
In the summer of 2002, an agitated pachyderm took a self-guided tour of Menomonie, Wisconsin. The escaped circus elephant strolled down Main Street, though a bank parking lot and a tree-lined park, past a Burger King, and onto the local college campus. The joywalk ended when trainers brought a second elephant to the scene to engage in a playful water fight, which calmed the creature's nerves enough to get it back to the circus.
In most places, a gargantuan land mammal strolling through a sleepy downtown would be enough weird news to last generations. In Menomonie, it was just another Monday.
Located 30 minutes west of Eau Claire, Menomonie is the kind of town where doors remain unlocked, the local baseball team is an institution, and pie socials are community-wide events.
It's home to the University of Wisconsin-Stout and the historic Mabel Tainter Center for the Arts, which CNN deemed one of the world's “most spectacular theaters.” Miles of scenic hiking trails, lakes, waterways, and farms flank the western Wisconsin town. Main Street is lined with shops and restaurants, some with multigenerational roots, some owned by local Hmong residents who relocated to the region.
“We have vegan restaurants, coffee shops, multiple breweries, sushi, Hmong restaurants… Places that wouldn't usually be available in a small Wisconsin town thrive here,” says Ryan Verdon, owner of the local Brewery Nonic.
Maybe that’s why it’s hard to imagine that bullets flew through this quaint street as the “stalwart citizens” of Menomonie pursued a gang of bank robbers in 1932. A year earlier, “the human fly” scaled Menomonie’s Raulf Hotel. Yet that one-two punch of scary and surreal, coupled with the area's own lore, laid the groundwork of Menomonie as a headline-making vortex of the unusual.
“It's like America’s weird news capital," says Rachelle Lynn Gordon, who grew up in Menomonie. "Even Norm MacDonald gave us a shout out on Update.”
Indeed, Menomonie seems prone to the wild and bizarre, a place whose mix of wholesome and strange comes off as a cross between Eerie, Indiana; Twin Peaks; and Gravity Falls. No wonder British writer Neil Gaiman partially based American Gods on the area: In fact, he's lived nearby since 1992.
The human fly and the Kraft State Bank Robbery -- the latter the likely result of Menomonie's reputation as a place that looked the other way when gangsters like John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson passed through -- kicked off a legacy of WTF occurances, making Menomonie a mainstay of news reports long before the internet turned small-town quirks into a mainstay.
“There’s that tiny off-kilter nature in the Midwest that’s in the details.”
Want something frightening and eccentric? In 2002 the Smiley Face Bomber, an art student at the university, perpetrated 18 pipe-bombings, telling police had planned to map out a giant smiley face in craters across America. Creepily absurd? Anthony Allen Scholfield was convicted of stealing 854 sets of undergarments, earning him the title of "the panty thief" upon conviction in 2006.
There's the tale of a group of kids who, in 1999 snuck into a theater to watch Star Wars Episode I - The Phantom Menace, then were apprehended for stealing the reels (they were not, somehow, the inspiration for the Star Wars heist film Fanboys). Last year, a BASE jumper was arrested for felony trespass after leaping from a tower in town. The apprehension was made easier when he was found dangling from power lines.
The quirks, lore, and local customs aren't exclusive to Menomonie so much as embedded in the regional DNA. That photo above? That's Gordon as a child in nearby Glenwood, celebrating Rustic Lore Day, an annual celebration of "countryside or rural...traditions held by a group and passed on from person to person,” though what tradition is being celebrated above is yet to be determined.
“There’s that tiny off-kilter nature in the Midwest that’s in the details,” Gaiman told the Star Tribune of his adopted home in 2017. “I would enjoy stopping at a little restaurant somewhere and half the place would be selling peculiar stuff like … warrior princess dolls. That’s weird.”
Perhaps the weirdest part of this all is how truly not-weird Menomonie actually is. Here, the local Conagra factory hands out free cups of its famous Swiss Miss hot chocolate during the Winter Daze parade. The Menomonie Blue Caps draw crowds to games played in vintage uniforms and using no gloves, just as they did in their heyday from 1882-1941.
It's the kind of deeply wholesome town where bake sales, fish fries, and outdoor concerts are the norm. It just so happens that the likelihood of those events being interrupted by some Twilight-zone occurrence are exponentially higher than normal.
And for locals, well, they seem pretty nonplussed by -- and generally dismissive of -- the wacky footnotes in the town's history: of the gnomes and elephants, comic-book villains and would-be daredevils.
“People here actually care about Menomonie. I have always believed in surrounding myself with people who give a shit," says Verdon. “People are very friendly and neighborly here. We look out for each other. It's pretty charming, actually.”