As you drive north on U.S. Highway 51, you see the water tower, painted white, sticking up above the trees on the left side of the road. It announces that you’ve arrived in Mercer, Wisconsin. It would be easy to ignore the announcement made by the water tower. After all, there are no buildings in sight, no homes and no people. Just white birch trees and towering pines. But make no mistake, once you see the water tower, you’ve arrived.
I was first introduced to Mercer when I was fourteen years old. My friend, Brad Lyon, had invited me to spend a couple of weeks with his family at their summer cabin in the Northwoods. With the exception of a trip to the Wisconsin Dells when I was three years old, I don’t think I had ever been more than a hundred miles away from my home in Aurora, Illinois. Mercer was more than six hours away by car, but I was riding a bus, and if I remember correctly, the trip took more than nine hours (Can you imagine letting a fourteen year old kid ride a bus alone that far now?).
It was late at night when the bus dropped me off at the Mercer Post Office. I hadn’t seen the water tower on the way in, and I was too tired to much care what the town looked like. Brad and Pop (Brad’s grandfather, Ralph) met me at the post office, and we headed to the cabin in Pop’s white VW Beetle.
Sleep came quickly that night, and I awoke to a beautiful, sunny day. Looking down at the lake through the trees, I was struck by how the sun seemed brighter in Mercer, sparkling on the surface of the water. The air was lighter and fresher, the lack of humidity making each breath invigorating. I didn’t know much about Mercer then, except that it felt good to be there.
In the following days, I saw what there was to see of the town. There were a few stores, a bank, a gas station, and several bars. Mercer didn’t have much in the way of a downtown, but they had plenty of bars.
I also learned about supper clubs. There was the Ding-A-Ling, Club 51, and a place I think was called The Lilypad, which sat on Pike Lake, north of town. When we’d go out to eat, I’d always order the fried chicken. One night, Brad’s mom told me I could get whatever I wanted from the menu, provided I didn’t order the fried chicken. Not knowing any better, I ordered a twenty-four ounce porterhouse steak. I think it was the most expensive thing on the menu. Mrs. Lyon never gave me a hard time about ordering fried chicken after that.
The majority of my time in Mercer was spent out on the lake. Weather permitting, we would swim and water ski every day. A typical day involved sleeping in and having a late breakfast, then we’d go down to the lake to warm up the boat. For the next several hours we’d ski, with Brad’s dad driving the boat, and Brad, his sister Pam, me, and other guests, taking turns skiing. Toward the end of the day, we’d often head across the lake to enjoy one of the several saunas that dotted the shoreline. Then it was a quick boat ride back for a relaxing bath in the lake (I still love taking a bath next to a boat dock). As the sun set around nine or nine-thirty, we’d head into town to have dinner (Northwoodsians call it “supper”) at one of the local restaurants, or we’d sit at the big claw-footed dinner table to eat while watching the last remnants of the sun set over the lake.
I’m not sure when I made my first trip to Lake of the Falls County Park, but the experience stuck with me. Back then, there was a wooden covered bridge that spanned the Turtle River, at the head of the falls. During the day, bats slept in the rafters on the underside of the bridge roof, and at sundown, they flew out of both sides of the bridge by the thousands. As snowmobiling became more popular, the covered bridge was replaced by a flat concrete bridge that was more conducive to snowmobiling, and the bats had to find a new home. The park was quiet, and felt like a place to relax and reflect. Even today, I find solace every time I visit the park and sit next to the falls.
I spent parts of the next three summers in Mercer with Brad’s family, and I loved every minute of it. I’ve returned many times as an adult, including a few times with my own kids. Each time, I’m reminded of the salad days of my youth, and the love I’ve never lost for Northern Wisconsin. I am eternally grateful to Brad and his family for introducing me to Mercer, and I hope that Lake of the Falls gives readers a glimpse of what the area is like, and why I love it so much.