18+ Weirdo-Approved Unique Tourist Spots In The East North Central Midwest

This post is part of Heartland, a two-month theme issue about the general concept of the “heartland” and also about the proverbial “heartland” of America — the midwest. 

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The East North Central Midwest (Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Illinois and Indiana) is America’s most underrated destination. In addition to having heaps of interesting shit to do and lots of Swing State Drama, there’s tons of parking! Just tons!

There are things this area is known for — e.g., Cleveland’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Chicago’s Museum of Science & Industry, Michigan’s Henry Ford Museum, Detroit’s Motown Museum, The Detroit Institute of Arts, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis,  The Art Institute of Chicago, The Columbus Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago’s Field Museum.

Then there are things that are a little more off-the-beaten path and niche-y. Things we aren’t known for… but should be this post is about those things.

We’re hosting our very first midwest A-Camp at the end of the month, and we imagine lots of you will be tacking on a few days to your trip to visit the area. Let this be a jumping-off point for you, explorers! (If you wanna sign up for A-Camp 7.5: Midwest, there’s still time! Register here, now.)

For more queer-specific and wider-ranging things to do in the A-Camp area, check out our city guides to nearby Madison (1.5 hours from A-Camp) and Milwaukee (30 mins from A-Camp), Columbus (7 hrs), Cleveland (7 hours), Cincinnati (6 hours), Minneapolis (5 hours), Columbia (7 hours), St.Louis (5.5 hours), Ann Arbor (5 hours) and, of course, Chicago (1.5 hours).


18 Weird and/or Corny Midwest Tourist Spots in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois

1. Mars Cheese Castle – Kenosha, Wisconsin

1 hour from A-Camp

photo by Brad Hagan via flickr

photo by Brad Hagan via flickr

This is a giant cheese store that looks like a castle. The bar inside offers free cheese curds, according to alleged vegan Autostraddle Managing Editor Rachel Kincaid. “They also have a terrifying cheese mouse sculpture,” she added.


2. House on the Rock – Spring Green, WI

2 hours from A-Camp

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right-click to enlarge

If you think that you contain multitudes, you are wrong: The House on the Rock contains multitudes. If you look up “multitudes” in the encyclopedia, you will find a 12-page insert featuring photographs from THOTR’s collection of bizarre collections, including that 200′ sea creature you keep dreaming about. There’s also a hotel, a “spooky after-hours experience,” and, apparently, a resort. Also Spring Green has a very nice summer Shakespeare festival, incidentally.


3. Woolly Mammoth Antiques & Oddities, American Science & Surplus and Wicker Park Secret Agent Supply Co – Chicago, IL

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Treat yourself to a Chicago shopping spree far from the allgedly Magnificent Mile by visiting these hot spots for shit you’ve either been looking for all your life or never knew quite how desperately you needed.


4. Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland – Frankenmuth, MI

snapshot from our recent trip to Frankenmuth via instagram

snapshot from our recent trip to Frankenmuth via instagram

Do you need a little Christmas, right this very minute? Good news: Frankenmuth has the world’s largest Christmas store and it’s open year-round. Nestled in “Michigan’s Little Bavaria,” a hot-spot for fans of Wiener Schnitzel, beer, outlet malls, riverboats and quaint German architecture.


5. The Dittrick Museum of Medical History – Cleveland, Ohio

You’ve seen all the smaller collections of vintage birth control pills and IUDs, and now it’s time to immerse yourself in the motherlode (get it??) at the Percy Skuy Collection on the History of Contraception at the already-eccentric Case Western University Dittrick Museum of Medical History.


6. The Massacre Haunted House – Naperville, IL

2 hours from A-Camp

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Who doesn’t love 20,000+ square feet of sheer nightmares? Scaredy-cats, that’s who. 60 rooms of pure terror! 100 ghastly clad actors! I’ve driven past this a few times and thought “absolutely not.” But many others have disagreed strongly with that assessment.


7. The Wisconsin Dells

2 hours from A-Camp

photo by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, via flickr (CC 2.0)

photo by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, via flickr (CC 2.0)

The Wisconsin Dells are a huge vacation spot for local families seeking nonstop recreation, screaming children in bathing suits, ambitiously-themed hotel rooms, culturally appropriative theme parks and (this is the serious part) gorgeous lakes and killer camping spots. In other words, it contains everything I hold dear, and also waterparks, which I consider to be the innermost ring of the inferno. Like if you took all the sex out of Las Vegas and replaced the casinos with water parks, it might be kinda like the Wisconsin Dells. You know what they say: “if the Mayans were still alive today, they’d be thrilled to learn their civilization had inspired an 80,000 square-foot multi-level Mayan Ruins-themed waterpark.” Plus lots of geeky science museums, interactive games, wineries, zip-line shit, etc.  Even the fancy folks at Travel & Leisure recommend a boat tour of the sandstone rock formations or The Lost Canyon Tours, which take you on a horse-drawn carriage through “magnificent cliff-walled gorges.”

Depending on your personality and overall feelings about children, The Wisconsin Dells is your worst nightmare or your personal paradise.


8. The Heidelberg Project – Detroit, MI

6 hours from A-Camp

I’m gonna be serious for a sec because this situation is weird, but also really incredible and special. So! 25 years ago, local artist Tyree Guyton began transforming several decaying blocks and their structures in Detroit to a living art project, incorporating unexpected materials into a dynamic and evolving feast for the eyeballs. The project is “recognized around the world as a demonstration of the power of creativity in creating hope and a bright vision for the future.” This might be your last chance to see it in its current incarnation — Guy will be dismantling the project piece by piece over the next few years, turning the Dotty Wotty House into its own museum, and shipping off the rest to museums like the Smithsonian in DC.


9. Cave of the Mounds – Blue Mounds, WI

1.5 hours from A-Camp

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Is this a giant vagina or Wisconsin’s premier cave attraction? The only way to find out is to take a deep breath and enter the tunnel.


10. Par-King Skill Golf – Prairie View, Illinois

1.5 hours from A-Camp

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“It’s nice to have the Sears tower out here, ’cause we’re in Chicago, and it kinda relates us to our city,” says a teenage boy in a baseball cap while trying not to seem too uncool in a Travel Channel segment about this legendary mini-golf course. Known as “the world’s most unusual golf course,” the two 18-hole experiences are sure to delight every man, woman, child, and non-binary person who ventures onto its colorful shores.


11. The Indiana Cave Trail / Bluespring Caverns – Bedford, IN

If you’re a blind albino amphibian or otherwise aquatic creature, the best place to spend your precious time on this earth would be to live in The Bluespring Caverns, the country’s longest navigable underground river.


12. Hall of Heroes: The World’s Only Superhero Museum – Elkhart, IN

3.5 hours from A-Camp

A passionate fan of superheroes and the comic books devoted to them created this museum, which, according to its website, is so awesome and so popular and so thorough that they’ve outgrown the very specifically designed building that currently houses it. They’re gonna move to a new home! You should see the old home before they do, I think.


13. National Brewery Museum – Potosi, WI

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Much like Heather’s A-Camp Bitches Brew Workshop, this museum offers opportunities for education and day drinking.


14. Jeremy Rochman Dungeons & Dragons Memorial Park – Carbondale, IL

Jeremy Rochman was a Dungeons & Dragons fanatic who tragically died in a car accident at the age of 19. So his father bought some land and built upon it a fantasy park that Jeremy would’ve loved and you still can. Tolkien-inspired art abounds, as do hidden doors, tunnels, a castle, gargoyles, and sculptures modeled on Jeremy’s D&D Miniatures. Seriously, cannot imagine a sweeter thing a Dad could do.


15. The Chudnow Museum of Yesteryear – Milwaukee, WI

photo by MICHAEL SEARS/MSEARS@JOURNALSENTINEL.COM for JS Online

photo by MICHAEL SEARS/MSEARS@JOURNALSENTINEL.COM for JS Online

According to BananaBoat2016 on TripAdvisor, “this museum is the bee’s knees.” This rambling collection of early Americana includes re-creations of a 1920s doctors office (replete with a terrifying 1920s doctor mannequin in an ill-fitting uniform), Union Train Depot, speakeasy, movie palace, toy store, ice cream shop and many other delights.


16. Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum – Farmington Hills, MI

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Listen; if bizarre automatronic situations, vintage arcade games, a plethora of Photo Booth opportunities, the world’s largest collection of pinball machines, the ominously entitled “Dr. Ralph Bingenpurge County Food Inspector” and all matter of weird pics and airplanes and decor hanging from a ceiling in a building across the street from a K-Mart does not wet your whistle then I don’t know what to say to you. There is a really large shopping mall nearby, though, if you’re craving CPK.


17. The Kinsey Institute Gallery – Bloomington, IN

Kinsey, who created your favorite Scale of all time, did his research on human sexuality in a “discreet corner” of Indiana University in Bloomington. That research continues to this day, but the building now also contains a museum featuring art, artifacts, documents and objects relating to human sexuality going back as far as 2,000 years. LOTS OF QUEER SHIT, Y’ALL.


18. JYSK: Other Weird Or Nichey Museums

Michigan:

The Air Zoo – Kalamazoo, MI

Taxidermy & Spirit of the Woods Museum – Willamsburg, MI

Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum – Paradise, MI

Dawson & Stevens ’50s Diner & Bottle Cap Museum – Grayling, MI

Knowlton’s Ice Museum of North America – Port Huron, MI

The Corner Bar and Hot Dog Wall of Fame – Rockford, MI

American Museum of Magic – Marquette, Michigan

Midwest Miniatures Museum – Hickory Corners, MI

Wisconsin:

The National Mustard Museum – Middleton, WI

International Clown Hall of Fame & Research Center – Baraboo, WI

The Deke Slayton Memorial Space & Bicycle Museum – Sparta, WI

Paul Bunyun Logging Camp Museum – Eau Claire, WI

Circus World Museum – Baraboo, WI

Harley Davidson Museum – Milwaukee, WI

The Torture Museum – The Wisconsin Dells

Indiana:

The RV/Motor Home Hall of Fame and Museum – Elkhart, IN

Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library & Museum – Indianapolis, IN

Dr. Ted’s Musical Marvels – Dale, IN

Dan Quayle Vice Presidential Museum – Huntington, IN

Santa Claus Museum – Santa Claus, IN

Henager Memories and Nostalgia Museum – Buckskin, IN

John Dillinger Museum – Crown Pointe, IN

Insane Asylum Museum – Logansport, IN

Ohio:

The Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum – Logan, Ohio

The National Barber Museum & Hall of Fame – Canal Winchester, Ohio

Lucky Cat Museum – Cincinnati, Ohio

Toy & Plastic Brick Museum: The Unofficial Lego Museum of the Ohio Valley – Bellaire, OH

Sturgis House Mortuary Museum – East Liverpool, OH

BibleWalk Wax Museum – Mansfield, OH: “This recycled wax museum may be the only one that features John Travolta in a Bible Scene” – Atlas Obscura

Illinois:

Leather Archives & Museum – Chicago, IL

The Super Museum – Metropolis, IL

Funk Gem and Mineral Museum – Shirley, IL

Historic Museum of Torture Devices – Alton, IL

Wood Library & Museum of Anesthesiology – Park Ridge, IL

Ernest Hemmingway Birthplace & Museum – Oak Park, IL

DeMoulin Museum of Fraternal Initiation Devices – Greenville, IL

National Museum of Ship Models and Sea History – Sadorus, IL

McDonald’s First Store Museum – Des Plaines, IL

Riese is the 37-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker, low-key Jewish power lesbian and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2696 articles for us.

41 Comments

  1. Further suggestions:

    Wegner Grotto
    Cataract, WI
    2.5 hours from A-Camp
    Free

    http://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/16989

    After visiting the more well-known Dickeyville grotto later in life, the Wegners decided to create their own grotto…in literally the middle of nowhere.

    FAST fiberglass statue mold yard
    Sparta, WI
    2.5 hours from A-Camp
    Free

    http://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/2253

    On the grounds of the FAST (Fiberglass Animals Shapes and Trademarks) Corp. Hundreds of fiberglass molds for everything from ice cream cones to dinosaurs to guitars to mermaids. Visitors are welcome to walk around the molds- no admission necessary, just park in the lot and wander at your own pace. Watch for wasps and heavy machinery.

  2. I love this list!! I’m living in Chicago after growing up in New York and I’m very interested in finding weird-ass midwest tourist spots to explore the midwest gothic in.

    Leather Archives is awesome, and even has a few areas dedicated to women in kink and women’s kinky literature.

    Also – an additional hot spot that I’m going to this weekend – there’s a Star Trek corn maze in Spring Grove, IL. I don’t know what makes the corn Star Trekky but I am going to find out, dammit.

  3. I’m from Indianapolis and that Children’s Museum is seriously legit. I remember it being so fun when I was a kid and then I recently took my niece and nephews there and was blown away at all the additions they have made to the place. They also put on different events throughout the year as well. They most recently did a TMNT event, a dinosaur event, and a Doc McStuffens event to name a few. So if you have kids or just really wish you were one then you should come visit the Children’s Museum here.

  4. I just want to add that Weezer once played the Mars Cheese Castle (in it’s old building at the same location) AND you can get chocolate cheese there. Also they ship cheese if you want to stock up. And there’s a cheese bakery. With fresh baked cheesy bread samples. Basically, you will not regret stopping here!

  5. Okay, Canadian here, and I just need to know – is “The East North Central Midwest” an actual thing people SAY!? I can’t actually tell if you’re joking or not. Americans have so many weird names for different groupings of states, and some states are in more than one grouping, and people argue about which states actually belong in which grouping, and then you try to group states by sports league divisions, and it just makes even less sense. So when you say “The East North Central Midwest” are you just mocking that American tendency to separate your states into smaller and smaller groupings, or is that actually a common name for this group of states?!

  6. I just visited Bronner’s for the first time last month while my friend and I were on vacation! It was a wonderful magical experience, but I was surprised by how busy it was for being the first week of august. We were overwhelmed by so much christmas. Also, how have I lived in Ohio practically my whole life and never heard of the lego museum?

  7. I live for these sorts of places. Other Illinois suggestions: Starved Rock (amaze beautiful hiking and camping), and the International Museum of Surgical Science. I also recommend the leather archives, and house on the rock was one of my favorite place as a kid. Also the midwest is home to many Frank Lloyd Wright homes which you can do walk-throughs of.

  8. I second the museum of surgical science in Chicago! And if you make it northern Wisconsin, there is a snowmobile museum, giant statue of Paul Bunyan
    and Babe the Blue Ox, and a giant statue of a Hodag (Google it, you wont be sorry). And it’s absolutely gorgeous.

  9. I used to live in Indiana and visited Santa Clause, Indiana which is an amusement park with the USA/world’s last all-wooden roller coaster, and you will definitely think that you will die if you ride it. I obviously survived. The rest of the park I remember being pretty good; it has the year-round Christmas kitch.

    Alsoooo, the world’s longest limestone cavern is in Kentucky right by Indiana border; Mammoth Caves. Also the movie Breaking Away about the Little 500 at IU bloomington is neat, and those limestone quarries in the movie are filmed locally; they’re great.

    • eh not to mention world-class music school with many many free or very affordable classical music concerts and recitals happening all day every day. Just wander over to the music school and there will be concert announcements posted here and there.

  10. I can recommend plenty of cool places in Madison – the Memorial Union Terrace, the Children’s Museum, touring the Capitol, consuming any quantity of cheese and/or beer….. seriously, Madison is solidly queer-friendly, too.

    • And so are their languages!
      Some people have heard about Nahuatl (it’s Aztec), but not Màaya t’àan, K’iche’, Itza’ or the ALMG. An organisation preserving and regulating Mayan languages. They’re also working out writing systems cause the previous one got annihilated.
      Thank you for that Diego de Landa and other people who wouldn’t be able to tell a livestock record from “idolatry” and “apostasy”. The history and literature of civilization just wouldn’t lose itself with out you.

      Is this horridly off topic? Sorry Riese I just hate Diego de Landa so very much, love languages (especially ones that refused to be killed) and Pre-Colombian Meso-American cultures even more

      <_< I'm almost too Ravenclaw to function.

  11. For the creepers traveling through Indiana a stop at the Medical History Museum in Indianapolis is a must. It’s an old laboratory building on the ground of the former state mental hospital where they did the autopsies. Brains in jars, y’all. It’s creepy as fuck.

  12. There used to be a neat Coca Cola Museum somewhere in Northern Kentucky (I think N). They shut down a few years ago, but my grandma took me many times and I loved it. Best REAL cherry coke ever! and tons of cultural history + Coca-Colonization.

  13. Homegrown Wisconsinite here! I want to plug the Cave of the Mounds (WI has awesome geologic features due to the Laurentian glacier), and its nearest village, Mount Horeb (the Troll Capitol of the World–gnomes everywhere). Both are close to Madison. Wherever you go, make sure to try local craft beers (New Glarus, Ale Asylum, Bell’s) and local cheese! Have fun!

  14. How have I lived in Columbus OH for nearly a decade and NOT heard about a Lego museum?!

    Also clicking on that link for the Columbus guide from 2012 made me depressed as hell cause all those bars except Slammers and the Union are closed now :\ Surly Girl Saloon too

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