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jun 25

Documenting each of America's 10,466-plus Main Streets

Harbor View Café in Pepin, Wis. (Courtesy meetminneapolis/Flickr)
Homes on Pepin's Main Street. (Amy Fichter)
Lake Pepin's Art & Design Center, on Main Street, exhibited Amy Fichter's photos earlier this year. (Amy Fichter)

There's a lot of political talk about the mood on Main Street. But what are these streets named Main really like and how much do they have in common? To find out, a team of radio producers and artists launched the multimedia project Mapping Main Street last summer and began enlisting collaborators.

Amy Fichter, a drawing professor at University of Wisconsin-Stout, heard about the project through NPR and immediately felt she had to be a part of it. She grew up on a farm in Iowa and told me she could relate to small towns that aren't always appreciated.

On weekends for the past several months, Fichter has gone out by car with her husband and 8-year-old son to photograph Wisconsin. "On the surface, when you first pull into a Main Street, it feels very similar, with the old storefronts and banks and post office," Fichter said. "But as soon as you start going into places and talking to people, each Main Street becomes unique."

Fichter doesn't do advance planning. Armed with her iPhone and an antique twin lens reflex camera, she simply shows up in a place with an eye out for what's beautiful in the ordinary. Her favorite discovery so far is Pepin, a town on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River, about 45 minutes from her home in Menomonie, Wis., and 90 minutes southeast of Minneapolis-St. Paul.

She started driving along the residential end of Pepin's Main Street and soon noticed a brightly colored wooden sculpture in front of a gallery. "I thought, that's really cool, it was like a little treasure," Fichter recalled. Lake Pepin Art & Design Center hosts film screenings, live music, arts shows and classes, and sells quirky handmade items. It's one of 17 area galleries and art studios that participate in spring and fall Fresh Art tours. The next Fresh Art is slated for October 1-3, while October 21-24 brings the Flyway Film Festival.

Main Street dead ends at Lake Pepin, where the Mississippi widens. Fichter stopped for a lakeside lunch at the Harbor View Café, which serves locally-sourced dishes such as pheasant, Norwegian meatballs, and her pick, vegetable risotto. The winsome café and a few other downtown buildings date to the 1800s, the era of Laura Ingalls Wilder, who was born in a log cabin near Pepin and set Little House in the Big Woods in the area. Each fall, Laura Ingalls Wilder Days draw crowds for arts and crafts booths, a fiddle contest, and Laura trivia and look-alike contests.

"When you start looking around where you live, you realize there really is stuff happening here," said Fichter. "I've learned so much about the towns around me."

With photos and videos of only 593 streets submitted so far, Mapping Main Street could use some help! Find out how to get involved here, and share your stories by posting a comment below. What's your favorite Main Street?

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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