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Fond du Lac Takes Unusual Step to Make Newcomers Feel at Home

The city of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, is not unlike a lot of Midwest towns. Easy to get around plus an easy drive to the big cities. Mix of manufacturing and commerce. Solid work ethic. Pretty location on the shore of a lake. Population a manageable 43,000. While all of that paints a pretty picture, the community was on the receiving end of reviews saying it was not overly friendly to newcomers who had moved to the area for a new job or promotion.

That sentiment was particularly troubling to the local chamber of commerce, especially since they had a lot of good jobs to fill. So the chamber took matters into its own hands, revealing a list of insider finds closely held by longtime residents to ensure transplants could hold their own with the locals.  

“We're transplants to the area - my husband is from Australia - and I wanted our children to feel settled in the minute we moved in,” explained Melissa Worthington, the new vice president of the Fond du Lac Area Association of Commerce.

After reading reviews that newcomers were having a difficult time breaking the “locals code,” Worthington started calling on residents and business owners who had grown up in Fond du Lac, asking them to reveal the finds that would give transplants the inside track.

“I was worried it might feel like an interrogation but people were actually quite willing to share, and it's turned into a quintessential guide to the city,” said Worthington.

The list is heavy on “only in Fond du Lac” finds along with tips on things that you must-do and must-see to be able to claim you're as much a local as the locals.

“Our goal was to make transplants feel at home and, in the process, we've think we're actually giving long-time residents and those who moved back because they had ties to the community a reason to be proud of their hometown for its friendliness,” offered Worthington. “We'd like to think we're redefining small town America.”

So what made the list?

Things with a lake focus for starters, like the annual sturgeon spearing season that brings out so many ice fishing shanties to frozen Lake Winnebago that it looks like a pop-up village. Running concurrently is the Sturgeon Stampede event where the Sturgeon Queen is crowned. There's also a long history of ice boat racing, windsurfing and wind kiting on the lake. In 2016, Fond du Lac is hosting the world ice and snow sailing championship. Walleye Weekend in the summer serves up the world's largest fish fry. If you don't want to be on the water you can bike around it during the annual 90-mile Race the Lake event.

Newcomers are encouraged to try the pizza at Joe's Fox Hut (you have to walk into the kitchen to order), the pecan rolls at Schreiner's, the apple pie with sugar cookie crust at Little Farmer, string cheese from Baker's (they only make string cheese and are the largest family-owned producer in the country), and an ice cream cone from Kelley Country Creamery (Good Morning America named theirs the “best ice cream in America” a few years back). They should also head to “the Holyland,” a collection of villages with names like Mt. Calvary, St. Peter and Brothertown, for a traditional Friday night fish fry at a local supper club. Fondue Fest in the fall is the place to indulge in the world's largest cheese fondue.

The historic Octagon House is purported to be haunted, as is the Retlaw Plaza Hotel, so use those tidbits around Halloween time. At Christmastime, be sure to pick up an ornament from Kristmas Kringle and point it out on your tree. The Fond du Lac lighthouse ornament would be a nice touch.

If you're feeling lucky, buy a lottery ticket on the town's Miracle Mile where more than $310 million in winnings have been doled out since 1993. The gas stations on this stretch of main street gained such notoriety that they even have their own website.

Getting married anytime soon? Go to Wisconsin's version of Kleinfeld's, also known as Edith's Bridal, family owned for 75 years and the state's largest bridal shop.

When locals quiz you on who Thelma is, don't miss a beat when replying it is shorthand for the local arts center, the Thelma Sadoff Center for the Arts. Grab a lawn chair and head to an open-air concert at the Buttermilk Creek Park amphitheater.  

As for commerce, newcomers will want to know that all four major bass fishing titles in 2014 were won by anglers who run a Mercury Marine engine, that Mid-States Aluminum made a part for the new Camaro, that printing giant Quad Graphics ships so many magazines and catalogs it has its own zip code, and that Interior Systems Inc. likely designed the bench you're sitting on at McDonald's and the Ronald McDonald statue next to it.

And in case you were wondering, Fond du Lac is French for “bottom of the lake” because of the city's location at the southern end of Lake Winnebago, although that's just about where the French connection begins and ends. 

“We have a lot of jobs in this area, more than most, and we know from the searches on our jobs website that people are giving us a look,” said Worthington. “Now we're hoping to turn those 'looks' into longtime residents with a dose of unexpected hometown hospitality.”

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