What is the single weirdest location you’ve ever visited? I mean, flat out bizarre? For me, that question is easily answered.
“The House on the Rock” in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Nothing else even comes close.
In June 2003, I was in the sixth month of what would be a 10-year career in the Communications Department of Tennessee Farmers Cooperative. A perk of the job was attending the annual Institute of the Cooperative Communicators Association (CCA), a national trade organization. The Institute changed locations annually, and that year, it was in Madison, Wisconsin.
I was a bit nervous about this. After all, I was still new in the job, it was my first conference with this organization, and I’d never been to Wisconsin. On the other hand, I had recently retired from a 13-year stint as a traveling musician, so nothing — I thought — could scare me anymore.
I made the trip to Madison with my coworkers, Glen and Allison, who were CCA veterans. Upon arriving at the hotel that evening, an older CCA member named Jim, a Wisconsin native, basically insisted that we join him the next day for an excursion to some nebulous Wisconsin attraction called “House on the Rock.”
I believe my response was something like, “What the hell is that?”
“You just have to see it,” was all Jim would say.
Being the trusting souls we were, we figured, what the hey? There’s a house, there’s a rock: what could go wrong? We piled into a rented van and headed into the wilds of Wisconsin.
Now looking back, I should’ve known better. Even upon our first meeting, I noticed that Jim had a very sneaky, devilish look about him, and why wouldn’t he give us any details? But as the newbie of the group, I was easily coerced.
The Jetsons and Elvis
An hour of very curvy roads later, Jim guided the van into the parking lot of “The House on the Rock.” My first impression was that the advertising reminded me of Tennessee’s own Rock City: very kitschy and ‘70s-family-vacation, as if “It’s a Small World After All” had been surgically removed from Disney World and plopped down in the Wisconsin backwoods. The “house” in question was hardly even visible; at least, we couldn’t decipher what we were looking at from the parking lot. It was a collection of very large, odd brown structures that more resembled warehouses than a residence, and surrounded by forest. We figured that the house must be on the other side of all these weird buildings.
It’s very seldom that you pay money and walk into an attraction without having a single clue of what you’re going to see and experience, but that’s exactly what happened. We forked over our admission fee and walked into a building that was still a mystery.
It was a self-guided tour, so we began following the general flow of scattered traffic, immediately descending a dimly lit staircase surrounded by stacked stone walls. The stairs opened into a dated, 1960s-era living room. The only way I can describe it was a mash-up of The Jetsons’ apartment, Elvis Presley’s Graceland, and a Frank Lloyd Wright home. We later learned that the original owner, the late Alex Jordon, Jr., built the house in retaliation to Wright, who lived nearby, refusing the hire him as an architect. At least, that’s the urban legend.
The entire living room, including a very low, slanted ceiling, was covered in a red/pink shag carpet, the walls stone. A section of opaque windows jutted out at a crazy angle, and people-less harps, drums, and a piano played themselves.
Alrighty, I thought to myself. That’s random.
This room was bizarre, but set up the idea that we would be walking through a strange, eclectic home that was suspended in time. This was good enough for me, and I bought into the idea.
But this room was just a teaser, designed to lure us in like the nectar in a Venus flytrap.
We continued down a hallway that could’ve also been described as a tunnel, with large stones or boulders (not sure if they were real) constituting a wall. Again, this emptied into another living room with Tiffany lamps, shag carpet, and stone everywhere. I could easily imagine Elvis reclined here, eating his peanut butter/banana sandwich with his feet propped up.
We then walked into a hall and the entrance to something called The Infinity Room (pictured above). Surrounded by glass windows, this was a spear, of sorts, that extended off the edge of the rocks and out into open space, narrowing to a point at the end. It contained no furniture at all. I think the intent was to see who was brave enough to walk to the end of it. After brazenly strutting out there and feeling the entire structure move and crackle under my feet, I began to question the wisdom of my decision.
About a lot of things, frankly.
On we went, through more low-ceiling-having, stone-lined, dimly lit hallways and carpeted rooms. A recurring theme were self-playing, animatronic instruments, display areas with sculptures and water features, and so on. The rooms often had an Asian theme mixed with the décor some vintage porn flick. At this point, we were still in an eccentric 1960s-‘70s Frank Lloyd Wright home on weed.
The acid trip part was soon to come.
Who’s got another token?
The path led to an outside covered breezeway and out of — I think, anyway — the original house. I had the sense that we were now venturing into buildings that were added after the original structure, starting with “The Millhouse.” As soon as we opened the door, it was clear we weren’t in Kansas anymore, and that this was more of an art piece and less of a residence. There were antique gun collections, nature dioramas, and incredibly random collections of … stuff exhibited in lighted display cabinets. There were model trains, steampunk guns and machinery, creepy piggy banks, and token-operated music boxes. Almost nowhere was natural light allowed to enter, so everything was slightly difficult to see, which I suspect, was by design.
I’ve since learned that many of these “antiques” were actually made specifically for House on the Rock. At the time, we believed they were all real, but even now, that knowledge diminishes nothing. It wouldn’t have mattered.
Perhaps most disturbing to me was the preponderance of dolls. There were entire rooms devoted entirely to the display of incredibly freaky antique dolls and even life-sized mannequins, which gave me the feeling of being stuck inside the home of a serial killer, like the guy in “Silence of the Lambs.” With so many lifeless human figures, it would’ve been entirely possible for some of these to be real, and we would’ve been none the wiser. All of this was made infinitely more creepy by the constant background of music-box din and self-playing banjos, guitars, and harps.
Let’s get kraken
Next was “The Heritage of the Sea.” We were led up a concrete ramp, past a series of nautical-themed dioramas, and into a two-story room of stupendous proportions. There before us was an enormous plaster (I guess) whale engaged in a mortal battle with an equally huge kraken, essentially a monster octopus.
That’s right. A whale fighting a kraken. Want me to say it again?
The whale was, according to the signage, larger than the Statue of Liberty. So imagine a room large enough to accommodate the Statue of Liberty, if laid on its side. And then fill it with a whale fighting a kraken.
Drugs were clearly at play with Mr. Jordan, may he rest in peace.
Around the perimeter of the room were dozens more nautical dioramas and collections of stuff like whale bones and seal tusks.
Aaaannd, on we went.
There were Mardi Gras mask collections, huge Rube Goldberg machines, Burma Shave signs, and cigarette lighter collections. There were even more token-operated machines and music-playing figures. Whole rooms were devoted to self-playing instruments, so many that an entire orchestra was accounted for. Another building was full of both life-sized and model aircraft. Another contained what is reputed to be the world’s largest indoor carousel, and none of the figures were horses. However, if you wanted lions, ostriches, camels, and unicorns on your carousel, you were all set. Hanging from the ceiling above were freaky, life-sized angels, giving me the bizarre notion that I’d stepped into of one of those medieval paintings depicting a Biblical scene.
The further we went, the more we encountered self-playing pipe organs. There were huge rooms chocked full of them, and they played non-stop. I felt like the Grinch as he thought about the impending cacophony of Christmas morning.
All the noise, noise, NOISE!
Every bit of this was housed in rooms with black ceilings and illuminated only by directional spotlights and other mood lighting, making it difficult to see clearly.
There’s no other way to put it. It was a living nightmare.
Nothing was trying to kill us, but we were existing in an evil fairyland from which we couldn’t escape. There was no way to tell how much further we had to go, so we plodded along, room after room, diorama after diorama. Conversation began to dwindle and we moved like zombies from The Walking Dead, following each other’s feet. We no longer had family, jobs, or other friends, but were castaways on some insidious, never-ending island of unreality. I seriously believed I might actually perish in this attraction, my body to be retrieved, stuffed, and suspended with attached wings above the giant carousel.
And then, just like that, it was over. A door opened and we stumbled out, exhausted and famished, into the bright, cheerful Wisconsin sunshine and an amazing flower garden that tried unsuccessfully to offset the creep show we had just exited. We had survived, but were now changed forever, warped by these unspeakable sights.
For the record, any apprehension I had about the conference was now gone, used up within the first 30 minutes of the tour. Maybe that was Jim’s plan, I don’t know.
It’s been nearly 16 years since the House on the Rock experience, and I feel like enough distance has passed now. I’ve processed the madness, conquered my recurring nightmares of dolls, krakens, and Elvis, and can sleep through the night. I think it’s time.
I want to go back.
This time, though, I’ll be prepared. I’ll have my backpack filled with peanut butter and banana sandwiches.
Got a similar crazy story? Leave it below.
Originally published on DoofusDad.com Republished with permission.
Photos courtesy of author.