“Down a country road” is a phrase often used to describe Wisconsin’s landscape, and I can’t think of a more apt description. Within moments of leaving almost any major highway in the state, you find yourself traveling silver ribbons of roadways that wind through picturesque farm country replete with sprawling fields of corn or soybeans. It’s not unusual to see a heavy piece of farm equipment lumbering down the road or an Amish buggy being pulled by a single prancing horse. Little towns with buildings made of brick resemble Norman Rockwell paintings, while roadsides are clean and free of trash and the local people are warm and welcoming.
It was family reunion time for me, and most of my family, having roots in Wisconsin, were arriving in an RV of one kind or another. Our plan was to first rendezvous at the Holiday Shores Campground and Resort in Wisconsin Dells, and spend a week there visiting and exploring the surrounding attractions, before moving north to our family farm near Osseo for another week.
Approaching from the east near Milwaukee, farm country lined the freeway and intriguing exits begged exploration of tiny towns. It was August and the weather was perfect.
In order to avoid traffic congestion around the Madison area, my husband, Richard, and I detoured off Interstate 94 and headed north on State Highway 73 to the historic lumber town of Columbus. We had only planned to drive through the town and rejoin I-94 north of Madison, but once we reached Columbus we knew it was one of those wonderful surprises that makes traveling by motorhome so enjoyable. More than 200 classic 19th-century buildings, virtually unchanged by modernization, line the city streets. We couldn’t resist stopping for a closer look.
Cameras in hand, we walked the streets, trying to capture the essence of the town. Friendly merchants invited us in to photograph their establishments and to share their stories about Columbus’ restoration efforts. One such business was the Colonial Carriage Works, a facility that buys, restores and sells horse-drawn vehicles to people around the world. The afternoon drew on and, hearing that the nearby Astico Park offered good camping, we were tempted to linger, but we had to push on to Wisconsin Dells and meet up with our family.
Wisconsin Dells is a huge tourism area – billing itself as the Water Park Capital of the World – and has a vast choice of family-oriented activities. The younger folks in our group packed bathing suits and headed for one of the area’s many water parks, while the rest of us stopped by Dells Boat Tours for a tour on the beautiful Wisconsin River. As we wound through narrow canyons and dramatic sandstone cliffs, formed more than 500 million years ago, a tour guide recited historical tales of American Indian life, fur trappers and lumberjacks. At Witches Gulch we disembarked and wandered along a boardwalk through a misty green canyon while turbulent river water churned beneath our feet. For dinner that evening we chose the Paul Bunyan’s Northwoods Cook Shanty in Wisconsin Dells, where the fried chicken and barbecued ribs with fresh corn on the cob was great.
Because Wisconsin is known as the Dairy State – for its milk, butter and cheese production – we wanted to tour a cheese factory. Down another country road, just a few miles west of Wisconsin Dells, we drove past farms and fields of sunflowers to the Carr Valley Cheese Company in La Valle. For more than 100 years, this small, family business has been crafting some of the country’s finest specialty cheeses, using milk from nearby farms. Open Monday through Saturday except Christmas and New Year’s, you’ll want to get there at 8am to see the cheese being made, then sample and make your choices.
Prairie du Sac and Baraboo
A group of us traveled out to the scenic Wollersheim Winery located in Prairie du Sac a few miles south of Wisconsin Dells. A National Historic Site, its present buildings were constructed during the Civil War period. Hungarian Count Agoston Haraszthy, the original owner, is said to have journeyed west to California during the gold rush and eventually became known as the founder of the California wine industry. After touring the grounds, we sampled the wines, most of which were very good.
Returning to Wisconsin Dells, we traveled more lovely county roads to the old town of Baraboo, known as the birthplace of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Along the town square, farmers – some of them Amish – offered a wide variety of delicious vine- or tree-ripened fruits and vegetables. Across the square stands the ornate Al. Ringling Theater built in French Renaissance style. Gifted by the eldest Ringling brother to the people of Baraboo, it opened in 1915 and is still used for movies and live stage performances.
Down along the Baraboo River you enter the magical lands of the Circus World Museum. Located on the original circus winter campgrounds, this is a major draw for big-top buffs, with an amazing collection of antique circus wagons and other memorabilia. Summertime brings live performances and, if you have children with you, they are sure to delight in an elephant or camel ride.
Amish Country and Dells Mill
The week passed much too quickly and soon it was time to say goodbye to the Wisconsin Dells and head north on I-94 to Osseo, just south of Eau Claire, where my family’s Dutch ancestors first settled during the mid-1800s. Though we camped on our old family farm just outside of Osseo, you can find good camping at the Stoney Creek RV Resort in Osseo.
This is definitely Amish country and, being curious about their way of life, we arranged an Amish farm tour through The Wood Shed, a store in the nearby town of Augusta where the Amish sell much of their exquisite handmade furniture, quilts and crafts. Our tour guide was a young man – an “Englisher,” as the Amish call nonmembers – who grew up with many of the local Amish families and knows them well. As we wound our way through the country roads passing one Amish farm after another, he pointed out one quick way to identify an Amish farm from that of an Englisher. “There are no electric wires running to the Amish farms,” he said.
We passed groups of bearded men cutting wood and women in bonnets hanging out the wash or working in their gardens. “Please respect their privacy,” our guide asked, “and don’t take any photographs.” The Amish are particularly sensitive about having their faces photographed; even Amish dolls are made without faces.
We weren’t able to visit an occupied home, but an unoccupied farmhouse, furnished in the Amish tradition, is included on the tour and photos are allowed. From there, we went to an Amish farm where the women had just finished baking and were selling their goods. Bread, rolls, candy, it was all delicious – even more so considering the care and labor involved in making everything by hand and cooking it on wood stoves.
Smelling those wonderful baked goods got us talking about blueberry pie, and the following Saturday Aunt Mary had us drive south to the little town of Hixton, just off I-94, to Cain’s Orchard – where the blueberries were ripe and available for us to pick. Owner Diane Cain greeted us warmly and gave us a tour of her orchard, set among softly rolling fields of grain. Showing us where the best blueberries were ripening, she left us to fill our buckets and our mouths as well. Her gift shop’s wide selection of attractively packaged jams, jellies and syrup offered perfect gifts for the folks back home.
Dells Mill, about five miles north of Augusta, was another highlight of our trip. Built in 1864, early farmers used the mill for milling their grain into flour and, like most mills of that era, it became a social gathering place. Today it is a marvelous museum maintained and presided over by owner Gus Clark, who greets visitors dressed in an authentic Civil War uniform, and leads them through a building constructed of hand-hewed timbers. Even the gears are a work of art, made entirely of wood. Today its 3,000 feet of belting and 175 pulleys are all powered by a water turbine, but a huge overshot water wheel still turns below the dam just outside the mill.
We left Wisconsin with a profound longing to spend more time exploring the lovely country roads; perhaps next fall when autumn colors etch the fields in red and gold. Aunt Mary promises to have blueberry pie waiting.