Down a Country Road

Trip Start Aug 18, 2008
Trip End Aug 29, 2008

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Flag of United States  , Wisconsin
Saturday, August 16, 2008

Down a Country Road
By Richard & Ellen Thane

"Down a country road" is a phrase often used to describe the Wisconsin landscape and we can't think of a more apt description. Within moments of leaving most any major highway in the state you find yourself traveling silver ribbons of roadways that wind through picturesque farm country with sprawling fields of corn or soybeans.  Dairy cattle graze in lush green pastures and aging barns and farmhouses nestle among the hills and valleys while towering silos pierce the sky. It’s not unusual to encounter a heavy piece of farm equipment lumbering down the road or an Amish buggy 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; the local people warm and welcoming. It was family reunion time and most of us, having our roots in Wisconsin, were arriving in an RV of one kind or another. We would first rendezvous at the Holiday Shores Campground & Resort in Wisconsin Dells and spend a week there visiting and exploring the surrounding attractions together before moving north to the family farm near Osseo for another week. With fuel topping $4.00 a gallon we’d leave the big rigs in camp and use our secondary vehicles for daily excursions.

Approaching from the east, near Milwaukee, farm country lined the freewayand intriguing exits begged exploration of tiny towns with names that paid tribute to the state’s Native American heritage or to the French Canadian Fur trappers who opened this part of the country to the white man. It was August and the weather perfect.

Driving west on I-94 in the early morning hours, we found traffic light but wanting to avoid the congestion of the Madison area, about 50 miles west of Milwaukee we detoured north onto Highway 73, and on up to the historic lumber town of Columbus. There we’d planned to simply drive through and turn west on Highway 60 to rejoin I-94 north of Madison, but once we reached Columbus we found one of those wonderful surprises that makes RV travel so enjoyable. Classic 19th century architecture, virtually unchanged by “modernization”, lined the city streets. Seldom in all our travels around the Nation had we found a more perfect example of a small American town that still looked just as it must have at the turn of the 19th century. If it weren’t for the few cars parked along the street, it would be easy to imagine that we’d entered a time warp. We couldn’t resist stopping for a closer look. “There are over 200 original buildings,” we were told by locals who further commented that, “fortunately, the town had been too poor in decades past to have made the ugly 'modern’ changes that have spoiled the charm of so many of the little towns across the continent that epitomize the concept of  ‘small town America’.” Now that the aging architecture is becoming recognized and valued Columbus is well poised for a future as a tourist attraction and also is, occasionally, being used as a movie set.

Delicious aromas from the Rod Bod Bistro drew us in for lunch and then cameras in hand we walked the streets trying to capture the essence of what we were seeing. Friendly merchants invited us in to photograph their establishments and to share their stories about restoration efforts for Columbus. One such business was the Colonial Carriage Works, a facility that buys, restores and sells all kinds of horse drawn vehicles. Their showroom is a fascinating place filled with dozens of carriages & sleighs. People from around the world, we learned, come to buy these graceful antique modes of transportation. The afternoon drew on and hearing that the nearby Astico Park offered good camping, we were tempted to linger but in our eagerness to see family members not seen in many years or perhaps had never met we pushed on for Wisconsin Dells.

We quickly set up camp and then everyone gathered for dinner at the nearby Thunder Valley Inn where those without RV’s were staying. Most of my brothers, sisters and cousins are grandparents now and I hadn’t seen many of them since grade school. The bonding was instantaneous and I wonder if that is one of the things genetic memory does for you? Dinner was a good old-fashioned pot roast accompanied by fruits and vegetables fresh from the Inn’s garden and homemade bread with raspberry compote. Plates are refilled as often as you liked. Nordic music and hilarious Ole and Lena jokes kept us laughing through dinner.

After burning midnight hours reminiscing and becoming better acquainted morning seemed to come awfully early but even aunts and uncles in their 80’s and 90’s were up and ready for a day filled with fun.  They’d all been farmers and were accustomed to getting up before dawn.

Wisconsin Dells is a huge tourist area, billing itself as the waterpark 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 many water parks while the rest of us booked a tour, through Dells Boat Tours, of the beautiful Wisconsin River. As we wound through narrow canyons and dramatic sandstone cliffs that formed more than 500 million years ago, a tour guide recited historical tales of Native American 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. I marveled as our sprightly elders kept up with the rest of us along this trail. There’s a lot to be said for the hard working farm lives they’d led. For dinner that evening we chose the Paul Bunyan Lumberjack in Wisconsin Dells where the fried chicken and barbequed ribs with fresh corn on the cob was great. If Mexican food appeals try the Mexicali Rose, just up the street, for the best coconut shrimp and fresh pineapple sauce you’ve ever had.

Wisconsin is known as the Dairy State because of its milk, butter and cheese production and so, of course, 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 out to the Carr Valley Cheese Co. in La Valle. For over a hundred years this small family business has been crafting some of the Countries finest specialty cheeses using milk from nearby farms. Open every day except Christmas and New Year’s you’ll want to get out there around 8:00 am to see the cheese being made. Then sample and make your choices.

Another day, another adventure. 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 and purchased a few bottles for the coming evening gabfest. Returning to Wisconsin Dells we traveled down more of the lovely county roads to the old town of Baraboo, known as the birthplace of the Ringling Brothers Circus. Along the village square farmers, some of them Amish, offered a wide variety of fruits and vegetables for sale; everything vine or tree ripened and absolutely delicious. Across the square stands the ornate Al Ringling Theater built in a French Renaissance style. Gifted by the eldest Ringling brother to the people of Baraboo it opened in 1915 and is still used for both motion pictures and for live stage performances. Call 608-356-8080 for a recorded schedule of events.

Then 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.

Our week passed much too quickly and we said goodbye to those who had to leave while the rest of us caravanned north on I-94 to Osseo, just south of Eau Claire where our Dutch ancestors first settled during the mid 1800’s. Though we camped on the old family farm just outside of Osseo you will find good camping at the Stoney Creek RV Resort in Osseo. Aunt Mary still lives on the farm and at 80 years of age does a good job of keeping up the yard, mowing it from atop her tractor-sized lawnmower. Her fields are leased to other farmers. There is something very comforting about having the old farm still in the family but that won’t last much longer as, sadly, there are no members of the younger generation interested in taking it on when she is no longer able to live there.

This is very much Amish country now and, being curious about their way of life, we arranged an Amish farm tour through The Woodshed; a store in the nearby farming town of Augusta where the Amish sell much of their exquisite hand made furniture, quilts and crafts. Our tour guide was a young man, “Englisher” as the Amish call non-members, 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. “See” he said, “There are no electric wires running to the Amish farms.” We passed groups of bearded men cutting wood and women in bonnets hanging out the wash or working in their gardens. Our guide answered questions and talked about family life and farming practices, medical care, courtship and many other topics regarding their culture. “Please respect their privacy,” he 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 just as an actual Amish home is included on the tour and photos are allowed there. Then we went on to an Amish farm where the ladies had just finished baking and were selling their goods. Bread, rolls, candy, it was all good and even more so when thinking about the labor involved in making everything by hand and cooking it on their wood stoves.

Smelling those wonderful baked goods got several of the guys to talking about blueberry pie and the following Saturday Aunt Mary had us driving over 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 ourselves. 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 with a wide selection of attractively packaged jams, jellies and syrup made from the fruit she grows, offers perfect gifts for the folks back home.

Dells mill, 3 miles north of Augusta, was a highlight of our trip, other than visiting relatives, of course.  Built in 1864, early farmers used the mill for milling their grain into flour and like most mills of that era became a social gathering place.  Today it is a marvelous museum maintained and presided over by owner, Gus Clark, who will greet you in his authentic Civil War uniform and take you through the building made 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 waterwheel still turns below the dam just outside the mill. Dells mill has been in Gus’ family since 1917 and he is always increasing his collection of civil war memorabilia.  It puzzled us at first to see all the civil war items displayed along with the historical implements of the region but then we learned about the great effect that war had on the area as over a third of the adult male population back in the 1860’s served in the war between the states. 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.

More Information:

Photography by Thane

Wisconsin Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau701 Superior St.
P.O. Box 390
Wisconsin Dells, WI 53965-0390
Holiday Shores Campground & Resort
3901 River Rd.Wisconsin Dells, WI 53965

Thunder Valley Inn W15344 Waubeek Rd
Wisconsin Dells, WI 53965
(608) 254-4145

Baraboo Area Chamber of Commerce
PO Box 442
600 W Chestnut St
Baraboo WI 53913
800- 227-2266

The Wood Shed
230 E. Lincoln St.
Hwy. 12 East
Augusta, WI 54722

Dells Mill
E18855 County Road V
Augusta, WI 54722

Chippewa Valley Convention & Visitors Bureau
3625 Gateway Dr.
Eau Claire, WI 54701

Columbus Visitor Center

116 W. James Street
Columbus, WI 53925
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