Jul 31, 2022 – Wisconsin Part 2: Places to See Before you Die

With our campground near Madison, it was a nice day’s drive to visit Monroe and New Glarus, both circled in red on the map.
Our home for five days, at the William G. Lunney Lake Farm County Park Campground, 5 miles from downtown Madison.

To help us plan our travels to each state, Vivian and I consult a book titled “1,000 Places to See in the United States & Canada Before you Die”. Guess what? Wisconsin contains 18 places! Not bad given Iowa, our previously visited state has only half that many places to see before you die. However, if you take your enthusiasm for visiting a state to an unequaled level of quirky attractions, 18 is quite conservative when compared to Atlas Obscura’s guide to Wisconsin which describes 146 “cool, hidden and unusual things” to do in Wisconsin. If you choose to go down a rabbit hole of hidden gems (or lumps of coal), you could spend a lot of time in Wisconsin.

Our campground was 90% powered by solar. These are some of the panels, also serving as a pavilion cover. In the afternoon, the place was teaming with cyclists, walkers, and rollerbladders stopping at the facilities for water and a break.

Given that there are 50 states to visit before we die, we whittled the list down to a reasonable number. Following the driftless area, we went on a quest to see Wisconsin’s Cheese Country and the Dane County Farmers’ Market, among other things. We left our paradise campground in the driftless area to stay at another county park, William G. Lunney Lake Farm, only four miles from downtown Madison. Despite being so close to a city with a population over a quarter million, the natural surroundings we enjoyed at Esofea awaited us at this park, and we can owe all that to Dane County’s large and greatly numbered public spaces where people can recreate outside year round.

Along the 5-mile drive from our campground to the state capital. You can see a portion of one of the four lakes that are near the city.

Each morning, I walked the bike and hike/ski trails, enjoyed the view of Lake Waubesa from the trail that includes a recently built boardwalk bridge, and was greeted by pairs of sandhill cranes, more white-tailed rabbits than I can count, and deer partially hidden in fog-veiled fields of colorful wildflowers (see the slideshow below). Temperatures fluctuated – one morning I was layered up, the next in a t-shirt and shorts. True to its urban location, our campground park is a busy place, serving those recreating on the Capital City State Trail with a pavilion rest area, water bottle fill station and restroom facilities. From our RV, we watched runners, cyclists, Nordic ski rollerbladers and paddlers on the lake, young and old alike coming and going – an atmosphere of clean energy and outdoor recreation.

Most of Dane County is comprised of Madison, once referred to as “77 square miles surrounded by reality” by a Republican running for governor in 1978. Think what you will about Madison, but Vivian and I anticipated a perfect place to get our progressive urban fix while continuing to frolic through Wisconsin’s rural areas. Parked at a campground close to it, we anticipated at least a couple days in the downtown area, which is dominated by the University of Wisconsin campus as well as the state capitol complex.

Downtown Madison as seen from the capitol dome.

We’ve been having great luck lately parking our 21-ft truck in the city – Des Moines, Memphis, Montgomery, so I didn’t bother researching downtown parking in Madison. I would come to regret that. On the first day, we drove our 21-ft aluminum beast downtown to the Chazen Museum of Art which offered the following information on its website, “Located in the center of the UW campus, the Chazen is free and open to the public. Public parking lots are available nearby.” And within walking distance from the state capitol building, we were set for our first day in Madison. Being smitten with the thoughts of casual visits to a welcoming city, my disappointment rose to the top as Vivian and I drove up and down narrow one-way streets while detouring around road construction areas for 30 minutes passing one empty parking space after another with the following parking meter next to each:

Unless you are coming to downtown Madison to deliver something and then leave, you are very limited on where to park, especially if you are driving a large truck.

At last, we found a 2-hr parking spot, which was enough time to tour the state capitol building and make the 15 minute walk there and back. Oh well Madison, we really wanted to love you, but you did not want to love us. Enjoy the slideshow of this magnificent state capitol building, our third on this trip and well worth the parking frustration.

Meanwhile, we had rural areas to explore because there was cheese and beer to be had. Among the 18 places to see in Wisconsin before you die is Monroe, the cheese capital of the U.S. and where you’ll find the National Historic Cheesemaking Center that offers a history of the cheese country and can lead you to a cheese factory tour.

Everywhere you look, there are reminders that we are in the cheese capital state. This was the view from the Madison Campground where we stayed for 2 nights north of Madison.

That sounded perfect; a visit there and later to a brewery would fulfill our mission to see cheese and beer making all in one day. To get there, we again drove through idyllic farm country, river valley scenes running through a green patchwork of corn fields and cattle pastures interrupted by barns and silos. According to Google Maps, our search for the National Historic Cheesemaking Center brought us to a modest building known as Green County Visitor Center. Expecting to get a tour of a cheese factory, we were instead greeted by the visitor center volunteer who explained that cheese tours were terminated due to – you guessed it – covid. Instead of an extravagant tour of cheeses being created by licensed professional cheesemakers and receiving samples along the way, we were given a brochure or two and recommended a cheese store.

European immigrants came to Wisconsin and began dairy farming. As dairy farms increased in number, farmers began producing cheese to preserve excess milk.
Some cheese facts from the Alp and Dell cheese store.
In 1841, Anne Pickett established Wisconsin’s first commercial cheese factory, using milk from neighbors’ cows. A century later, Wisconsin was home to more than 1,500 cheese factories, which produced more than 500 million pounds of cheese per year.
If you want to make cheese commercially in Wisconsin, you need to be a licensed cheesemaker. Lucky for you, Wisconsin offers a master cheesemaker program, which meets the rigorous standards of European cheesemakers.
Cheese curds are the freshest form of cheese. Still not a fan of them, but Vivian loves them!

After getting our fill of Wisconsin cheese, it was time for some afternoon beer tasting, brought to us by the New Glarus Brewery. Cold beer sounded delicious as the daytime temperatures had reached the upper-80s, shocking us after enjoying cool temperatures for the past couple weeks. New Glarus Brewery is named after the Swiss town near which it stands. On the sharply graded road leading to the brewery, you can see a field of hops, which lends itself to Wisconsin’s self-sustaining farm communities.

What’s that – another cow statue? This is in front of the New Glarus Brewery, a building designed like a Bavarian Village.

The New Glarus Brewery’s website describes itself as a “quaint little brewery”. Compared to Miller’s Milwaukee operation, it is small with 90 employees. But it is impressive and has a fine story attached to it. Founded in 1993 by Deborah Carey, New Glarus Brewery was a gift to her husband Daniel, an experienced master brewer.

New Glarus Brewery employs 90 people and provides them healthcare benefits. They allow self tours to all visitors.
Daniel Carey acquired these copper kettles from a German brewery before it was demolished.

Brewing began in an abandoned warehouse, and in 2006 ground was broke for a new $21 million facility on a hilltop near New Glarus. It has since become a popular tourist destination and a very popular Wisconsin beer including its most famous Spotted Cow.

I never realized how complicated beer making could be!
Beer making is both a science and an art.
“Some people paint, some sing, others write … I brew.”
—Daniel Carey
“Only in Wisconsin”.

Our last day in Madison was a Saturday when the famous Dane County Farmers’ Market is held each week in downtown Madison. Believing Madison to be unfriendly to visitors in large diesel-guzzling vehicles, we dreaded the thought of returning to its downtown where parking a truck for longer periods than it takes to deliver an Amazon package is discouraged at best. “If you want to go to the Farmer’s Market”, said our camp host, “you need to arrive at a specific parking lot near the capitol building no later than 6:30 am”. Most would gasp hearing such an unreasonable suggestion, but instead we smiled and nodded our heads in agreement because arriving insanely early to anything worth visiting is precedent on our trips. Consequently, we checked off another place to see in Wisconsin (see the slideshow below) before we die and brought home some beautiful produce. Thank you Wisconsin.

Interested in reading more about Wisconsin? Check out our previous blogs:

The driftless area

Door County


Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

July 24 – Wisconsin Part 1: Drifting Through Summer

In red circles are the small towns of Viroqua and Mineral Point, both within the driftless area of southwestern Wisconsin.
A coveted campsite, shaded, full hookup, spacious, quiet and within a small campground surrounded by natural beauty. This was our home for 7 days.

It was laundry day, which is why we stood in the County Seat Laundry in Viroqua, WI talking with one of the owners. Within the time of a normal wash cycle, we learned quite a few things about the people living in this area of Wisconsin. Up until that conversation, Vivian and I were so enamored with Wisconsin’s driftless area that we began to consider it for the long term. A week earlier, we crossed the Mississippi River into Wisconsin which gave us reprieve from the dreaded heatwave that followed us for six weeks from Florida to Iowa. Comfortably set up at the Esofea/Rentz Memorial County Park, we basked in the fresh and cool summer air coming through the open windows of the RV, well shaded near the banks of the North Fork Bad Axe River within a beautiful backcountry valley.

“Shut off that AC and open those windows!” I said. At last, we had cooler temperatures.
Only 10 full hookup spaces and a handful of others including primitive sites along the river.

It was a small campground and not a particularly easy one to drive to, given that most of the county roads in that area don’t make the Trucker’s route map and probably outnumber the ones that do 10 to 1. It is hilly country, a general characteristic of the driftless area. Rounding the curves up a steep grade, one must watch carefully for the slower horse and buggy. But we got there safely, set up easily, and within view of our campsite, I could watch Vivian stand in the Bad Axe River casting a line.

Not a lot of traffic on those country roads, but you do have to be watchful – and patient.
No photo of Vivian fishing but this is our camp neighbor, Pam an avid fly fisherwoman visiting the park for a few days with her husband Tim.

Here’s a few images from one morning in our campground, with the glowing fog over the trees. Imagine stepping out your front door to see all that.

This was a greatly anticipated week filled with the quietness of fly fishing and the friendly comradery with other fly fishermen and women. Each day began with coolish temperatures, early morning fog glowing above the scenic river and sounds of birds. Frequently we took casual drives on scenic country roads through bucolic farmlands looking for trout streams or photographic opportunities, made visits to charming small towns, and took an easygoing paddle down the Kickapoo River (enjoy the slideshow from our river paddle).

On private farm property, the Timber Coulee can be accessed at specific locations provided to fishermen, the result of an agreement between Wisconsin DNR and local farmers. Vivian and I scoured the area looking for these opportunities.

Among the appealing qualities of the driftless area are the small towns, some of which have embraced tourism. One of those is Viroqua which touts itself as ‘growing forward’. Surrounded by the highest density of organic farms in the country, Viroqua epitomizes the driftless area with its organic food co op and small businesses like the Driftless Café or the Driftless Angler.

From the weekly county newspaper, a sheriff’s report that would make most sheriff’s around the U.S. envious.

Given its gentle beauty, you would never have guessed that this was once a region of lead mines. And yet another charming town brought that into perspective. Mineral Point was on our list of places to visit for two reasons – Shake Rag Alley Center for the Arts and Pendarvis Historic Site, both of which give the old mining town an appeal to artists.

A five and dime store in downtown Mineral Point, proof that they still exist!
We walked around Shake Rag Alley and downtown Mineral Point where we ate a pasty at the Red Rooster Cafe before our tour of Pendarvis Historic Site. The slideshow below is from Shake Rag Alley.
Family owned and run for the past 50 years, the Red Rooster Cafe and its homemade Cornish pasties could not be passed up. Pasties are meat pies made with crust to seal the meat & veggies so it could be handheld while eaten. These were the meals miners brought down with them into the mines.

Founded in 1827, Mineral Point became a major lead mining center after large quantities of shallow lead ore deposits were discovered in the area. Over time, the easily accessible lead diminished, which is about when miners from Cornwall, England immigrated to the area. The newly arrived miners came with refined techniques for extracting ore from very deep mines. Over the years however, lead mining declined and with the discovery of gold in California, many miners left Mineral Point. This continued until the 1920s and by then, the mining industry was pretty much done.

During our tour of Pendarvis, we got a genuine lesson on baking Cornish miner pasties from this young gentlemen, visiting with his family from Cornwall, England.

Enter Edgar Hellum and his partner and local resident Robert Neal. In 1935, the two men set out to preserve the history of the Cornish miners from which Neal descended, through the restoration and preservation of some of the settlers’ stone structures. These buildings now make up the Pendarvis Historic Site. For several decades (until November 1971), Hellum and Neal ran the Pendarvis House Restaurant and lived in the Trelawny building where they entertained guests and friends. Both men had studied art, and their love of art and architecture began to attract many other artists to Mineral Point.

Instead of tobacco farms and lead mines constituting the driftless environment, it is comprised largely of corn, soy and wheat, as well as consolidated dairy farms. Tourism is very much linked to the organic agriculture and indeed, ‘food tourism’ has business credibility in these parts. And if the food and art are not enough to attract you, the fishing and outdoor recreation will. All that during peak summer season, where artists, foodies and outdoor recreationalists come together in the driftless. 

Another scene from one of the trout streams that can be accessed on private property.

Put the tourism aside and what’s left are the farmers and small business owners that live here year round. Which brings me back to County Seat Laundry, founded in 2018 by Laura and Andy Patten. Upon opening, it did not take long for the new business owners to be put to the test. In the area, heavy rains in August 2019 unleashed flooding that destroyed bridges, roads, and buildings causing many to evacuate Viroqua and nearby communities. Flooding is not unusual in this area, but this was the mother of all floods. Laura described how they were able to stay open as many community residents wandered into the laundromat in shock and covered in mud, seeking shelter and clean clothes. They opened their washing machine doors to all residents with no other means to wash their bedding and clothing. Early the next year, Covid came and added an additional challenge of maintaining a new business.

A typical farm scene in Vernon County, Wisconsin. We got in the habit of looking for utility lines and poles feeding into a farm, those without were owned by Amish farmers.

But that was nothing compared to the winter of 2001 that brought the polar vortex to the driftless area. Laura told us of the temperatures 10 degrees below zero lasting for a couple weeks and at times getting as low as negative 60 for days on end. She motioned to one of her customers who lives in the area, “Isn’t that right, temperatures got as low as 60 below?” In a matter-of-fact way, her neighbor nodded and answered, “Oh yeah”, and went about her business of folding clothes as if that event was nothing more than a typical cold day. During the polar vortex, County Seat Laundry was able to stay open. It was warm and inviting, so many people struggling to stay warm at home took refuge there. Horrified, we listened to Laura’s story of a neighbor that watched a wild turkey in her back yard walking and then instantly froze in place.

In case you are wondering, the driftless area is unglaciated territory. Never covered by ice during the last ice age, the area lacks the characteristic glacial deposits known as drift.

Thoughts of living long term in the driftless area quickly dissolved in our heads. Vivian and I are hardy people, but how hardy do we want to be? The best part of RV traveling is this – it allows us to enjoy the driftless area with its moderate temperatures, easy going rural life, fields of wild flowers interrupted by trout streams, and lots of fresh organic produce. And then after awhile, we move on to the next idyllic location. RV life – the best of all worlds.

At our campground where fields of wildflowers lined the river, I spent time chasing down this clear-winged hummingbird moth, a first for me.
And there were bees, lots of bees.

July 13 – Iowa, What’s not to like?

The view from our campground on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River. Lock and Dam #14 was a short walking distance from the campground by way of road. Iowa shoreline is on the other side.

Sidenote: You wouldn’t know it from the title but there is a lot to see here in this blog. There are many photos, including several slideshows of art work and Iowa’s state capitol building. At the end of this blog, you’ll find several links to previous ones. Take your time here and enjoy Iowa through mine and Vivian’s eyes.

It isn’t easy cramming three vowels with no two alike into a four-letter word, but the state of Iowa managed to do it. Because it is common for names of places in the United States to be derived from Native American words, it is no surprise that Iowa comes from the indigenous people known as Ioway who once occupied the area that is now a state. ‘Ioway’ is a wonderful word, and as someone who recently got addicted to Wordle, I can’t help but think that it would be a good starter for the daily puzzle, although doubtful it would appear in the English dictionary which the New York Times relies on to create its daily puzzle.

This scene that might be viewed along I-80 in Iowa was painted in 1940 by Kansas-born John Steuart Curry. Titled ‘Threshing’, the painting was displayed at Davenport’s Figge Museum.
What’s not to like in Iowa? Well, there is one thing – the weather, or more specifically, tornadoes and the infamous derecho storms. Artist Ellen Wagner’s “F5 Tornado” panoramic depicts the instantaneous change in weather that best characterizes Iowa’s prairies and farmlands.

At any rate, why Iowa? We’ve been here before, twice in fact (check out the blog links at the end of this one). And for some reason, we keep coming back. I write this blog while in Wisconsin and think of those places in Iowa we have yet to visit and would like to one day. Take Iowa City for instance, known as the ‘City of Literature’ because of its prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop that has churned out many well-known writers such as Flannery O’Conner and Kurt Vonnegut. I am sure that city has many coffee shops where creativity can be stimulated. And then there is Cedar Rapids, home to American Gothic artist Grant Wood’s studio, which can be toured. Or how about Capt James T Kirk’s future birthplace in Riverside or the National Farm Toy Museum in Dyersville? And what’s up with the small town named ‘What Cheer’? Almost makes you want to go see it. By the way, we have yet to see any of the above-mentioned places.

Cattle is not the largest agriculture industry in Iowa, but you can definitely find all kinds of cow art in Iowa. This is inside the Turkey River Mall in Elkader. The four story building was once a hotel and is now an antique store where each vendor has his or her own room to sell vintage items.

To most, Iowa is a fly over state or at best, a drive through state. Miles of corn and soybean fields along I-80 fail to draw people in (although Iowa does boast the words largest truck stop near Walcott). But that is one of Iowa’s appealing qualities to us, it is totally unassuming and far from being braggadocious, unlike Texas for instance. And on this trip, we had the pleasure of getting acquainted with two of Iowa’s unassuming cities, Davenport and Des Moines.

The two paintings on display at the Figge Museum, John C. Wolfe’s “A View of the City of Davenport, Iowa” circa 1857, and Hermon More’s “Davenport Factory, circa 1928 best represent my view (minus the smokestacks) of Davenport, circa 2022.

We begin on the Mississippi River which by the way, runs along the entire eastern border of Iowa. Parked on the river at an Army Corp of Engineers campground on the Illinois side, we could see Davenport across the river. On this trip, Davenport would be the third of three Mississippi River cities we visit (see our previous blogs about St Louis and Memphis). If these three cities were sisters, Davenport would be the one that stays home to knit a sweater on a Friday evening while her two sisters go out on the town. But that crafty sister has an interesting past and once you get to know her a little, you want to spend more time with her.

Here’s one shot from Davenport, on the Freight House Market Place building where the weekly Farmers Market takes place along the river.

Here’s a fun story relating to Davenport. The first railroad bridge across the Mississippi River was built from Rock Island, Illinois to Davenport in 1856. This was a great boom for the area as commercial transportation to and from Chicago improved greatly. With other nearby railroads, Davenport became a significant railroad hub. Naturally, steamboat companies saw railroads as a threat and weeks before the Rock Island bridge was completed, the captain of Effie Afton, one of those steamboats, crashed his boat on purpose into the bridge. That did not end well for the captain and his steamboat company. The lead defense lawyer for the railroad companies, Abraham Lincoln took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court where the right to bridge navigable streams was upheld. The bridge remained, following some repairs of course.

Later on, Davenport like so many other medium-sized towns, struggled through hard times, including the Great Depression and the farm crisis of the 1980s. And as with many other cities, Davenport came back to life with a resurgence in the 1990s and has been enjoying a steady increase in population and a cost of living lower than the national average. With many walk and bike paths, parks and of course the river, the quality of life that the Davenport area offers to attract young and energetic types was obvious. That and the relative ease of getting around the urban areas placed Davenport on our short list of cities in which we could spend more time.

Seen while facing downtown from the riverside park, the modern Figge Museum stands out.

One Saturday morning, we enjoyed the Freight House Farmers Market on the water’s edge in downtown Davenport, a weekly summer event. After a couple samples of cheeses and baked goods, a little wine tasting and purchasing a few veggies and a dozen fresh farm eggs, we walked a short distance to the Figge Museum where we spent a couple hours in what was surprisingly one of the best art museums visited during our travels (and we have visited many). And just to show you, I have a couple slideshow exhibits from the museum.

Free in the month of July, what’s not to like about that!

The following slideshow exhibit is Iowa-worthy – it’s all about corn. Michael Meilahn (farmer and glass blower) and Nick Nebel (video and sound artist) collaborated to create ‘Corn Zone‘ in 2007, a mixed media installation of glass, polyester rope with sound and video projections. I never thought corn could be so visually stimulating.

And yet another Iowa-related theme was water, as presented by artist Anne Lindberg and poet Ginny Threefoot. Lindberg expanded her 2-dimensional linear drawings to 3 dimensions for an immersive “drawings in space” experience. This installation is titled “think like a river”, also a title of one of Threefoot’s poems. “…you have come to row the body through this floating world…”

After a few days near Davenport, we drove west on I-80 past the world’s largest truck stop to our next stay, another Army Corp of Engineer campground on Lake Saylorville near Des Moines. We had a few reasons to visit the area, friends of ours live there and insisted we stay at Prairie Flower, their favorite campground, a cousin I have not seen in several decades lives in nearby Ames with her husband surrounded by children and grandchildren, and last, we wanted to see Iowa’s State Capitol and the High Trestle Bridge.

Our friends Pete and Jerilyn show us a good time in Des Moines, at the Zombie Burger Place of course.
They also showed us around the area of Des Moines. Wait, what’s that in the grasses? Didn’t think we would, but we got our west-of-the-Mississippi Bison fix.
And we saw Elk. Did I mention that it was insanely hot the entire time we spent in Des Moines? These guys were cooling off in the water.
Due to Covid, we didn’t get to see my cousin, but we did meet her daughter Ellyn and owner of the recently opened Dog Eared Books in downtown Ames.
Downtown Des Moines.

As with Davenport, Des Moines offered lots of art and is casual and low key. Along with the High Trestle Bridge, the highlight was our tour of the majestic state capitol building, which is far from low key. Enjoy the slideshow of the capitol. I could not get enough of it!

We topped off our Iowa tour by spending two days at one of our favorite places, Elkader, in the heart of Iowa’s driftless area. We’ve stayed there before and were absolutely charmed by the small town. It was only fitting to come back again as it was on our way to Wisconsin. Until then, enjoy the photographs of what we like about Iowa.

Much of Elkader’s charm comes from its historic Keystone Bridge that crosses Turkey River, seen here under repair. Our campground is 1/2 mile from downtown and our best memories from our previous visit was walking there every day across the bridge (the only way by foot). Not this time!
To get to downtown Elkader, we had to drive out of the way 1 1/2 miles. The commute was worth it as we wanted to visit Deb’s Brewtopia again.

As I mentioned earlier, we’ve been to Iowa before. Check out these previous blogs to see more photos.

See the charming side of Iowa as we explore Elkader and the driftless area in this blog from 2019.

In this blog, we visit the western side of Iowa and explore the Loess Hills, from 2020.

And last, from this current trip of 2022, check out our blogs on Memphis and St Louis.