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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.