Quickie Summary: Highway 116 runs from the U.S. 45 freeway just northwest of Oshkosh by Lake Butte des Morts, across the Fox River into Winneconne – a town with an interesting history based on a state map snub! You then head south through Omro to Waukau, where the road ends but you can follow its historic route west into Berlin.
The Wisconsin Highway 116 Road Trip
The Drive (North to South): Highway 116 begins at the U.S. 45 freeway about six miles northwest of Oshkosh. County GG continues east to connect with Highway 76, but since we’re following 116, we go west.
A side road – once Highway 110 – will take you to tiny Butte des Morts, which lies along the shore of its namesake, Lake Butte des Morts. It’s part of the larger Winnebago Pool that features chains of lakes along the Fox and Wolf Rivers, eventually dumping into Lake Winnebago and then the Fox River out into Lake Michigan. And yes, if you can navigate a few locks, from this inland location you can get in a boat and make your way all the way to the Atlantic Ocean if you were so inclined. But we digress…
Lake Butte des Morts averages only 9 feet deep; its maximum depth is 15 feet. Popular for fishing, boating, water skiing, and trying to cross via I-41, the lake was named by early French settlers meaning “Hill of the Dead,” referencing a nearby Native American burial mound.
Highway 116 heads west from U.S. 45 and Butte des Morts for about three miles into Winneconne (pop. 2,383), which is squeezed into the Wolf River’s passage between Lake Poygan and Lake Butte des Morts. Highway 116 uses a drawbridge originally constructed in 1934 but has since been updated. This is a very popular crossing point, being is the only road crossing this Fox-Wolf-Wisconsin waterway system between I-41 in Oshkosh and the western end of the lakes system in Waushara County. This makes Winneconne a very popular boat launch spot, and summer days and nights are filled with boats and trailers towing them.
** DRIVE-IN ALERT **
As Highway 116 enters Winneconne, you’ll find The Well Drive-In (705 E. Main, 920-582-7292). Open from March through September, The Well serves up the burgers, shakes, cones, and more you’d expect from a drive-in stand – but they also serve wings, fried cheese curds, and a Friday fish fry.
At the bridge, Highway 116 arrives in downtown Winneconne. Crossing the Wolf River here, Lakes Winneconne and Poygan are to your north, Lake Butte des Morts to your south. Along the shore, bars and restaurants – often with boat launch facilities – are ready to serve you.
One of them is a real “showboat” place – the Fin n’ Feather. A restaurant, bar, banquet hall, and launch point for riverboats that ply the Wolf River and adjoining lakes, the Fin n’ Feather dates back to 1922. With a design looking like a showboat of old, its location at the bridge along the water makes it an incredibly popular summer spot.
“Sovereign State” and the 1967 map mess-up
In 1967, somebody screwed up and accidentally left Winneconne off the official state map – leaving only the dot. Winneconne did not take kindly to this; they reacted Texas-style by declaring “secession” from Wisconsin. They created officers of the “Sovereign State of Winneconne”, developed a flag, named the skunk their official state animal, poison ivy the state flower, and the dodo the state bird.
Secession began on July 21, 1967. Later that day, Governor Knowles called Winneconne officials. He promised the error would be fixed on the next map and gave Winneconne some love and recognition on highway signs over on U.S. 41 and (then) Highway 110, helping to point more people to their town. So Winneconne rejoined Wisconsin and has celebrated “Sovereign State Days” every year since then – and they’ve never been skipped on a Wisconsin road map again.
On Winneconne’s west side in Arthur Marble Park is the Winneconne Historical Museum, which features the town’s 1871 railroad depot, an original one-room schoolhouse from 1889, the Kay Wilde Doll Cottage, and a Steamboat Museum. It’s open Sundays from 1:30-4:30pm… so you have a narrow window to hit!
South of Winneconne, Highway 116 heads straight south six miles into Omro (pop. 3,517). Here it meets a junction with Highway 21, a main east-west route from Oshkosh that goes all the way west to Sparta. Omro lies along the Fox River and was visited by French explorers as early as 1639; in the late 1800s it brimmed with mills, factories making glass and carriages, and machine shops – many of which headed to Oshkosh by 1900.
Omro serves as a center for western Winnebago County (south of the waterway system) and has been growing again, including as a bedroom community for workers in Oshkosh. Omro’s main street includes historic buildings – which can be further explored via their historic walking tour – and attractive parklands along the Fox River.
Highway 116 meets up with Highway 21 for the ride across the Fox River into downtown – they actually have a “wrong way concurrency” through town, with eastbound 21 also being westbound 116 and vice-versa.
One favorite Omro stop is the Colonial Cheese House (800-985-6590), which specializes in aged cheeses as well as beef sticks, curds, spreads – and their homemade pizzas are very popular among locals. It’s places like this that help make a roadtrip fun and brings a Wisconsin experience.
As Highway 21 breaks east toward Oshkosh, Highway 116 meanders south-southwest through Winnebago County farmlands.
It’s an increasingly forested ride south, with a nice diversion for nature lovers via County K available in the form of the Waukau Creek Nature Preserve, which offers spring wildflowers, willows and marshes, and a great time for bird watchers.
Highway 116 ends up heading into the small settlement of Waukau (pop. 255), where it once turned west to head into Berlin, nine miles to the west in adjacent Green Lake County.
Today, Highway 116 ends at Highway 91, which runs from Oshkosh to Berlin and took over for Highway 116’s original turn west from Waukau to Berlin when 91 was designated on this route in 1996.
Highway 116 doesn’t go very far, but it’s a pleasant little drive with some nice stops in Omro, Winneconne, and along the way. Oshkosh is close too, always ten miles away or less. Enjoy!
Can connect immediately to: Highway 91
Can connect nearby to: Highway 49, nine miles west; Highway 44, nine miles east
Can connect immediately to: U.S. 45
Can connect nearby to: I-41, six miles southeast; U.S.10, seven miles north