Quickie Summary: State “Trunk” Highway 83 connects numerous growing towns on the far west suburban areas of Milwaukee. Along the way, you’ll find a championship golf course at Erin Hills; great small town shopping on charming main streets; beautiful glacial lakes; the site of the first Weather Bureau forecast; a National Historic Landmark at Ten Chimneys; “Chocolate City” and a Yo-Yo Museum in Burlington; and a plethora of historic and cool bars and restaurants provide ample pit stop opportunities.
Wisconsin Highway 83 Road Trip
The Drive (North to South): Highway 83 begins as an offshoot from Highway 175, the former route of U.S. 41 and part of the classic Yellowstone Trail, at a rural crossroads. After five miles of open farmland and rolling hills, you reach the first town.
Highway 83 enters Hartford (pop. 13,700), as the main north-south road (hence, it’s called “Main Street”), twisting through town along a series of residential neighborhoods on the north and south ends of town. Hartford is a fast-growing city with a long history that includes being an automotive manufacturing center, the place where Libby’s (Libby’s Libby’s on the label label label…remember that ad?) processed most of its beets for the national market and where Broan-NuTone LLC got its start in the home ventilation business. Today, it’s a global company with headquarters in Hartford. Health care has become a major business in the area too, serving has the headquarters for API Healthcare. Quad/Graphics maintains a major facility in the area. For fun, Hartford hosts the Annual Hartford Balloon Rally, which includes evening events with glowing balloons and a fireworks show. It’s one of Wisconsin’s largest balloon events.
The Kissel and Hartford’s Auto History
Hartford holds the Wisconsin Automotive Museum, (147 N. Rural Street, 262-673-7999) the largest such museum in the state. Classic and vintage autos dating as far back as 1906 adorn the museum, which also sports a 250-ton locomotive, automobile artifacts, and a massive Lionel train set layout. It also showcases the Kissel, an automobile manufactured in Hartford from 1906 until 1931 (more on the Kissel in a moment.) The museum lies one block off Highway 83, just northwest of where you meets up with Highway 60 at the main downtown intersection.
The Kissel Kar Company was founded in Hartford in 1906 when George and William Kissel turned their hobby into a business. They built passenger cars, ambulances, fire trucks, taxicabs and more for 25 years. Among their most popular models were the Gold Bug Speedster (1925) and the White Eagle Speedster (1929), which became internationally famous and coveted by movie stars like Fatty Arbuckle at a time when the “talkies” were just debuting. Aviatrix Amelia Earhart also sported a Kissel, as did actress and stuntwoman Anita King, who became the first women to drive solo across the country in 1915 when she road tripped from California to New York in a Kissel, receiving a hero’s welcome upon her arrival. Kissel “kranked” out 4,000 units annually at their peak in 1922, but the Great Depression eventually led to their demise. Kissel shuttered its factory doors along the Rubicon River in 1931, leaving a legacy for Hartford and thousands of highly-prized collectors’ items to this day.
The Wisconsin Automotive Museum features an exhibition dedicated to the Kenosha-built Nash, and vintage treats like Studebakers, Reos, Pierce-Arrows and the Tucker. It also has automotive artifacts, a 250-ton locomotive and a display area for the Hudson Essex Terraplane.
The junction of Highways 83 & 60 is the epicenter of Hartford’s downtown, and at this epicenter is the largest restaurant in Wisconsin, The Mineshaft. Covering what seems like acres across 5 bars, room for 550 guests at once, a dance floor, a 5,000 square-foot game room area and a stage with performances by bands, The Mineshaft seems like it could have its own zip code. But it shares 53027 with most of the rest of the city.
After some very pleasant residential territory in Hartford, some open space – for the time being – is what greets you for a number of miles toward Waukesha County. The view of Holy Hill lasts for quite some time as you cruise through the Town of Erin, which hosts a sizeable St. Patrick’s Day parade and celebration. Highway 167 takes you right to Holy Hill, which is just a few miles east. County O to the west brings you to Erin Hills, a top-tier golf course that hosted the U.S. Open in 2017.
Shortly after crossing the county line and veering at County CW, you enter Waukesha County’s “Lake Country”, of which Highway 83 is a primary north-south route.
“Lake Country” consists of a string of communities in Waukesha County that run along lakes from La Belle in Oconomowoc east to Pewaukee Lake in Pewaukee. Highway 83 threads between North, Beaver and Pine Lakes from the village of North Lake to Chenequa (pop. 583). The speed limit is low, but it’s a beautiful drive through the area. This is popular motorcycling territory too, and taverns dot portions of the route. Two sharp turns at the south end of Chenequa bring you to Highway 16, at which point Highway 83 expands for the ride through western Hartland and eastern Delafield.
If you need shade, the stretch of Highway 83 through North Lake and Chenequa is a great place to find it. Plans to bypass this area for a higher-speed road have been thwarted time and time again. It can be a slow ride through here, but it’s pretty in all seasons.
Past an interchange with the Highway 16 freeway, Highway 83 enters Delafield (pop. 6,472) , Highway 83 becomes a four-lane highway and serves this fast-growing area situated amidst moraines, hills, and glacial lakes. Nagawicka Lake is surrounded by Delafield, which has a nice downtown. It’s known far and wide for antique shopping. Speaking of antiques, Hawk’s Inn serves as a great example of what stagecoach stops were like as far back as 1846; it’s available for tours, as is the Nashotah House, founded in 1842 as a mission. You can access Delafield’s downtown along County C, 2 miles west of Highway 83, via I-94 or County DR (aka Milwaukee Street).
State Trunk Tour Tidbit:
Delafield’s original name? Hayopolis. Seriously. It was also called Oakland before finally changing to Delafield in 1844.
Delafield is also home to St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy, established in 1884. It was where James Lovell, Milwaukee native and astronaut of Apollo 13 fame, graduated. He came back to address the Class of 2007, when his grandson graduated from the academy. Most of these sights lie near or along County Highway C, which parallels Highway 83 on the west side of Nagawicka Lake. Along Highway 83, Nagawicka Park and the Nagawaukee Ice Arena lie just north of the sprawling development that marks the interchange with I-94. Approching the Interstate, a massive amount of retail and commercial development greets you; you also pass the Lake Country Trail (watch out for bikes), which links Delafield to the west with Waukesha to the east.
Down one hill, under the freeway and up the next, you leave Delafield and head toward Wales, winding around hills and passing streets with names like “Scuppernong.” Lapham Peak lies to the west; it’s the highest point in Waukesha County. It’s also where Increase Lapham (a fascinating man in his own right, see why) issued the first official American weather forecast (warning about impending storms on the Great Lakes) on November 8, 1870… and it was correct! Lapham is routinely called the “Father of the United States Weather Bureau,” and on nice days the 45-foot observation tower on the peak named after him provides quite a nice view.
The highest point in Waukesha County (elevation: 1,233 feet, or about 30 feet higher in elevation than the top of the U.S. Bank Building in downtown Milwaukee) features a 45-foot observation tower in the middle of the Lapham Peak unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest. The Lapham Peak Unit is sandwiched between Highway 83, I-94, U.S. 18 and nearby County C two miles west. The park’s main entrance is off Highway C, accessible via I-94 or U.S. 18.
Past Lapham Peak, Highway 83 crosses U.S. Highway 18 and enters Wales (pop. 2,523). You leapfrog the Glacial Drumlin Trail, a former rail line that now serves bicycles and others on a long path between Waukesha and Cottage Grove. A good place to access the trail for some riding lies just east of Highway 83 along Wales’ own Main Street, just south of the trail’s underpass.
South of Wales, Highway 83 enters the Town of Genesee (pop. 7,284) and Genesee Depot. A rail crossroads since the mid-1800s, Genesee Depot was a key Waukesha County stop for the railroad. Pieces of history like the Union House, built in the 1860s, and In Cahoots, a watering hole since that same period, grace the intersection of Highway 83 and the railroad.
Genesee Depot is also home to the Ten Chimneys Estate, a National Historic Landmark . Broadway greats Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne made their home here and hosted many a get-together involving some of stage and screen’s most illustrious stars. Lunt and Fontanne together (they married in 1922) appeared together in over 24 plays and, more recently, on a postage stamp. Their namesake Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on West 46th Street in New York City indicates their prowess on the big stage. Tours of Ten Chimneys are available from May through mid-November of the grounds and the house. Furnishings, hand-painted murals, décor, art collections and other memorabilia are everywhere, and yes, the house does have 10 chimneys. Even the Gift Shop is unique: from early 20th century hat styles to jewelry to Noël Coward quotes adorning black t-shirts, there’s plenty of interesting things to check out.
Finding Ten Chimneys (and tell them you’re doing a State Trunk Tour!): if you’re southbound on Highway 83, follow the signs into Genesee Depot. When 83 turns left in town, take a right and follow the street down several hundred feet. If you’re northbound, look just past the Union House and In Cahoots; where Highway 83 bends to the right, continue straight on the smaller street. Several hundred feet down you will see the entrance to the grounds. You can contact them for more information at (262) 968-4110 (reservations a day or more in advance is strongly recommended) or at tenchimneys.org.
Past Genesee Depot and into the Town of Genesee, you cross Highway 59 and make a beeline on a relatively new four-lane highway (that unfortunately sacrificed a previously nicer forested ride before the widening) toward Mukwonago (pop. 8,519), a growing town that was once the tribal seat of the Bear Clan of Potawatomis. Mukwonago was originally spelled “Mequanego”; the spelling was adjusted in 1844 to avoid confusion with Mequon in Ozaukee County, about 40 miles away. You can see the nine-foot, 1,000-pound replica bear at the Historical Society and check out Waukesha County’s first brick house, built 135 years before the Commodores song of the same name was released. Highway 83 cuts through the heart of Mukwonago as Rochester Street, going past the Village Square before heading south of town and intersection with I-43.
Just south of Mukwonago, you leave Waukesha County and graze the corner of Walworth… for literally about two-tenths of a mile before hitting Racine County. Farmland begins to dominate for a while, including a cool smiley face barn I happened across a few miles past Mukwonago (above). The Tichigan State Wildlife Area lies to the east as Highway 83 makes a beeline to the next town.
At the junction with Highway 20, Highway 83 enters Waterford (pop. 4,048). Originally known by its Potawatomi name of Tichigan (like the lake just to the northeast), Waterford is now named partially due to its narrow crossing point over the Fox River at Main Street (where one could easily, as they used to say, “ford the water”.) Downtown features stores and bars a’plenty and some nice parkland along the river. Highway 83 stays with 20 through the heart of town and then to the southeast, where Highway 20 breaks east toward Racine and Highway 83 hooks up with Highway 36 for a multi-lane, higher-speed drive for a while into the Chocolate City.
North of Burlington, you can bypass the city on today’s Highway 36/83. But following the Burlington exit allows you to experience the “City” 36 & 83 routes… which is where the magic is.
What is the Chocolate City? Why, it’s Burlington (pop. 10,485), of course. It’s known as “Chocolate City USA” for its Nestle plant. One motto, “The town with the tall tales”, reflects on its serving as home to the Burlington Liar’s Club. Highways 11, 36, and 142 also reach the town (or in 142’s case, gets as far as the bypass.) But on the State Trunk Tour, we go INTO town. Follow the Burlington exit onto Milwaukee Avenue, which brings you into the heart of town.
Burlington is also not shy about pointing out it’s the hometown of All-Pro quarterback Tony Romo, even though he did play for the rival Dallas Cowboys. Fortunately, Jessica Simpson helped ensure that he wouldn’t stand in the way of the Packers’ (relative) success in the 2007 playoffs.
Burlington, true to its “Chocolate City USA” name, hosts a festival every Memorial Day weekend to celebrate the tasty cacao bean-based treat. Suggested reading prior to attending Chocolate Fest includes the Willy Wonka books and any diet book that suggests you can eat as much chocolate as you’d like. Originally named “Foxville” (perhaps because of the Fox River?) Burlington is big on firsts: it’s been home to the first World War II draftee to receive the Distinguished Service Cross, the first player to bat in the World Series…it’s even in Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District. It’s also the home of three-time World’s Strongest Man winner Bill Kazmaier, one of the few to earn the title without a name like “Magnus”.
State Trunk Tour Tidbit (+ “tall tale”)
Did you know the first person in Burlington to own an automobile was Leonard J. Smith in 1902?
He is also the first person to express road rage in 1903 by using a specific finger to gesture to a slow pedestrian.
Burlington features some interesting attractions, including the the Logic Puzzle Museum offers a wild array of hands-on puzzles, brain teasers, and more. Next door, the Spinning Top & Yo-Yo Museum offers yo-yos, gyroscopes, spin toys, and plenty of hands-on science exhibits…. over 2,000 in all! Call first and get tickets, though; they are by appointment only. And, since it’s “Chocolate City USA”, check out the Chocolate Experience Museum (113 E. Chestnut Street, 262-763-6044), which houses exhibits that survive the annual Chocolate Fest, and other chocolate sculptures… even one that replicates the brick road from the Wizard of Oz – only this one is chocolate instead of yellow. Hurry, before somebody eats it!
Speaking of eating, Fred’s (596 N. Pine Street/Highway 11 at the corner of Highways 36 & 83, ignoring the bypass, 262-763-8370) claims to have the “World’s Best Burgers.” That’s a tall order and we can’t definitively say for sure – but they’re pretty close… it’s a State Trunk Tour favorite! You have to order at the bar, and along with tasty burgers they have a good selection of appetizers, beers, and they even have a Tony Romo jersey from the Dallas Cowboys; he worked at Fred’s in his teenage years. They like to spice up their burgers, and the recommended one is the “cheese-sauced” burger. Even in Chicago, they’re saying it’s worth the drive to Burlington… who are we to argue, even though they’re probably Bears fans?
Highway 83 heads southeast out of Burlington (off the bypass or via Pine Street if you were smart enough to go through downtown) and makes its way into Kenosha County, paralleling to the west of the Fox River until the road meets up with Highway 50 for another multi-lane, high-speed ride for about six miles to Paddock Lake (pop. 3,200). At Paddock Lake, Highway 83 turns south past Hooker Lake (assuming it’s named after bait hooks, not the other kind) and the Town of Salem (pop. 9,871).
Further west sits Paddock Lake (pop 3,200). Highway 50 runs right through town; it’s the only place between I-94 and Lake Geneva where the speed limit isn’t 55. It’s 35, and I’m guessing speeding tickets are a handy source of income for the town, so watch your speed!
Brass Ball Corners.
On the west side of Paddock Lake, where Highway 83 turns south and Highway 50 continues east to Kenosha and Highway 75 leads north, is a little intersection known as Brass Ball Corners. This dates back to the 1840s, when today’s Highway 50/83 was part of a busy (for the time) trade route and trail connecting Kenosha, Lake Geneva, and Janesville. A farmer named Seth Huntoon realized this junction would make a popular place for travelers to stop and rest. He built an inn and, to help draw attention to it, hung a wooden ball gilded in gold at the intersection. People decided it looked more like brass, and ever since it’s been known as “Brass Ball Corners”. A more detailed story is here. No word on how many “brass balls” jokes have been made during this 170-year-run.
Bait stores abound in case you want to fish on Paddock Lake or Hooker Lake (insert snickering here.) Highway 83 leaves Highway 50 and turns south at Brass Ball Corners to head on its final stretch.
Past Salem, Camp Lake and Trevor, Highway 83 parallels U.S. 45 about 3-4 miles west and provides access via county roads to Wilmot Speedway and the Ski Area before finally hitting the Illinois state line.
At the state line, a few bars make reference to their geographical location and right at the line, Wisconsin Highway 83 becomes Illinois Highway 83 and heads into the Village of Antioch (pop. 13,400). But come back to Wisconsin when you’re done there!
The Wisconsin-Illinois State Line
A bar and a motel mark the state line – as do the signs below, as we see Highway 83 head into Illinois, ad the start of Wisconsin’s Highway 83 on the way out of Antioch and Illinois. It’s definitely better north of the border. Because we’re biased.
Highway 83’s Wisconsin stretch ends just south of Salem at the Illinois state line, where Antioch (and the Bears and Cubs fans) begins. In Illinois, 83 continues through the Chicago suburbs, eventually turning east and ending at the Indiana line.
Can connect immediately to: Highway 175
Can connect nearby to: Highway 33, about 3 miles north; Highway 60, about six miles south; I-41, about 3 miles east via Highway 175 and County K
Can connect immediately to: Illinois Highway 83
Can connect nearby to: Highway 50, about 6 miles north; U.S. Highway 45, about 3 miles east via Illinois Highway 173 or County P