Quickie Summary: State “Trunk” Highway 89 cuts north-south through a number of small but significant towns in the area of southern Wisconsin between the Milwaukee and Madison metro areas. Along the way, you can enjoy the college town of Whitewater, the river town of Fort Atkinson, breweries, wineries and parks in Lake Mills, the twists and turns near the TREK headquarters in Waterloo, and the charming “antique city” of Columbus.
The Wisconsin Highway 89 Road Trip
The Drive (South to North): Highway 89 begins at a non-descript intersection where U.S. Highway 14, just in from Darien, Walworth and Illinois, meets up with Highway 11 from Delavan on the way to Janesville. Highway 89 is the northward continuance of where U.S. 14 was heading before it cut west. The first eight miles of the road is fairly unexciting until you join Highway 59, go past the U.S. 12 bypass, and enter Whitewater (pop. 14,390). Whitewater spans Walworth and Jefferson Counties and is a college town, home to the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater – a noted business and party school. Whitewater is the birthplace of Thomas Hulce, the actor who played Mozart in Amadeus and, more importantly, Larry Kroeger in Animal House (of course, John Belushi, who was Bluto in Animal House, went to UW-Whitewater in real life.) Noted author and historian – and later movie producer – Stephen Ambrose also grew up in Whitewater.
Technically, Highway 89 joins the U.S. 12 bypass and beelines toward Fort Atkinson. But we like to actually check out the towns along these routes, so continue past the bypass to Highway 59/Janesville Street to head downtown. Along Main Street (Business U.S. 12) you can enjoy Birge Fountain, a beautiful structure of cast iron and bronze that was originally donated to the city in 1903. Some campus-related buildings – including a few Greek houses – line Main Street as do a nice selection of shops, restaurants, and assorted haunts 12,000+ college students enjoy.
With plenty of thirsty UW-Whitewater students in close proximity, Second Salem Brewing keeps its small nanobrewery busy. The brewery took its name from one of Whitewater’s historic nicknames, harkening back to “witches’ gatherings” that supposedly took place near the water tower, strange creatures in the local lake, and other lore that makes for good stories. You’ll find it along Whitewater Street, just south of Main/Business U.S. 12.
Whitewater also holds Indian Mounds Park, a Native American ceremonial and burial site listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Open daily, the Park holds an incredibly diverse collection of animal and geometric mounds, many of which date back over 1,000 years. Speaking of history, Whitewater’s Historic Train Depot traces the city’s past since it holds the Historical Society Museum. The Depot is located along Cravath Lakefront Park, named after one of the two lakes inside Whitewater (the other is Tripp Lake.) Ironically, the lake known as Whitewater Lake is about 5 miles south of town.
As U.S. 12’s new bypass meets up heading west and northwest, you enter Jefferson County and have about a six-mile ride to Fort Atkinson (pop. 11,621), or “Fort”, as all the locals call it. A bustling town (Money Magazine named it “One of America’s Hottest Little Boomtowns”) set along the banks of the Rock River, Fort Atkinson was originally Fort Koshkonong but renamed Atkinson after Henry Atkinson, the fort’s general. A lake named after Koshkonong is just to the southwest.
Along U.S. 12 and Highway 89 on the southeast side of town is the Hoard Historical Museum, which features history of the area including Sauk warrior Black Hawk, Abraham Lincoln’s early days in the area, the “father of American dairying” (for whom the museum is named) and, next door, the National Dairy Shrine Museum, which offers plenty of interactive exhibits, displays, and artifacts covering the fine art of bovine lactation, which of course leads to milk, cheese, yogurt, and ice cream… so this is important.
The Fireside Dinner Theatre is located in Fort Atkinson, even though most of their auditions are held in New York. Drawing people from far and wide, the Fireside combines dining with stage entertainment, celebrating 50 years of Klopcic Family hospitality and more than 35 seasons of professional theatre. This year’s shows include Disney’s “High School Musical”, “The Witnesses” and “The Sound of Music.” The place is huge inside, and that’s just the gift shop. The Fireside is along Business Hwy. 26, just south of town… you can access it from Highway 89 by cutting west on Hackbarth or Rockwell Avenues to Janesville Avenue.
In Fort Atkinson, Highway 89 breaks away from U.S. 12 and heads straight north out of town as Main Street. It crosses what is now Highway 26 on its bypass and parallels it to the west for a bit to U.S. 18 just west of Jefferson. Highway 89 joins U.S. 18 for a brief stint; you have access to Jefferson Speedway, a quarter-mile track that bills itself as “Wisconsin’s Action Track”. Most of the racing action happens on Saturday nights, and during racing season hosts the Jefferson Bargain Fair every Sunday. Over 100 vendors come out to the track with various items for sale, as the smell of fuel and tires has usually dissipated by then. There’s also the Highway 18 Outdoor Theatre, Wisconsin’s first digital cinema drive-in – though the drive-in has been here for decades.
Off U.S. 18, Highway 89 heads through more Jefferson County countryside, which rolling hills and farms – some of which have decorative carvings and more along the road for your enjoyment.
Next up is Lake Mills (pop. 4,843), which notes itself as “legendary”. Originally called Tyranena from an indigenous name meaning “sparkling waters”, Lake Mills has a history as a stop between the state’s largest city and its capital. It served as a layover for Chief Black Hawk in 1832; the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad started chugging through Lake Mills a few decades later. As the automobile era emerged, travelers on Historic Highway 30 (the precursor to I-94) would come east or west through the heart of town, as they do now on a north-south axis on Highway 89. East-west travelers had to get around Rock Lake, the 1,371-acre body of water on the west side of town. The lake – which was also called “Tyranena” originally – contains the legend of a foreign tribe from long before the days when things were written down. A series of stone structures and effigy mounds were built on the edge of the lake; the structures are now preserved in the lake itself. A legendary gastronomical delight are Legion “Sliders”, available at the small Legion stand right along Highway 89 across from the Downtown Commons. Read more about those sliders here.
The 4,843 “mostly friendly residents,” according to the city’s Web site, enjoy a charming, very American downtown. Much of it faces Downtown Commons Park, an attractive town square with a gazebo, farmers market and, in the winter, an ice rink. Check out the library on the north side of the Commons too, if you love good architecture that makes liberal use of stone.
Above: A study in contrasts; two shots of the same location along Highway 89 in Lake Mills; one summer, one winter.
Like Milwaukee, Lake Mills knows its beer. The city is home to Tyranena Brewing Co. (1025 Owen St., (920) 648-8699), which brews up popular beverages like the Bitter Woman IPA, Stone Tepee Pale Ale, Three Beaches Honey Blonde, Rocky’s Revenge Bourbon Brown and Chief BlackHawk Porter. The brewery often features live music, cribbage and chessboards, as well as a tasting room, which is open 4:30 to 11pm Wednesdays and Thursdays, 3pm to midnight Fridays and Saturdays and 11am to 7pm Sundays. During the summer, the beer garden can be an attractive trip diversion. Tour times vary, but you can find the schedule here.
On the south end of town, Highway 89 crosses the Glacial Drumlin Trail as it runs along the old C&NW rail line. Lake Mills is one of the main stops along the 56-mile trail, which connects Cottage Grove (just east of Madison) with Waukesha, part of a larger bike trail system that runs from Milwaukee’s Henry Aaron State Park on Lake Michigan’s shore to Prairie du Chien on the Mississippi River.
Just east of town along County B (the old Highway 30) is Aztalan State Park, a rich archeological site showcasing an ancient village and ceremonial complex. Archaeologists have uncovered plenty of interesting historic artifacts, here include evidence this area was once the frequent site of human sacrifice. The park’s entrance is near County Road Q, just off County Road B (Lake Street). The Crawfish River winds its way along the park’s eastern edge. Motocross and short-track buffs can check out races at Aztalan Cycle Park. Its quarter-mile red clay oval MX track is visible from the interstate just east of the Highway 89 interchange with I-94. To get there, take Gomol Road north off of Highway B, the main road running east from Lake Mills.
Beyond Lake Mills and I-94, Highway 89 begins a more twisty/turny type of existence, winding around the rolling hills that make for fun driving, especially for motorcyclists. Eventually, you hit ABBA’s favorite Wisconsin town, Waterloo (pop. 3,259). Located on the Maunesha River in Jefferson County’s far, far northwestern corner, Waterloo is the home of Trek Bicycles. Waterloo is also the home of Van Holten’s Pickles, innovator of “pickle-in-a-pouch” and today the world’s largest producer of individually-wrapped pickles. Highway 89 enters Waterloo from the east and Highway 19 hooks up for the ride into downtown as Madison Street. Just over the river in downtown, Highway 89 jogs north along Monroe Street.
TREK Bicycle Corporation, founded in Waterloo in 1976, is the largest U.S. manufacturer of bicycles and aftermarket products. Trek supplied bikes for three of Lance Armstrong’s seven Tour de France victories and also outfits the Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team for the USA. Its headquarters is west of Highway 89 along Highway 19 on the edge of town. And yes, the bike racks are closest to the front doors of the offices.
A special State Trunk Tour salute to Waterloo from ABBA
Okay, we couldn’t resist. When I think of Waterloo, I think of the song..and it’s a fun driving song anyway as long as nobody’s watching. So, straight from German television in 1974, courtesy of YouTube, enjoy this riveting performance of ABBA’s “Waterloo”, complete with sort-of dancing, lip-synching and fake instrument-playing to the song. And the outfits… well. Oh, and don’t forget the German host in an attempt to look like Napoleon introducing each member afterwards. You’ll see.
North of Waterloo, Highway 89 features some 90-degree angle turns as it zig-zags to its final stop: Columbus (pop. 4,479), one of 17 U.S. states that has a city named after the Christopher guy.
Located on the Crawfish River and straddling Columbia and Dodge Counties, Columbus refers to itself as the “Red Bud City” and boasts the largest antique mall in Wisconsin with the Columbus Antique Mall – 78,000 square feet filled with stuff across 444 booths under one roof. The Christopher Columbus Museum in the antique mall features souvenir memorabilia from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and as well as lithographs, china, tapestries, statues, and more. Columbus also has the closest Amtrak station to Madison, which is a fairly quick ride down U.S. 151 from here.
Columbus has done a great job preserving architecturally significant buildings, with the entire downtown district listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Architectural and photography students come to check out Jaeger’s Mill on the Crawfish River, or the Farmers & Merchants Union Bank Building (known as the “Jewel Box”), which was one of the last buildings designed by famed architect Louis Sullivan. Students of history may revel in the Sunday morning toll of the steeple bell from Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, partially made up of pieces of French canon captured during the Franco-Prussian War and presented as a gift from Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany (no comments were solicited from any area French residents.)
Columbus, like many Wisconsin cities, has a brewing history. Started on Park Avenue (once U.S. 151 through town, now Highway 73) in 1859, the Kurth Brewery quenched thirsty Columbusinians (or however you’d say it – Columbans, maybe?) for most of the ninety years that followed. Prohibition originally shut it down in 1920, but the Kurth Brewery managed to bounce back for 16 years after it was repealed, churning out items like Banner Beer and Blue Mound Beer throughout the 30s and 40s until it finally closed for good in 1949. One of the original buildings, right at the end of Highway 89, remains open as a hospitality bar on Wednesday and Friday evenings.
Highway 89 comes to an end when it hits Highway 73, which is also Business U.S. 151, at the old Kurth Brewery. A short jog northeast on 73 brings you into Columbus’ downtown, all of which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
From the end of Highway 89 and Highway 73/Business U.S. 151, you can check out everything in Columbus or head south on 151 towards Madison or north towards Beaver Dam, Waupun, and Fond du Lac; or take Highway 73 up into Green Lake County for the beautiful hills and lakes ahead. Pick More Roads and GO!!
Can connect immediately to: Highway 11, U.S. Highway 14
Can connect nearby to: Interstate 43, about 3 miles south