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Chocolate City Archives | State Trunk Tour
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“From Chocolate City to Mars Cheese Castle – with Bong in Between”
Quickie Summary: Highway 142 connects Kenosha and Burlington, providing a nice ride through farm fields of Racine and Kenosha Counties as well as access to the Bong Recreation Area, the sign for which on the Interstate is a popular photo-op. Its eastern end at I-41/94 is also home to the famous Mars Cheese Castle, even though we take you to its historical end in Kenosha itself – including the World’s Oldest Operating Velodrome – within sight of Lake Michigan; its western end leads you into Burlington, Wisconsin – aka “Chocolate City.”
Wisconsin Highway 142 Road Trip
The Drive (West to East): While technically starting at the Burlington Bypass outside of town, we’ll start our Highway 142 Tour in downtown Burlington (pop. 10,464) where the road used to start. The city started out as a settlement called “Foxville” – for its location along the Fox River – in 1835; a few years later, locals changed the name to Burlington after the Vermont city many of the recent transplants from New England felt a need to salute (heck, it’s easier to spell than Montpelier.) Railroads came in 1855, and by 1900 Burlington officially became a city, nestled in the southwest corner of Racine County.
Reminders of chocolate, little league, and a native NFL QB greet you on the Burlington welcome sign.
The Malt House Theatre in Burlington – which was once the malt house of a brewery. A loooong time ago.
Burlington once featured three breweries, including the former Finke-Uhen Brewery along the Fox River; its building is now occupied by the Malt House Theater, whose community theater company (called the “Haylofters“) have been operating since 1932. Three years prior to that – or so they claim – the Burlington Liars’ Club was formed. They celebrate “Fibbing for Fame and Folly” (also alliteration, apparently) and annually hand out an award for “World Champion Liar.” We can’t lie when it comes to chocolate, and the addition of a 1966 Nestle plant gave Burlington the name “Chocolate City, USA,” which we have to admit is pretty sweet. Every Memorial Day weekend, Chocolate Fest tantalizes taste buds and offers plenty of music and activities. Several notable people hail from Burlington, including three-time World’s Strongest Man winner Bill Kazmaier, actor Gregory Itzin from “24”, former Miss Wisconsin winner, Miss USA finalist and Milwaukee TV personality Caitlin Morrall, and perhaps most famously former Dallas Cowboys quarterback and now pretty darn good color commentator Tony Romo; Romo got the nod on the “Welcome to Burlington” signs with the “home of” honors. Romo went to Burlington High School and worked at a State Trunk Tour favorite, Fred’s, as a busboy. Fred’s proclaims itself home to the “World’s Best Burgers,” a tall order indeed. Are they? You’ll have to judge for yourself, but they’re definitely a State Trunk Tour pick!
Fred’s, one of the many places in the world laying claim to its best burger. Judge for yourself, but we can they’re pretty darn good.
The Top Museum in downtown Burlington. Hwys 11, 36, 83 and 142 historically all came together within blocks of here. Spinning tops, yo-yos, and more are the order of the day here.
Downtown along Milwaukee Avenue (“Business” Hwy 36), 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.
Head out of Burlington to the southeast via Pine, State across the Fox River, and then Bushnell Street. Some “To 142” signs help point the way, and the now-official start of Highway 142 takes place at the 2012-built Burlington Bypass interchange, which is today’s Highways 11, 36, and 83. From there, Highway 142 heads through some of the beautiful farmland and rolling hills of southwestern Racine County.
As a bypass, Highways 11, 36, and 83 run under 142 on the east edge of town. Why there’s a bypass, who knows… there’s little traffic on it. We usually recommend going THROUGH the towns, of course!
The farm houses and silos nestle up closely to Highway 142 in many places.
We can’t resist unique mailboxes along these roads, especially if they have a Packers theme.
Burlington and the towns around it lie in a little southwestern “panhandle” of Racine County. Heading east along 142 just a few miles to County J, we cross into Kenosha County, which is technically part of the Chicago metropolitan area by definition. Kenosha is also the fourth-smallest county in Wisconsin by land area; Racine is only a little bigger because of the townships including Burlington.
Winery & Distillery Alert
A little over a mile into the county via 142, County B/288th Avenue brings you to the AeppelTreow Winery & Distillery, which focuses on wine – primarily apple-based – and small-batch hard cider, perry (the”pear analogue to cider”, as they describe), and spirits. They have a Tasting Room inside, an orchard outside, and walking paths to the nearby Bong State Recreation Area.
It’s Bong Time
Right in this area, Highway 142 enters the Richard Bong State Recreation Area. While the name catches many an eye, its history makes it even more interesting. In 1951, this area was designated the site of the Richard Bong Air Force Base – named after famed World War II aviator and Wisconsin native Richard Bong. Over 4,500 acres of prime Wisconsin farm and forest land was claimed to create the base; by 1956, farms were being plowed under and highways were relocated, including today’s Highway 142 and Highway 75.
A 12,900-foot runway and graded, covered with asphalt, and about to be paved with concrete when, in 1960, the base was deemed “no longer needed” and deactivated. The land then sat abandoned, occasionally becoming a hotspot for criminal activity before the state bought the land in 1974 and turned it into Wisconsin’s first “State Recreation Area.” Keeping it named after Richard Bong led to one of the most famous signs in the state, right along I-94.
One of Wisconsin’s prime photo-ops and an inspiration for t-shirts.
Today, these 4,500 acres of managed prairie offer walking, mountain biking, and horse riding trails; ATV sports; hunting, fishing, and camping; bird watching; and even a model airplane flying area right where the original 12,900-foot runway footprint still exists.
You can access the main entrance to the Bong State Recreation Area right off Highway 142. There is an admission fee that varies based upon your residency and planned length of stay; if you have a State Parks admission sticker for the current year, you’re covered.
Just east of the Bong entrance, Highway 142 crosses Highway 75, a short north-south highway. When the Bong AFB was under construction, both roads were closed at this intersection to the west and south; Highway 75 south was rebuilt and opened in 1962, as was the stretch of 142 we just traveled. For several years in the late 1950s and early 1960s, state maps showed how the pending base altered the roads through here – not to mention everything else!
Past Bong, we’re into the gently rolling rich farmlands of Kenosha County again… but we’re also in Paris. That’s the Town of Paris, which was first settled in 1837 and named after settler Seth Myrick’s original hometown of Paris, New York – which we’ll just assume was named after Paris, France. Its main crossroads – minor as they are – lie at the intersection of Highway 142 and U.S. 45.
The last few miles of Highway 142 are filled with bountiful farmland and county crossroads until you reach I-41/94 – and a State Trunk Tour favorite.
Of course, we’re talking about the Mars Cheese Castle. It’s a veritable heaven of so many Wisconsin things: cheese, beer, sausages, fresh bakery, and a gift shop designed to get Illinois residents to part with their money. This popular purveyor of cheeses, meats, hot sauce, bakery, and Wisconsin kick-knacks is a widely recognized landmark on the busy Milwaukee-Chicago corridor, with its iconic sign beckoning travelers.
The newest Mars Cheese Castle building, completed in 2011, finally makes it look like a castle. It didn’t for its first six decades.
Originally opened in 1947 along U.S. 41 and what was Wisconsin Highway 43 (today’s 142), the Mars Cheese Castle catered to travelers in search of a variety of cheeses and other local foods as they entered or left the state. Still a family business, Mario Ventura, Sr. started it up and added on as they could: a deli counter, a sandwich shop, a bakery, a bar, a gift shop… all of these were tacked on to the original building. He and partners built not only a successful travel stop, but a brisk mail-order and later online business, shipping cheese, sausage and other products from Wisconsin to locales all over the country. Their home brand of spreadable cheese is called “King of Clubs”, and a large tub of it with Town House crackers are available for enjoyment at the bar at all times.
Their deli offers an amazing selection of cheeses, sausages, crackers, and other enjoyable consumables; their wine and beer selection is extensive, their gift shop offers every Wisconsin-y thing you could imagine, their market and bakery offers everything from tons of hot sauce selections to kringle; and a State Trunk Tour favorite is a summer sausage sandwich from the deli. The bar even has a “leg lamp” – the kind popularized in the movie A Christmas Story – to add to the atmosphere… the lamps are crafted in Kenosha, after all.
Lots of sustenance awaits you at the eastern end of Highway 142.
Highway 142 ends at I-41/94 now. It didn’t always. Originally, it continued east into Kenosha. Today’s County S and then Washington Avenue are now on 142’s original path. And in that spirit, let’s continue!
Beyond Today’s 142: Kenosha
Kenosha (pop. 99,889), Wisconsin’s fourth largest city. Originally known as Pike and then Southport (a name many businesses still use), Kenosha got its current name in 1850, a descendant name from the original Potawatomi name, Mas-ke-no-zha, meaning “place of the Pike.”
Today, Kenosha just keeps changing. Relying on heavy manufacturing for many, many years, the demise of the American auto industry in the 1970s and 80s took a heavy toll. Kenosha’s economy today hums along, however, buoyed by services and health care. Some manufacturing remains and the area contains headquarters for companies like Jockey International and Snap-On Tools. Proximity to Chicago and Milwaukee make it a handy area for transportation, warehousing and tourism. A recent influx of Chicago-area residents heightens the Packers-Bears tension every autumn. Ancient Kenoshans may recall the local NFL team called the Kenosha Maroons, which played for one season in 1924. You may know them now as the Washington Redskins.
Quickie Summary: Highway 36 once began in Walworth, later in Lake Geneva. Today, the road that was Highway 36 northeast out of Lake Geneva as Highway 120, which runs north to East Troy. Highway 36 begins at Highway 120 about four miles north of Lake Geneva. It winds through the beautiful rolling countryside of Walworth and Waukesha Counties, hitting the “Chocolate City” of Burlington along with Waterford and Muskego on its way into Milwaukee County, where it serves as a major thoroughfare through the suburbs of Franklin and Greendale on its way to connect into the heart of Milwaukee’s south side and the city’s downtown via the freeway system. Lots of little history pieces line the way, and beyond the road at either end there’s plenty of adventure ahead.
Wisconsin Highway 36 Road Trip
The Drive (Southwest to Northeast):
Highway 36 as it ends southbound at Highway 120. Lake Geneva is a left turn and just a few minutes away. Meanwhile, Highway 36 northbound is about to head for 36 miles to Milwaukee.
Through the rural fields of Walworth County, Highway 36 works its way east and north. This area skirts the southern end of Kettle Moraine, which is a hilly section of SE Wisconsin formed when the advancing glaciers stopped – and left hills behind filled with all the stuff they pushed southward.
Burlington (pop. 10,464) started out as a settlement called “Foxville” – for its location along the Fox River – in 1835. A few years later, locals changed the name to Burlington, after the Vermont city many of the recent transplants from New England felt a need to salute (heck, it’s easier to spell than Montpelier.) Railroads came in 1855, and by 1900 Burlington officially became a city, nestled in the southwest corner of Racine County.
Entering Burlington, they make sure you know it’s “Chocolate City.”
Burlington once featured three breweries, including the former Finke-Uhen Brewery along the Fox River; its building is now occupied by the Malt House Theater, whose community theater company (called the “Haylofters“) have been operating since 1932. Three years prior to that – or so they claim – the Burlington Liars’ Club was formed. They celebrate “Fibbing for Fame and Folly” (also alliteration, apparently) and annually hand out an award for “World Champion Liar.” We can’t lie when it comes to chocolate, and the addition of a 1966 Nestle plant gave Burlington the name “Chocolate City, USA.” Every Memorial Day weekend, Chocolate Fest tantalizes taste buds and offers plenty of music and activities. Several notable people hail from Burlington, including three-time World’s Strongest Man winner Bill Kazmaier, actor Gregory Itzin from “24”, former Miss Wisconsin winner and Miss USA finalist and current Milwaukee TV personality Caitlin Morrall, and perhaps most famously Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo; Romo got the nod on the “Welcome to Burlington” signs with the “home of” honors. Romo went to Burlington High School and worked at a State Trunk Tour favorite, Fred’s, as a busboy. Fred’s proclaims itself home to the “World’s Best Burgers,” a tall order indeed. Are they? You’ll have to judge for yourself, but they’re definitely a State Trunk Tour pick!
Fred’s, one of the many places in the world laying claim to its best burger.
The “city version” of Highway 36 runs through town southwest-northeast. Southwest of downtown, it’s primarily State Street and Milwaukee Avenue; northeast, it’s Milwaukee Street. Downtown along Milwaukee Avenue, 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!
Burlington’s Spinning Top & Yo-Yo Museum is right downtown.
“Kringle by the Great Lake to Bluffs by the Great River”
Quickie Summary: State “Trunk” Highway 11 is a key “coast to coast” highway across southern Wisconsin. From Racine’s impressive harbor on Lake Michigan to the bluffs overlooking Dubuque, Iowa across the Mississippi River, Highway 11 weaves through and around key towns and a variety of sights. Along the way you’ll find kringle in Racine, chocolate and yo-yos in Burlington, parks and activities in Janesville, circus history in Delavan, and tons of cheese around Monroe and Shullsburg. It’s a great cross-section of what far southern Wisconsin has to offer.
Wisconsin Highway 11 Road Trip
The Drive (East To West):
Highway 11 begins in Racine (pop. 78,860), just a few hundred yards from Lake Michigan at Highway 32. Racine calls itself the “Belle City” and is Wisconsin’s fifth-largest. The French may have named the city (Racine is French for “root”, after the Root River which flows into Lake Michigan here), but Danish immigrants left the tastiest mark. Racine is known as the “Kringle Capital of the World.” Famous locales like Lehmann’s, O&H, and the Larsen Bakery (located in an area known as Kringleville or Little Denmark) crank out millions of the tasty iced and filled pastries every year and ship them worldwide. You, however, can stop in for a fresh one right there. They’re best that way.
Racine’s industrial and entrepreneurial history now spans three centuries. Home to major companies like J.I. Case and S.C. Johnson, it’s where the garbage disposal was invented in 1927; In-Sink-Erator still calls Racine home. It’s also where malted milk was invented in 1887 by William Horlick, who now has a high school named after him (they do not have a malted milk stand, however, according to my limited research.)
Many cities the size of Racine host minor-league baseball, but Racine hosts minor-league football. The Racine Raiders of the North American Football League are one of the most respected minor-league football organizations in the country and have been around for over 50 years; the won their last championship in 2012. The Raiders have sent players to the NFL over the years, although unfortunately many of them went to the Vikings. They play at Horlick Field, on the north side of town. Their season begins in June, so no frozen tundra talk here.
The acrylic panels on the Racine Art Museum are flooded with different colored lights most evenings, adding an intriguing glow to Main Street.
The Civil War Monument that gives Racine’s Monument Square its name.
Downtown Racine and the Harbor area offer a wealth of sights and things to do. The Racine Art Museum (441 S. Main St.) houses a series of contemporary craft exhibits and street-level displays while the Racine Heritage Museum (701 Main St.) houses a bird collection and other features from Racine’s early days. Monument Square (500 S. Main Street, just off Highway 20’s eastern end) offers a look back – and up – with its 61-foot high Civil War Soldiers Memorial. The Memorial was dedicated in 1884 when it was called Haymarket Square, while also giving a nod to the future with Wi-Fi Internet Access for anyone in the square, perhaps imbibing in a beverage or meal from the surrounding stores. If you’re in the mood for an old-fashioned diner experience and one of the best-rated burgers in the state, by the way, a visit to the Kewpee (520 Wisconsin Ave.) should satisfy you, as it has for Racine residents since the 1920’s.
Tasty little burgers at the Kewpee, an old-school crown jewel in downtown Racine.
Racine’s attention to the lakefront is among the most impressive in the state. Buildings lining downtown streets offer increasingly busy storefronts, but their upper floors also offer sweeping lake views, as do the condos springing up all over the place. The Reefpoint Marina, Festival Park and Pershing Park offer terrific parkland, access to the lake, and fun places to imbibe like the Reefpoint Brew House. Along Main Street (Highway 32 between 20 and 38) you’ll find the Racine Brewing Company, which established its Tap Room in a storefront in 2017.
Annual events include the Racine Boat Show, the Great Lakes Brew Fest, and Salmon-A-Rama (which is fun to say, actually). From April – December, First Fridays bring extra fun, specials, music, displays, and more along the streets of downtown Racine on the first Friday of each month.
Downtown Racine along 6th Street, where Highways 20 & 32 go past a series of shops, restaurants, galleries and cafes. Highway 11 is just to the south.
Other things to see in Racine include the Johnson Wax Golden Rondelle (1525 Howe Street) and the adjacent Johnson Wax Research Tower, both at the headquarters of S.C. Johnson. The Wind Point Lighthouse(4725 Lighthouse Drive, Wind Point), one of the oldest (1880) and tallest (108 feet) lighthouses on the Great Lakes; and the Racine Zoo (2131 N. Main Street, about 1.5 miles north of downtown), which offers an impressive array of over 75 species of animals – overlooks the lake and offers its “Animal Crackers Jazz Series” on Wednesday and Selected Sunday evenings.
Highway 11 starts at this intersection with Highway 32 on Racine’s south side. Just past the train lines and a berm is Lake Michigan.
Heading west on today’s start to Highway 11 means running through neighborhoods on Racine’s south side. Plenty of cool stuff lies ahead.
Meanwhile, as Durand Avenue, Highway 11 works its way west through Racine’s south side residential neighborhoods and heads for the western ‘burb of Sturtevant (pop. 6,970). Known for its key Amtrak stop along the Hiawatha line between Milwaukee and Chicago, which is north along Highway 20, Sturtevant is emerging from a crossroads town to a bigger city on the map, in large part now due to the new FoxConn development. That runs along Highway 11 for over a mile.
On the west side of Sturtevant – and the new FoxConn development campus – Highway 11 has an interchange (as Exit 335) with I-94/I-41, the main north-south freeway connecting Chicago and Milwaukee. You may see small-craft planes taking off or landing at nearby Sylvania Airport or head south slightly along the freeway’s east frontage road to the former campus of the University of Lawsonomy. Remember seeing the sign for it along the highway? Well, Lawsonomy is the outgrowth of the writings of William Alfred Lawson (1869-1954), whose philosophy, Lawsonomy, is “defined as the knowledge of life and everything pertaining hereto. Lawson was a professional baseball player, aviation pioneer and author of a slew of books. While his credibility has been called into question – or shredded – by many and the University only on the Internet now, it did have something akin to a campus just south of Highway 11 along I-94/I-41. Here’s what it looked like around 1994; any will remember that long “University of Lawsonomy” sign!
Past I-94/41, Highway 11 heads west through southern Racine County and some of the most fertile farm fields in the nation. Before long, we reach the town where the hyper, deep-voiced echoes of “Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!” beckon. That’s because it’s close to the widely-known “Great Lakes Dragaway, Union Grove, Wisconsin!”
Union Grove (pop. 4,915) is a pleasant little town along Highway 11, where U.S. 45 intersects. The Dragaway, due to all its hard-to-forget radio commercials over the years, is how many have become familiar with Union Grove over the years.
Union Grove hosts the annual Racine County Fair. It has an interesting history: the “Union” in its name comes from an early school that brought together students from a number of different schools; the “Grove” came early Wisconsin Governor Dodge who combined the school’s name with a nearby grove of burr oak trees. In 1919, the interestingly-named “Southern Wisconsin Home for the Feeble-Minded” opened. The town has been hit by tornadoes by 1954 and 2010 – when it hit in November, a true rarity.
The aforementioned Great Lakes Dragaway is a quarter mile dragstrip located just south of Highway 11 along County KR, the east-west road running the Kenosha-Racine County line (hence the county road letters.) Opened in 1955, it’s the oldest continuously operating dragstrip in the country, is open for more dates than any other track in the U.S., and was voted the “Most historically significant dragstrip in the United States” by readers of BangShift, a blog dedicated to drag racing. Even in winter months, you’ll find snowmobile drags.
Just off Highway 11:
Further west through Racine County, you pass about two miles north of the funniest-named park in Wisconsin, the Bong Recreation Area. Originally slated to be the Bong Air Force Base in the 1950s to protect Milwaukee and Chicago from attack by Soviet bombers, construction began in 1956 but was abandoned in 1959 when officials decided it wasn’t needed. A 12,900-foot runway was three days from being paved with concrete when construction was halted; its footprint remains today. The base sat in disuse for many years and it became a hotbed for gangs and criminal activity. By 1974, the State of Wisconsin bought the land and turned it into a massive state recreation area filled with options of things to do. Today, the Bong Recreation Area offers 16 miles of hiking trails, off-road biking trails, camping, hunting, cross-country skiing, sledding, and more. The presence of Wolf Lake means swimming and a 200-foot beach with a bath house, along with boating.
To get there, head south from Highway 11 via Highway 75 at the small crossroads of Kansasville, then access the park via Highway 142. For simplicity’s sake, you can just follow the soon-to-be-disappointed hippie vans misinterpreting what “Bong Recreation Area” means. The park-that-was-almost-an-air-force-base’s namesake is Richard Ira Bong (yes, “Dick Bong”), the United States’ highest-scoring air ace and Medal of Honor recipient during World War II. Along with the recreation area, Bong has one of the bridges in northwestern Wisconsin from Superior to Duluth (the one carrying U.S. 2) named after him, as well as a bridge in Townsville, Australia, an Air and Operations Center on Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, and even a theatre in Misawa, Japan.
The last main city in Racine County along Highway 11 is Burlington (pop. 10,485), 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 36, 83, and 142 intersect with or near Highway 11 here — much of it on the new bypass. But on the State Trunk Tour, we go INTO town.
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’s Top Museum is one of several unique places to visit downtown. “Business” Highway 11 goes through here.
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. 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?
Fred’s in Burlington, famous for their burgers. They play up the Tony Romo thing, too.
West of Burlington, the bypass merges back with the original route and Highway 11 heads across the countryside as a two-lane beeline through farm fields. The only real place to have to stop is a 4-way stop at the junction with Highway 120 in Springfield Corners. To the north is East Troy and Alpine Valley; to the south you can access Lake Geneva. But here on Highway 11, we continue west to the Walworth county seat, which continues below.
That seat is Elkhorn (pop. 7,305), named during the founding years by Colonel Sam Phoenix when he spied some elk antlers in a tree. Ten years later by 1846, Elkhorn was designated the Walworth county seat; five years later, it started hosting the Walworth County Fair, one of the largest and oldest in the state (the grounds host a popular flea market four times a year too, which draws over 500 vendors.) The historic Webster House Museum, just south of downtown, showcases the home of the famous 19th century composer Joseph Webster and offers a great look at life and original items from the mid-1800s.
U.S. 12 skirts the east and northern sides of Elkhorn as a freeway before merging into Highway 67, which is the main north-south route through town. Highway 11 is the main east-west street; it ducks under U.S. 12 but meets up with Highway 67 in a lovely town square.
The First National Bank building in Elkhorn. It’s doesn’t go very deep.
Highway 11 ducks south and west around the Walworth County Courthouse and past a series of downtown buildings, including the facade of the First National Bank. Yes, it’s just the facade; the bank itself is gone, but you’re free to step through the doorway into the grassy little park. It would be funny, however, if some pens were chained to a park bench in there somewhere for that true bank feel.
Highway 11 heads around Courthouse Square in Elkhorn. Plenty of shops, restaurants and bars, and theatre, and more help make the town bustle.
Highway 11 goes through Delavan, home to Andes Candies and those incredible mints.
The proximity of I-43 means for a brief stretch Highway 11 is less of a main road from Elkhorn west to Delavan (pop. 7,956), so enjoy the ride. Now, a key theme along Highway 11 might be chocolate: not only is Burlington “Chocolate City USA”, but in Delavan they make those delicious Andes Candies.
Delavan is the native home of Gary Berghoff (Radar O’Reilly on M*A*S*H) and historically a circus town: it’s the original home to P.T. Barnum’s “Greatest Show On Earth” (P.T. stood for Phineas Taylor, in case you were curious) and from 1847-1895 about 26 circus companies made their headquarters here. A 12-year-old runaway named Harry Houdini stayed in a livery stable in Delavan’s Park Hotel, along Highway 11 on the west side of town. Also on the west side of Delavan lies the site for Wisconsin’s first School for the Deaf, the marker for which is right on Highway 11 just past County X, the former Highway 15 route.
From Delavan, Highway 11 traverses some forested areas before hitting the relatively wide-open farmland past the junction with Highway 89 – where U.S. 14 joins 11 for the ride west – and into Rock County. You’ll pass, as I noticed, a farm called Happy Holstein Heaven, which claims to be the home of “happy cows”, a claim Californians will want to debate using their cheese commercials. But who cares what they think?
It’s a fast ride to Janesville (pop. 60,483), the “City of Parks.” Major companies founded in Janesville include Parker Pen and Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance, neither of which are headquartered in the city anymore. Janesville does host playground equipment maker Swing N Slide, now a subsidiary of Playcore, Inc., Blain’s Farm & Fleet (a store you see many times on the State Trunk Tour), and Gray’s Brewing Company, of which more will be divulged shortly. Well before you reach the city, the U.S. Highway 14 route leaves, as it’s ducked around the north and east sides of Janesville since 1952. Highway 11 then turns west to meet I-39/90 and technically winds south of town on a bypass.
The solid line is Highway 11’s original City route; the dashed line is today’s bypass. Go through the city! (Click on the map for a live Google map version.)
Highway 11’s city route into Janesville – as Racine Street, in salute of the road’s eastern origin – goes past a number of lovely parks and it descends toward the Rock River and downtown.
Highway 11 traditionally went through the heart of Janesville. Today, officially Highway 11 heads around the south end of Janesville by following I-39/90 south about two miles and then runs around the southwest side of town, meeting up with the traditional Highway 11 just west of the city. It saves a good 5-10 minutes, so if time is a factor, by all means, use it. If you want the full Janesville experience, read on below:
Following Highway 11’s traditional route through Janesville, stay on the route past the I-39/90 interchange into town. You come in on Racine Street, past Palmer Park and into the downtown area. After crossing the Rock River, the “traditional” Highway 11 turns northwest on Franklin Street, along what was also former U.S. Highway 14, as indicated by “City” U.S. 14 signs that have been up since the 1950s
This old U.S. 14 sign has been up since the 1940s, even though they built a bypass for U.S. 14 around Janesville in the early 1950s. We hope they keep it posted!
At Court Street, you jog to the right briefly into the main downtown area (demarcated by actual multi-story buildings) before jogging back west (doing a U-turn) along Milwaukee Street for the ride westerly out of town. For a little while, streets are one-way. After crossing U.S. Highway 51, the former Highway 11 is a two-way street as Court Street.
Janesville is the home of former Senator Russ Feingold, Representative and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (not exactly two peas in a pod), race car driver Stan Fox, even WNBA Houston Comets player Mistie Williams, daughter of Chubby Checker. Janesville hosted Wisconsin’s first state fair in 1851 on a site just south of downtown, which still holds a series of impressive, expansive older homes. Janesville is the county seat of Rock County and the largest on the Rock River, with the exception of Rockford, Illinois. Janesville’s a bit of a brewing town, too: on the west side lies the aforementioned Gray’s Brewing, crafter of numerous award-winning brews. They’ve even been making cream sodas since 1856. The brewery offers tours on Saturdays and samples in their Tasting Room, located at 2424 W. Court Street/City Highway 11.
Gray’s has been crafting beer and a variety of cream sodas in Janesville since 1856.
Janesville hosted the first Wisconsin State Fair in 1851. No word on how much cream puffs cost back then.
Janesville’s “skyline” – to put it fairly loosely – looms along the river to the south and a series of city streets lined with historic buildings await, especially in the Courthouse District. Homes like Lovejoy Mansion (pictured below) and the Merrill-Nowlan House are registered historic places; the Lovejoy Mansion held the local YMCA’s offices for a while.
Nearby St. Lawrence Avenue, which parallels the river and runs through the Courthouse District, overlooks downtown; lovely old mansions line the street for a good distance.
Once Highway 11’s new, bypass route and the original route come together again west of Janesville, it becomes the primary highway along the southern tier of Wisconsin. The land starts to have more hills and a series of towns come along… some of which Highway 11 skirts, others it’s the main street through. For example, 11 skims the edge of Footville (pop. 788), which bills itself as “Friendly Footville”.
State Trunk Tour Tidbit:
Footville holds the distinction of being the first community in the United States to have a lighted baseball diamond, which it built in 1931. It would be four more years before the first night game was played in Major League Baseball.
As you can see in many towns where railroads once dominated, tracks can sometimes simply disappear as they approach former train and freight stations. An active line still serves Orfordville, but many of the spurs are no longer used.
Continuing the “ville” theme – after Janesville and Footville – Highway 11 reaches Orfordville (pop. 1,442). where the town center is just south along Highway 213, once part of Highway 13 from Beloit to Superior prior to 1961.
The town was originally called just “Orford” after a New Hampshire town, but it kept getting confused with Oxford, a town about 100 miles north. So, they made it “Orfordville.” You’ll see some cool old original buildings, from the old train depot to an original 1930s gas station to the charming little Orfordville Public Library, which looks more like a house. And we’re okay with that.
This rather nice throwback scene features a 1930s-era Studebaker pickup in a typical ’30s setting – a gas station. Today, the building is a pottery studio; no word on whether the pickup runs or if the gas is still a 1930s-era 15 cents per gallon.
The Orfordville Public Library, along the small downtown strip on Highway 213, just blocks south of Highway 11.
Past Orfordville, Highway 11 enters Green County and runs through the heart of Brodhead (pop. 3,293). At this point you’re about halfway between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River, as indicated by an old Native American historic marker on what’s called Half-Way Tree. What is now Highway 11 was once part of a long, “coast-to-coast” foot trail going back many hundreds of years. Another, current trail, begins in Brodhead: the Sugar River Trail is a limestone-surfaced rail-to-trail conversion that runs from Brodhead to New Glarus, 23 miles away. Designated as a National Recreation Trail by the National Park Service, the Sugar River features replicas of covered bridges, plenty of cool rock outcroppings to look at, and abundant wildlife, including over 100 species of birds. The Sugar River itself has proved quite an asset to the community over time: around 1900, “pearling” in the Sugar River proved lucrative as dealers bought and sold thousands of dollars’ worth of pearls from the river. The river’s flow also allowed Brodhead to be one of the first towns in the nation to generate electricity from water power.
Brodhead has a nicely developed town for a city its size and offers a look back in its Historical Depot Museum, which features a caboose and locomotive on display as well as sundry artifacts of the old days. Located in the old Wells Fargo Depot, the adjacent rail line remains active through town. If you want to stop and enjoy some go-karting, theSugar River Racewayjust might be the place for you. Opened in 1959, it’s a half-mile asphalt course with plenty of turns – some of which have a 15-degree banking!
** Quick Cheesy Side Trip: Decatur Dairy **
Just west of Broadhead via County F off Highway 11, a great side trip for cheese is at Decatur Dairy (W1668 County Road F, Brodhead, 608-897-8661), one of the great stops in Green County for fresh cheese, made at the source. Decatur is a combination cheese factory and store, making many traditional cheese varieties you know and love while also developing some unique signature cheeses of their own. Operating since the 1940s, Decatur Dairy sells its fresh cheeses and will cook you up a killer grilled cheese sandwich there, too. Decatur Dairy has won quite a few awards at the U.S. and World Cheese Contests and always makes a splash at the Wisconsin State Fair. Definitely a good cheese stop! You can double back on F to Brodhead to reach Highway 11, or follow County OK west and south to meet up with Highway 11 a few miles further west.
Just past Brodhead, Highway 81 comes in from Beloit and joins Highway 11 for an increasingly hilly and scenic ride. Another great cheese shop in Green County, the Maple Leaf Cheese Store, is right along Highway 11/81 in Juda, a small unincorporated community that formed along the railroad tracks that cross here.
Continuing west, Highway 11/81 begins to widen into a 4-lane expressway as you approach Green County’s seat, Monroe.
*** BYPASS ALERT ***
At Monroe, Highway 11 bypasses the city on a short freeway stretch that opened back in 1981; but if you want this to be an actual fun experience, get off at the first exit (Highway 59) and follow it as 6th Street into downtown Monroe. On the west side of town you can join Highway 69 northbound for a few blocks to re-join Highway 11 on the western end of the bypass.
Monroe (pop. 10,843) is the hub of Green County and the “Swiss Cheese Capital of the USA.” Monroe High School’s team nickname is the Cheesemakers, after all. The Swiss influence is everywhere, from the flags dotting the surrounding landscape to the architecture downtown to the fact that The Swiss Colony is headquartered here. Monroe also features medical center The Monroe Clinic and truck customization company Monroe Truck Equipment, which did a project for the movie The Transformers a few years back. It serves as the trailhead city for the popular Cheese Country Trail, which runs 47 miles from Monroe to Mineral Point. It’s also a major stop along the Badger State Trail, which runs from Madison through Monroe to Freeport, Illinois – which means it’s not all in the Badger State.
The Green County Courthouse in Monroe, surrounded by a bustling town square. Highway 81 used to come straight through town with Highway 11; it now angles around on the freeway bypass and heads northwest from the city. But you should definitely check out downtown.
Downtown Monroe offers a charming and rather bustling downtown square. Surrounding the impressive, Romanesque Green County Courthouse, are shops offering everything from boutique clothing to electronics. A stop in Baumgartner’s on the Square (1023 16th Ave., 608-325-6157) lets you sample more cheese and beer products made in the area, including a Limburger with mustard and onion served on rye bread. In the name of humanity, the dish is served with a mint on the side.
Baumgartner’s is a cheese and sausage shop in the front, tavern and sandwich shop in the back. On the high ceiling above, check out the dollar bills hanging from the ceiling – which almost look like hibernating bats if you’re not looking closely! If you give them a dollar, they’ll use their special technique to “throw” it into the ceiling, where they’ll stick until Cheese Days every other year, when they take the bills down and donate them to a chosen charitable organization in the area. It’s worth the buck to watch it happen!
State Trunk Tour Tidbit:
Monroe is the only place in North America where limburger cheese is currently produced. Wisconsin law makes it tough: it’s actually illegal to produce this cheese without a master cheesemaker’s certification.
Another good stop is the Minhas Craft Brewery, (1208 14th Ave., 608-325-3191), located just south and west of the town center. For a long time known as the Huber Brewery, it’s the second oldest continuously operating brewery in the U.S, brewing beer in one form or another since 1845 – three years before Wisconsin entered statehood. They were purchased by Mountain Crest Brewing Company, a Canadian outfit planning that expanded the Monroe facility (read about it in a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story here). As it stands now, the brewery continues to brew Huber’s traditional beers: Premium (which won the Bronze in the 2002 World Beer Championships) Bock and Light, as well as a great old non-Huber-but-totally-Wisconsin throwback: Rhinelander Beer. Although Rhinelander’s original brewery shut down in 1967, Minhas has continued its recipe and now brews the beer in Monroe. The popular Canadian beer Mountain Creek is now brewed here – a result of the Mountain Crest investment – as are a few malt liquors. Tours are available at 11am, 1pm and 3pm Thursday through Saturday.
Downstairs, the Herb & Helen Haydock World of Beer Memorabilia Museum features historic and modern beer brand memorabilia from all over the country; it’s definitely worth dropping in! There’s also a gift shop and they’ve kept historical pictures to browse, along with other memorabilia highlighting the area’s brewing history.
Monroe is also the home headquarters of the famous mail-order company (and prime source of cheese, meats, nuts and more) The Swiss Colony, which started here in 1926. The main building is right along Highway 69 on the south side on Monroe.
Out of downtown, heading south briefly via Highway 69 from 11 brings you to the Monroe Depot Welcome Center, part of Monroe’s original train depot. Outside, you’ll find the charm of a train station, a fiberglass cow and some large copper kettles. Inside, you’ll find visitor information, the National Historic Cheesemaking Center, which has plenty of old tools cheesemakers used dating back to the 19th century, and original train depot materials, including old schedules, an original bench, photos and more.
At lower left, an original typewriter and schedule from the days way back when the trains roared through here as part of the Depot Welcome Center; at lower right, some of the cheesemaking equipment in the National Historic Cheesemaking Center, which is part of the Depot. Plenty of vats, weights, wringers, presses and old packaging that held cheeses made back in the 1800s.
From Monroe, you can jump back on today’s Highway 11. Highway 81 breaks away northwest towards Argyle and Darlington.
The rest of Highway 11 west of Monroe features a lot of rolling hills, exposed rock formations and historic mining towns.
Meanwhile, Highway 11 barrels through rural Green County, past the Browntown-Cadiz Springs Recreation Area and a funny little street called Smock Valley Road past Browntown (pop. 252) and into Lafayette County.
Just inside Lafayette County, the Pecatonica River runs along Highway 11 for a while – as does the Cheese Country Trail – into South Wayne (pop. 484). They originally called the town “Collins” but changed after realizing another Collins, Wisconsin existed. They then wanted use “Wayne” in honor of Revolutionary War Hero “Mad” Anthony Wayne, but since there was a community already called “Wayne” in northeastern Wisconsin the town changed its named to “South Wayne”. Ironically, the township surrounding is called “Wayne” (complicated, no?)
Next up is Gratiot (pop. 252), where you briefly look up with Highway 78. For bikers, hikers, ATV riders and snowmobilers, this is where the Cheese Country Trail stops paralleling Highway 11 and starts heading northwest to Mineral Point. Several bars and establishments and a nice park serve those recreational riders and State Trunk Tourers. A brief but good diversion to the south can be found in the form of Pecatonica Beer Company, which has its offices right there in Gratiot but its Tap Room a few miles south via Highway 78, just over the border in Warren, Illinois. We declare it worth it!
State Trunk Tour Tidbit:
Abner Frank Dalrymple, the first Major League Baseball player to get an intentional walk with the bases loaded (1881 with the Chicago White Stockings), was born in Gratiot in 1857.
The Cheese Country Trail (left) parallels Highway 11 pretty closely from Monroe to Gratiot. Features include railroad trestles (somewhat visible in this shot) and abundant wildlife, along with the occasional sound of trucks rumbling by on the nearby highway.
Gratiot, where 236 residents and several watering holes host Cheese Country Trail recreationalists and State Trunk Tourers using Highway 78 and/or 11. This view is northbound on 78 looking toward the intersection with Highway 11.
A wider, flatter stretch greets you west of Gratiot, although the area’s hilly topography is visible on either side for miles. On a clear day, Platteville Mound (which features a massive “M” – in fact, the world’s largest – on its southwest slope) can be seen… and it’s at least 15 miles away. Here, you intersect with the southern start of Highway 23, which runs north through the Driftless Area up to the Dells and then east to Sheboygan. Two major State Trunk Tour routes intersect in what is essentially the middle of nowhere. But, it doesn’t stay that way for long.
Just outside Shullsburg, some moos chill out in a stream and enjoy some soft, tender grasses. They didn’t mind getting their picture taken, although I did feel bad when I had my burger later on…
The next town up is Shullsburg (pop. 1,246), an old lead mining town that has preserved its older buildings well. The Badger Mine and Museum (279 W. Estey Street, 608-965-4860) features exhibits on lead mining, cheesemaking and lets you tour a more recent mine. The Brewster Hotel sign is an interesting artifact: check out the bullet holes from a 1927 robbery by Chicago mobsters. Plenty of food, stores, scenery, history and quaintness awaits.
Looking down Water Street in Shullsburg, now a National Historic Landmark. Filled with antique shops, boutiques, historic guest rooms and places to imbibe in food and beverage.
A dense cluster of downtown buildings and some narrow streets and pathways give Shullsburg a cozy feel, especially with the surrounding hills. Highway 11 grazes past Shullsburg, which is why turning off at County U or Water Street is a good idea. The Shullsburg Creamery is right along Water Street; also recommended is Frank’s Place, in salute of Ol’ Blue Eyes himself. Elsewhere in the state, you’ll see trucks hauling Shullsburg Cheese products all over.
Shullsburg’s old high school is an attractive stone building and an excellent example of why their high school team name is the “Miners.”
The area around Shullsburg along this stretch of Highway 11 is the heart of Wisconsin’s Lead Mining Region, which is probably why the state chose to put the commemoration marker here.
Evidence of the lead mining past is notable not just on highway markers, but in place names. Remember this as you go through the Town of New Diggings and the village of Lead Mine. Next up is Benton (pop. 998), which bills itself as the “Mining Capital of Wisconsin.” Highly respected pioneer priest Father Samuel Mazzuchelli, who came to the area from Italy in the 1830s, is buried in Benton. He was declared Venerable by Pope John Paul II in 1993, and possible Sainthood is pending, which would make his gravesite in Benton a national shrine. Benton was originally called Cottonwood Hill in salute of the dominant local tree.
On a clear day, Platteville Mound is visible to the north, on the horizon past the farm fields. It’s 15-20 miles away. (Click on the picture at left for a larger view).
Right into Grant County, Highway 11 meets up with Highway 80 and heads south into Hazel Green (pop. 1,183), which calls itself the “Point of Beginning.” Hazel Green hosts a number of bed & breakfasts and antique stores and served, in the 1800s, as lodging for land surveyors. In downtown Hazel Green, Highway 11 breaks west, with Sinsinawa Mound, a dominant local landform, visible just to the south.
Sinsinawa (not to be confused with how a little kid – or Gilda Radner’s SNL impression of Barbara Walters from the 1970s – pronounces “Cincinnati”) Mound.
High bluffs and steep hills as you approach the Mississippi River means some cool, dramatic rock cuts, like this one on Highway 11 just east of its western terminus near Dubuque.
You can sense the approaching Mississippi River as the landforms get increasingly hilly. Highway 11 comes to end as it crosses Highway 35 and then intersects with U.S. Highway 61 & 151, fresh into Wisconsin from Dubuque. Highway 11 officially ends as a Wisconsin Welcome Area rest stop, which is not a bad place to stop and rest (the view of Dubuque, Iowa from the hill is quite nice) before heading elsewhere.
Highway 11 ends as it approaches U.S. 61 & 151, just in from Dubuque, Iowa. A rest stop is ahead; Dubuque and the Ole Miss are less than one mile south on the freeway. Highways 35, 61 and 151 offer much adventure heading northbound.
Where you’ve been: looking back east along Highway 11’s western start towards Hazel Green, with Sinsinawa Mound visible in the distance.
Highway 11 is a great southern tier coast-to-coast tour of far southern Wisconsin. From Racine’s Lake Michigan coast, kringle, and busy downtown to the beautiful bluffs overlooking Dubuque, Iowa from Wisconsin’s Mississippi River shore, you can enjoy tiny burgs, charming town squares, breweries, cheese factories, historic buildings and sites, beautiful landscapes, and more. And Illinois stays just far enough away (we kid, we kid!)
CONNECTIONS: Eastern Terminus: Can connect immediately to:Highway 32 Can connect nearby to:Highway 20, about one mile north; Highway 38, about two miles north; Highway 31, about 4 miles west.
Western Terminus: Can connect immediately to: Highway 35, U.S. 61/151 Can connect nearby to:Highway 80, about 5 miles east