26

STH-026“O-town to J-ville”

 

WisMap26Quickie Summary: State “Trunk” Highway 26 is becoming an increasingly major feeder route between Oshkosh and Janesville. A primary route through and around towns like Waupun, Juneau, Watertown, Jefferson, Fort Atkinson and Milton, Highway 26 and its “Business” routes take you through a lot of “main streets,” lets you find the first kindergarten in the nation, brings you right past an actual Underground Railroad stop from the 1850s, offers dinner theatre of Broadway caliber, and access to burgers at old-fashioned drive-ins and amazingly tiny stands… all while providing access to outlet mall shopping, high-speed alternate routes and other major routes in the state.

Wisconsin Highway 26 Road Trip

The Drive (North To South):

Oshkosh

Highway 26 starts just outside of Oshkosh at I-41. Start by checking out Oshkosh (pop. 66,083) itself, Wisconsin’s eighth largest city (it’s about the same size as Janesville, Eau Claire, and Waukesha.) Oshkosh is still probably best known for it’s OshKosh B’Gosh overalls, which started getting manufactured in the city in 1895. Today they’re made elsewhere, but the corporate offices remain. Other major companies in the area include Oshkosh Truck, Bemis, and some chocolate makers like Hughes and Oaks. UW-Oshkosh is the third largest campus in the UW system with over 13,000 students, and their presence is felt through the downtown area (especially on Friday and Saturday nights.) UW-Oshkosh has some interesting accolades: it was recognized as the first “Fair Trade” university in the country in 2008, and in 2011 it was ranked “Best for Vets” in Wisconsin by Military Times EDGE Magazine (36th in the nation) and 35th nationally in Sierra magazine’s “Cool Schools” survey.

Oshkosh lies along Lake Winnebago, right where the Fox River empties into it from the west. Roughly 30 miles long and 10 miles wide, Lake Winnebago is the largest lake in the nation that lies entirely within one state. Most days from Oshkosh, you can see across the lake to the bluffs that form part of the Niagara Escarpment on the eastern shore. Rather shallow (average depth is about 15 feet), the lake is very popular for swimming and boating, and definitely for fishing at all times of the year. Shallow waters make for fast ice freezes in winter; the city and surrounding towns on the lake often plow roads on the surface; among the most popular fishing times is February, during spearfishing season for sturgon. On the northwest side of Oshkosh is Lake Butte des Morts, an 8,800 acre lake that was largely created by damming the Fox River near Menasha in the 19th century. Like Winnebago, Butte des Morts is shallow and very popular for fishing. The size of the lake necessitated a causeway for U.S. 41 to cross it in the 1950s; a newer, higher bridge opened in 2013 to accommodate heavier traffic flow as U.S. 41 became I-41 while also freeing up water flow that the old causeway had been interrupting for decades. “Butte des Morts” itself means “Hill of the Dead” in French; early explorers gave the name in reference to a nearby Native American burial mound.

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Downtown Oshkosh, featuring the Civil War Monument. And yes, this is as high as the skyline gets.

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Downtown Oshkosh features a number of interesting buildings and landmarks, including the Grand Opera House (100 High Avenue, 920-424-2350). The first fat lady sang there in 1883 and it was an early addition (1974) to the National Register of Historic Places. A refurbishment was completed in 2010 and today the Grand Opera House seats 600 and hosts a variety of events. Other notables include the Paine Art Center & Gardens (1410 Algoma Blvd., 920-235-6903), which has a beautiful botanical garden area and features events all year; the Oshkosh Public Museum (1331 Algoma Blvd., 920-236-5799) features exhibitions and permanent attractions like the 8-foot-tall Apostles’ Clock from 1895, an interactive exhibit called Grandma’s Attic, and more, all housed in a Tiffany Studios-designed home built in 1908. The Military Veterans Museum (4300 Poberezny Road, 920-426-8615) sits just north of where Highway 26 begins at I-41 and houses an impressive collection of military vehicles, artifacts, and more.

Heading southwest out of the city, you approach Highway 26 by taking Highway 44 south to I-41, and then 41 south to where 26 begins (a little over two miles south). Along the way, you pass Wittman Regional Airport, which opened in 1927. Wittman is normally fairly quiet but becomes the world’s busiest airport for one week during the EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) Fly-In every July.

From I-41 right by Wittman Field, Highway 26 heads southwest out of the Oshkosh area, barreling through farmland into Fond du Lac County and Rosendale (pop. 923), noted mainly for its intersection with Highway 23 and the local police enthusiasm for writing speeding tickets – so watch your speed going through town!

Further south, Highway 26 hooks up with U.S. Highway 151, where it becomes a freeway for just over a mile before breaking off and heading into the first major town past Oshkosh, Waupun (pop. 10,718). Long known for holding Wisconsin’s primary state prison, Waupun is also billed the “City of Sculptures”, being the home of famous sculptor Clarence Shaler and a series of his works. Sculptures like End of the Trail, Who Sows Believes In God, Dawn of Day, and Morning of Life grace the city in various parks and streetsides. Waupun also serves as a northwestern gateway to the Horicon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge. The Marsh Haven Center, just east on Highway 49, is a nature education center offering hiking paths and an observation tower at the edge of the Marsh itself.

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Highway 49 cuts through the heart of Waupun as the main street, still cutting the county line; Dodge County is to the south, Fond du Lac County is to the north. Highway 26 is the main north-south crossroad.

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Throughout the city, the sculptures show up to greet you. This one above is called The Citadel.

Waupun has held Wisconsin’s primary state prison site since 1851, when it was selected due to its “proximity to transportation and readily available building materials in the area”, according to the Department of Corrections’ historical site. Back in the day, Wisconsin’s justice system was considered so efficient, a popular chant in Milwaukee was once “crime on Sunday, Waupun on Monday”, indicating that infractions would be met with swift action. This was before a lot more lawyers showed up. The Wisconsin Historical Society page on the Waupun Correctional Facility reports that in 1878, sales of the goods manufactured by the prisoners produced enough revenue to run the prison without drawing from the state’s treasury. Wouldn’t that be nice now? You can find the State Prison south of Highway 49 along Madison Street, also known as County M.

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South Cell Hall was originally built in the 1850s; its walls still stand today.

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These are the walls in the question, built in the 1850s, that still stand today.

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The prison’s history makes it an easy candidate for the State Register of Historic Places.

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Another civic building in Waupun, featuring yet another statue in its front yard – this one is west along 49 a bit from 26 (click to enlarge).

Highway 26 runs through Waupun, just west of the U.S. 151 bypass before crossing it again and making a beeline south into the heart of Dodge County. The Wild Goose State Trail, a 34-mile rail-to-trail right-of-way from Fond du Lac to Clyman Junction, runs just to the east and there are many access points along the way. Minnesota Junction (which, ironically, doesn’t look that much like Minnesota at all) provides a junction with Highway 33 and, shortly thereafter, Dodge County Airport. From there, it’s a short hop into Dodge’s county seat, Juneau (pop. 2,485). Juneau the city has nothing to do, ironically, with Juneau County… that lies about 60 miles to the west. It’s not named after Milwaukee’s first mayor Solomon Juneau either, but rather his son Paul, whose mother (and Solomon’s wife) Josette was the daughter of a local Indian chief. Juneau itself hosts the Dodge County Courthouse and several nice parks. Highway 26 goes through the heart of town and has a brief jog west before heading south again out of town.

After a brief junction with Highway 60, which joins Highway 26 for about one mile, Highway 16 joins Highway 26 for the ride past Clyman (pop. 388) towards Watertown. It’s pretty much open land for this section, but it’s worth checking out Dickie Lee’s Whacky Shack (920-696-3563) for a bite or beverage and some good immature humor.

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Methinks there’s a double entendre in this business establishment’s name along Highway 26 near Clyman, but maybe it’s just me.

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Perhaps part of an old gas station, this charming little sight is just north of Watertown along Highway 26 while it’s joined with Highway 16 in Dodge County. It may have been moved since the expansion to four lanes, we’re checking.

Highway 16 breaks off as a bypass to the southeast and Highway 26’s mainline begins a bend around western Watertown (pop. 21,598), which is actually the largest city along Highway 26 between its two terminal cities of Oshkosh and Janesville. We follow the traditional city route, so use “Business” 26 into the heart of town. Otherwise, there’s not much to experience!

Watertown was the second-largest city in the state back in 1855 and launched the first kindergarten in 1856. It can be found – and toured – on the grounds of the Octagon House, an 1854 structure built by one of the city’s founders, John Richards, to fulfill a promise to his sweetheart (he promised to built her the finest house in Wisconsin Territory if she would marry him. This was before the days of just using a stadium message board to ask.) The “water” in Watertown comes from the Rock River, which winds through the city.

Heading into downtown Watertown, crossing into Jefferson County, you reach an intersection with Highway 19. Downtown is to the east a few blocks on Highway 19 (aka Main Street) and is fairly extensive, featuring a number of shops and late 1800s-era buildings. A nice stop is Mullen’s Dairy Bar, a throwback malt shop-type place that opened in 1931. An aggressive Main Street program is paying off and walking around, back and forth over the Rock River, is a great way to stretch your legs as you check out everything from clothing stores to taverns and historic bank buildings. The “water” in Watertown indeed comes from the Rock River, which winds through the city. Twice.

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Amid a typical Wisconsin middle-class neighborhood on the southeast side of Watertown lies the historic Octagon House, built in 1854 to fulfill a whipped guy’s promise.

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In case you want detail on the historic marker…

A left from 26 onto Highway 19/Business 16 brings you to the Main Street in Watertown. The city’s downtown is fairly extensive and features a number of shops, along with Mullen’s Dairy Bar, a great throwback malt shop-type place that opened in 1931. An aggressive Main Street program is paying off and walking around, back and forth over the Rock River, is a great way to stretch your legs as you check out everything from clothing stores to taverns and historic bank buildings.

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Up for a malt, ice cream or other sweet concoction from an old-fashioned, authentic soda fountain place? Mullen’s Dairy Bar in downtown Watertown offers items for your taste buds and cool items to look at from the store’s early days.

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The main drag in Watertown, which is Highway 19 – and was U.S. 16 until 1962. Today, this section is also “Business” Highway 16. Highway 26’s original route cuts right through on the west edge of the downtown strip; the bypass today is a little over a mile further west.

Heading south from Watertown, Highway 26’s mainline meets the original road again at speeds southward seven miles to a major crossroads in the form of I-94. At the junction with the Interstate, which will only get more congested in the future, is a sprawling complex of development: the Johnson Creek Outlet Mall, truck stops, an array of restaurants, big-box stores and a multiplex movie theater are all rapidly making this a focal point for shoppers in Jefferson County and beyond.

The apex is part of rapidly-growing Johnson Creek (pop. 2,012), which calls itself “Crossroads With A Future… and a Past.” Johnson Creek’s (called “JC” by the hip and trendy… sorta) focus used to be along present-day County B and County Y, which were the old highways 30 and 26, respectively. The old downtown is still there, west of Highway 26 along County B, about one mile southwest as the crow flies from the current I-94/Highway 26 interchange. It’s rather quiet and pleasant amid the booming development taking place all around it, especially to the north and east. One piece of Johnson Creek history is The Gobbler, which you can learn about in this great piece from the Capitol Times, from this note from HotelChatter and in our “salute” to the right. Groovy, baby!

 
State Trunk Tour Salute:
The Gobbler

Just west Highway 26 and south of I-94 lies a well-recognized old supper club, restaurant and motel called The Gobbler. It opened in 1967 and looks like something The Jetsons would have appreciated due to its completely round design for the supper club; the adjacent motel (featuring round beds, hot tubs, etc.) was burned down by the JCFD in 2001. You can read a non-glowing – yet hilarious – review of the old Gobbler here. A bigger, extensive salute to the Gobbler can be found on this blog, featuring tons of links and pictures.

gobbleroldThe Gobbler was hip when it opened in 1967; “groovy” hadn’t quite gone into the mass use yet.. This page from their original pamphlet (left) indicates the era; below is how the main building looked in 2014 after it had been closed for years. It has since reopened as the Gobbler Theater, and we’ll get updated info posted soon!

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26maltaway_500South of Johnson Creek, Highway 26 returns to a busy 2-lane over farm fields and railroads, passing a large malting plant once owned by Ladish, now owned by Cargill. From I-94 or the hilltops by Johnson Creek Outlet Mall or the nearby Days’ Inn, they almost look like a city skyline of old office buildings; from up close, not quite.

Bypass Alert: Jefferson

Not too far south of Johnson Creek, a bypass of Jefferson opened up in 2011 to connect with an existing “Super-2” bypass of Fort Atkinson that opened in the early 2000’s. The bypass around Fort Atkinson is now four lanes also. Use the bypass if you’re in a hurry to get to Milton or Janesville; however, for the full State Trunk Tour experience, we’ll follow the traditional path through the towns! These are called “Business 26”.

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Left: Highway 26 zooms around Jefferson and Fort Atkinson on a 4-lane freeway bypass, so you can save time if you want. But the full experience comes with going through town! Right: On the north end of the Highway 26 bypass, “Business” 26, the traditional route, branches off near the huge Cargill plant. Follow Business 26 south to go through the heart of Jefferson and then Fort Atkinson.

“Old”/Business 26 heads into Jefferson (pop. 7,338), the namesake county seat that calls itself “the Gemuetlichkeit City”, referring to the friendliest of German heritage; ironically, Jefferson also hosted a German POW camp during World War II. Rosemary Kennedy, John F. Kennedy’s sister, spent much of her adult life in Jefferson at the St. Coletta School, which provides care for children and adults with learning disabilities. Her sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver (mother of Maria Shriver and mother-in-law of Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose Wisconsin connection involves graduating from UW-Superior), created the Special Olympics in 1968 in Rosemary’s honor.

The city is located where the Rock and Crawfish Rivers meet; the Rock runs just west of downtown and parallels Highway 26 until finally ducking under it south of town. At the downtown crossroads, Highway 26 crosses U.S. Highway 18. A short jog to the west on U.S. Highway 18 lets access 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. It’s just west of the new Highway 26 bypass.

In downtown Jefferson, meanwhile, a line of stores, taverns and several banks built with beautiful stonework line the street. To the west just south of U.S. 18 is a park that holds Jefferson Depot, the old railroad station, and newly refurbished bridge spanning the Rock River past the tracks.

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The handsome Jefferson Depot lies along the Union Pacific tracks by the Rock River in downtown Jefferson.

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This cool twin arch wood bridge spans the Rock River, connecting Jefferson’s east and west sides.

Have you checked out Wedl’s? It’s a hamburger stand and ice cream parlor – with an emphasis on the burgers. Wedl’s burgers are cooked – in lard – on a cast iron skillet over a century old. Which makes them delicious, of course. In summer, the burgers are made in an 8’x 8′ stand next to the main building – making it the smallest burger shop in America. The burgers are small – they weigh in at 1/8 pound – but they pack in a lot of great flavor, enough to have caught the attention of the Travel Channel! You’ll find Wedl’s one block east of Business Highway 26, right along U.S. 18/Racine Street in downtown Jefferson.

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Wedl’s stand – the burgers are cooked in the little shack to the right. The burgers are “smashed”, a cooking technique that turns them from round, ice cream scoop-size balls of meat into flat patties that cook quickly and thoroughly. And deliciously. If that’s not a word, it is now.

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Just south of Jefferson is Fort Atkinson (pop. 11,621), or “Fort”, as all the locals call it. A bustling town (Money Magazine recently named it “One of America’s Hottest Little Boomtowns”) set along the banks of the Rock River shortly before it widens into Lake Koshkonong, Fort Atkinson was originally Fort Koshkonong but renamed Atkinson after Henry Atkinson, the fort’s general.

Business 26, the original 26 route, goes into the heart of Fort Atkinson along the Rock River through a series of residential neighborhoods. A few jogs west and south, and you cut through Fort’s extensive downtown and head over the Rock River – just like you did in Jefferson and Watertown – past a wide variety of shops, restaurants and even some nice artwork along the waterway. You also cross U.S. 12 and Highway 89 downtown, with easy access to nearby towns.

Just off Business 26, south along the turnoff via U.S. 12 and Highway 89, 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.

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Real children actually play quite a bit in the yards in Fort, but even in the harshest weather these kids are always outside. Check this out after sundown... they're holding "fireflies" that have fiber optic lights so they look like real fireflies at night.

Real children actually play quite a bit in the yards in Fort, but even in the harshest weather these kids are always outside. Check this out after sundown… they’re holding “fireflies” that have fiber optic lights so they look like real fireflies at night.

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 Highway 26, just south of town.

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Chief Black Hawk’s legacy is well-documented across south central and southwestern Wisconsin. In some communities, he has a park or monument named after him. In Fort, it’s a tavern.

South of da Fort, Business 26 reunites with the mainline Highway 26 and it continues as a four-lane expressway traversing some rolling hills and skimming Lake Koshkonong, one of the largest lakes in Wisconsin. Koshkonong was actually man-made, created from a wide marshland the Rock River ran through. Many of us have heard about Lake Winnebago’s shallowness; Koshkonong’s rivals it, averaging only about six feet deep. A Milwaukee Bucks player could practically walk through it without having to swim or snorkel (standard disclaimer: kids, don’t try it.) A variety of access roads lead to the lake; supper clubs and restaurants also dot the roadside as you cross into Rock County, the final one for this road.

A few miles later lies Milton (pop. 5,090), where Highway 59 joins in for a few blocks as you pass the Milton House Museum, the most famous local landmark… and now a National Historic Landmark. The Milton House itself is a hexagonal stagecoach inn constructed in 1844. It has three claims to fame: it was the first poured grout building in the United States, it’s the oldest concrete building still standing in the U.S., and it’s one of 14 officially recognized stations on the Underground Railroad from the pre-Civil War days. Joseph Goodrich, Milton’s founder and a staunch abolitionist, provided the Milton House for runaway slaves on their way to Canada or points north. Goodrich was a busy guy: the same year he founded the Milton House, he founded the Milton Academy, which evolved into Milton College, which lasted until 1982. It was the oldest college in Wisconsin until it closed. Football fans know the college for its most famous alumnus, Dave Krieg, who played in the NFL for a whole lot of seasons, including some notable ones for the Seattle Seahawks.

State Trunk Tour Tidbit:
Milton’s original name was Prairie du Lac. When settlers applied to get a post office in 1839, the name was dismissed because it sounded too similar to “Prairie du Sac”. It was renamed for Paradise Lost author John Milton, familiarized to people everywhere via Professor Jennings’ (Donald Sutherland) lecture in National Lampoon’s Animal House. Interestingly enough, two major stars from the movie (John Belushi and Thomas Hulce) either went to college or grew up in nearby Whitewater. Karma? Perhaps.

Many of Milton’s older buildings are seeing new uses as shops or even wineries. The Northleaf Winery opened in 2009 in a former wheat warehouse and blacksmith shop made primarily of lime mortar, an early form of concrete. Northleaf features two dozen wines, most bottled on-site; they specialize in pairings that include locally-made chocolates. It’s definitely worth a stop, right along the original Highway 26 through Milton. Bypass-takers can access it via the Highway 59 exit.

From Milton, Highway 26 heads a fast five miles south to Janesville (pop. 60,483), the “City of Parks”. Highway 26 enters Janesville at about the same time it crosses I-39/90 and intersects with U.S. Highway 14, which has ducked around the north and east sides of Janesville since 1952. Here, you’ll find a massive, sprawling array of stores, restaurants and travel services, since so many major highways come together here. Continuing south on Highway 26 (as Milton Avenue) brings you past the Janesville Mall, a regional shopping center, through a long commercial strip and then into some of the city’s older neighborhoods. 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.

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Perched high above the Rock River is Janesville’s memorial to fallen Civil War soldiers.

Janesville is the home of former Senator Russ Feingold, Representative and now 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 Gray’s Brewing (2424 W. Court Street, still along old Highway 11, about 2 miles west of where Highway 26 ends), crafter of numerous award-winning brews. They’ve even been making cream sodas since 1856.

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Gray’s has been crafting beer and a variety of cream sodas in Janesville since 1856.

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Janesville hosted the first Wisconsin State Fair in 1851. No word on how much cream puffs cost back then.

Highway 26 angles over on a few other streets entering downtown Janesville and ends at U.S. 51, just before one final jump over the Rock River. The city’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.

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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.

Highway 26 is a good slice of eastern and southern Wisconsin, passing right by or close to a number of historic sites and giving you a bunch of good selections for shopping, entertainment or just finding nice places to stretch out and relax. Enjoy this one! Other great routes and places to see are all around.

Highway 26 ends at it hits U.S. 51 in downtown Janesville.

Highway 26 ends at it hits U.S. 51 in downtown Janesville.

CONNECTIONS:
North Terminus:
Can connect immediately to: U.S. Highway 41
Can connect nearby to: Highway 44, about 2.5 miles north; Highway 91, about 2.5 miles north; Highway 21 about 5 miles north; U.S. 45, about 3 miles east

South Terminus:
Can connect immediately to: U.S. Highway 51, Highway 11 (the city portion)
Can connect nearby to: U.S. Highway 14, about 4 miles northeast; I-39/90, about 4.5 miles northeast

11


STH-011

“Kringle by the Great Lake to Bluffs by the Great River”

 

WisMap11Quickie 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):

Racine

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.

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Mmmm… Kringle.

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.

Racine Art Museum on Main Street

The acrylic panels on the Racine Art Museum are flooded with different colored lights most evenings, adding an intriguing glow to Main Street.

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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.

Kewpee Burgers in Racine

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.

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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.

Johnson Wax Tower, just south of where Highway 38 beginsOther 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.

 

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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.

 

Highway 11 westbound begins in Racine.

Heading west on today’s start to Highway 11 means running through neighborhoods on Racine’s south side. Plenty of cool stuff lies ahead.

Real Racine Fall 2018

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.

burlingtonsign_800The 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 is also not shy about pointing out it’s the hometown of All-Pro quarterback Tony Romo. He played for the Dallas Cowboys before becoming a broadcaster for the NFL. We remember, according to The Onion, when 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.
The Top Museum in downtown Burlington.

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?

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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.



Elkhorn

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.

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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.

Downtown Elkhorn

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

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?

Janesville

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.

***BYPASS ALERT***

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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.)

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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

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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 Statue

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.

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Gray’s has been crafting beer and a variety of cream sodas in Janesville since 1856.

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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.

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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.
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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.

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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.

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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, the Sugar River Raceway just 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.

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.

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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.

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bceiling_800Baumgartner’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.

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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.

Cows and kettles dot the landscape in front of the National Historic Cheesemaking Center.monroedepot2_500

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.

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From Monroe, you can jump back on today’s Highway 11. Highway 81 breaks away northwest towards Argyle and Darlington.

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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.

cheesecountrytr1_800The 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.

 

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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.

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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…

Shullsburg Interactive Map

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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.

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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.

shullsburgalley_600A 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.

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Shullsburg’s old high school is an attractive stone building and an excellent example of why their high school team name is the “Miners.”

leadregion_500The 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.

11mmound_250hiOn 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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