The mysterious spot in southwestern Wisconsin where your vehicle defies gravity – and no one is quite sure why
When your car is free to roam, it should drift in the direction of where gravity takes it, right? That’s basic physics. Heck, according to Newton, it’s the LAW. Right?
Well, not always.
Wisconsin, a state with as many unusual quirks as many, has a lot of mysteries along its roads as you explore and tour America’s Dairyland. Many of these mysteries are legends that eventually get debunked or have explanations. But why gravity doesn’t seem to work in this one spot in southwestern Wisconsin remains a bit of a head-scratcher.
Known as “Gravity Hill,” this location along County Highway U just south of Shullsburg in Lafayette County has a spot where you can stop in the middle of the road, put your car in neutral, and you’ll start drifting backwards, seemingly up a hill.
Now, this isn’t exactly a big hill you go backwards onto, but it’s still an incline – so it wouldn’t make sense for your car to go up and incline in neutral, right?
Well, we tried it, filmed it, and here’s what happened:
Many theories exist as to WHY this happens. Some say the “hill” you roll upwards on isn’t actually an incline; it’s just an optical illusion. If it is, it’s one heck of a good one! Gravity Hill itself isn’t a big hill. but the rate of speed you go from a full stop while in neutral definitely makes it seem like there’s something more there. Others say there’s probably a large deposit of iron or other magnetized rock underneath that hill, and it draws your car back – truly like a magnet. Makes some sense – this IS mining country, after all. Meanwhile, some say it’s just mysterious spirits.
Try it for yourself and see what you think! You’ll find Gravity Hill along County Highway U just south of Shullsburg, a lovely village with a great downtown along Highway 11 in Lafayette County. You’re only about a mile and change north of Illinois at this point, too… maybe the gravity is designed to keep you in Wisconsin!
“Lead Mines. Water Parks. Houses on Rocks. Dells. Muk Luks. Waterfalls. Brats. Championship Golf. Let’s Go!”
Quickie Summary: State “Trunk” Highway 23 connects a veritable plethora of sights in Wisconsin. From the beautiful hills and history of the Lead Mining Region and the Driftless Area to Frank Lloyd Wright (and Frank Looyd Wright revenge-inspired) architectural sites; from the Dells and lakes of central Wisconsin to the booming golf and resort areas of Sheboygan, Highway 23 provides plenty of things to see and do along its route.
Wisconsin Highway 23 Road Trip
The Drive (North To East): You start in a relatively remote area: at the intersection with Highway 11 near Shullsburg in southwestern Wisconsin. This is an area of rich minig history and incredible beauty. A good start is actually just west of Highway 23: check out Shullsburg (pop. 1,226) itself, 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 await in Shullsburg.
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, this is a good place to start before heading east on Highway 11 for about six miles and hitting Highway 23.
The beginning of Highway 23, looking north from Highway 11. A lot awaits you on this tour…
Once on Highway 23, you can begin with a stop at Roelli Cheese Haus, a longtime staple of the area (100 years +) that has moved deftly into the artisan cheese world over the past decade and has been walking away with plenty of national and international awards as a result. They have a retail store attached to their cheese plant, and you can pick up some serious specialties on the road with you.
Northward on Highway 23, you make your way north through Lafayette County toward its county seat. After hooking up for a spell with Highway 81, Highway 23 enters Darlington (pop. 2,418), which calls itself the “Pearl of the Pecatonica River.” The “pearl” part harkens back to the time when people harvested clams out of the river, apparently to produce pearl button blanks. The whole area is drained by the Pecatonica River and its many tributaries, which carve out the beautiful hills and valleys characteristic of Lafayette County. Author Sylvan Muldoon, who was big on writing about out-of-body experiences, hailed from Darlington.
Some notable animals in Darlington: a cardinal on the south end of town along Highway 23/81 and a shark emerging from a gas station both catch your attention right in the downtown area. Darlington’s school mascot is the “Redbirds”; not sure why the shark is there.
Highways 23 & 81 through downtown Darlington; the main street is a pleasant little boulevard with plenty of parking, good architecture and shops to see on both sides. Highway 81 joins briefly through town..
The Barber Shop Hotel, apparently in a former barber shop, is an example of Darlington’s small, inviting buildings that are being refurbished with historical touches.
Darlington’s restored downtown is a great place to stop and just walk around. Highway 81 hooks up with 23 briefly and proceeds as a little boulevard going through town, crossing the Cheese Country Trail – watch for plenty of ATVers and bikers – and providing plenty of parking for the boutiques, taverns and other points of interest in town. Pecatonica River Trails Park offers riverside camping. Downtown Darlington’s Main Street – which is Highway 23 & 81 – is lined with historic buildings and it’s worth a stop just to explore.
Being the county seat of Lafayette County, Darlington sports a beautiful courthouse with a Tiffany glass rotunda on the hill above downtown along Highway 23, just north of Highway 81 and Darlington’s downtown.
This house was spotted just past old Fort Defiance north of Darlington… it just kind of screamed “Amityville Horror”…
Highway 81 hooks up with Highway 23 for the ride south out of Darlington; it’s hilly and beautiful and filled with old haunts. Between Darlington and Mineral Point is the former site of Fort Defiance, built in 1832 in the wake of the Black Hawk War. It was one of the last garrisoned stockade forts built in Wisconsin, measuring 80 feet wide, 120 feet long, and 18 feet high with two blockhouses – and yet no trace of it remains, other than a marker.
Weaving through the terrain further north brings you to Mineral Point (pop. 2,617), another town chock full of history. In fact, it’s the first town in Wisconsin to be named to the National Register of Historic Places. As gold was to California and gambling is to Nevada, lead made the Mineral Point area of Wisconsin a sought-after destination in the ’30s and ’40s… and we’re talking 1830s and ‘40s.
Lead and zinc mining was grueling work, and those who endured the brutal winters became known as “badgers” because they burrowed into the ground like the furry creatures. Their influence lives on as the state’s nickname and, of course, the UW-Madison mascot. Mining was so important to the state that in 1848 when the state seal was established, one of the four images on the seal was that of a miner’s ax.
Mineral Point claims the title “where Wisconsin began,” and the handsome buildings along High Street attest to the new wealth and impressive designs of the day. The city lost by one vote to Madison when the state’s capital was selected. While he waited for the capitol building to be established in Madison, Wisconsin’s first governor, Henry Dodge (who also has a county named after him), maintained an office in Mineral Point’s courthouse.
Mineral Point has many small shops offering antiques, galleries and artisan crafts. Highway 23 goes right past the downtown area, which is best accessed via High Street. The handsome Mineral Point Opera House (139 High Street, 608-987-2516) was built in 1914. It started as a vaudeville and performing arts house and continues to feature live performances from theater groups and world cinema brought by the Mineral Point Film Society.
A big attraction in Mineral Point is Pendarvis (114 Shake Rag St). Owned and operated by the State Historical Society, it’s a complex that shows visitors what life was like during the 1830s, including the day-to-day tasks of miners and their families as well as superstitions and traditions that influenced them. The Mineral Point Depot (13 Commerce St.) is the oldest surviving railroad depot in the state. Originally built in 1856 and restored in 2004 by the Mineral Point Restoration Society, it now hosts a museum.
The Shake Rag Alley Center for Arts & Crafts (18 Shake Rag Street, 608-987-3292) features displays, workshops and classes on a 2.5 acre campus featuring gardens, trees and brick pathways. Shake Rag Alley was the original business district of Mineral Point and contains log cabins and other buildings dating back to 1828. Local lore says “Shake Rag” got its name because women would “shake rags” to let the men know it was time to eat. They were quieter than dinner bells, I guess.
Heading out of Mineral Point, Highway 23 heads north along what was also the “old” U.S. 151 highway for about two miles until it meets up with the “new” U.S. 151, an expressway that now runs complete from Dubuque, Iowa to Madison. This is the first of several segments where Highway 23 is four lanes and/or part of a freeway. This stretch multiplexed with U.S. 151 is quick, though: it only lasts about four miles. There are some cool rock cuts along the way, along with a mass of windmills to the west, part of a massive wind power generating farm.
U.S. 151 breaks off toward Madison and Highway 23 continues north into Dodgeville (pop. 4,220), the county seat of Iowa County and home to Lands’ End. In local lore, Dodgeville and Mineral Point went to “war” over which town should be the county seat, and supposedly some Mineral Point residents actually fired a canon toward Dodgeville. Either way, Dodgeville won the county seat and today has the oldest active county courthouse in Wisconsin; its cornerstone was laid in 1859. The Military Ridge State Trail, a popular recreational trail following an old military road dating back to 1855, starts in Dodgeville and runs 40 miles east to Fitchburg.
Along Highway 23 in downtown Dodgeville is the Iowa County Courthouse, the oldest in the state of Wisconsin. Started in 1859, dedicated in 1861 and expanded or renovated four times since, the Galena limestone used in its construction was quarried just north of town.
Highway 23 runs through the heart of Dodgeville before crossing U.S. Highway 18 and approaching Governor Dodge State Park, one of the largest in the state at 5,270 acres (just to give you a sense of the size, one square mile is 640 acres). The whole area has many scenic bluffs, but Governor Dodge State Park is a great place to see quite a few of them. The Park also features two lakes, a waterfall, abundant wildlife, original spring houses built by early settlers, 267 campsites, 77 electric sites, winter camping, boat and canoe rental, programs, marked beaches, 2 miles of nature trails, 26.6 miles of hiking trails, 24.7 miles of horseback trails, 10.3 miles of off-road bicycle trails, 15 miles of snowmobile trails and 18.1 miles of cross-country ski trails. But that’s all.
Above: This marker notes a former military crossing of the river during the Black Hawk War; the crew dismantled parts of a town to get the wood for raft-making. At right, a side road approaching Highway 23 tells you it’s U.S. 23 – which is wrong, because that road runs from Michigan to Florida.
Just north of Governor Dodge State Park is the ever-famous House On The Rock. What is it? It’s a 200-acre complex with architectural wonders, electic art collections, gardens and yes, a Japanese-style house perched on what’s called Deer Shelter Rock, overlooking the Wyoming Valley. Its inspiration came from a feud between creater Alex Jordan Jr.’s father and the legendary Frank Lloyd Wright that dated back to the 1920s. Apparently, Frank Lloyd Wright has some less-than-flattering comments about Jordan Sr.’s architectural talents. IN 1945, Jordan Jr. began construction of the house on his favorite rock and by 1959, a stone marker placed along Highway 23 announced to travelers that The House On The Rock was open for viewing.
The Infinity Room is quite a trip!
Financed by tour fees, a series of additions since then include 1968’s “Mill House”, which holds one of the world’s largest fireplaces; a “Streets of Yesterday” exhibit, introduced in 1971 and inspired by a similar exhibit in the Milwaukee Public Museum. The “World’s Largest Carousel” opened in 1981 and the “Infinity Room”, perhaps the most dramatic, came along in 1985. The Infinity Room literally projects 218 feet out over the valley; the walls are made of glass with reinforcements (3,264 windows in all), so visitors can walk out above the forest floor, which beckons 156 feet below. Quite visible from the surrounding area, it’s probably one of the more unique rooms in the world.
House on the Rock includes several other buildings, centered around gardens, ponds, bridges, and walkways.
Incredible art? Haunting vision? Psychedelic dream? The House of the Rock lets you view and interpret as you wish.
The World’s Largest Carousel sits inside House on the Rock. It’s almost mesmerizing to watch.
State Trunk Tour Tidbit:
The House of the Rock’s “World’s Largest Carousel” features over 20,000 lights, 269 animals, and – interestingly – 182 chandeliers. It’s 80 feet in diameter and weighs 36 tons.
The presence of House On The Rock adds to a very cool Scenic Overlook area along Highway 23 just north of the attraction’s entrance. Each direction of the highway has its own side access to an overlook, which connects via a pedestrian bridge over the road. The view of the House’s Infinity Room, the Wyoming Valley and all the surrounding terrain makes for a great stop.
A view of Wyoming Valley, behind the ridge where Highway 23 runs. House on the Rock is just to the left in this picture; Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin is a few miles ahead.
This area is a haven for artists and architects; it certainly was for Frank Lloyd Wright, who was born in Spring Green in 1867. He started building his summer house, called Taliesin after a Welsh bard, in 1911. It took decades to develop, including recovery from a devastating attack in 1914 where a chamber boy set fire to the house and murdered seven people with an ax while the fire burned. Wright himself was in Chicago on a project at the time, but his lover (a former wife of one of his clients), her two children, a foreman, a draftsman, a landscape gardener and the son of a carpenter were all victims. The living quarters were rebuilt, yet destroyed again by fire in 1925. The third incarnation of Taliesin was survived intact since. Taliesin is where many of Wright’s most famous structures, including New York’s Guggenheim Museum, were designed. In a nod to snowbirds everywhere, Wright also established a Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona. But since that’s nowhere near State Trunk Highway 23, it’s not part of the Tour.
The Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center is located just off Highway 23 on County C, across the Wisconsin River’s southern bank. Taliesin itself is on the other side of 23, about half a mile south. You take a shuttle bus from the Visitor Center to access Taliesin’s property. Tours are available May 1 through October 31 seven days a week, and Friday through Sunday in April and November.
The beauty of Taliesin and the surrounding landscape is definitely worth the price of admission.
Crossing the river on Highway 23 brings you into Sauk County and Spring Green (pop. 1,444) itself. Along with the architectural wonders and natural scenic beauty, you can get Shakespearean in Spring Green at American Players Theatre, one of the most popular outdoor classical theaters in the U.S. Set in a natural amphitheater in the woods near the Wisconsin River, APT entertains audiences with rotating plays while working to educate students on theater in general. If you’re getting a way early start on a weekend jaunt, try hitting APT for “Skippeth-Out-Of-Work-Early” Thursday nights.
A one-time gas station in Spring Green is indicative of the native stone and beautiful architecture of the area. This is right along Highway 23, just south of U.S. 14 and Highway 60.
Wright’s influence in Spring Green is unmistakable. This is a bank in town.
Highway 23 comes to a junction with U.S. 14 and Highway 60 and hooks up with them briefly before, alas, the quickie is over and Highway 23 heads north by its lonesome again.
North of Spring Green, it’s more of the Driftless Area’s beautiful bluffs and rolling hills. This is through Plain, on the way to Reedsburg.
The views are great as you zoom up and down hills and wind through valleys, past hamlets like Plain (pop. 792) and Loganville (pop. 276). Plain, interestingly, has been considering a name change since 1915, when a reader to the local newspaper wrote a letter to the editor. No rush, though.
Further north, Highway 23 heads into Reedsburg (pop. 8,704), where it hooks up with Highway 33 for the ride through downtown. The Museum of Norman Rockwell Art (227 S. Park St.) features almost 4,000 of the famous artist’s works. Speaking of artists, famous comic artist and cartoonist Clare Briggs hailed from Reedsburg. It’s also the starting point for the “400” State Trail, which runs to Elroy as part of the state’s increasingly-extensive rail-trail system for bicycles, hikers, cross-country skiiers and snowmobilers.
This marker almost marks the exact spot of the 90th meridian, the halfway point between the Prime Meridian and the International Date Line. The actual spot is within a few hundred yards – but why don’t they just put it right at that spot??
Reedsburg sits on the 90th Meridian, which marks the halfway point between the Prime Meridian (which runs through Greenwich and London, England) and the International Date Line, marking the exact center of the Western Hemisphere. A marker in the median of Highway 23 notes the meridian’s location – actually, for some reason, it sits 325 feet west of it. The city once hosted a World War II POW camp and pioneered both the first Ford dealership and the first sanctioned Little League in Wisconsin. On the way out just east of the city, the Pioneer Log Village and Museum provides a first-hand look at log buildings, antique furnishings and a glimpse of what life was like in the 19th century frontier days. Tours are available from 1-4pm on weekends during the summer. Also in summer, Reedsburg holds its annual Butter Fest.
Downtown Reedsburg, which Highway 23 goes right through as the main street along with Highway 33, extends for a while with storefronts on either side. It’s a wide street compared to most smaller towns’ main streets, and the views – especially of the Baraboo Bluffs – show the beautiful topography that beckons.
Built in 1906, the Reedsburg Train Depot served passenger traffic until 1963. Today, it’s a popular stop along the “400” Bicycle Trail, which runs on the railbed of the former train between St. Paul and Chicago.
We spotted this on a trailer sitting by itself in Reedsburg. What’s it about? We don’t know, but being sign geeks we liked it!
Colorful sunflowers added to the beauty of the drive along Highways 23 & 33 just east of Reedsburg,
For several miles east of Reedsburg, Highways 23 and 33 hang together until 23 breaks to the northeast for a weaving 6-mile jaunt through portions of Mirror Lake State Park and a junction with I-90/94. And right away, you enter it: the Dells.
Taking Highway 23 past the I-90/94 interchange and you immediately come upon Lake Delton (pop. 1,982), which pairs with the city of Wisconsin Dells (pop. 2,418) to make up the gargantuan land o’tourism known at the Dells.
Wisconsin Dells Area
Ah, Wisconsin Dells, the “Water Park Capital of the World” and Wisconsin’s most popular vacation destination. Highway 23 comes into the area and immediately, the architecture changes. The vibe changes. And the amount of traffic changes. When people refer to “Wisconsin Dells”, they usually mean the whole area, including Lake Delton and the region up and down the Wisconsin River, whose gorgeous ‘dells’ and gorges give the area its name. Wisconsin Dells itself started out as Kilbourn City in 1857. It was named after founder Byron Kilbourn, who also played a major role in getting Milwaukee started as a city one decade earlier. Renamed Wisconsin Dells in 1931, the city set the state’s high temperature record of 114 degrees Fahrenheit five years later. But indeed, it gets cold here, too, which explains why so many waterparks offer indoor facilities.It’s also chock full of foreign workers, many of whom are college age from Eastern Europe and South America. Time magazine actually named it one of the “Best Places for College Students to Work during the Summer” in 2004, proving there’s a list for nearly everything.
Highway 23 crosses over Spring Creek, giving a peek towards Lake Delton.
Highway 23 meets up with U.S. 12 and joins it heading northbound into a vast array of sights: the Crystal Grand Theater, roller coasters, mini golf courses, ferris wheels, waterparks, upside-down White Houses (a place called “Top Secret”), plastic pink flamingos, motels, hotels, ski jumps in bodies of water… it’s all along this stretch. The world’s largest Trojan Horse can’t be missed. I mean, it’s right there.
Motels, pedestrians and stray beach balls line this stretch, with skywalks allowing pedestrians to avoid traffic and/or winter; and as you can see, traffic can get heavy on this stretch. Stop and go traffic much of the time on Saturdays and Sundays in the summer is not uncommon.
It’s hard to miss the World’s Largest Trojan Horse along Highway 23. A ride passes through it; no word on if anything else is hiding inside.
Meanwhile, Highway 23 joins up with Highways 13 and 16, breaking east to hop over the Wisconsin River and enter the energetic strip that marks downtown Wisconsin Dells (pop. 2,418).
At the intersection coming up, U.S. 12 and Highways 13, 16, and 23 all converge. I-90/94 is less than a mile to the west via Highway 13.
In addition to being home to the amphibious World War II vehicles known as the Wisconsin “Ducks” (which started in 1946) and Tommy Bartlett’s Water Ski & Jumping Boat Thrill Show (which made the Dells its permanent home after an amazingly successful temporary stop in 1952), Wisconsin Dells’ selection of waterparks is unparalleled anywhere in the world.
One of the Wisconsin Ducks in front of Ripley’s, believe it or not.
This is truly a mecca of recreational vacation fun. Let’s take a look at some facts about the area around the Dells (thanks to the “Quick Facts” section of wisdells.com):
– There are 18 indoor waterpark/playground properties in the Dells, the highest concentration of such facilities in the world
– The first indoor waterpark in the nation, The Polynesian, opened here in 1989
– The largest indoor waterpark in the U.S. is the Kalahari Resort, with 125,000 square feet
– North America’s largest waterpark is Noah’s Ark, covering 70 acres, utilizing five million gallons of water and powering screaming people down three miles of waterslides
– The Wilderness Hotel and Golf Resort’s indoor and outdoor waterpark space combined covers the space equivalent to six football fieldsAnd if you want fudge shops, only Mackinac Island in Michigan can compete with the downtown strip along Highways 13/16/23. Mmmm… fudge. “The Strip” features t-shirt stores that seem to repeat every 100 feet or so. But there are also a ton of unique – or just not too common – things. Among them: Ripley’s “Believe It Or Not!” Museum, one of only two in the U.S. (the other is in Jackson Hole, Wyoming); the Rick Wilcox Theater; and waterparks a’plenty. Feel like going extreme? Extreme World features a 130-foot high bungee jump, a skycoaster and for those who prefer to stay on the ground the whole time, a big selection of go-karts and tracks.
Plenty of sights to see along Broadway, the stretch of Highway 23 where it goes through the heart of Wisconsin Dells. Highways 13 and 16 run with 23 here, too. Nig’s Bar, pictured at night just above, is one of those places advertising itself via t-shirts that people wear (“I had a swig at Nig’s”) all over the place… you’ve probably seem them.
Basically, Highway 23 goes through the Dells’ two main areas: through Lake Delton with U.S. 12 as Wisconsin Dells Parkway, and then with Highways 13 and 16 as Broadway on the main drag through Wisconsin Dells itself. This basically marks a change where Highway 23 stops bring a route through the Driftless Region on Wisconsin and becomes more of an east-west main road across east-central Wisconsin.
This is part of the “dells” in Wisconsin Dells. A boat ride reveals all kinds of rock formations along this stretch of the Wisconsin River. These dells were formed about 15,000 years ago during the last Ice Age.
Club 23 along Highway 23 just east of the Dells – we love places named after our highways!
At the east end of Wisconsin Dells, you’re suddenly in the countryside again. Highway 16 breaks off southeast towards Columbus and Milwaukee; Highway 13 heads north toward Wisconsin Rapids and Ashland; and Highway 23 meanders east. This stretch deals with a lot of county corners; in about a 14-mile stretch, you go from Sauk County back in the Dells, to Columbia County on its east side, to a southeastern sliver of Adams County to the far southwestern corner of Marquette County. There, you reach the little town of Briggsville which, while unincorporated, is still the largest settlement between the Dells area and the freeway that lies ahead.
Highway 23, going gently through the quiet town of Briggsville.
Eventually, Highway 23 joins the “backbone” of Wisconsin, the I-39/U.S. 51 freeway. The highway heads north on it for about six miles. One exit brings to you little Packwaukee, which lies on Buffalo Lake, an elongated stretch of the Fox River as it heads up to Lake Winnebago. This is prime fishing and hunting country in the heart of Marquette County. At Exit 106 from I-39/US 51, Highway 82 begins to the west and goes all the way to DeSoto and the Mississippi River; meanwhile, Highway 23 continues east away from the freeway for the next leg, now as a more major artery across the eastern half of the state.
Remember the Buffalo Lake we just mentioned? It parallels Highway 23 to the south; both end up in Montello (pop. 1,397), a very water recreation-oriented town considering its Fox River location wedged between Buffalo Lake and Montello Lake. There’s even a nice waterfall right at the main intersection downtown where Highway 23 meets up with Highway 22; it’s part of a larger park with exposed stone and multiple waterfalls developed from a granite quarry
Highways 23 and 22 come together in downtown Montello, with rock formations and waterfalls making things much more interesting.
Speaking of granite, La Maison Granite (“Granite Mansion” in English) is an historic mansion at 55 Underwood Street just off Highway 23, built in 1912 from locally-quarried granite – the quarry where the waterfall-adorned park now sits. In the home’s front yard is Wisconsin’s largest tree, a cottonwood towering 140 feet with a 23-foot circumference… we shall dub it the “Cottonwood on Underwood.” Both are seen here:
Montello’s downtown area, which runs along Highway 23 (and 22, since for about a half mile they’re combined) offers crafts from local artists and the numerous Amish communities in close vicinity of the town.
Highway 22 breaks north for Waupaca, and we continue east on Highway 23 for the short ride to another shopping and antique destination, Princeton(pop. 1,214). Highway 73 joins in for the ride through town, where Highway 23 serves as Main Street. Much of the shopping action is a block south along Water Street, east of the Fox River crossing in a district called the Shops of Water Street. Both along Water Street and throughout town in “off-the-beaten path” areas, you’ll find boutiques and – amidst such a rural region – a number of urban flair shops with offerings from clever coffees to hand-blown glass, vintage arts, accessories, and antiques. Two larger antique malls are also in town – there’s likely something to find for everyone, no matter their taste. The Princeton Flea Market is the largest weekly outdoor flea market in Wisconsin, held April through October on Saturdays in City Park. Admission and parking is free and not only are the items for sale a lesson in interesting variety, so is the food offered by vendors – it goes beyond the typical fare.
Muk Luks, baby!!
Along the Shops of Water Street, fans of comfy footwear might want to check out the Muk Luks Museum, an homage to the famous brand that originated in Princeton. A variety of the styles, artifacts, tools, shipping materials, and more from back in the day can be found. It’s open Saturdays, the peak shopping day in town.
While named after a town in Massachusetts as opposed to the prestigious university, don’t forget you can always come here, do some unique shopping, and then tell people you “went to Princeton.”
A few miles east of Princeton, Highway 73 breaks away and heads south through a gap between Puckaway Lake to the west and Green Lake to the east. Green Lake is Wisconsin’s deepest inland natural lake; it averages 100 feet deep (compared with 15 feet for Lake Winnebago, for example) and a maximum depth of 237 feet. Green Lake isn’t only deep, it’s pretty big… 11.5 square miles. It’s one of the last lakes around to freeze in water and thaw in spring but it’s one of the best in the state for fishing. Joe Gotz pulled a 35-pound trout out this in lake in 1957 and everything from northern pike and walleye to crappier and perch can be found here. The lake has featured numerous resorts and hotels since the 1800s, although many of the early ones burned down – as hotels often did in the late 19th century. Golf courses have remained and thrived, with Tuscumbia dating back to 1896 and nationally-ranked Golf Courses of Lawsonia offering its Links and Woodlands courses that include lakeshore panoramic views.
The epicenter of the area’s vacation and recreation activities focus on the city of Green Lake (pop. 960), the seat of Green Lake County. Highway 23 skims the northern edge of town today but “Business” 23 brings you towards the center of town, and it’s worth exploring. Green Lake is home to resorts like the famous Heidel House, which lies on the eastern banks of the lake southeast of the town center, and the Green Lake Conference Center, founded in 1943 by American Baptists. Its Judson Tower carillon provides some chimes for golfers on the Lawsonia courses, since they’re located on the same large grounds just west of town. Downtown Green Lake offers shops, bars, and restaurants, and lakeside parks that cater to vacationers and recreational visitors. Also downtown on Mill Street, the historic Thrasher Opera House opened in 1910 and hosted everything from vaudeville performances to (very) early movies into the mid-20th century before – as most performance venues did back in the day – close and fall into disrepair. A restoration brought Thrasher back to life, and today it’s once again a hub for activity in Green Lake. Many theatrical, comedy, and musical performers come through here now, including many national acts – not much opera, though. But in our minds, that’s perfectly fine; we’d be thinking about Adam Sandler as “Opera Man” on SNL anyway.
At Green Lake, Highway 49 joins in from the north and Berlin (pronounced BER-lin) for the ride with Highway 23 east six miles into Ripon (pop. 7,733), a college town with a history of debate and cookies. Ripon was named after the English cathedral city of Ripon, North Yorkshire, in 1849 when it was first settled. The 1850s were busy for Ripon; in 1851 city founder David Mapes founded Brockway College, which evolved into Ripon College. Three years later, the Republican Party was founded in Ripon’s “Little White Schoolhouse” – which happens to be located right along today’s Highway 23/49. It’s all part of Ripon’s downtown, where Highway 23/49 wraps around the northeast side of the downtown square.
The “Little White Schoolhouse”, where the Republican Party was founded on an anti-slavery platform in 1854.
State Trunk Tour Tidbit:
Ripon influenced the Golden State when former Ripon, Wisconsin resident Amplias B. Crooks (names were rather interesting back then) moved to Stanislaus City, California and started a store. Unhappy with the town’s name, he had it changed to Ripon, California in 1874.
Ripon was also home of the NFL for many decades. Really! We’re talking the National Forensic League, an organization dedicated to training students in communication and debate skills. Founded in 1925, it’s the nation’s oldest and largest debate and speech honor society. Alums of this NFL include President Lyndon Johnson, Senators Russ Feingold and Bill Frist, Oprah Winfrey, Ted Turner, Kelsey Grammar, Shelley Long, Jane Pauley, CSPAN founder Brian Lamb, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and more. They changed their name to the National Speech & Debate Association (less cool, but easier to interpret) in 2013. Either way, if you stop in town and get into a debate with someone, be prepared. There could be a speech and debate expert that’ll mop up on any topic.
Cookies & College in Ripon
Ripon College counts among its graduates and students people like actors Spencer Tracy and Harrison Ford, singer Al Jarreau and more recently Brittany “McKey” Sullivan, a recent winner on America’s Next Top Model. Ripon College students, like other area residents, generally revel in the fact that the town is home to Rippin’ Good cookies (now owned by ConAgra Foods, which is reducing production ) Ever had the Mint Creme Cookies? If not, you have yet to live to the fullest extent. The Rippin’ Good Cookie Outlet can be found just north and east of downtown Ripon, at 420 E. Oshkosh Street, which is also Highway 44 (920-748-0293 if you want to call ahead). It is generally open Monday-Friday 8am-4:30pm and Saturday from 8am to 1pm. Prepare for sugar and goodness.
Fond du Lac, Plymouth, Kohler, Sheboygan and everything in between has been toured and will be posted shortly!
South Terminus: Can connect immediately to:Highway 11 Can connect nearby to:Highway 78, about 6 miles east
“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