“From Chocolate City to Mars Cheese Castle – with Bong in Between”
Quickie Summary: Highway 142 connects Kenosha and Burlington, providing a nice ride through farm fields of Racine and Kenosha Counties as well as access to the Bong Recreation Area, the sign for which on the Interstate is a popular photo-op. Its eastern end at I-41/94 is also home to the famous Mars Cheese Castle, even though we take you to its historical end in Kenosha itself – including the World’s Oldest Operating Velodrome – within sight of Lake Michigan; its western end leads you into Burlington, Wisconsin – aka “Chocolate City.”
Wisconsin Highway 142 Road Trip
The Drive (West to East): While technically starting at the Burlington Bypass outside of town, we’ll start our Highway 142 Tour in downtown Burlington (pop. 10,464) where the road used to start. The city started out as a settlement called “Foxville” – for its location along the Fox River – in 1835; a few years later, locals changed the name to Burlington after the Vermont city many of the recent transplants from New England felt a need to salute (heck, it’s easier to spell than Montpelier.) Railroads came in 1855, and by 1900 Burlington officially became a city, nestled in the southwest corner of Racine County.
Burlington once featured three breweries, including the former Finke-Uhen Brewery along the Fox River; its building is now occupied by the Malt House Theater, whose community theater company (called the “Haylofters“) have been operating since 1932. Three years prior to that – or so they claim – the Burlington Liars’ Club was formed. They celebrate “Fibbing for Fame and Folly” (also alliteration, apparently) and annually hand out an award for “World Champion Liar.” We can’t lie when it comes to chocolate, and the addition of a 1966 Nestle plant gave Burlington the name “Chocolate City, USA,” which we have to admit is pretty sweet. Every Memorial Day weekend, Chocolate Fest tantalizes taste buds and offers plenty of music and activities. Several notable people hail from Burlington, including three-time World’s Strongest Man winner Bill Kazmaier, actor Gregory Itzin from “24”, former Miss Wisconsin winner, Miss USA finalist and Milwaukee TV personality Caitlin Morrall, and perhaps most famously former Dallas Cowboys quarterback and now pretty darn good color commentator Tony Romo; Romo got the nod on the “Welcome to Burlington” signs with the “home of” honors. Romo went to Burlington High School and worked at a State Trunk Tour favorite, Fred’s, as a busboy. Fred’s proclaims itself home to the “World’s Best Burgers,” a tall order indeed. Are they? You’ll have to judge for yourself, but they’re definitely a State Trunk Tour pick!
Downtown along Milwaukee Avenue (“Business” Hwy 36), the Logic Puzzle Museum offers a wild array of hands-on puzzles, brain teasers, and more. Next door, the Spinning Top & Yo-Yo Museum offers yo-yos, gyroscopes, spin toys, and plenty of hands-on science exhibits…. over 2,000 in all! Call first and get tickets, though; they are by appointment only.
Head out of Burlington to the southeast via Pine, State across the Fox River, and then Bushnell Street. Some “To 142” signs help point the way, and the now-official start of Highway 142 takes place at the 2012-built Burlington Bypass interchange, which is today’s Highways 11, 36, and 83. From there, Highway 142 heads through some of the beautiful farmland and rolling hills of southwestern Racine County.
Burlington and the towns around it lie in a little southwestern “panhandle” of Racine County. Heading east along 142 just a few miles to County J, we cross into Kenosha County, which is technically part of the Chicago metropolitan area by definition. Kenosha is also the fourth-smallest county in Wisconsin by land area; Racine is only a little bigger because of the townships including Burlington.
Winery & Distillery Alert
A little over a mile into the county via 142, County B/288th Avenue brings you to the AeppelTreow Winery & Distillery, which focuses on wine – primarily apple-based – and small-batch hard cider, perry (the”pear analogue to cider”, as they describe), and spirits. They have a Tasting Room inside, an orchard outside, and walking paths to the nearby Bong State Recreation Area.
It’s Bong Time
Right in this area, Highway 142 enters the Richard Bong State Recreation Area. While the name catches many an eye, its history makes it even more interesting. In 1951, this area was designated the site of the Richard Bong Air Force Base – named after famed World War II aviator and Wisconsin native Richard Bong. Over 4,500 acres of prime Wisconsin farm and forest land was claimed to create the base; by 1956, farms were being plowed under and highways were relocated, including today’s Highway 142 and Highway 75.
A 12,900-foot runway and graded, covered with asphalt, and about to be paved with concrete when, in 1960, the base was deemed “no longer needed” and deactivated. The land then sat abandoned, occasionally becoming a hotspot for criminal activity before the state bought the land in 1974 and turned it into Wisconsin’s first “State Recreation Area.” Keeping it named after Richard Bong led to one of the most famous signs in the state, right along I-94.
Today, these 4,500 acres of managed prairie offer walking, mountain biking, and horse riding trails; ATV sports; hunting, fishing, and camping; bird watching; and even a model airplane flying area right where the original 12,900-foot runway footprint still exists.
You can access the main entrance to the Bong State Recreation Area right off Highway 142. There is an admission fee that varies based upon your residency and planned length of stay; if you have a State Parks admission sticker for the current year, you’re covered.
Just east of the Bong entrance, Highway 142 crosses Highway 75, a short north-south highway. When the Bong AFB was under construction, both roads were closed at this intersection to the west and south; Highway 75 south was rebuilt and opened in 1962, as was the stretch of 142 we just traveled. For several years in the late 1950s and early 1960s, state maps showed how the pending base altered the roads through here – not to mention everything else!
Past Bong, we’re into the gently rolling rich farmlands of Kenosha County again… but we’re also in Paris. That’s the Town of Paris, which was first settled in 1837 and named after settler Seth Myrick’s original hometown of Paris, New York – which we’ll just assume was named after Paris, France. Its main crossroads – minor as they are – lie at the intersection of Highway 142 and U.S. 45.
The last few miles of Highway 142 are filled with bountiful farmland and county crossroads until you reach I-41/94 – and a State Trunk Tour favorite.
Of course, we’re talking about the Mars Cheese Castle. It’s a veritable heaven of so many Wisconsin things: cheese, beer, sausages, fresh bakery, and a gift shop designed to get Illinois residents to part with their money. This popular purveyor of cheeses, meats, hot sauce, bakery, and Wisconsin kick-knacks is a widely recognized landmark on the busy Milwaukee-Chicago corridor, with its iconic sign beckoning travelers.
Originally opened in 1947 along U.S. 41 and what was Wisconsin Highway 43 (today’s 142), the Mars Cheese Castle catered to travelers in search of a variety of cheeses and other local foods as they entered or left the state. Still a family business, Mario Ventura, Sr. started it up and added on as they could: a deli counter, a sandwich shop, a bakery, a bar, a gift shop… all of these were tacked on to the original building. He and partners built not only a successful travel stop, but a brisk mail-order and later online business, shipping cheese, sausage and other products from Wisconsin to locales all over the country. Their home brand of spreadable cheese is called “King of Clubs”, and a large tub of it with Town House crackers are available for enjoyment at the bar at all times.
Their deli offers an amazing selection of cheeses, sausages, crackers, and other enjoyable consumables; their wine and beer selection is extensive, their gift shop offers every Wisconsin-y thing you could imagine, their market and bakery offers everything from tons of hot sauce selections to kringle; and a State Trunk Tour favorite is a summer sausage sandwich from the deli. The bar even has a “leg lamp” – the kind popularized in the movie A Christmas Story – to add to the atmosphere… the lamps are crafted in Kenosha, after all.
Highway 142 ends at I-41/94 now. It didn’t always. Originally, it continued east into Kenosha. Today’s County S and then Washington Avenue are now on 142’s original path. And in that spirit, let’s continue!
Beyond Today’s 142: Kenosha
Kenosha (pop. 99,889), Wisconsin’s fourth largest city. Originally known as Pike and then Southport (a name many businesses still use), Kenosha got its current name in 1850, a descendant name from the original Potawatomi name, Mas-ke-no-zha, meaning “place of the Pike.”
Today, Kenosha just keeps changing. Relying on heavy manufacturing for many, many years, the demise of the American auto industry in the 1970s and 80s took a heavy toll. Kenosha’s economy today hums along, however, buoyed by services and health care. Some manufacturing remains and the area contains headquarters for companies like Jockey International and Snap-On Tools. Proximity to Chicago and Milwaukee make it a handy area for transportation, warehousing and tourism. A recent influx of Chicago-area residents heightens the Packers-Bears tension every autumn. Ancient Kenoshans may recall the local NFL team called the Kenosha Maroons, which played for one season in 1924. You may know them now as the Washington Redskins.
(The rest of Kenosha will be posted shortly!)