Quickie 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):
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.
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.
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.
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.
Just off Highway 26 via either County KW or Hogsback Road, you can check out Edward Brix Winery
Just south of there Highway 26 widens to a four-lane expressway, which is stays for much of the rest of its journey. The first interchange is pretty much immediate and provides access to Highway 60, which goes east to Hustisford, Hartford and eventually almost to Lake Michigan; it also goes west to Columbus and eventually the Mississippi River. Highway 16 also comes from the west and joins Highway 26 for the higher-speed ride south past Clyman and through the farmlands of Dodge County.
Highway 16 breaks off as a bypass to the southeast and Highway 26’s mainline begins a bend around western Watertown (pop. 23,861), 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.
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.
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!
The 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 reopened as the Gobbler Theater, but was closed again by 2021 after its owner passed away.
South 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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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