“A lovely Driftless tour from the Great River to Frank Lloyd Wright’s birthplace”
Quickie Summary: State “Trunk” Highway 56 runs through “Driftless Area” countryside between the Mississippi River at Genoa to just north of Richland Center. Along the way, you get beautiful geography, cool small towns, bucolic farm scenery, and some history.
The Drive (West to East): Highway 56 starts at Highway 35 in Genoa (pop. 253), in full view of the Mississippi River. Genoa is home to Lock & Dam No. 8, which offers view of the boats being raised and lowered as they make their way up or down the river. The one might expect, the fishing here is terrific and a place like Clements Fishing Barge offers the chance for a great catch from the middle of the waters.
The fishing can be great off the river, too: the village is home to the Genoa National Fish Hatchery. Founded in 1932, Genoa provides over 30 million fish, eggs and mussels across 26 species to meet aquatic species and research objectives across the country. If you visit you can check out a 1,000 gallon aquarium of Mississippi River fish in the sturgeon building, a wetland and native prairie boardwalk including an outdoor classroom area, a walking trail and map of the facility, and culture buildings housing 24 species of fish, freshwater mussels and amphibians, and a pond where fishing is available based on conditions; call (608) 689-2605 for details.
Okay… NOW let’s follow State Trunk Highway 56!
From Highway 35/Great River Road, Highway 56 heads up the hill into the heart of Genoa. Which isn’t huge or anything, but there are some interesting older buildings, bars, and shops to check out. The road climbs Genoa Ridge and starts winding through the valleys and hills of the Driftless Area, where beautiful vistas await. There’s a small settlement called Romance at the crossing of the Bad Axe River’s North Fork, and the topography that follows includes names like Purdy Valley and Lars Anderson Hollow.
Another small settlement Highway 56 passes through is called Bud. Their definition of “exit” is pretty loose, actually; this burg definitely has a sense of humor. It’s worth noting that while there is Bud here, there is no Bud Light. Or are they talking about a different kind of bud? Or is everybody here buddies? (Okay, we’ll stop with that.)
Winding up, down, and around more of the Driftless Area brings you to the largest city along Highway 56, Viroqua (pop. 4,362). The name can also apply to a genus of jumping spiders, but this Viroqua is a pleasant town where numerous artists have made home. Butch Vig, member of the rock band Garbage and producer to albums like Nirvana’s Nevermind and the Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream, was born in Viroqua, as was President Bush’s (the Dubya one) personal physician.
Viroqua was called “the town that beat Wal-Mart” by Smithsonian Magazine in 1992, not because it prevented a Wal-Mart from opening, but because so many local businesses are successfully co-existing with it. Viroqua’s natural beauty has drawn artists for decades, but the arts and culture scene has been growing more significantly as of late. The presence of the renovated, historic Temple Theatre and numerous coffee shops and galleries are just a hint of the growing arts community. Highway 56 cuts east-west across town intersecting U.S. 14 & 61 and Highway 82 in the heart of the city, where architecture buffs can enjoy the Temple Theatre, the Fortney Building (both pictured above), and the Sherry-Butt House, an 1870 structure constructed in the Southern style… all of which are on Main Street.
The Northern Wisconsin Tobacco Pool and Warehouse is a historic landmark on Highway 56 (Decker Street) just east of downtown. Originally constructed in 1906, it was built by Martin Bekkedal, who immigrated to Wisconsin in the 1880s and became the largest tobacco wholesaler in the state at a time when tobacco was one of Wisconsin’s biggest cash crops. From a historical signficance standpoint, it became the nation’s first tobacco marketing cooperative – formed in response to a significant drop in the price of tobacco in 1921. Its method of enlisting most of the area’s tobacco farmers to better control market prices – creating a tobacco “pool” – inspired the emerging pool of dairy farmers in the state and became the model so many ended up using.
As Highway 56 leaves Viroqua, it pairs with Highway 82 for a while.