Quickie Summary: State “Trunk” Highway 81 starts just east of where I-43 ends (meeting I-39/90 in the process) at Beloit. Highway 81 heads west through the city over the Rock River, and hops around the southern edge of the state connecting to Monroe, Darlington, Platteville, and Lancaster through the Driftless Area to Cassville, where a ferry boat offers rides to Iowa on the Mississippi River. Passing through the county seat of each of the four counties it traverses, Highway 81 connects to a series of highways in one of the most beautiful sections of the state.
The Wisconsin Highway 81 Road Trip
The Drive (East to West): Highway 81 is in the process of beginning two miles east of the major interchange with I-43 – which begins at this point and goes northeast to Milwaukee – and I-90/39, which connects south to Rockford and Chicago and north to Madison. Highway 81 ended right at the interchange from 1987 – when it was extended east over the former Highway 15 when I-43 was designated to Beloit in the first place – until late 2021 when the entire interchange was reconstructed with a completely different design. We’ll get updated photos soon; meanwhile, let’s explore!
Highway 81 is the “Beloit connection” from the interstates, bringing you into the City of Beloit (pop. 36,966). Since it sits right on the border with Illinois, you could say Beloit is basically the southernmost city in the state.
By the way, right as the newly-extended Highway 81 begins on its eastern end at Hart Road, you can detour ever-so-slightly down Gateway Boulevard and check out G5 Brewing Company, which sits on a hill overlooking the neighborhoods towards Beloit.
And yes, right where Highway 81 meets I-39/90 and I-43, to the southwest you may be able to spot the World’s Largest Can of Chili, which rises next to, and slightly above, the main production building at the Hormel Plant. Yes, they make chili there. Can you imagine the “air power” of the beans in that tower?
Speaking of air, just down the street towards the city along Highway 81 (called “Milwaukee Street” here) is the site of the first commercially built airplane. Assembled and flown in 1909, the plane was piloted by Arthur Warner, who went on to develop the automobile speedometer and a series of automotive and machine tool accessories. Not to be outdone by instrumentation, Beloit has a history of inventing snack food: Korn Kurls were invented here in the 1930s (although they weren’t sold commercially until 1946) and became the precursor for Cheetos and other cheese-flavored corn snack delights. Beloit, considered a “gateway” to Wisconsin for I-39 & I-90 travelers, hosts Beloit College, the Midwest League’s Beloit Sky Carp ‘A’ baseball team, and a variety of companies that take advantage of Beloit’s key location for transportation. Flanked by Janesville to the north and Rockford to the south, Beloit had its share of rough days in the late 20th century but has been bouncing back impressively over the last several years, spurred on my development around the interstates on the east and new and expanding companies in a remarkably resurgent downtown.
Beloit is an economic and industrial powerhouse. It’s the only city in Wisconsin that is home to three multi-billion dollar international companies: ABC Supply Company, Kerry, and Regal-Beloit. Anthropologist Margaret Mead once described Beloit as “America in microcosm”, and it’s the hometown of people such as NFL head and assistant coach Jim Caldwell, Cheap Trick’s lead singer Robin Zander, and a slew of NFL, MLB and NBA players. It’s where racer Danica Patrick was born, and where “Shoop Shoop (It’s In His Kiss”) original singer Betty Everett died.
The city holds Beloit College, the oldest continuously operating college in Wisconsin; it was founded in 1846, two years before Wisconsin became a state and two years before UW-Madison started up. A liberal arts college, it adds 1,300 college students to the community’s profile. The campus itself, adjacent to downtown, contains more history than just the college itself. Its 65 acres feature around 20 ancient Native American mounds of conical, linear, and animal effigy style. They are thought to have been built between 400 and 1200 AD. One of the mounds is turtle-shaped and inspired Beloit’s symbol and unofficial mascot; there’s even a “Town of Turtle” east of Beloit itself. While you can explore the campus and see some of the mounds, they may not be disturbed, as they may not be disturbed as they are “catalogued” burial sites. Some pottery and tool fragments excavated from mounds back in the day are now held in the Logan Museum of Anthropology on campus.
The college is on the northeastern edge of downtown Beloit, where redevelopment showcasing the city’s industrial heritage is on full display. Old factories and foundries line the banks near the dam on the Rock River, and new crossings like a pedestrian- and bike-only bridge provide fresh connections. The long legacy (1858-2000) of The Beloit Corporation – which was also known as Beloit Iron Works for decades – is evident in former factory buildings that have been redeveloped on both banks of the river. Office space includes larger company offices and headquarters for start-up companies. Cashback website company Ebates, for example, has a major office in Beloit that serves as a satellite for its San Francisco headquarters. The Ironworks Hotel opened as an upscale boutique hotel in 2016 in a former Beloit Corporation foundry building. It features the tasty Merrill & Hoston’s Steak Joint and a walkway along the Rock River, one block from shops and restaurants along the vibrant Grand Street and a few blocks from Beloit College. The Ironworks, recently joined “kitty corner” by a sister boutique hotel called The Goodwin, is located right along U.S. 51, about a mile south of where Highway 81 crosses the Rock River.
Beloit’s downtown, which is nestled between Beloit College and the Illinois state line along the Rock River, has been undergoing quite the resurgence. Along with the aforementioned boutique hotels, a slew of new restaurants, shops, bars, and event spaces have popped up to accommodate the increasing activity among those working in the tech, manufacturing, and entrepreneurial spaces growing in the city.
Back to the north side of all this along Highway 81, just past U.S. 51 the highway crosses the Rock River and is joined by Highway 213, which angles northwest out of downtown Beloit. The two amble north and west together through the city’s west side neighborhoods for a spell before Highway 213 branches off to the northwest, eventually connecting with U.S. 14 to Madison.
Meanwhile, Highway 81 heads out of Beloit and begins a rolling hill journey through the farmlands of Rock County, close to the Illinois state line for quite a while. A brief detour down County H about six miles west of Beloit brings you to Beckman Mill County Park, which features a working, restored grist mill constructed in 1868 and plenty of recreation and 19th century displays in a nice park setting covering 52 acres.
The rest of the ride on Highway 81 is fairly remote; you won’t find a gas station for probably 20 miles along this stretch, but you will find nice views. Shortly after entering Green County, Highway 81 meets up with Highway 11; the two cross the Sugar River and the countryside begins to hint at the larger hills and valleys that lie ahead. This stretch of Highway 11/81 is a major route across Wisconsin’s southern tier, which is evident as you skim Juda and head towards Monroe.
*** BYPASS ALERT ***
At Monroe, Highways 81 & 11 bypass the city on a short freeway stretch; 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. You can then join Highway 69 northbound to re-join Highway 81 as it splits from 11 on 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.
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.
Out of downtown, heading south briefly on Highway 69 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 go west on 9th Street and then north on Highway 69 back to the Highway 11/81 bypass, where you can continue straight (and west-northwest) onto Highway 81 and it pushes deeper into southwestern Wisconsin’s Driftless Area.
The topography the rest of the way is one reason tourism is becoming a booming business in this part of the state. You’re leaving the cheese country of Green County and heading into Lafayette County, which has a long mining history. Shortly into the county and about 15 miles since Monroe, Highway 81 reaches Argyle (pop. 823). A Scotsman named Allen Wright founded the town in 1844, who named it after the Duke of Argyle. Here, Highway 78 intersects briefly with Highway 81 and crosses the river past the Argyle Power Plant into downtown. Turning north again, you’ll spot an F-86 Sabrejet Aircraft. Perched at an altitude of about 8 feet above ground, this aircraft was delivered to the Air Force in 1955 and demilitarized in 1970. Colonel Amos Waage, an Argyle native, obtained the plane and dedicated it to all military personnel from the area.
More twisting and turning dominates the drive along Highway 81 west of Argyle, over hills, into valleys and past a quarry or two. Next up is Lafayette County’s county seat, Darlington (pop. 2,418), which calls itself the “Pearl of the Pecatonica River”, harkening 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.
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.
Highway 81 hooks up with Highway 23 for the ride south out of Darlington; while 23 then heads south toward Highway 11, 81 breaks west and heads on a long straightaway path into Grant County, where it hooks up with Highway 80. After a crossing with the new expressway section of U.S. 151, you hit the town in Wisconsin with some of the state’s richest mining history.
Platteville (pop. 9,989) is the largest city in Grant County and the primary college town in southwestern Wisconsin. Originally home to a teaching college and the Wisconsin Mining School, the two merged in 1959 and became part of the University of Wisconsin system in 1971. Today, UW-Platteville (UW-P for short) teaches over 6,000 students and features an engineering department respected around the world. UW-P launched some good basketball coaching careers too, including that of Rob Jeter (now at UW-Milwaukee) and of course Bo Ryan, who went to UW-Milwaukee and then UW-Madison, where he coached the Badgers to multiple Final Fours and even the National Championship game in 2015 (where they lost to Duke, of all teams… grumble grumble…).
Highway 81 is just off Second Street, the main street downtown for students to relax, some (um, over 21s only) with various beverages in hand. The music scene is surprisingly robust in Platteville; taverns actually help fund some musical acts and one, known then as Envy, won MTV’s Best Bands on Campus Contest. Vibrant restaurants, galleries, and bars line the streets, with a State Trunk Tour favorite being Steve’s Pizza Palace (175 W. Main, 608-348-3136), which is right along Highway 81 downtown.
Platteville offers an arboretum and two museums. The Mining Museum traces the history of – you guessed it – mining throughout the Upper Mississippi valley. Models, artifacts, dioramas, pictures, and a guided tour complete with a walk into a real lead mine and a ride on a train (weather permitting) are offered. The Rollo Jamison Museum started with little Rollo Jamison collecting old arrowheads on his family farm in 1899. Over 20,000 items are now part of the museum’s collection, chronicling history of all kinds. Both museums are located just off Highway 81 along Main Street, which parallels Highway 81 one block north as it jogs onto Pine Street, right when it leaves Highway 80.
For a time, Platteville hosted the Chicago Bears’ summer camp on its UW-P campus and enjoyed the economic benefits that went with it, but they decided to move back to Illinois (friggin’ Bears.)
With the exception of a portion of downtown, the straight streets and grid systems often found in American cities and towns aren’t quite reflected in Platteville. A vast network of mines exist underneath the city, and streets were built in locations to avoid being directly on top of them – a good idea no doubt cooked up by engineering students. Highway 81 enters Platteville with Highway 80, then heads west along Pine Street, north on Chestnut, west on Adams and then northwest out of town along Lancaster Street. On the way to (surprise!) Lancaster.
Heading northwest out of Platteville, the ride is incredibly scenic, right down to the view to the east: the World’s Largest M.
More on this soon, as well as the rest of the trip through Lancaster to Cassville!
Cassville (pop. 947), a pleasant yet remote burg on the Mississippi River. Cassville is considered one of the best sites in the Midwest for viewing eagles, as this is a prime area for their migration. Cassville was originally settled in 1827 and was named after the Territorial Governor of the time, Lewis Cass (this was Michigan Territory at the time, by the way.) The fledgling burg threw its hat in the ring to become the capitol of Wisconsin Territory when it was first organized in 1836. While it failed in that regard, it attracted a new resident, Nelson Dewey. Drawn to Cassville from his native New York State, Dewey became Wisconsin’s first Governor when it became a state in 1848.
State Trunk Tour Tidbit:
Cassville is the southernmost Wisconsin community located directly on the Mississippi River.
Cassville is also known for the Cassville Car Ferry (608-725-5180), which makes the run from Cassville to Turkey Creek, Iowa. It’s the only river crossing between Dubuque and Prairie du Chien, and still serves as the oldest operating ferry service in Wisconsin – Cassville has been served by a river ferry in some form or another since 1833. Click here for a schedule and fare information.
Cassville is a powerful place, too: a major power plant is located here, which provides both electricity and employment to the town (however, not too long ago there were two major power plants.) For recreation, relaxation, hiking or even camping, a great stop is Nelson Dewey State Park, which begins right across from Stonefield. The State Park covers 756 acres of Stonefield’s original 2,000 and offers bird watching, picnicking and six hiking trails. You can also find various Indian mounds. The park is just north of Cassville; follow County Highway VV just off Highway 133 and it will take you right to it.
Once into Cassville, Highway 81 ends at the Mississippi River and Highway 133, which also serves as the Great River Road. Highway 133 provides access to the Cassville Car Ferry via Crawford Street if you want to meander across the river to Iowa via ferry!
You can also head south on Highway 133 to Potosi to check out the Potosi Brewery and the National Brewery Museum, or north on Highway 133 to see Stonefield, a 2,000 acre historic site that was once the country estate of the aforementioned Nelson Dewey. When the house was completed in 1868, one Wisconsin newspaper described it as “the showplace of Wisconsin with its beautiful green lawns, gardens and orchards, stables and other buildings, and miles of stone fences.” The original home burned down in 1873, but it was rebuilt by General Walter Cass in the 1890s for his home, a building which still stands today. The land was acquired by the Wisconsin Conservation Commission in 1936, and the State designated the area a historic site in 1954. Today, it houses a cornucopia of historical treasures, including the State Agricultural Museum. Completed in 1971, the Museum houses Wisconsin’s largest collection of farm tools, models and machinery detailing Wisconsin’s agricultural history. There’s also a railroad display and a recreated farming village. Check it all out in greater detail here.
Can connect immediately to: Interstate 39, Interstate 90, Interstate 43
Can connect nearby to: Highway 67, about 2 miles south; U.S. Highway 51, about 3 miles west; Highway 213, about 3 miles west