Get Out of Town
By Jeremy Saperstein
I think Wisconsin is the best state in the union in which to live.
Okay, I’ll grant you that I’ve only lived in two others, but my search pretty much ended here. To quote myself, from a postcard I wrote to a pal back in Minnesota “Small towns, cheap beer – Good God, man! What more could you want?”
I wrote that in the last century, when I was young, foolish and drunk, but my views haven’t changed. Wooed by the hills, farms and – yes – the inexpensive beer, I moved to southeast Wisconsin years ago, and I haven’t looked back.
Before any enraged festival goers or hog riders march on my house like the villagers in a monster movie, clutching pitchforks and burning torches, let me issue a small caveat: I have no problem with the festivities. Like most everyone, though, I sometimes just want to be alone. On the other hand, there are always concerts I want to see at Summerfest. And I have nothing but admiration and respect for the fierce loyalty and brand recognition Willie G. has built for his all-American endeavor. I welcome the fests. Really.
Sometimes, though, you need to get away. Because we’ve chosen to live in a town bordered by a Great Lake on the east and Chicago to the south, there aren’t a lot of directions you can ramble without becoming wet or swarmed by FIBS (a nice acronym for our southern neighbors). I’m not talking about needing an island paradise, or even the great Northwoods. There’s plenty of leisure to be taken right here in our fair state, within just a few hours by car.
Start by going south
Somebody once wrote this about diners in Wisconsin:
Good diners in Wisconsin always have an indigenous dish for breakfast – a Mess, a Garbage Plate, a Scramble. They’re all based on scrambled eggs and sausage or peppers or onions or whatever else the pro prietor likes or needs to move off the shelves, and they all take on legendary qualities for fighting off hang overs among locals.
With this in mind, one of the first stops you make could be Frank’s Diner in Kenosha (508 58th St., Kenosha). Frank’s breakfast specialty is the Garbage Plate, and is a huge mixture of ham, green peppers, eggs, hash browns and jalapeno peppers, and will stomp any hangover into the ground.
An original railcar diner, Frank’s is located in the heart of downtown Kenosha and has a reputation that has outlasted owners and patrons alike. “Order what you want, eat what you get” originated as a tongue-in-cheek motto among the regulars (including local luminaries and politicos) and has become, I’m told, a t-shirt slogan. Pleasantly full diners can then explore Kenosha’s Public Museum with its wooly mammoth skeleton, browse the many antique stores located downtown, or stop in at the truly unique Mike Bjorn’s Clothing World And Zeppelin Museum.
Frank’s in Kenosha is open breakfast hours (M-F 6-2, S 7-2, Su 7-1).
Then, west a little
Traveling west from Kenosha wins style points (riding into the sunset, following Horace Greeley’s advice and all that jazz) and offers a passel of interesting things to see and do.
You can stop for lunch in Monroe, about 30 miles south of Madison at Baumgartner’s (1023 16th Ave, Monroe), a prime example of everything that’s great about the state. Originally a cheesemaker’s supply store when it opened in 1931, beer and sandwiches were offered to the best customers. Eventually, anyone could go into the back room (with the dollar bill-covered ceiling) and enjoy a fresh tap of Huber (the brewery is literally just around the corner) and the best damn cheese sandwich I’ve ever had.
Baumgartner’s claims to sell more Limburger cheese sandwiches than any other restaurant in the world. I can’t attest to the veracity of that claim, nor can I tell you how great they are, since I’m a sissy and I’ve never tried one. Some of my pals, though, have made a beeline for that corner of the state to gorge themselves on Limburger sandwiches after returning from long times away in far-off lands. The sandwiches are served with a slice of raw onion and a mint, which might be an exercise in futility.
The only factory in America that produces Limburger cheese, incidentally, is in nearby Paoli. In 1935, Monroe’s postmaster engaged in a sniffing duel with a postmaster in Iowa to determine whether the odor of Limburger in transit was a fragrance or a stench. The debate came to an end when a decision held that Limburger was simply exercising its constitutional right to “hold its own against all comers.”
Baumgartner’s is open 7 days a week, 8am- “close”, which is sometime between 10 pm and midnight.
Overwhelmed by the Dells? Try Little A-Merrick-A
One of the most uniquely American things possible is to manufacture your own tourist attraction. Sometimes it’s as simple as collecting a huge ball of string and charging admission to see it. And while there are still traces of the great American spirit of homemade entrepeneurialism to be found in the Dells, for a full dose (plus lower prices and less driving), you’ll want to try Little A-Merrick-A.
Located between Milwaukee and Madison, Little A-Merrick-A offers over 20 rides including classics like the Tilt-A-Whirl, Scrambler and Mad Mouse, plus 19 holes of adventure mini-golf and the Whiskey River Railway, a 1/3 size railroad with both steam and diesel engines and over three miles of track. Ride the Pumpkin Train in the fall and the Christmas Tree Train in the winter.
There are no parking or general admission fees, and you can purchase individual ride tickets. But an all day pass is just $10 for kids, $13 for anyone over 42″ tall. You can get a Gold Pass for just $20 that gets you unlimited access to all the rides, plus mini-golf and the go-karts.
Take I-94 West to SR-73, Exit 250, then North 4 miles. Turn right onto SR-19, which is also Main Street. Open 7 days a week from noon to 6pm, Memorial Day through Labor Day. The park is open weekends in September from noon to 6pm. (608) 655-3181 for recorded info.
Wisconsin’s Swiss Fun destination
Monroe is in a part of the state that takes its cheese – and its Swiss heritage – pretty seriously. Green County hosts Cheese Days in even-numbered years, an event that may be the penultimate Wisconsin small-town festival and has been described as “three days of beer, brats and cheese.” Nearby New Glarus (where Library Assistant Director Jaime Vaché graciously offered me tireless assistance with this article) hosts a multitude of Swiss-oriented events each summer: The Wilhelm Tell Drama (in both English and German), a Labor Day tradition since 1938; Heidi Fest; Volksfest, celebrating Swiss Independence Day; Polkafest; Kilby Weekend (a Swiss harvest festival); and many more.
Edwin Barlow, the founder of the Wilhelm Tell Drama, built an authentic Swiss-style chalet in 1937 as his private residence and filled it with an incredible assortment of stuff from his travels. Now it’s a municipal museum – The Museum Of The Golden Fleece (open daily 10:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. May 24 – Oct 31). To quote from the Chamber of Commerce’s website: “Visitors are amazed at the size of the collection—a full three floors—of painted furniture, antique silver and pewter, original artwork, paintings and etchings, samplers, prints, Swiss scissors cutting, quilts, fabrics, antique glass and china, coins, stamps, Swiss woodcarvings and Swiss dolls”
The town at the end of the road
Traveling further west, the scenery becomes a little more rugged as cheese country gradually shifts into the mining country. New Diggings, once a prosperous mining center (as was much of the region, producing up to half of the nations lead in the 19th century) is now an out-of the-way destination, displayed on some maps as a town at the end of a road.
In town is the New Diggings General Store & Inn (a street address is decidedly unnecessary – if you can find the town, you can find the tavern). Their own press says it best: “If you’re looking for an authentic Wisconsin Tavern, look no further.” Now offering food and live music as well as a handful of rooms for rent, the Inn/Tavern presents an excellent overnight point for Milwaukee expatriates. They are known as an overnight destination for bikers (both authentic and nouveau) on short trips, but welcome all types of vehicular travelers.
Nicknamed “The Diggs,” call 608-965-3231 for hours and live music schedule.
On Golden Lake
The Miller family opened the beach during the Depression, to make ends meet. Anita Miller, now 82, still runs the place, but threatens each year to be the last before she finally retires. A call confirmed they will be open this season. After that, rumor has it the grandkids may turn the beach into boat slips for the owners of the tony vacation homes that surround the rest of Golden Lake. While nobody questions the rights of the heirs, it will be a sad day when this treasure is lost.
To get there, take I-94 west to Highway 67 and turn left, or south, to Highway 18. Take Highway 18 west (right) about three miles to Golden Lake. At the lake, turn right on Highway BB to the drive-in. (262) 965-2713.
And so many, many more…
While I was researching and writing this article, I discovered that everybody had their own favorite place they wanted me to include. Jaime Vaché of the New Glarus Public Library, while tirelessly telling me about what her town had to offer, also suggested I check out Spring Green. “Oh, I’ve been there,” I said, with all the pride I could muster. “I’ve been to Taliesin and House On The Rock.”
“No, no,” she said, “you should check out downtown – it’s pretty unique!” Sadly, although I now trust her implicitly (after all, would a lying person rush to assist some kook calling from Milwaukee?), I haven’t been able to follow up on her advice.
I’m sure I will, though, just as sure I am that I’ve missed at least one of every reader’s favorite places — and I’ve not been able to write about many more due to space limitations. I’ve added a list of websites you can check out for more info.
Feel free to drop me an email or regular letter with places I should check out. Oh, and be sure the check out the New Glarus Library’s annual book sale on Sunday, August 31st, from 9am to 5pm in the Village Hall (it coincides with the Wilhelm Tell Festival).