At 9 AM sharp on a sunny August morning, staff writers Selin, Rosalinda, Nancy, Patricia and I met with our editors Adaeze and Aarushi at the Free Press office. We were ready to hit the road to tour historic southwestern Wisconsin.
Making sure we had our roadmaps, cameras, notebooks and tape recorders, we divided ourselves between two cars and set off west. Riding in the car, we watched as the highway slowly turned into rolling hills and country roads in Wisconsin’s driftless area – the southwest part of Wisconsin that wasn’t smoothed down by glaciers.
Our first stop was Mount Horeb Public Library. Mount Horeb is a small, old-fashioned town located about 40 minutes from Madison. There, we had a short planning meeting. Our editors gave us a crash course in Wisconsin geography and taught us how to use a Gazetteer and a road atlas. We decided that the Mount Horeb Library should be included in our popular “My Favorite Library” series.
We spent some time in Mt. Horeb before the next leg of our journey. We headed toward the Carr Cheese Place in Fennimore, Wisconsin.
We sampled various cheeses at the Cheese Place. It is a small store that once produced many different types of cheeses on site, but now specializes in “bread cheese.” Originally made from reindeer milk, bread cheese comes from Finland. It looks like bread but tastes like cheese and never melts, even in a 535˚F oven. Surprisingly, when dipped in maple syrup it tastes like French toast.
Next, we drove to Stonefield Village, a 50-year-old museum on property near the Mississippi. It once belonged to Nelson Dewey, the first governor of Wisconsin.
First, our well-studied tour guide, Dale, took us through the Agriculture
Museum. There, Dale explained to us the history and evolution of agriculture equipment. Detailed exhibits demonstrated how Wisconsin gradually evolved from an agriculture state to a dairy state.
After the museum, we got a tour of Stonefield Village itself. Stonefield Village is an authentic looking reconstruction that consists of different buildings built the way they would have looked 100 years ago. There was a schoolhouse, a doctor’s office, a church, a fire station, and an extensive collection of businesses—a broom store, hat store, barbershop, malt shop, and much more. It really gave us an idea of how people lived at that time.
The day was filled with new knowledge, surprises, and plenty of walking. Exhausted, we settled into our hotel located in Belmont, the first capital of Wisconsin. Lucky for us, we got to sleep in the next day. We met in the lobby late the next morning and headed to our next stop, the Rollo Jamison Mining Museum in Platteville.
That day we gained even more appreciation of Wisconsin’s history. The mining economy in this part of the state drove early settlement. We visited the Mining Museum and explored the Pendarvis mining settlement in Mineral Point. Both these sites were an easy drive from Madison and well worth a road trip.
The Mining Museum really gave us perspective on the life of a miner. Our tour guide took us down into an actual mine that was used for mining lead. It was 50 degrees in the mine, which felt unusually cool compared to the hot weather outside.
Before underground mining started, Wisconsin miners would dig 8x8 holes, nicknamed “badger holes”, where they would mine and sleep. Soon Wisconsin was known as the Badger State.
To invest in the mining boom, the Cornish people from Cornwall, England moved to Wisconsin. They brought with them lots of new equipment and techniques that made it possible for miners to dig deeper mines. Settlements formed around mines and the small mining towns in southwestern Wisconsin were often close to each other.
After the Mining Museum, we drove to our last stop – Mineral Point. Mineral Point is a city close to Platteville that also specialized in mining.
We stopped by a historical site called Pendarvis. Pendarvis was formed in the 1930s by two men, Bob Neal and Edgar Hellum. They preserved buildings in order to help people keep up with old traditions. They grew gardens and opened a restaurant where they made traditional Cornish food, which drew visitors from all over, including the famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.
In the 1970’s, the Wisconsin Historical Society obtained the property and turned it into a historical museum. Today’s tourists can see how Cornish people lived during Wisconsin’s lead-mining days.
In Mineral Point, we visited the old-timey Red Rooster Café. Here we sat at old-fashioned bar stools and ate authentic Cornish pasties.
After a long day, we got in our cars and headed back to Madison. We reflected on all of the history we had experienced in the past two days. Everyone agreed that this was not only a very educational trip, but also a very eye-opening experience. None of us knew how essential mining and agriculture were to Wisconsin’s economy.
This trip was also fun. The hills and valleys of the driftless area make for some awesome scenery. A road trip to southwestern Wisconsin is a great way to learn about history.