Wisconsinites just can’t escape from the image of a cheese-hat wearing, summer sausage chomping, Schlitz beer gulping stereotype. When I tell people I lived in the Wisconsin for a few years they just can’t get over the fact that I do not (nor ever will) adorn myself in green and gold while visiting the church of Green Pay Packers (Lambeau Stadium). I swear there are people in that fair land (and the Wisconsin Tourism Agency is not paying me to say this) who really do have hobbies that expand beyond making their own venison, riding a snowmobile and following their state’s pro-football team.
In Southwestern Wisconsin, people are crazy for preserving their ethnic heritage. I certainly wouldn’t fly from Rome to spend a month in the area of Wisconsin donned "the Uplands," but such an area is worth checking out for a day or two if you already are in the Midwest, perhaps visiting Al Capone’s Chicago or Laverne and Shirley’s Milwaukee.
The other weekend I left Chicago for Blue Mounds, Wisconsin, population: 610. After passing the Illinois/Wiscosin border and the dozen or so nudie bars, adult game stores and truck accessory stores, I saw the sign for where I would stay: Blue Mound State Park. Duck-taped onto the exit sign was a poster that read, "Welcome Home, Joe." What a nice little town, I thought. Who was Joe and where he was coming back from?
I turned off the highway and flipped on the radio. Heavy metal, country or Christian rock. I screeched along with Guns-n-Roses almost with a lump in my throat. Ah, memories of hanging out in the girls bathroom and scratching, "Christine loves Rick" on the stall door. Yes, this trip would certainly be Tintern Abbey-esque.
For anyone who has trekked the Alps, Cascades, Appalachians or any other impressive range, Blue Mounds may disappoint, but for a midwesterner, the scenery is refreshing.
And the area is geologically interesting. The glaciers did not push there way through southwestern Wisconsin, so the landscape is hilly, complete with your babbling creeks, horse ranches and orchards. Blue Mound State Park boasts a look-out tower where "on a clear day" you can see Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota. While admiring the view at sunset, I heard screams and feet pounding up the tower stairs. As I gauged the distance between the tower and a cluster of oak trees, thinking I may have to do a Tarzan maneuver, I realized it was just a bunch of kids playing "Captive." This is a nightly summertime ritual of theirs so I wouldn’t recommend bringing your honey here for a smooch session.
After Blue Mounds, I discovered "Little Norway" situated in the "Nissedahle" or Valley of the Elves, three miles away. It is a cluster of Norwegian style farmhouses that some big wig from Chicago (of Norwegian descent) bought at the turn of the century. Eventually he bought the jewel of the property, a "stavekirke," or stave church and turned the settlement into a tourist hot spot. The church, which was built in Norway for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, was also owned at one time by the famed Wrigley family who were said to have shown their home movies in it. "Little Norway" tours are given by a fun staff of Norwegian descent, most who have lived in the area all their lives and dress in traditional Norwegian attire on Sundays. Granted I was the youngest visitor and we moved rather slowly through the settlement, it was dare I say, charming. Every farm house was decently preserved, boasting a well-kept antique collection. But if you have no interest in seeing hand crafted, wooden antiques or learning about the history of Norwegian immigration to the US, skip this place and head to nearby Mount Horeb where they have the Mustard Museum.
Also boasting an exotic arrangement of antiques is the Chalet of the Golden Fleece, a house converted to a museum in New Glaurus, 20 minutes south of Little Norway. New Glarus has been known as "Little Switzerland" after 150 immigrants from the Swiss canton of Glarus founded the settlement in 1845. The collection at the Chalet of the Golden Fleece was built by a bachelor orphan who had the rough life of never having to hold down a job. He spent his life traveling around the world and picking up knick-knacks with his adopted mother’s money. Two little old ladies of Swiss descent spent over an hour walking through the rooms with me, filling me in on the history of each trinket in the house. Apart from the china and scarf collections that were a snooze, there is a pocket watch once owned by Louis XVI and a pair of 2,000 year old Etruscan earrings, in addition to numerous Swiss wood carvings.
New Glarus also has a Swiss settlement similar to the one at Little Norway. Skip it and head to the New Glarus microbrewery. They brew six year-round and seven seasonal beers. Edel-Pils, Uff-Da Bock and Staghorn are local favorites. Take a tour and savor the free samples.
For those wine connoisseurs, visit the Wollersheim Vineyard 30 minutes north of Madison. They have tours everyday, every fifteen minutes past the hour. Enjoy your free samples, buy some wine (my favorite is the Prarie Fumé) and sip it in the wine garden where they also serve nibblets of Wisconsin cheese. And finally, if you’re in the area during the first full weekend in October, don’t miss Wollersheim’s grape stomp.
To receive a travel booklet on The Uplands, call 1-800-279-9472 or email: SW Wisc@aol.com