Friday, July 8, 2016


We had spent several hours that morning debating if we should take a little time off and if we did were would we go. On a perfect spring day in Wisconsin day trips are extremely hard to resist. A large part of Wisconsin's economy is tourist based. It's a state filled with small town and northern woods charm. For as long as we've been here we've barely touched  all the dots on our to-do list of regions, towns, and artist colonies we'd like to see. Granted we do have our favorites, those places we've been to more than once and will continue to visit but this time we decided to go to a destination we hadn't been to before. We set our GPS for the southwestern portion of Wisconsin, piled into the car, and hit the gas. There were two routes to Prairie du Chien that popped up: a northern track and a southern track both with some added towns along the way. We flipped a coin making our choice a choice of fate taking the northern route with the option of taking the southern route back.
The northern route was scenic but we weren't swayed into stopping anywhere along the route. Instead we drove straight to Prairie du Chien, the Mississippi River and the reason for going to Prairie du Chien - Villa Louis. We arrived just in time to see a flock of mischievous third graders all gathering around for the next tour of the estate. Trying to accompany thirty some screaming children on a one hour plus tour was more than we were willing to deal with.
The next tour was canceled because of a staffing shortage which meant we were better than two hours away from seeing what had been billed as the finest example of British Arts and Crafts interiors in a rural setting in the United States.
All the more reason to contemplate a return possibly in September when the town decks itself out in period attire and horse drawn carriages roam the grounds as the area recreates the Artesian Stock farm days of yore in their annual Villa Louis Carriage Classic event.
Giving up on the Villa we switched course and headed into town hoping to find a bustling tourist trade of shops and restaurants.
Prairie du Chien may not have been the best choice. The main street was quaint and serene, serene being the most aptly descriptive modifier. There was barely a shop to go into, the sidewalks gave you plenty of room since they were devoid of pedestrians
and the only place we felt comfortable going into for lunch was Pete's Hamburgers because it was the only place we could find that wasn't smoke filled, actually it had no inside seating at all. I do have to say that there's a good reason Pete's been open since 1909 and it's the hamburgers prepared on a sizzling grill and smothered in fried onions. As the menu demands you purchase them in quantities along with your drinks. We had at it and order a heaping order. You then get a choice of ketchup and/or two types of mustard and that's it. After wiping the grease from our chins we decided on heading across the Mississippi into Iowa to see if the scenery there was any better
The first Iowa town across the river is Marquette. It's a spit of a town that almost slips into the Mississippi while nestled into the sandstone cliffs on the western side of Ol' Man River. A great Victorian church that has long since lost its congregation sits on a rise leading to the top of the cliff. A cluster of antique stores makes up its downtown but most of them were still closed waiting for the tourist season to kick in.
The only thing hopping or more likely limping on was the Lucky Lady paddleboat casino permanently docked on Marquette's banks. Not being gamblers or at least not with our money we decided to gamble on one more town. It would be a one-mile journey south to McGregor.
McGregor made up for the shortcomings of Prairie du Chien and Marquette. It reestablished our belief in having pointed our car west. We knew we'd find a better Americana somewhere on this day trip. The first thing of note is a set of reproduction clapboard buildings on a brick street in front of a tiny triangular park.
The buildings claim an origin dating to 1857 but the real story probably puts them closer to a decade or two ago. Non-the-less, I can stomach a bit of recreated architectural history. It happens all over the world.
Even Italy has its Pienza, a Tuscan town built for Pope Pius II to represent an ideal Renaissance town well after the Renaissance had passed
On the other side of the park was a rare and used bookstore that we could have spent hours in. The prices indicated his sales were more likely from an Internet clientele than a local one.
One oddity that we hadn't seen outside the cliff dwellers of New Mexico was McGregor's similar solution to housing. The town doesn't have much room to expand onto. The cliffs that run along the Mississippi only left a thin strip of land for the town to build on before the fifty to sixty foot cliffs cut off further development. Some early settlers decided the way to go was to chisel their homes right into the cliff, or so we assumed. There were staircases leading to doors that appeared to be dwellings. This may also have been one way to avoid the flood waters that assult these riverside communities on a fairly frequent basis.
For some reason while the shops of Prairie du Chien and Marquette seemed to be fighting for survival the commerce in McGregor seemed to be doing fine.
Had we started here on our little day trip I think we would have spent a lot more time in McGregor exploring the antique shops, a passion and a curse for us, and the specialty shops lining the vaster main street.

By the time we reached the three-quarter point the open signs were being flipped to closed and we needed to start heading back to Madison. We now have the last quarter of Main Street to use as an excuse for returning.

Goldshlack Caddie, 1973
Will Brown, photographer
Represented by Laurence Miller Gallery

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