Wisconsin: A Farm-Lover's Trip Through the Midwest
This is the great American Midwest with a bracing dash of weird: Where else will you find an albino muskrat, world-class waterslides, and a truly foul cheese?
In eight years of annual road trips, my friend Shawnda and I have never seen anything like the Garbage Plate atFranks Diner in Kenosha. We're at the counter, watching in horror as the cook fills plates with a heaping mishmash of eggs, ham, hash browns, and more. It looks like someone stepped on Paul Bunyan's omelet."
What's up, chicken butt?" asks our waiter. "Ready to order?" Franks is proudly sassy, and we're immediately dubbed the Magellans because we had to call twice from the road for directions. It's the kind of place where everyone feels at home. When we slap down money for the check, the patron next to us gets our change from the register.
Taking a tip from Jerome Pohlen'sOddball Wisconsin, a 2001 book that proves indispensable (if a little out of date), we meander over to Burlington. In 1929, two reporters made up a story about a lie-off between the fire and police departments. The following year, the Burlington Liars' Club contest was held for real. Plaques downtown honor the winning lies, such as one from someone in 1976 who saw a worm "steal the fur coat off a caterpillar" during a cold spell.
The sandwiches atThe Elegant Farmerin Mukwonago are blah, but the apple pie is the best we've ever had. We ponder buying a tub of frozen cherries, then think better of it.
Desperate to do something besides eat, we drive north to theHoricon Marsh State Wildlife Area. It's the largest freshwater cattail marsh in the U.S., as well as (according to the website) a Wetland of International Importance and a Globally Important Bird Area. Unfortunately, it's also a National Mosquito Refuge—the insects are biting us right through our clothes—and we have no choice but to abort our walk.
At theFountain Prairie Inn & Farms, an 1899 Victorian farmhouse in Fall River lovingly restored by John and Dorothy Priske, we take the two smaller rooms (of five total) and share a bathroom down the hall. The inn is airy and nice, not fusty and crammed with knickknacks like many B&Bs are. Dorothy is a sweetheart, and Shawnda develops a crush on Ace, the Priskes' manic English springer spaniel. We also get a kick out of watching the farm's Highland cattle in the pasture: They're magnificent creatures.
Dorothy directs us to James Street Dining Company in Columbus for dinner (it has since closed). My filet is delicious, and we both enjoy the pumpkin bread with spice butter. As we debate dessert, the waitress approaches. "I have to ask," she says. "Are you celebrating anything?" We later daydream possible answers: our third marriage, a prison break, National Pickle Month....
Back at the inn, we finally get to meet Dorothy's husband, John, who is also super friendly. He's sorry that he won't see us tomorrow morning, but he has to get up before dawn because it's "butcher day." When the Priskes say that Fountain Prairie is a working farm, they're not kidding.
Fountain Prairie Inn & FarmsW1901 State Rd. 16, Fall River, 866/883-4775, fountainprairie.com, from $99
Franks Diner 508 58th St., Kenosha, 262/657-1017, franksdinerkenosha.com, half Garbage Plate $7
Elegant Farmer1545 Main St., Mukwonago, 262/363-6770, elegantfarmer.com, pie $2
Horicon Marsh State Wildlife Area N7728 Hwy. 28, Horicon, 920/387-7860, dnr.state.wi.us/org/land/wildlife/wildlife_areas/horicon
I wake up early and take many photos of the fog blanketing the pastures. Ace and I chill in the gazebo for 10 minutes, and then I return upstairs, where Dorothy has left a tray of coffee. She serves us breakfast in the dining room, and explains that most of the ingredients are from the area. The apple cider tastes more like apples than apples do.
Dorothy asks if she may join us for coffee, and we grill her about the restoration and what it's like to own a B&B. The Priskes have yet to start on the third floor; it turns out there's a ballroom upstairs. They clearly believe in the importance of farm life and local, sustainable food, as do Shawnda and I, so we're kind of embarrassed to tell her we're headed to kitschy Wisconsin Dells.
But first (kudos again toOddball Wisconsin) we check out the "Aliens and Oddities" exhibit at theMacKenzie Environmental Education Center. Inside what looks like a serial killer's shed is the field trippers' reward for putting up with the educational stuff: a hermaphroditic deer's one-antlered skull, an albino muskrat, and a two-headed piglet in a jar filled with formaldehyde. (Apparently, some kids once stole the jar so they could dip their cigarettes in the liquid and smoke them.)