Say “Wisconsin” to almost anyone, and they’re likely to think of cheese. There is cheese in this story, but you’ll have to wait for it. This is a trip along US 8, which runs through pinewoods, across rivers, and along lakes in the north woods. As we approached the highway strange creatures appeared out of the fog. Along one side of the Saint Croix Trail was the Franconia Sculpture Park.
As we strolled the grounds, creations of all sorts emerged from the mist, some quite realistic, others taking a good bit of scrutiny before we could puzzle out what they were. At one end of the park is a large sturdy farmhouse that’s home to the several artists in residence.
Toward the back of the property are workshops, a welding shop, a foundry, and piles and piles of materials. The park has a gift and information shop near the parking lot and offers community maker days at which you can learn how to work metal or wood with guidance from the rotating staff of artists.
Below the Saint Croix River bridge, the wild rice waved as the river passed around it. A canoe worked through the stand, collecting ripe grain. This is an annual harvest, conducted mostly by the native Anishinabe people who’ve lived here for millennia. Once the canoe is full of dark grains, the processing begins. First, the rice is dried in the sun.
Finally, it’s passed in front of a fan or the wind to blow the chaff away. There are more mechanized methods for all these things, but if you’re lucky, you can be here at harvest time and see it done this way.
Northern Wisconsin is sprinkled with interesting things to see, and if you’re willing to wander a bit, you can see many of them from route 8. We consulted a list of creameries and found the Comstock Creamery a few miles north on US 63. This is an old school cheese house, with milk being delivered from local farms in the back, while the cheese is going out the front.
Many samples were available, and we left with several items intended for friends and family back home. Most of them did not survive the rest of the trip, but we enjoyed them all. This was a great place for conversation, with locals coming i and out to stock up for the holidays. Several suggested we make time for the local cranberry festival, and nearly everyone told us not to miss Louie’s Finer Meats a few miles farther north.
We’ve learned not to ignore recommendations like these, and even though it was a detour from a detour, off to Louie’s we went. A big smoker and an industrial size barbecue grill were set up and smoking in the parking lot when we arrived. Inside, the meat counter ran the forty foot length of the store, and the wall behind it was covered with certificates and award ribbons from international sausage competitions—there were more than a hundred dating back decades.
On a counter was one of those rotating three-tier pizza display warmers, each level loaded with hot sausage samples. First cheese, now sausage, and we thought we might not need to eat for a day or two. More goodies for the fridge, and we got into the Roadtrek a bit more slowly than before. For better or worse, our next stop was at the Norske Nook a few miles distant in Rice Lake. This Norwegian eatery is as celebrated for its pies as Louie’s is for its sausage. We parked in the lot right next to a Roadtrek of the same vintage as ours, and visited with its owners as we waited for our order.
The menu includes specialties like lefse and meatballs, but we settled for pie. Sometimes a day seems to be all about eating, and this one was way up there on the list. One of the nice things about driving a road like US 8 is that it runs straight and long and travels through many interesting small towns, but has relatively little traffic. In this case, it was also a very nice surface, free of potholes and construction.
We followed it to Ladysmith and the Toad House. A big porch wrapped around two sides of the house, with a comfortable bench looking out toward the town. Piled on one end were several large zucchinis and two but Hubbard squashes almost as big as beach balls.
A sign above them offered: “if you can carry it, you can have it.” Inside, a cozy cafe served up homemade bread and soups. Side rooms were full of work by local artists. A whole set of meticulously crafted felted animals prowled the shelves and tables, some life size, others miniature.
There were watercolors of flowers and wildlife and landscapes, and jewelry made from polished stones and worked silver. Upstairs a weaver welcomed us into her studio and told us about the jacquard method she used to create tablecloths and tapestries. Local authors were also on display, with a rack of children’s book, memoirs, and novels.
Fred Smith, we discovered was an artist of quite a different sort. A retired lumberjack, who never learned to read or write, he chose to spend his retirement years sculpting people, animals, and objects out of concrete. Studded with smooth stones and bits of glass, his life-size works capture the events and personalities of his time.
Want to see a twelve-foot surgeon? A twenty mule team? A politician with his hand in someone’s pocket? Look no farther than the Fred Smith Concrete Park, now run by a non-profit foundation dedicated to preserving the sculptures and encouraging other for artists in their work.
We ended the day with some relatives who live on the Wisconsin River. It is tradition, they told us, in the northwoods, to eat fish fry on Friday night. So much so that when they moved to the area a year ago, a friend gave them a book of more than twenty two-for-one fish fry coupons to different bars and restaurants so they could select their favorites for regular attendance.
So after a day of cheese, sausage, pie, and soup, we sat around a high-top table at the North Wind Bar, sipping a beer and eating fried walleye. Come on along to northern Wisconsin. There’s plenty here to see and do, all of it off the beaten path.
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