Hixon House, La Crosse, Wisconsin

August 19, 2011

By Brian D’Ambrosio

Gideon Cooley Hixon (1826-1892) accumulated a fortune in lumber, finance, and business, and this nineteenth-century baron utilized the very best of the La Crosse, Wisconsin area’s wood for his own home. The Hixon House reflects Hixon’s contemporary preferences while providing a peek back in time at an authentic Victorian existence.

Hixon House

Begun in 1859, the Italianate house features gorgeous woodwork, opulent interior decoration, and an abundance of local wood – including a walnut entry, oak and birch parlor, and stunning cherry dining room – at a time when the sawmill was king. Gideon’s wife, Ellen, lovingly adorned the Hixon House in the Aesthetic fashion. There is a pervasive Oriental and Arabic influence in the house décor, which includes a teak ivory desk imported from China and parquet flooring.

The Turkish Nook room features a gold-gilt ceiling nook lined with anaglypta, a thick, embossed paper, covered in aluminum leaf and coated with a layer of amber-tinted varnish.

For the Hixon House restoration of 2005, the Turkish Nook’s surface was cleaned and repaired. Portieres were reproduced for the doorways leading into the nook. The kilm carpets that cover the banquette were cleaned and repaired. The Turkish Nook also includes a harem screen, a portable wall used to keep women from entering or peeking into the men’s private area.

Hixon House, La Crosse, Wisconsin

The dining room of the Hixon House features a wall covering of leaves that was likely painted by interior designer Joseph Twyman’s daughter in 1900-01; the chandelier is made of red pebbled glass.

The Hixon House is filled with dim, masculine colors and leather, which would have been appropriate to the turn of the twentieth century. The folio in the library room is stacked with sumptuous books, including rare sets describing east coast American architecture and foreign antique collections.Over the marble fireplace is a photo of Gideon Hixon.

The Gideon Hixon home stayed in the family until it was donated to La Crosse in 1962. “When the Hixons turned the house over to the historical society,” said Dan Moen of Moen Preservation, owner of the Artisan Preservation, the company which restored the Hixon House (interview with author June 2010). “the house had been intact and unchanged for at least 40 years.”

Hixon House, Wisconsin

Today, it stands a National Landmark Historical site, an excellent example of true Victorian architecture and “original” Victorian furnishings and clothing.

“About 90% of the furnishings in the house are original,” says Moen. “This is a really big deal because it shows that this house has not changed much since the turn of the twentieth century. Honestly, the same elements are in existence, and everything is here. From its inception, the house museum has adhered to the guidelines for historical preservation, and (the house) maintains that strong sense of antiquity and preservation.”

The two-year-long, $1.844 million restoration Moen performed from 2003-2005 included cleaning and rebuffing light fixtures, replacing old and faded carpets with exact reproductions, and reupholstering and reproducing different fabrics. He was especially careful not to undermine the structure’s evocative nature or the aesthetic wholeness of its history.

“Dark corridors remain dark corridors,” says Moen. “I believe that historical sites like this one should exude the feel and idea of total immersion. Here, you are on a little journey.”

Fiber mill in a village that rocks

May 10, 2011

I came to see machinery but before I was there five minutes I met a goddess.  I think Argyle is that kind of place.  You’ve gotta love these creative, entrepreneurial types.

From Michigan, the note in the box says, "State Fair #1"

The term “Fifty-mile Fiber” brought me here to check out the Argyle Fiber Mill, one of those great little destinations well off the thoroughfare.  Salt-of-the-Earth kind of people.   They raise animals – alpaca, Icelandic sheep and llamas –  in addition to cattle, pork and fowl of all kinds.  The Mill purchases fiber locally – thus the Fifty Mile goal – and provides retail services, consignment opportunities and a great place for aficionados to gather.

You can buy great yarns, including 100% Icelandic, 100% alpaca, blends using both or even the “houseblend”, which can include Icelandic, alpaca, llama, mohair, merino and whatever else they have small amounts of leftover.

The Mill does custom processing, mostly for breeders with small flocks.  They process fiber based on the specific needs of each customer and produce clouds, roving, batts and yarn.  When you deal with the Argyle Fiber Mill, you’re assured that you will get your own wool back.  “No minimum, no blending, your animal,” states a succinct Kristi.

They support and supply local fiber producers and artisans, although they have customers from throughout the Midwest and all around the country.  I kept thinking of how many neat knitted creations I’ve seen in shops recently that might have had some connection to this place.  Kristi says, “There isn’t a soul who doesn’t appreciate a hand knit item from someone they know and love.”

Kristi sets-up the spinning machine

I did get to see some neat equipment, by the way.  The Mill is a full-service operation located in an old hardware store.  The production action is in the rear of the building, and the techno-nerd in me loved the spinning machine, although there were quite a few other pieces of equipment there to wash and prepare fiber.  Nothing is wasted, and the day I visited they had some lesser quality fiber ready for making rugs.

The Mill sponsors a number of classes from time to time, but Wednesday nights have become a special time for gathering.  Argylia, Goddess of Knitting, Wine and Laughter, presides over a comfy spot in the lower level where people gather every Wednesday evening to knit, spin and chat.  They are the Argylian Society of Knitters.  Folks come quite a distance and represent a wide variety of ages, viewpoints, communities and expertise.  Most have animals.  The group makes items to donate, and has helped organizations like the Special Olympics, the Veterans Hospital and members of the armed forces.  Who would have thought about the need for a nice, knit helmet liner!

Argylia - Goddess of kintting, wine and laughter

I asked Kristi pointedly if it was true that Wednesday nights are when women gather to complain about their husbands and she said, “yup”.  Hmmmmm.  But she hit on the success of the group when she said, “Knitting remains a relaxing, soothing, comforting constant – and at the end of the day, you have something!”

The Argyle Fiber Mill represents more than just entrepreneurship; it is a place with a heart and a purpose beyond a job.  The people who run the place realize they are part of something bigger, certainly in the geographical sense and something larger attitudinally as well.  A community of spirit: People who support each other’s creativity.

And by the way, behind the door with the “Art Inside” sign is a great little studio where Pam works and plans community art classes.  So the Fiber Mill can probably also claim it is a business incubator, because I know that in that room they’re hatching some great ideas for community art projects.

Argyle is a postcard picturesque little community of about 800, on the Pecatonica River in Lafayette County.  It has its own hydroelectric plant on the river (how cool is that?), and was for a time the home to Wisconsin’s own Fighting Bob Lafollette.   Its community school survives and thrives – every kid in the district in one building that shares the playground with the village park next door.  The Pecatonica River winds through town and its wetlands grace the perimeter.  And you’ve got to see the turtle – designed and built by the students, local artists and artisans and scads of community members.  It took years but most everyone got involved in one way or another.

Historic Partridge Hall

Entrepreneurial communities are those places that create an environment that attracts, retains and supports talent.  I’ve seen some neat, thriving places in my time and Argyle is definitely an entrepreneurial community.  It is an industrious place with great history – something fairly common in agriculture country – but also welcomes new folks and new ideas and, frankly, the mixture makes the Village glow.

The Argyle hydro plant

By the way, if you’re into community development, don’t miss the 2011 regional conference, Building Economic Strength Together (BEST), held this year in Argyle on May 24.  There will be two business tours: the Fiber Mill and another excellent local business – the Thunder Bridge Trading Company.  Click here for more information.

The famous Argyle Turtle, designed and built by students, teachers, local artists and just about everyone else. Yup, you can crawl right through it!

Give Argyle a visit sometime soon.  It’s near Monroe, Darlington and Blanchardville and other neat places in southwest Wisconsin.  Together, they’re great day trip material.  You’ll find scores of shops and hundreds of creative, innovative people.

And you can also connect with the Fiber Mill folks through their Facebook page.

Do you know of an entrepreneurial community, either an urban neighborhood or a rural place?   Let us know about it.

Rick Rolfsmeyer, Hollandale, WI

Owen Conservation Park

May 10, 2011

By Brian D’Ambrosio (Author, Madison For Dads: 101-Dad-Related-Adventures

One of Madison, Wisconsin’s most dearly held secrets, the hiking and panorama at Owen Conservation Park offer great scenery of mixed woods and prairie, and a city skyline overlook. The view of the city shows only a scant percentage of the buildings and gives the impression that there is very little around but forest and country.

History of Owen Conservation Park

Madison has certainly grown since the early 1900s. On a summit showcasing the city’s west side, this 84-acre park was once the summer retreat of former University of Wisconsin French professor Edward T. Owen (1850 – 1931). He named it Torwald. Owen was not only an educator but also real estate investor and conservationist. He feared that unchecked urban development would ruin the natural beauty of Madison. With associates John Olin and Edward Hammersley, he donated land for a 12-mile pleasure drive on the west side. Owen heavily influenced the creation of the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association, which bought and preserved acreage for public parks and drives decades before the city comprehended the meaning and import of such ideas.

Hiking and Birding at Owen Conservation Park

Today, prairie and oak savanna have reclaimed Owen Conservation Park. Native prairie plants, aquatic plants, trees and shrubs envelop or blanket the ponds. The three wildlife ponds completed in 2008 give permanent water habitat to migratory waterfowl and other wildlife, including deer, turkey vultures, herons, wood ducks, and shorebirds. Goldenrod, coneflowers and bluestem are among the scores of plants that generate a reward of rotating color and consistency throughout the year. The park features 3.4 miles of trails of packed dirt, grass, and wood chip. Trail traffic is light and all of the loop options are easy. No dogs or bike allowed. Trails are groomed for cross-country skiing in winter. Access is limited from 4 a.m. to one hour after sunset.

Owen Conservation Park Directions

Various entry trails from all sides give community-park accessibility to Owen Conservation Park. High trees around its boundary give the impression that much of the enveloping world is primitive and countrified. From its intersection with University Avenue on the west side, follow Whitney Way south 0.2 miles to Old Middleton Road. Go west (right) 0.6 miles to Old Sauk Road. Turn left and at 0.4 miles the park entrance, 6021 Old Sauk Road, appears on your left. Follow the park road to the parking lot. The trailhead is to the right of the lot entry in the northwest corner of the lot.

“Oh that glorious Wisconsin”….landscape.

April 26, 2011

Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society.

April the month of Earth Day is about to close and we ‘Sconies should be proud of the attention paid to our conservation trinity of Nelson, Leopold and Muir. Gaylord Nelson got his customary credit as the father of Earth Day, while John Muir and Aldo Leopold were the subjects of new, nicely produced video biographies.

As the videos showed, Muir and Leopold were scientists and philosophers, but also eloquent and lyrical writers. No line in either man’s work, so strikes us home state folks like Muir’s ecstatic, “Oh that glorious Wisconsin wilderness,” where the Scotch farmer’s son experienced, “Nature streaming into us, wooingly teaching her wonderful glowing lessons.”

Glorious it was and in Wisconsin, the Muir family farm, but it was not wilderness—at least if you define wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”  That’s how the United States government defines it in the Wilderness Act of 1964 and I think most of us would agree that wilderness presumes the absence of “man.”

The Marquette County where the Muirs settled in the 1840s was a mix of woodland, grassland and wetland as yet largely “untrammeled” in the negative sense posed by the Wilderness Act. But “man” was much more than “a visitor” here. Native people had been living on this land, managing and shaping it for thousands of years before the wagon bearing the Muir clan bounced onto the premises. The sedge meadow flanking Fountain Lake, the bluestem prairie where young John and his brothers wrestled, the patches of tough oak and hickory “grubs” that persuaded Muir to keep his breaking plow “trimmed” so they might be more easily sheared off, were components of a landscape created by earth, water, climate and the hands of men and women.

Fire was their chief tool, and the grasslands—prairie, savanna, wet meadows–covering nearly all of southern Wisconsin until the arrival of immigrants like the Muirs, their handiwork. As Muir wrote, “Had there been no fires these fine prairies, so marked a feature of the country, would have been covered by the heaviest of forests.”  He went on to say that the “farmers prevented running grass fires,” and as soon as they did so, “the grubs grew up into trees and formed tall thickets so dense that it was difficult to walk through them and every trace of the sunny openings vanished.”

Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society.

The farmers may have prevented the grass fires, but not by swatting at them with wet blankets or organizing bucket brigades. They stopped the fires by plowing and clearing away the grass and shrubs that were their fuel and by removing the people who ignited them. In 1848, one year before the Muirs settled on their farm, the last natives to hold a recognized claim to land in the vicinity, the Menominees, were ordered north to their reservation on the Wolf River. With them, they took the fire that shaped the landscape.

Muir had a blind spot when it came to recognizing the landscaping work of native people. He always saw the direct hand of god at work, and did not admit that god’s work could be and was performed by skin clad natives who were as ingenious and—for all we know—as spiritually-minded as he. I wish that Muir had recognized the role native people played in creating the first patch of earth he came to know and love, but his omission does not invalidate his experience or his message.

As shaped by native people, the Muir farm was the glorious place where nature streamed into a young man’s soul and wooingly taught him wonderful glowing lessons.

–Michael Goc


The Other UW: John Muir’s University of the Wilderness

April 6, 2011

John Muir National Monument, Marin County, Calif.

Whenever I leave the state, it seems I take a little Wisconsin with me–and a brief trip to San Francisco last month was no exception.

Besides enjoying the more popular Bay Area tourist spots, my family and I spent a day hiking through Muir Woods National Monument. These woods, just a short drive north of San Francisco–past expensive homes and enticing overlooks on Marin County’s winding roads–contain one of the region’s last uncut stands of old-growth redwood trees. They’re named for famed American naturalist John Muir.

Americans refer to Muir as the “Father of the National Parks,” and Californians claim him as champion of Sequoia National Park and other wild West Coast places. But as Wisconsinites know, John Muir also had strong Wisconsin ties.

In 1848, the Scottish-born Muir immigrated with his family to Marquette County, Wisconsin, where he grew up from age 11 on. His engaging memoir, The Story of My Boyhood and Youth (which you can read online at Project Gutenberg), describes early experiences with coons and snakes, shrikes and stumps, glacial lakes, Wisconsin winters and hard prairie living–all of which had certain impact on his later activism. In fact, Wisconsin authors Kathleen McGwin and Daryl Christensen have written a book called Muir is Still Here about these early influences.

John Muir. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society.

Muir eventually left his family home at Fountain Lake Farm to study geology and botany at UW-Madison, but he never graduated. The last lines of My Boyhood and Youthrecount his wistful farewell to campus. “I was only leaving one university for another, the Wisconsin University for the University of the Wilderness,” he wrote. From then on, he left his gentle footprint all over North America, wandering the U.S., Canada, Panama and Cuba, and eventually winding up in California.

While I’m grateful to Muir for my memorable day in the California woods, I’m also grateful to philanthropists William and Elizabeth Kent. They donated the property then known as Muir Woods to the federal government in 1907, at which time President Theodore Roosevelt suggested renaming the place Kent Monument. In a charming exchange of letters, William Kent declined the tribute. He explained:

I have five good, husky boys that I am trying to bring up to a knowledge of democracy and to a realizing sense of rights of the “other fellow,” doctrines which you, sir, have taught with more vigor and effect than any man in my time. If these boys cannot keep the Kent name alive, I am willing it should be forgotten.

At the Muir Woods National Monument Visitor Center: a shelf-full of books on Muir.

For his part, on learning that the monument would retain his name, Muir expressed gratitude. “This is the best tree-lover’s monument that could possibly be found in all the forests of the world,” he wrote.

Muir would be so honored many times, with parks, trails and schools (and apparently even a minor planet) bearing his name. Wisconsin alone has John Muir Park in Green Bay; John Muir Drive in Middleton; John Muir View in Poynette; and of course, the family’s homestead site in Marquette County, Muir Memorial Park. I’m sure there are others.

In California, along a section of boardwalk at Muir Woods National Monument, we came across a new mom pushing her sleeping infant in a stroller. While stopping to admire the baby, I  wondered if the long shadow of the sequoia would imprint her newly born subconscious. How will the rush of Redwood Creek and the cool cyprus-scented air shape her development? Perhaps this nursery school of the wilderness is how the likes of John Muir are formed.


If you’d like to learn more about Muir or the National Park System, watch these two excellent videos: The National Parks: America’s Best Idea and National Parks: Wisconsin. Also, read Kathleen McGwyn’s day trip tour of Marquette County on Portal Wisconsin. Then, hit the trails!

–Tammy Kempfert


People to meet

March 18, 2011

In some circles, Aldo Leopold is famous. In others, not so much. He was born toward the end of the 19th century and his most well-known book, “A Sand County Almanac,” wasn’t published until 1949, a year after his death. Sixty years later and the book is gaining in popularity, translated and published all over the world. Wisconsinites proudly claims him as one of our own and there are markers attesting to the success and genius of his work all over the state. But don’t feel bad if you are one of the many out there who is not yet familiar with him. The new film , “Greenfire: Aldo Leopold and A Land Ethic for Our Time”, is a wonderful introduction.

The documentary premiered on March 1 in Baraboo, near where Leopold and his family owned and restored a piece of land and near the home of the Aldo Leopold Foundation headquarters. In the film, a rancher and conservationist in New Mexico named Sid Goodloe says about his experience reading Leopold, “Boy, if I’d just read this thirty years ago I could have saved a lot of time and effort because he already knew all the things I was learning.”

It’s not easy to sum up all that Leopold is, but I agree with Goodloe in thinking that we can count ourselves lucky if we’ve had the chance to get  to know some of his ideas before getting too far along in life. For those who are already chummy with the guy, this film is a wonderful celebration of his legacy in land stewardship, soil conservation, forestry, and ethics. I found it very inspiring. Find a screening, or better yet, get a copy of the DVD and host one yourself. You’re friends will appreciate the introduction.

Another film that promises to both inspire and introduce us to important fellow Wisconsinites premiers in Madison on April 19. Produced by the Midwest Environmental Advocates, “Crossing the Line” illustrates a people’s history of legal battles that have been fought to protect all of our rights to clean air, land and water.  I understand very little about American law but I know it takes guts and tenacity to stand up to the powerful forces that are used to getting their way, even when that way hurts lots of us regular people. The film presents five stories about people who have managed to win, despite the odds. I’m sure I have a lot to gain from getting to hear these voices. Thanks to the good folks at MEA for taking on these cases, and then for sharing some much needed good news. It’s never a bad moment to be inspired.

By Jessica Becker, Director of Public Programs. Both films received grants from the Wisconsin Humanities Council.

Words for Winter

February 8, 2011

Photo by Jessica Becker

I recently read a description of the way air sparkles with crystallized moisture and the sky beams blue in the low morning sunlight during the winter in Wisconsin. It was spot on. The passage was written by David Rhodes in his book “Driftless” a collection of intertwining stories set in a small, rural town in southwestern Wisconsin. I’ve returned the book to the library so I cannot provide the exact quote. You’ll have to read the book yourself. I do highly recommend it.

The quality of light in winter is one of my favorite things about living in Wisconsin. I also love the feathery patterns in ice that decorate my bathroom window. It’s on the second story facing east and is the perfect spot to watch the sun rise in the winter. This morning, my daughter and I greeted the day by watching shades of purple, pink, and orange wash through the sparkling swirls on the glass. The simple phenomenon thrills my daughter. At her age, both early morning hours and shiny things are particularly exciting.

Yes, I actually like winter quite a bit, which is something many folks who don’t live here are surprised by. Many of us love winter, even if we grumble about the cold or the blizzard forecasted to hit soon.

Last week a poet friend emailed to say that the dry snow blizzard the day before was called Agniqsuq in Inupiaq. Inupiaq is an Inuit dialect, one of the Eskimo languages spoken in northwestern Alaska. As you may have heard, they have really specific ways of describing different snowy and wintry conditions. The diamond dust, or ice crystals in the air, that I am so fond of are called irriqutit. I wonder why we Wisconites haven’t adopted or created more specific terms? Are we satisfied to leave it up to the poets and weather reporters?

Other people who enjoy the winter, and outdoor winter pursuits, must have a bunch of words they use amongst their cliques to discuss the specifics that matter to them. My husband, a dedicated pond hockey player, says you “snow” someone when ice sprays during a hockey stop.  I’m sure the ice fishermen have words. Folks training for the Birkie must have words.

Winter snow drift

Photo by Jessica Becker

There is a beautiful, short (4 minute) film on the Climate Wisconsin Website about the American Birkebeiner. Drawing 8,000 people to Sawyer County every February, it is North America’s largest cross-country ski race. Watch the film and you’ll hear from one of the co-founders of the race, a man who has skied every single one since 1973. Obviously, snow is important in the success of the event. It has only been cancelled once, though it has been shortened six times, due to inadequate conditions. The Inupiaq word for the problem is augniqsraq: a patch of tundra from which snow has melted.

That shouldn’t be a problem today. My husband has just stated, as he bundles himself beneath countless layers in preparation for his bike ride to work, that today is the coldest day of the year. He is not a poet or a weather forecaster, but he doesn’t mince words. My daughter and I will enjoy the fresh layer of powder outside (nutagaq in Inupiaq) from the cozy living room.

By Jessica Becker, Director of Public Programs, Wisconsin Humanities Council

Kid-Friendly Things to Do in Madison

January 31, 2011

By Brian D’Ambrosio

From picking farms, to concrete art parks, to bluff and lake hikes, there are a bevy of fun options for kids in Madison, Wisconsin. Here are 10 unique, enjoyable, and unforgettable kid-friendly adventures, ranging from the offbeat to the outstandingly scenic.

Nick Englebert's Grandview.


Aztalan State Park

Lake Mills, WI

The family doesn’t need to have to trek to Egypt or Central America in search of pyramids. Less than one hour’s drive from Madison, they can visit the archeological pyramids of Aztalan State Park, where in 1836 a man named Timothy Johnson stumbled upon remains of an ancient village. According to park brochures, most experts believe the civilization to be a blend of two Aztec societies. This mysterious park was placed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. Great open space for picnicking or simply wandering around.

Blue Skies Berry Farm
Paul & Louise Maki
10320 N. Crocker Rd.
Brooklyn, WI 53521
(608) 455-2803
Blue Skies Berry Farm grows raspberries, heirloom tomatoes, vegetables, herbs and greens using only organic inputs. U-pick season: mid-August to October. The family-friendly property is located 16 miles south of the Beltline via Hwy 14, toward Evansville. Hook right at Union at Tavern then head onto W. Union Rd. 1.5 miles and left on Crocker approximately 500-feet.

Bures Berry Patch

3760 W. Brigham Rd.

Barneveld, WI 53507

(608) 924-1404

Bures Berry Patch is a popular patch where families gather to pick the freshest produce. The farm specializes in cultivating asparagus, rhubarb, sweet corn, pre-picked/U-pick; peas, strawberries, raspberries and pumpkins. Always call for hours and availability. From Madison: travel Hwy 18/151 west for ~30 miles; go 2.5 miles past Barneveld; turn south on W. Brigham Rd.; proceed one mile.

Carandale Farm

5683 Lincoln Rd.

Oregon, WI 53575

(608) 835-5871

One of Dane County’s most popular family-friendly farms, Carandale Farm offers U-pick or pre-picked strawberries, Concord grapes, and fall raspberries. It is located at the very end of S. Fish Hatchery Rd., 8.5 miles from the Madison Beltline.

Door Creek Orchard

3252 Vilas Road

Cottage Grove, WI 53527

(608) 838-4762

Door Creek Orchard, just minutes from east Madison, is a beautiful family friendly farm offering U-pick and pre-picked apples as well as U-pick table and wine grapes, fall raspberries and pumpkins. Unpasteurized cider is pressed weekly. In addition to the pleasant fall fruit and cider for sale in the shed, the Griffiths’ provide customers with a quiet place to pick nature’s bounty, a true harvest experience that offers an escape from the pressure of fast-paced urban life.

Meat and naturally colored yarn are available from the Black Welsh Mountain sheep, which can we watched grazing near the upper orchard. Twice during the season, horse and buggy rides through the orchard may be purchased. Season: mid-August to late November. From Madison, take Hwy 12/18 east 3 miles past I-90, turn right on Vilas Rd. and go 1/2 mile.

Devil’s Lake State Park

Baraboo, WI 53913

(608) 356-8301

All the physical and visual medicine one family needs is nestled in the South Range of the Baraboo Hills, an alluring gem of a lake flanked by two 500-foot-high bluffs composed of Precambrian quartzite. Set aside as one of Wisconsin’s first state parks in 1910, Devil’s Lake State Park, with its sweepings views, earthy rock formations, 360-acre spring-fed belly, 29 miles of hiking/biking park trails, and attractive hardwood forest, is a scenic little vista.

The view from above, courtesy of the steep East and West Bluffs has wowed adults and children alike for centuries, even hosting more than 1,300,000 visitors in 2008. Park Hours: Devil’s Lake is open from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Visitor Center hours are from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily in the summer and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in other seasons.

Dickeyville Grotto

305 West Main Street

Dickeyville, WI 53808-6842

(608) 568-3119

Dickeyville Grotto and its surrounding shrines will amaze dads and children of all ages. These striking designs of stone, mortar, and vivid-colored objects, collected materials from all across the world, include colored glass, gems, antique heirlooms of pottery or porcelain, stalagmites and stalactites, commemorative China, sea shells, starfish, petrified sea urchins and fossils.

Embedded within are a variety of corals, amber glass, agate, quartz, ores, such as iron, copper and lead, fool’s gold, rock crystals, onyx, amethyst and coal, petrified wood and moss. Most of the shells, stones, tiles, wood, glass, gems and geodes were donated by parishioners. Visited by 40,000 to 60,000 visitors per year, Dickeyville Grotto stands at the crossroads of U.S. Highway 151 and Highway 35.

Nick Engelbert’s Grandview

Hollandale, WI 58010

Nick Engelbert’s Grandview is something out of a fairy tale. Nick Engelbert created his first concrete sculpture in the 1930s while recovering from a sprained ankle. By 1950, his entire yard was transformed into a landscape of over 40 offbeat sculptures.

Mineral Point Railroad Depot

11 Commerce Street

Mineral Point, WI 53565

(608) 987-2695

Most kids love trains. Adorned walls and glass cases in the Mineral Point Railroad Depot Museum tell the tale of Mineral Point’s economic explosion and bust. The first train pulled into the depot in the summer of 1857; the Mineral Point depot was built one year earlier from local materials. It has survived to become the oldest depot in Wisconsin. The Mineral Point Railroad Society museum is open seasonally, from the first weekend in May to late October. Hours of operation are: Thursdays 10am-4pm, Fridays 10am-4pm, Saturdays 10am-4pm and Sundays 12-4pm.

Sterling North Boyhood Home

409 West Rollin St.

Edgerton, WI 53534


In Edgerton, Wisconsin, dads with the most bookish of bents can visit the landmark boyhood home of Sterling North, world-famous author of Rascal, So Dear to My Heart, The Wolfling, and 28 other works. Native Wisconsinite Sterling North grew up in the once thriving tobacco town of Edgerton. In 1963, he completed the book Rascal: A Memoir of a Better Era. Set in 1917 when he was only 11 years old, the best-selling book chronicles a boy’s fondness for and friendship with a pet raccoon in the fictitious “Brailsford Junction.”

The home, which intentionally creates a kid-friendly ambience of books and Rascal-related merchandise, is open from April 5 (on Sunday afternoons from 1:00 to 4:30 p.m through December 20 may be toured by appointment). Refurbished to its 1917 setting, furnished with authentic antiques, the museum showcases North’s desk, typewriter, photos, books and many family artifacts and memorabilia.

Brian D’Ambrosio is the author of Madison For Dads: 101 Unique Adventures.

Ellison Bay Seeks Historic Escarpment Plaque

January 31, 2011

Robert Murray of Door County sent the following appeal to PortalWisconsin.org last week. Mr. Murray authored an Ellison Bay day trip for us last year and keeps in touch by email from time to time.

Recovery of the historic escarpment plaque is a priority for the Ellison Bay Service Club. Photo: Robert Murray.

Ellison Bay, Wis. In the 1920s, professors came from the Universities of Chicago and Wisconsin to camp and build cottages along Ellison Bay’s northeastern shore.  For the following 38 years, hundreds of students traveled to Ellison Bay from the world over to study the Niagara Escarpment at its pinnacle, Ellison Bay’s “Big Bluff.”

In the mid-1900s, a University of Chicago cartographer, who had been among those many students, designed “The Escarpment Marker,” including a bronze plaque showing a world map with dotted lines converging on Ellison Bay from five continents.  A legend reading: “From where they came to study Ellison Bay” was also engraved on the plaque. A large slab of Niagara dolomite was dragged across the frozen bay in winter, the bronze plaque was attached, and the Escarpment Marker was erected in the Community Center Park at the foot of Ellison Bay in 1965.

Unfortunately, the pins securing the heavy bronze plaque gave way.  It fell from its mounting on the dolomite slab and vanished sometime during the 1970s – probably salvaged by someone who chanced upon it.  Recovery of the Marker plaque is a priority project of the Ellison Bay Service Club, whose mission is to serve the Ellison Bay community and preserve its history.  The club’s sole intent is to return the marker to its original “home” in Ellison Bay Park for all Door County residents and visitors to enjoy.

If you have, or happen to know of anyone who may have information that might lead to the recovery of The Escarpment Marker plaque, please contact Gary Kemp at 608-963-8705 in confidence.

Teens view their world ‘In a New Light’

January 14, 2011

My Mother's Teardrop. Photo: Dakota, age 14.

By Tammy Kempfert, PortalWisconsin.org

“If you think about it, a lot of successful artists had troubled youths,” said Ben Thwaits of Spooner. He teaches at Northwest Passage, a residential mental health treatment center for teenagers. Last week, we talked by phone about an inspiring youth project he developed with his wife Branda, a National Park Service Ranger.

Funded by an America’s Best Idea grant,  “In a New Light” connects boys enrolled at Northwest Passage to the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway through photography. The project relies on the combined powers of art and nature to help restore a sense of dignity and wholeness to troubled teens’ lives.

Thwaits told me that a student who winds up in his all-male class may have faced any number of roadblocks to a healthy childhood—problems like substance abuse, harmful relationships or developmental disorders. Some have had truancy issues and haven’t attended school for years. But along the St. Croix River and behind the camera lens, Thwaits’ students thrive. When I asked why, he surmised:

Photography involves the quest to find the emotional essence of a subject, and it can take photographers a long time to get into that way of thinking. But whatever their challenges, a lot of these boys are truly emotionally brilliant, and they have so much pent-up emotional energy. They operate on gut instincts and often make emotion-based decisions. This project gives them an outlet for their emotional, expressive, creative sides.

A video filmed for the project by Black Ice Productions shows a few of the boys in action:

A nature-based treatment facility, Northwest Passage takes advantage of its close proximity to the St. Croix Riverway to administer its programming. However, the program traditionally has used the adventure model—hiking, canoeing, camping—to incorporate nature into its curricula. “In a New Light” approaches nature therapy from a new angle, so to speak. According to Thwaits:

With this project, we’re really immersing ourselves in this beautiful and wild place in a quiet and introspective manner … I could almost see the boys’ brains slowing down; I could see them focusing. These are some of the most severe cases of ADHD that you’ll see in a teenaged boy, and yet they’ll spend hours and hours on end looking at a bird, a flower or a frog.

The "In a New Light" exhibition is on view at Wisconsin's State Capitol Building through January 22. Photo: Ben Thwaits.

An exhibition of the students’ work has already traveled from St. Croix Falls to Wausau,  and is on view now through January 22 at the  State Capitol Rotunda in Madison. Each photograph includes commentary, or in some cases poetry, from the boys themselves.

Student photographers participated in artist receptions at two of the exhibitions, events that Thwaits called “magic, truly pivotal moments in the boys’ lives.” At one reception a student was overheard saying, “That’s the first time in my life I’ve ever gotten an adrenaline rush from doing something good.”

Thwaits  credits a whole community of partners with the project’s success. The Wisconsin Arts Board, Black Iris Gallery and Custom Framing, the previously mentioned Black Ice Outdoor Productions and others made significant contributions, he said.

Those unable to take in the exhibition in Madison will have two more opportunities: the show travels to Cable in February and returns again to Spooner in March. A project website also showcases the boys’ work. And below, one more example of a photograph you’ll find in the exhibition—this one from 16-year-old Chuck.

Just a Teenager 

I’m just a teenager.
A teenager tryin’ to make it.
A teenager tryin’ to get there.
A teenager tryin’ to move on.
A teenager tryin’ to break free.
I’m just a teenager
that doesn’t want to fall through the cracks.

–Chuck, age 16