Some things haven’t changed in the southern Wisconsin town of Cambridge.

It’s still a peaceful, pretty rural town, about 34 miles north of the Illinois border, straight up from Janesville and 18 miles due east of downtown Madison. Many of Cambridge’s residents, 963 by last count, still earn their livelihoods by farming or raising livestock. People still gather after work or on weekends at a hole-in-the-wall bar called Kurt’s Place, watch rodeo on TV, and talk about the big bass that Denny pulled out of Lake Ripley. Diners in most local restaurants can still smoke, often wherever they want, without incrimination and dirty looks.

Cambridge is still a place where you share the road with tractors, where you must occasionally swerve to avoid a squashed groundhog or opossum, and where you pass deer during daylight hours. Horse pulling, a resident says, “is a big activity here.”

But there’s been a major development in the last two decades–21 years, to be precise. In 1975 Jim and Tina Rowe established the first salt-glazed pottery shop in the area, Rowe Pottery Works, 217 W. Main (608-423-3935), in an old blacksmith shop. Popular in Pennsylvania, salt-glazed pottery–which involves spattering salt on pottery during firing to create, as Rowe’s literature states, “a transparent glaze with a shiny, pebbled surface”–may not sound like much, but it means a lot to the 3,000 earthenware connoisseurs on Rowe Pottery’s mailing list and to its collector clientele, about 95 percent of whom are out of state. The shop has given Illinoisans a reason to veer off Interstate 90 on their way to more northerly attractions.

Peter Jackson, Jim Rowe’s former partner, has spread the bug to nearby Edgerton with his Rockdale Union Stoneware, 1858 Artisan (608-884-9483 or 800-222-0699), and there’s also Woodfire Pottery, just east of Cambridge, and Hands End, 137 W. Main (608-423-4151).

“This kind of boomed around it,” a salesperson at Rowe Pottery says of the antiquey-type stores and trendy eateries lining Main Street. “The whole town kind of built up around Rowe Pottery.”

The Night Heron Bed & Breakfast, 315 E. Water, Cambridge (608-423-4141), owned by Pamela Schorr and her husband, John Lehman, is another example of a cottage enterprise spawned by Rowe Pottery’s success. Chicagoans comprise 80 percent of the clientele of the Night Heron, which offers a small video library, a filling breakfast (the hazelnut-and-Dutch-chocolate coffee and Mexican omelette were tops), three chic, individualized rooms ($55 midweek, $65 weekends and holidays), and a Jacuzzi in a 130-year-old brick building that originally was a hotel/restaurant for stagecoach passengers and mule-team drivers. There’s no central air, but a fan keeps your room comfortable. Julie Louis-Dreyfus once stayed here.

Schorr–who since our visit in August 1995 has changed her first name to Thalia–says, “Chicago people have always frequented the Cambridge area because of Lake Ripley. But having Rowe really redeveloped the town and drew lots more tourists from all over.”

Lehman, publisher of a prose quarterly titled Rosebud, adds, “It’s been a really nice thing because a lot of little towns are dying. Cambridge is very active.”

Surrounding towns such as Edgerton, Jefferson, Lake Mills, Fort Atkinson, Milton, and the adjacent Rockdale may be dead as far as offering sushi or Daniel Barenboim at the CSO, but for what they are they seem far from dying. New tobacco-drying barns–roughly, corrugated roofing over scores of rooted metal frames that resemble the turnstiles in front of the rides at Great America–and an abundant crop of satellite dishes indicate that the people here are doing all right, even if farmers aren’t thriving as in the early 1900s, when Edgerton was known as the tobacco capital of the world. (The Tobacco City Museum, 8 E. Fulton, Edgerton [608-884-4319], documents this time: “The most unique portion of our heritage,” a newspaper clipping at the museum says.)

Enterprising residents are enhancing their incomes by breeding and selling exotic animals or by opening bed-and-breakfasts–or both, in the case of Cambridge’s Bison Trail Bed and Breakfast, W9443 E. Kroghville (414-648-5433), owned by teachers Dale and Mary Jenkins. Room rates run between $45 and $65 and you can order buffalo meat for breakfast. The seven-year-old log manse overlooks the 231-acre Out West Farm, with its bicycle trail and 65 head of bison.

Cars from Barrington, Crystal Lake, and Naperville, from Iowa, Michigan, and Indiana line the low curbs of Cambridge’s three-block tourist strip, Main Street. “It’s incredible,” says Lee Erickson, owner of the Wood Shed, 225 W. Main (608-423-4504), which features woodwork, houseware, and folk art from Amish people he says are “unique, just like us.” Says Erickson, “You open up a store and people are already coming in.”

Cambridge has separate art and pottery festivals on consecutive weekends in June, “Umbrella Daze” in early July, and an antique fair on September 21. “Maxwell Street Days,” based on the departed Chicago tradition, is the first weekend in August, though it’s doubtful that the vendors sell hubcaps or sweat socks.

Also on the main drag is a nifty, noisy shop called Music and Memories, 1 Mill (608-423-9903), which specializes in music boxes priced from $11 to $12,000–for a 15-and-a-half-inch-tall Porter Disc Music Box that joyously chimes out music with the strength of the bells of Saint Mary of the Lake Church on Sunday. From singing picture frames to “Willie the Yodeler figurines,” the store is more cacophonous than an aviary. “You actually get used to it,” says a salesperson.

Whereas most of the area’s restaurants offer Wisconsin staples–fish, fried shrimp, steaks–in typically rustic settings, the Clay Market Cafe, 157 Main (608-423-9616), is tailor-made for the pampered Chicago tourist. Though it had the best food of the several restaurants we sampled, we were turned off when the waitress handed us a pager during the lunch rush, the better to buy something from the adjacent store during the wait for a table.

In a sunny, entirely nonsmoking atmosphere–with the strains of old-time jazz and ragtime noodling in the background–the Clay Market offers such trendy lunch fare as chicken and roma tomatoes in pesto cream ($6.50) and prosciutto in Cognac cream ($6.95). A grilled cheese sandwich ($5.25)–doctored up with tomato, onion, and green pepper–was transformed into something like a nacho sandwich. Clay Market’s designer-beer menu featured Kaliber, Sprecher, Pete’s Wicked Ale, and Uff-da, from New Glarus, Wisconsin. Try the Caesar salad and the chocolate mousse pie. (Incidentally, we asked the waitress, formerly from Cambridge and now living in Madison, what Cambridge people did for fun. “Those of us who live here,” she said, “they leave.”)

The Cambridge Country Inn & Pub, 206 W. Main (608-423-3275), offers no rooms, but it does have a pub (nonsmoking). It’s a little more countrified than the Clay Market and started out in 1986 as one dining room. The restaurant grew as the town gained a reputation as a tourist destination: it has added the pub and three other dining rooms, all of which were filled with tourists happy to be out of the sun. (Like the Clay Market, it abuts retailers–the Pantry, a gift store, and the Crabtree Room, which specializes in “exquisite toiletries.”)

The Cambridge Country Inn & Pub prides itself on its specials–roast beef with steamed vegetables and mashed potatoes and gravy ($6.50) and all-you-can-eat broasted chicken. It offers homemade breads, fudge, and a variety of pies.

But what good is a nice piece of pie when you can’t enjoy a smoke afterward? For this freedom you’ll have to go to where the locals still hold a slim majority over the tourists.

North Shore Inn, N1835 North Shore Road, Fort Atkinson (414-563-2083), overlooking Wisconsin’s second-largest lake, Lake Koshkonong, is such a place. It’s a true Wisconsin supper club: outdoor beer garden with patio lanterns and picnic tables; a poster heralding the annual Gemutlichkeit (German Heritage Days) with the Polka Brothers and a rolling-pin toss; paper place mats on plastic tablecloths; three Old Styles and a Pepsi for $5.40; electronic trap-shoot game; fried cheddar nuggets; walleyed pike (OK at $7.50) and steak and shrimp ($10.75); and “the best old-fashioneds in the area.” But as Yogi Berra said about an old New York joint–“No one goes there anymore. It’s too crowded”–a local couple at a nearby table said they no longer frequent the North Shore’s Friday-night cod fry (priced at $3.50, $4.50, and $6 for different portion sizes) because it’s filled with tourists on referral.

Maybe the most charmingly cheeseheadish of the eateries we encountered was the Edgewater–or, unless they fixed the sign, “dge ater.” (For comparison, check out the Lake Ripley Family Restaurant in Cambridge, W9644 Highway 12 [608-423-3803], which has taken residence in what appears to be an old A & W.) The Edgewater, east of Cambridge and south of Jefferson on County K Road (414-674-9942), has served food since the 1920s. According to legend, the current kitchen was once a private club and cash drop for such high-profile criminals as Dillinger and Capone; one time one of the crooks had a high old time in the restaurant, slept overnight in the parking lot, then robbed the Jefferson County Bank the next morning.

The dark wood restaurant has a nautical decor; schooner wall hangings and pictures on the walls, hurricane lamps and a low ceiling that can clean your clock like the foresail of a tacking catamaran if you don’t watch it. You first enter a lounge with a jukebox–offering artists like Eddy Arnold, Mariah Carey, Boston, Guns N’ Roses, and Sinatra–and a stylish copper bar lit from underneath with a TV above it. Two main dining rooms are available–a center room and a very pretty rear room with a view of the Rock River. For intimate, small parties, try to reserve the private chamber with a pair of booths, plus a fireplace.

Though our waitress said the chef “is known for everything,” we found the atmosphere to be superior to the food, which excelled mainly at being served in huge, steaming portions. “Chicken Divon” ($9.50) was chicken breast with white wine sauce, cheddar cheese, and broccoli, all bland; shrimp fettucine ($8.50) featured popcorn–not jumbo–shrimp. We did enjoy the mini blueberry muffins that came with the meal.

Perhaps our palates had an off night, because on a Monday at 9 PM there were 14 cars in the gravel parking lot, some with plates from Illinois, Michigan, and Georgia. The Edgewater was among restaurants most referred to by the natives.

The pea green Duck Blind, a 61-year-old tavern at 222 Water in Rockdale (608-423-3323), had the best burger–a bulbous, two-third-pound monster grilled by owner Leani Schoor. She said that former owners “used to say this is the best bar by a dam site,” due to its location on Koshkonong Creek next to the Rockdale Mill Dam, which supplied Wisconsin’s largest unincorporated town with power from 1846 to 1956. It just so happened that the dam’s owner, Rockdale mayor Bob Smithback, stopped in for a lunch-hour Pabst Blue Ribbon and a game of dice. Smithback was joined by his peers this midday, but Schoor said that at night they draw a younger crowd. An acquaintance from Kurt’s Place, C.L. Rucks (“I don’t go by Cary, I don’t go by Larry, I go by C.L.”), said the Duck Blind is “more of a farmers’ bar. You can get anything to happen at any time if you talk good enough.”

Cafe Carpe, 18 S. Water (414-563-9391), a smaller-scale Schubas: restaurant in the front; jazz, blues, and folk music in the back room on weekends (owner Bill Camplin often performs the music himself). The diners ranged from twenty- to fiftysomethings. Along with a nice selection of exotic/local domestic and imported beers and such menu items as a reuben, Cajun chicken breast, turkey sandwich, and veggie sandwich were dinner specials of jambalaya ($4 plate, $6 platter) and meat or veggie stuffed pizza ($3 slice, $11.25 pie), which had run out by 10 PM on this Saturday night. Since Camplin hadn’t begun to tune his guitar by that time, so did we.

Should you be missing Candlelight’s Forum Theatre or Drury Lane, you’ll be pleased to know that Fort Atkinson offers the Fireside Restaurant and Playhouse, 1131 Janesville (800-477-9505). We can’t vouch for its productions, but it’s been open 31 years; the 1995 summer show was “the exclusive midwest premiere of Sayonara.”

You may want to stay outdoors for your entertainment options.

Lake Ripley, bordered by Highway 12 in Jefferson County (Cambridge is on the border of Jefferson and Dane counties), offers panfish, large-mouth bass, and walleyed and northern pike. The fishing season runs May through September on the lake, on which Ollie Evenrude supposedly made his initial sail before introducing his first outboard motor in 1903. A nonresident season boat-launch pass is $15; otherwise it’s $3 daily per boat.

The Glacial Drumlin Trail, west branch, 1213 S. Main, Lake Mills (414-648-8774), is a nicely maintained 47-mile path on an old railroad grade running east to west from Waukesha to Cottage Grove, Wisconsin, with a four-mile break near Jefferson. Parts of the trail are closed occasionally during the summer to accommodate “the aerial application of herbicides.” The admission cards required between April and October are $3 daily, $10 annually. The ten-year-old crushed limestone trail is used for biking, hiking, and jogging during the summer, skiing and snowmobiling (maximum speed 15 miles per hour within village limits) in the winter. An old railroad station at Lake Mills has been converted into an information hut and pit stop. A can of Pepsi cost 40 cents out of the machine.

Cam-Rock County Park on County Trunk Highway B (608-246-3896) in between, naturally, Cambridge and Rockdale, looked promising as the site for a spontaneous midday rendezvous. The park–some 300 acres of wetlands, pristine grasses, and picnic and other areas, with a softball field, an observation deck for birding at Rockdale Mill Pond, and four miles of woodland trails for biking, cross-country skiing, and hiking–was deserted except for one car. A sign said that “a portion of a creek within the park has become a refuge for ducks and geese in the spring and fall.” In the summer, however, the mosquitoes that infiltrated our creek-bank site made our attempt at passion abbreviated and itchy.

If you have kids, they may like an afternoon at the Fort Atkinson Family Aquatic Center, 101 N. Main, Fort Atkinson (414-563-7760). The place is crawling with them on the weekends–most were learning swimming skills at seven stations, which kept them mainly captive and quiet while mom watched. Aquatic amenities featured lap and wading pools, a diving pool with two low boards, a water basketball hoop, and what looked to be a fun water slide. The center also had tennis and basketball courts, a horseshoe ring, a sand volleyball pit, an archery range, and a picnic area.

The area has a little history too. Private Abraham Lincoln and Second Lieutenant Jefferson Davis fought in the Blackhawk War at Fort Koshkonong–a replica guards the aquatic center–renamed Fort Atkinson in 1841 in honor of General Henry Atkinson. Rose Marie Kennedy, JFK’s sister, supposedly pushes up the daisies at Saint Colletta’s School east of Jefferson. And rumor has it that the world’s largest bass was caught at Lake Ripley.

History abounds in the typical arenas as well. The Hoard Historical Museum, 407 Merchants, Fort Atkinson (414-563-7769), encompasses the Fort Atkinson Historical Society, the Dwight Foster House, and the National Dairy Shrine. Hoard was Frank Hoard, the founder and publisher of Hoard’s Dairyman trade magazine and the son of William Dempster Hoard, Wisconsin governor from 1889 to 1891. His 1864 Gothic Revival house contains the historical museum, a collection of period artifacts, exhibits, and the “Bird Room.”

We didn’t examine the museum carefully–except for the encased belongings and tobacco card of Billy Sullivan, a White Sox catcher circa 1906 who came from Fort Atkinson–but we did check out the downstairs Dairy Shrine and the Foster House.

Yes, the Dairy Shrine, a 15-year-old institution that includes photographs, exhibits, and some pretty neat artifacts detailing, as the literature says, “the past, present and future of dairying in the United States.” Here you can view the publicity stills of each winner, since 1906, of the Grand Champion Females in the National Breed Show for dairy cows. Dairy cows, the film narrator of the multimedia “guided tour” says, are “the foster mothers of the human race.”

The Dwight Foster House is your typical pioneer site–the first frame home in Fort Atkinson, built in 1841 for Foster, a New York land speculator and the first permanent white settler in Jefferson County.

Another first, the oldest grout building in the U.S., has a unique twist. The Milton House, highways 26 and 59, Milton (608-868-7772), a hexagonal concrete inn built in 1844, also served as a station on the Underground Railroad. A low, narrow tunnel in the basement was used by slaves to reach a log cabin (built in 1837), from which they’d scoot into the surrounding countryside. The place was built by a lumberman named Goodrich, another New Yorker, who founded the town but didn’t donate his name. The docent girl who led us around said with rote inflection that “it was believed that a man from Milton, Pennsylvania, came here and he just suggested the name and then everyone kinda liked it.”

Evidence also remains of the first permanent nonwhite settlers. Aztalan State Park, on Highway Q (414-648-8774), is a 172-acre national landmark of prairie, oak woods, and the Crawfish River–catch: catfish, walleye, and northern pike–that was the site of an Indian settlement between 1000 and 1300 AD. Beautifully maintained, with big, ominous, flat burial mounds, this park, like Cam-Rock, was deserted on a Monday afternoon. The adjacent Aztalan Historical Museum, N6264 Highway Q, Jefferson (414-648-8845), documents the period from when the whiteys took over in the 1830s until the railroad bypassed the city of Aztalan in 1859, which caused it to die shortly thereafter.

The Lake Koshkonong area once contained about 500 Indian effigy mounds, which possibly served spiritual, celebratory purposes–anthropologists don’t really know. But there are 11 of these geometric- and animal-shaped earth forms at the Jefferson County Indian Mounds and Trail Park on Highway 26 between Fort Atkinson and Milton, created by Winnebago Indians between the fourth century AD and 1642. And in Fort Atkinson, manicured and situated on the parkway of Highway 106 like it’s zoned for the lot, is the Panther Intaglio, a 125-foot-long intaglio–material scooped out of the earth, not heaped onto it like a mound.

Live animals thrive in Cambridge. Besides the buffalo at the Bison Trail Bed and Breakfast, residents were advertising pot-bellied pigs, miniature donkeys, Arabian horses, German shepherds, and llamas, which can fetch up to six grand for a female at Llamas on the Green, W8292 Highway 18 (414-563-2475).

Eldon and Lisa Dodge, out in the boonies near Rockdale, sell the most repugnant animals around at the Dodge Ostrich Ranch (608-423-4927). Helping out are the Dodges’ two children, Travis and Jenny, who put up with the big birds, which are smelly and mean. The kids seem to enjoy them though. Maybe it’s because a pair of black African ostriches, of which they had about 22, can sell for $5,000 and breed for 40 years. Those are college-education-type numbers.

The most revered animal around, however, is not the ostrich and can be seen just south of Janesville. According to an article in the summer 1995 edition of the Edgerton Reporter, “Janesville’s Miracle: The White Buffalo Calf,” a white buffalo, Miracle, was born on the farm of Dave and Val Heider on August 20, 1994, the first incidence of this since 1933. Native American prophecies have it that the birth of a female white buffalo “signifies a future of peace among the nations.” And, according to the article, “to Christians it’s like the second coming of Christ.”

Which may explain why the ranch has sparked the interest not only of Ted Nugent but also of Shirley MacLaine.

–David Oberhelman