That a flourishing nude beach should develop on the Wisconsin River near Mazomanie (pronounced MAZE-o-mane-ee) will be unsurprising after a few days exploring the area. Maybe it’s something in the air–or in the unglaciated earth of south-central Wisconsin’s green hills and valleys–that has encouraged so much public eccentricity, to the point of both genius and apparent lunacy.
One could spend a whole lunatic day, for example, visiting the House on the Rock (Highway 23 between Dodgeville and Spring Green, 608-935-3639) and then retiring to the Don Q Inn (Highway 23 just north of Dodgeville, 800-362-2950). This combo is mondo bizarro, and might best be done stoned. The House on the Rock is the creation of one Alex Jordan, who started building it in the 1940s, ostensibly as a place to live nestled atop Deershelter Rock; it became instead an obsession, an ur-collection–stained glass, dolls and dollhouses, room-size musical automata, model trains, old-time drugstore notions, antique weapons and armor, the world’s largest and grandest carousel (with department-store mannequins suspended from the ceiling as angels), a 200-foot fiberglass whale, and more more more, much of it exquisite but piled in such dense and senseless array, with incense all about, that the result, as another Alex would say, is real horrorshow. Warning: once you go in ($13 adults, $8 children 7 to 12, $3 children 4 to 6), you can’t get out without going through the entire complex in a prescribed order, one and a half hours absolute minimum, and it can get a little claustrophobic. The Don Q Inn is a similarly compulsive mishmash of grotesqueries, from the tree sculpture composed of 400 steel wagon wheels to the circular fireplace surrounded by real prison barber chairs to “theme rooms” and “fantasy suites” like Tranquility Base, where you can imagine doing it on the moon, and the Medieval, which has a bed constructed of heavy timbers with wrist and ankle shackles. Whatever turns you on.
With that out of your system, you can better appreciate the area’s more benign oddballs. (“Eccentricity,” says Erwin Knoll, editor of the radical monthly the Progressive, which is published in nearby Madison, “is almost a conformist way of life in this part of Wisconsin.”) The most famous of them is Frank Lloyd Wright, who grew up just up the road near Spring Green and, though dead these 30 years, is very much a living presence in these precincts. Three miles south of Spring Green on Highway 23 is Taliesin, Wright’s home and still- functioning studio and school for architects; across Highway 23 on County T Road is Wright’s grave, in the little jewel of a graveyard at his family’s Unity Chapel, with its Wright-designed headstones. Other Wright buildings nearby are Tan-y-deri, the home of Wright’s sister, on the Taliesin property; the Wyoming Valley School (recently sold, new function undetermined), just south of Taliesin on Highway 23, and the Spring Green (Highway 23 and County Trunk C, 608-588-2571), one of Wright’s last designs and his only restaurant. The Spring Green is a beauty (though the bar seats, in the grand Wright tradition, are uncomfortably low), and it has a smashing view of the river and valley from a ridge. The Romeo and Juliet Windmill on the Taliesin property is covered with scaffolding while the Wright Foundation tries to raise $200,000 to restore it. Another renovation with attendant public begging is under way at Wright’s Seth Peterson Cottage in what is now Mirror Lake State Park, off Highway 12 north of Baraboo (608-254-2333). The Warehouse, an early Wright design with a Mayan effect, languishes unattended in downtown Richland Center. (Tours of Hillside Home School, the school building and drafting studio, on the hour 9 to 4 daily May through October–$5.25 adults, $2.10 children under 12; one-and-a- half-hour walking tours of the property around Taliesin at 10:30 AM Tuesdays through Saturdays June through September, $12, not recommended for children; 608-588-2511.) The Winsted Shop (140 S. Winsted St., Spring Green, 608-588-7544) carries lots of Wrightiana as well as a large selection of books on south central Wisconsin and the works of local authors including August Derleth.
The Spring Green restaurant serves as gateway and anchor to a pricey Wright-theme condo/resort community and recreational complex, also called the Spring Green, that includes the Wintergreen downhill and cross-country ski areas and the Springs golf course, designed by Robert Trent Jones. Taliesin architects are the principal designers of the 1,800-acre project, which was begun in the mid-1960s but foundered financially in the 1970s; it’s being completed by a Swiss resort developer, Euroactividade AG. The managing director throughout has been Robert Graves, a landscape architect who grew up at Taliesin (his family were caretakers there) and who worked for Wright in the 1950s. Just opened is the clubhouse with its attached hotel-style residence containing 80 cookie-cutter one-bedroom condos ($99,900) that will be rented (a Radisson subsidiary handles condo management, rentals, and restaurant and bar operations, 608-588-2571) for $90 a night for the first six months and $135 to $175 a night thereafter. Also going up in four- unit clusters are 200 two-bedroom condos ($137,000 to $149,000) and up to 80 made-to-order villas.
Nearby, on Route 2 south of Spring Green, is the American Players Theatre (608-588-2361). which presents classics in repertory alfresco mid-June through early October. This year’s offerings include Macbeth, The Tempest, An Enemy of the People, and The Proposal, Etcetera!, three early one-act comedies and a monologue (“On the Harmfulness of Tobacco”) by Chekhov, in a bravura production featuring two of APT’s founders, Randall Duk Kim and Anne Occhiogrosso. The company first mounted this piece in 1985, and the translation by John Wyatt “in collaboration with” APT, accompanied by notes on the text, photographs of the production, costume renderings, and the music (Three One-Act Comedies, Players Academy Press, Spring Green), was published in 1986; pick up a copy ($15.95) at the theater.
Among the less-celebrated but nonetheless genuine river-country characters are Marion and Duane Nelson. A little jog to the west from Spring Green off County Road C on Route 3 takes you to their Global View, in a converted barn at Willow Gold Farm (608-583-5311). Global View is a shop featuring textiles, jewelry, and crafts from India, Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, and Indonesia; Willow Gold Farm is a small new-age community. Global Views presents summer-weekend festivals of the arts and cultures of those countries and organizes “culturally conscious tourism”–trips of small groups to meet artists and crafts people in the Himalayas and in South and Southeast Asia.
No need to travel quite so far to have your cultural consciousness expanded, however. Just a ways downriver at Muscoda, in the southeast corner of town, 124 E. Catherine St., you’ll find Ellis Nelson (608-739-3067), whose card reads “Artist in Residence, State of Wisconsin.” That’s at least literally true. Five years ago Nelson retired after 25 years as a garage mechanic; bored on a Saturday morning, he sculpted a dinosaur out of scrap metal. And he saw that it was good and made some more fantastical creatures. Now, increasingly sophisticated, Nelson sets out front of his shop dozens of large and small metal sculptures; he’s currently experimenting with point balances, in pieces such as a three-foot-high pterodactyl that bobs and circles in simulated flight.
Back upriver you’ll find Tom Every. You’ll find him because you can’t miss him if you happen to be traveling on U.S. 12 north of Sauk City; on the west side of the highway, on a large expanse of lawn in front of Delaney’s Surplus Sales (608-643-8009), Every has erected half a dozen monumental but whimsical sculptures constructed of industrial detritus. But these are merely a foreshadowing of the truly bizarre thing Every is building in the junkyard behind Delaney’s–a small city, perhaps, futuristic in the way that the future might have been envisioned early in the industrial revolution, and also an observatory, and also a space-rocket launcher with bucolic steeples and garden benches to round things out. The project is clearly mad, but on such a scale that you want to climb aboard and go wherever it wants to take you.
With more method than madness, Every’s ten-year-old son Troy produces multiple copies of animal, human, and robot figures out of surplus lots of pipes, nuts, and bolts; his sumo wrestlers are especially wonderful and sell for about $2 a pound.
To do: If you think of Spring Green as the center of your river-country universe, a one-hour radius will encompass hundreds of see-worthy towns, historical sites, state and county parks, nature preserves, specialized museums, galleries and studios, wine makers and cheese makers, and much more, including the city of Madison, should you need a respite from the dairyland wholesomeness. Day-trip planning can become complex, but a day without a plan, Sunday-driving the county roads (usually two-lane blacktops), can have its own rewards, as the Holsteins, silos, and satellite dishes of this prosperous land give way without warning to vistas on the meandering Wisconsin River, and serendipity beckons around every bend in the road. You’ll want the detailed “Southwestern Wisconsin Road Map” ($5 at local stores or from Milwaukee Map Service, 414-445-7361).
Spend a morning touring one of the local cheese joints (Cedar Grove Cheese Inc., at the corner of Mill and Valley View roads, one mile east of Plain, 608-546-5284, offers an up-close view of the cheese making process, which owners Bob Wills and Beth Nachreiner will be happy to explain) and the lovely, 125-year-old Wollersheim Winery on Highway 188 north of Prairie du Sac (tours and tastings daily, 608-643-6515)–then enjoy the fruits of your labor at a riverside picnic. The new Lower Wisconsin State Riverway statute forbids glass containers of any kind on or near the river, so decant the wine first to avoid ranger raids and $200 fines. Take your trash with you when you leave. The lower Wisconsin beaches and sandbars change configuration seasonally with the level and course of the river’s channels, but the terrain the river traverses is always magnificent. A good way to see it is by canoe, which you can do without sweat, going with the flow and being shuttled back upriver: Randy and Dianne Brice’s Blackhawk River Runs on County Y, two and one-half miles southwest of Sauk City, is a good local outfitter (608-643-6724), or try Sandbar Canoe Rental on Highway 14 in Arena (608-753-2611).
On a 2,000-acre “island” cut by a side channel of the river near Avoca (turn left at Hay Lane Road from Highway 133), the Department of Natural Resources has restored the native tall-grass prairie. A note to the DNR (Box 7921, Madison WI 53707) will get you a flier describing the 200 species of vascular plants growing on the Avoca Prairie, including the very rare prairie Indian plantain and the tall nut rush. You won’t need a flyer to spot the blue herons and sandhill cranes that nest there or the short-eared owls that hunt there in the winter. Bald eagles roost upriver December through March; there are designated viewing areas and an organized annual Eagle Watch the second week in January (608-643-4168 for information).
Dining: This part of Wisconsin is strictly fish-fry and meat-and-potatoes country, and if you are tempted for variety’s sake to sample the occasional veal parmigiana or poached salmon that appears on a menu, the better part of wisdom is to resist. You can ask for a green vegetable (or any other form of nonspud plant life) and maybe, if enough people ask, proprietors will be moved to provide them. But for now your choice is baked, French-fried, or sometimes hashed or mashed potato–and you can take it or leave it. Likewise the omnipresent salad bar with its iceberg lettuce, mushrooms, green peppers, and red onions. The conspicuous exception is the dining room at Wildwood Lodge (off Highway 23 on Upper Wyoming Road, south of Spring Green, 608-588-2514, open to the public for dinner service Wednesday through Sunday and Sunday brunch only), where chef Judith Mobieus offers wild rice as an alternative starch along with veggies, and some care is taken with complex dishes; the wooded setting is especially pleasant, with lots of hummingbirds attending to the feeders hung outside the screened-porch section of the dining room. Plans for the restaurants at the Spring Green complex are grandiose; food and beverage director Bill Robinson says that he is “going for four stars” for the 135-seat dining room in the clubhouse, which will feature a Wisconsin regional cuisine with all local ingredients, and that the present Spring Green restaurant in the 1965 Wright building will be closed for a month of renovation this spring, to reopen as a “high upscale, five-star” establishment under newly hired executive chef Jeffrey Igel. Robinson has not yet decided whether to require coat and tie.
Given the general run of restaurants in the area, there is only ambience to distinguish one T-bone from another. The Fire House, overlooking the river in Prairie du Sac (540 Water St., 608- 643-2484), displays a nice collection of fire-fighting bric-a-brac; the Post House/Dutch Kitchen (127 E. Jefferson St., Spring Green, 608-588- 2595) is in a historic (1857) building, and its garden was designed by William Wesley Peters, a Wright associate; Kayes West Supper Club in Black Earth (1221 Mill St., 608-767-2501) is attractively laid out on several levels in a former butcher shop; the Round Barn Lodge and Restaurant (Highway 14, west of Spring Green, 608-588-2568) has pretty blue napery and quilt squares on the walls; just down the road Arthur’s Supper Club (608-588-2521) offers live big-band entertainment on Friday night and live country-western on Saturday night. Something completely different is the Airport Cafe at the Richland Airport (County Road B off U.S. 14 near Sextonville, 608-647-4237), where Betty Schlafer and her crew of farm women serve up all the hearty food you can eat–just $2 to $2.90 for breakfast (7 AM to 10:30 AM), $4.59 for lunch (11:30 AM to 1:45 PM), and $6.07 for Sunday lunch. The cafe’s small gift shop features local arts and crafts.
Lodging: Far and away the best lodging value in the area was the Blackhawk Ridge Wilderness Recreation Preserve, a 600-acre wooded property on Highway 78 between Sauk City and Mazomanie, with accommodations ranging from primitive campsites through “sheepherder wagons” and various forms of cabins to proper rooms with private baths. But it was sold this year to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources as part of the Wisconsin Riverway Project, and the DNR says it will not be maintained as a lodge, though some recreational uses (including five kilometers of lighted trails for nighttime ski touring) will be continued. Along the river, that leaves mainly motels. In a motel you look for clean, comfortable, and convenient: the Prairie House at Highway 14 and Highway 23 north of Spring Green (608-588-2088) is a cut above the usual, with large, tastefully done rooms, exercise facilities, sauna, and whirlpool; just next door and rather more expensive on weekends is the Round Barn Lodge and Restaurant (608-588-2568), with its indoor and outdoor pools. If living on U.S. 14 is not your idea of a civilized getaway, Wildwood Lodge (608-588-2514), in converted farm buildings on a pleasant wooded site south of Spring Green, off Highway 23 on Upper Wyoming Road, has a variety of rooms and suites at very modest rates; and Aldebaran Country Houses (on County Road T east of Highway 23, contact Derry Graves, 608-588- 2951) provides elegant country living in a farmhouse and two converted barns on the Lloyd-Jones farm where Frank Lloyd Wright spent his childhood–you rent a whole three- to five-bedroom house, with rates scaled from $30 per person per night to $20 per person per night, depending on how many people are in your party and how long you stay.
Events: Chips Happen, the annual cow-chip-tossing contest and associated gemutlichkeit sponsored by the Sauk Prairie Area Chamber of Commerce (608-643-4168), the Wisconsin State Cowchip Committee (really), and other groups, in Sauk City and Prairie du Sac on Labor Day weekend, includes, besides the main event, a parade, 10K and 5K races, an art fair, a dance, and a cowpie-eating contest (chocolate cream pie, really). You can kick off your shoes and stomp grapes at the Wollersheim Winery’s Harvest Festival in October (two miles north of Highway 12 on Highway 188, 608-643-6515); the Spring Green Arts & Crafts Fair, with some 250 exhibitors, happens the last full weekend in June in downtown Spring Green (608-588-2042 for information).