Along the Elroy-Sparta bike trail, the country’s oldest rails-to-trails conversion, city tourists wax poetic about the simple life, retired couples turn their old homesteads into bed-and-breakfasts, and drivers offer rides to tuckered bikers for a fee.

As the trail hits the outskirts of Wilton, a small village whose biggest attraction just a few years ago was the community swimming pool, a sign topped by a vintage bicycle rises up from the roadside proclaiming: Gina’s Pies Are Square, three blocks.

Since Gina Rae–owner of Gina’s Pies Are Square and Wilton Weenies–came home to stay in 1992, she has returned a steady pulse to Wilton’s Main Street, luring bikers off the trail for some coffee, pie, and hospitality. But she wasn’t always such a homebody.

The day after Gina Rae Arndt graduated from high school, she fired up her boyfriend’s baby blue Volkswagen Rabbit and hit the road. For six years she didn’t look back. “I was too big city for that little town,” she says. She studied sociology at Wisconsin state schools, got married, and followed her husband when he got a job in New Hampshire. She says she thought little of home then, but when she did it hit hard. She remembers spending one weepy Christmas eve driving rural New Hampshire back roads in search of Christmas lights. She pored over the newspaper clippings her mom sent recounting Wilton bar fights or unfortunate car-deer incidents.

When her husband took a job with the Mississippi Teacher Corps, Gina moved with him. But in tiny Greenville it finally got to her–“Homesickness, guilt, and a genuine lack of familiarity with my surroundings,” she says. “I couldn’t even tell you which wild plants were inedible in Mississippi.”

At 24 she decided she’d been gone long enough, packed up her life, and took it home. She didn’t have a plan, but she figured one would come.

On her first day home she heard a ruckus in the street. “A girl I baby-sat when I was younger got married that day,” she says. “As the wedding cars were going by my house on the way to the bar, they’re honking and yelling, ‘Gina! Welcome back!’ I knew those people in those cars. It was nice.”

She took the first job she could find–secretarial work at a local newspaper. Then she switched to teaching remedial math and reading at the elementary school so she could work at writing her business plan for a restaurant. “That took me two years, but I did have a vision,” she says.

It took the first bank nearly four months to deny her request for a small-business loan. The second bank approved it in four days. “But my dad had to co-sign for one year,” she says.

Her father was glad to do it, but her mother wasn’t so hot on the idea. “My parents owned a bar and bowling alley for 25 years,” she says. “My mom begged me not to do this.” Gina made a deal with her–she’d try it for five years. “The day before my fifth anniversary, February 14, 2001, she reminded me of our earlier conversation. I had completely forgotten about it.”

In the interim she’d opened the restaurant and the hot dog stand, gotten a divorce, and dropped her last name. Though Wilton lies right on the bike trail, she was the first in town to really mine its potential. Gina’s Pies has been popular since its beginning. “There were some days when I would lie down on the kitchen floor and cry,” she says. “I didn’t cry because business was bad, I cried because business was good. Like it was bigger than me and I couldn’t control it. I’m just starting to relax. When a really busy day comes, I can smile all the way through it.”

Gina says that some things about small-town life are good–like seeing her parents at every poetry reading and live music performance at the restaurant. Some are as frustrating as she expected. This is her last year serving on the village board. “It’s all 50-year-old men,” she says. “And me. No one’s listened to me in six years.”

Wilton’s population is on the upswing (512 at the moment) after years of slow decline; former village president and lifelong resident Tim Welch credits Gina’s energy for the turnaround. “If you’re from a small town,” he says, “you know that you thank your lucky stars when you’ve got someone like her, because you know there’s not a lot of them around.”

Inside Gina’s, where the namesake pies are baked in a square pan, the smells of fajita wraps and veggie burgers waft out of the kitchen. The ceilings are high and lined with vintage hats. Sprigs of lavender in old-fashioned pop bottles decorate the tables. Upstairs in Wildwoman’s Antiques the old wood floors creak as customers mill about examining a stoneware bowl or a hat with an accent like a floral headlight.

A sweaty biker orders a BLT, and soon Gina plunks down a tall sandwich fringed with greens and a ripe, red tomato. “Now,” she says, “doesn’t that look good?”

Gina’s Pies Are Square is at 400 Main in Wilton, Wisconsin (608-435-6541).

–Jennifer Wilson

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Froelich.