Cazenovia is a burg that used to be bustling, when the railroad ran through it in the early part of the last century. Located on small, man-made Lee Lake in the midst of rolling green hills 75 miles northwest of Madison, Caz, as it’s called, was founded in the mid-19th century. Many of its first inhabitants were immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and England who came to homestead, some after serving in the Civil War.
Cazenovia is not a glamorous town. Its appeal lies in its small-town typicality–a great amateur baseball team, farmers, hunters, gatherers (of morels, hickory nuts, and blackberries), Packers fans, and just plain folks. Driving through on a summer afternoon you’re likely to see a ten-year-old fishing off the bridge, several parked cars in front of each of the four taverns (Caz is sometimes referred to as the Las Vegas of Richland County), a couple of Amish buggies getting passed by four-wheel-drive pickups and midsize 80s coupes. Cazenovia has its own funeral parlor, grocery, post office, hardware store, and a few transforming touches, such as the dead coyote recently laid in front of Buffy Connors’s house for the viewing pleasure of those driving through on Route 58.
The Dew Drop Inn (108 W. Main, 608-983-2644) is a small tavern with local atmosphere and cheap eats. Breakfast choices include biscuits and gravy, egg, bacon, and sausage combinations, and Bloody Marys with pickles. On Tuesdays the lunch special is ground beef tacos American style, served with lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream, and mild or hot salsa from a jar. On Fridays try the fish fry or the poor man’s lobster–haddock–served with drawn butter. Get there early, around 5 PM; otherwise the mayo-heavy homemade salad bar might run out. If you camp in the area this place is also good for carryout, as long as being svelte isn’t one of your priorities. The Dew Drop is a good people-watching spot, but its leisurely mom-and-pop service is not recommended for those in a hurry.
Just down the street, Hess’s Hardware Store (106 W. Main, 608-983-2313) seems to date from a different era. Think of it as the antithesis of Home Depot. Merchandise, some of it dusty, tends to bear the price tag from the year it was put in stock, and there’s a funky, idiosyncratic feel to the place that reflects the personality of its owner, Raymond Hess. The store may appeal to shoppers in the market for things they don’t know they need–my husband snagged an unopened Jimmy Smith album from the early 60s for $3.50. But take note: contrary to the sign outside, ice cream is no longer served on the premises. When a state inspector informed him that the tax on hand-dipped ice cream had skyrocketed to $120 a year, Hess stopped scooping.
During the Depression a local store owner named Lee spearheaded a project to build a dam on the Little Baraboo River, creating Lee Lake, the only body of water in Richland County. Over the years the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has helped maintain the lake, dredging it and creating a wetland that attracts wildlife to its western end. Now this side of the lake is especially good for bird watching–sightings of great blue herons and egrets are common. Stocked with bass and northern pike, Lee Lake is also good for fishing. Fishing licenses are available at the nearby Coop Country Partners convenience store (Route 58, 608-983-2626). Camping at Lee Lake requires a permit obtainable through the village clerk, Robin Landsinger (608-983-2634). The fee is nominal; the site has toilet facilities but no showers. Full camping facilities are available at Lighthouse Rock Campground (S2320 County Highway V, Reedsburg, 608-524-4203).
Cazenovia has a strong hometown baseball tradition that in the 50s produced three-time All-Star “Blind” Ryne Duren, whose 95-miles-per-hour fastball and lack of control made him the most dominating reliever of his era. The Cazenovia Reds play from May through August at Cazenovia Memorial Park, and while Caz is by far the smallest town to field a team in the amateur Home Talent League, the Reds routinely make a good showing, even winning the league championship in 1999. Check one of the bars in town for the team’s schedule.
The Robert Schmitt Memorial Baseball Tournament, also held in Memorial Park, honors Bob Schmitt, one of the early EMTs in Cazenovia. Organized by his wife, Bette, and children John, Jerry, and Sarah, the eight-team single-elimination tournament features talented amateur teams from the surrounding area. This year’s games begin Friday, June 8, at 7 PM and run all day Saturday. Refreshments–including beer, brats, and hot beef sandwiches–are available at the concession stand, with proceeds earmarked for park improvements and a scholarship fund.
The Carr Valley Cheese Factory (S3797 County Highway G, 608-986-2781 or 800-462-7258), located just outside Cazenovia in La Valle, is an inspiration not only to cheeseheads but to cheese lovers everywhere. Fourth-generation cheese maker Sid Cook uses milk from local dairy farms to craft English-style Cheshire and Double Gloucester and a range of flavored cheddars and jacks; the Carr Valley Cheese Store (M4095 U.S. 12, 608-847-6632), a Cook-owned sister factory in nearby Mauston, produces artisanal monastery and melange cheeses served in Chicago at restaurants such as Molive, Bin 36, and the Tasting Room. Monday through Saturday between 8 and noon, visitors to the La Valle plant can view the cheese making process and take a self-guided tour ending with the packaging room, where, says Cook, it’s interesting to see the old-fashioned rind-cured wheels “dipped in wax and packaged bandage-style.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustrations/Heather McAdams.