Editor's note: Doug Kamholz abandons any pretense of objective journalism when writing about Wisconsin, a state with which he is smitten (and where he has kinfolk). His stated goal is zeroing in on Midwestern gems and promoting them to auslanders. After reading his latest post you may chart your own journey to an orchard, perhaps even one in the Badger State.
by Douglas Kamholz
The first fall I visited apple orchards above Gays Mills, Wisconsin, my dad was holding my hand. Queen Elizabeth II had just been crowned. This month, after scores of autumn returns, I’m fresh from another visit.
Wisconsin’s southwest quarter along the Mississippi was hardly touched by those glaciers that made most of the Midwest a flat farming paradise. It’s all ice-cream-scoop hills and valleys called coulees (from French verb “to flow”) cut with the world’s largest concentrations of cold-water streams. It’s dubbed the Driftless Area or just the Driftless, and I love every square inch.
At least one of those sparkly little waterways ranks in Wisconsin’s innovative Rustic Roads program, a statewide collection of far-flung and often unpaved stretches still unsullied by modernity. In the Rustic Roads guidebook, the description of one up in Pierce County (girlhood home of Laura Ingalls Wilder) says it “frequently crosses a trout stream." But more precise writing would correctly tell us the (thankfully shallow) stream crosses the road time and again. What a hoot!
Every year our trip is to gather apples. This year my wife,Sheila and I bought home 23 half-pecks of 19 heirloom varieties. All these are grown for taste, not for skin color or shininess or lasting long in storage and on trucks. Back in 1905, farmers from around tiny Gays Mills won State Fair and national apple honors. Wisconsin State Horticultural Society urged commercial growing along a local high ridge. Now a thousand acres bloom white in May and hang heavy with fruit come fall. We give most of ours away accompanied by a short description of each variety and a one-pager on the real Johnny Appleseed, John Chapman. (I do put a pan on my head for folklore cred.)
By now we have a route north from home that includes our favorite cheese shop, Baumgartner’s in Monroe, butcher shop and bakery, both in New Glarus, a shoe outlet in Black Earth, a Duluth Trading Company store (in Mount Horeb inside the former Mustard Museum!) and a U.S. 14 roadside vegetable stand complete with petting zoo. Oh, and hippies, lots of them. Artisans and back-to-the-landers from my generation plus new ones, too, are progressive forces in towns like Spring Green and Viroqua. Tiny La Farge, smack dab in the Driftless, is home to Organic Valley, a national brand and the country’s largest farmer-owned organic cooperative.
Every other year includes the Reedsburg-based Wormfarm Institute’s absolutely stunning Farm/Art Dtour, a 50-mile figure-eight punctuated with very large artworks, rural wisdom and a fine sense of humor. (They even have a contest for five-line poetry posted on Burma Shave-style signs beside the byways.) Grants go to a handful of artists while community groups and farmers themselves add to the trove of roadside attractions. One dairy farmer mocked up a French bistro table in his cow pasture and put up a symbolic invitation that read: “Come have lunch with the ladies!”
The Wormfarm folks put a real piano in an open field with an invitation to come make music. Our first eyeful this year was a 20-foot farmer marionette. Imagine driving a country road with a quarter mile of all yellow wash hung on a line followed by another quarter mile of all blue and then pink. Or imagine just 50 feet of farm-woman aprons pinned up next to a long list of uses, from carrying baby chicks to last-minute dusting to wiping a child’s tears.
I have some more personal connections to the area. Several Kamholz dairy farms have been located near Monroe. The one remaining belongs to Chris and Amy Kamholz with their son CJ taking over more and more daily duties. They have a small herd of Ayrshire, a high butter-fat breed great for cheese. Chris’s dad was my late cousin David who, with his wife Vera, rode herd on seven kids and a bunch of Holsteins, those stereotypical black and white cows. Fifty years ago when I was living on my first commune, Laughing Acres, I went to buy a crate of layers from cousin David. He quietly took me aside to make sure I knew that brown hens did not necessarily lay brown eggs. My dad spent his last living day on that farm. One sunny September day in 1990 he closed up his home office (a remodeled chicken coop attached to a one-car garage) and drove up to Juda. He took a half-mile walk to see the new house David was building for his retirement, walked back, sat down, said he didn’t feel well and was off this mortal coil within an hour. Not a bad way to go.
If there’s a through-line in the Driftless, that would be the Kickapoo River. It’s about as twisty a line as you can draw. (The name is from a still-existing tribe and means “those who walk the earth” or “he who moves here and there.”) The river snakes south 125 miles and is the longest tributary of the Wisconsin River, itself a tributary running west to the Mississippi.
The Kickapoo gets credit for America’s first solar village or, more precisely, the nation’s first solar-heated central business district. Water takes an S-curve through Soldiers Grove, so it often floods in spring. After a bad one in ‘78, the village asked the federal government to convert flood control money to rebuilding out of the flood plain, essentially to move downtown up a hill. Then, quite radically, the town mandated owners to use solar technology to provide at least 50 percent of their heating. This was that old passive solar with water heated in black tubes on roofs but still it was this tiny town leading all of us into the future.
One of our Driftless favorites is in that very same Soldiers Grove. A gussied-up Victorian, the Old Oak Inn is a six-room B&B with bathrooms down the hall and great food on real china. We have had a wedding and a ten- and a twenty-five-year anniversary weekend there, renting all the rooms and inviting friends. One year we all canoed a good stretch of the Kickapoo. “Do the ‘Poo” is a popular recreation refrain all along its course. This month at the inn we were entertained by a couple singer-songwriters and a five-piece ragtime band.
Milwaukee Map Service made these great real-paper maps of southwest Wisconsin with every blacktop and gravel lane marked. We have worn out a few. By now I am probably an expert but without doubt a fan. If you’re looking for back roads or brick cheese or brilliant leaves, it is a wondrous place to be.
On our last full day in the Driftless, we hit four orchards on the ridge above Gays Mills. Views from the high road keep catching those low valleys where autumn color is often the best. Six-foot, wine-red sumac borders groves of maple, birch, poplar and oak trees. Orchard sales rooms smell like apples well before you step inside. Parking lots are full of local and Iowa and flatlander (that’s us) license plates. Everybody’s plaid flannel looks warm. Noontime sun is making diamonds out of dewdrops. At the bar down the road in Rolling Ground, burgers and cheese curds wait.