Whisking through Wisconsin: June 18 – July 1, 2010

Our visit to Wisconsin could best be described as underwhelming. We can’t really blame it on the state itself but more on the circumstances involved.

Wisconsin is a pretty state, except for its roads. Like those in Iowa (and subsequent places we’ve traveled in the north central region), they are old concrete ribbons with large expansion gaps and extensive patching with tar. These conditions wreak havoc with both our big dually truck and the trailer; it’s akin to driving over a washboard and actually sends us semi-airborne at times. We have found it necessary to drive as slow a 30 mph on sections of roads with 55 mph speed limits. Much of our travel was on secondary highways, but even some of the “supers” were misnamed.

Two other issues existed. First, we have tried to change locations mid-week to avoid Friday arrivals, when campsites are more difficult to secure. But we were scheduled for Friday arrival at both of our Wisconsin destinations: Madison and Green Bay. Not being wed to either city, we changed our itinerary completely. Second, we discovered that sites were more expensive, and fewer sites were available with 50 amp electrical service (preferred over the more typical 30 amp) and sewer connections. Rates between $30 and $45 a night were the rule, and discounts were scarce. And just to add insult to injury, three enjoyable events were countered by three downers. But enough prelude – here’s the story.

Prairie du Chien

From Eldora, Iowa, we traveled northeast to Prairie du Chien, (pronounced “pree da sheen” by locals), located on the Mississippi River directly across from Marquette, Iowa. The campground was a sports center, with as many boats as campers. It was packed by the end of the day (Friday), and, being a late reserver, we were nestled in among “park models” (homes on wheels that stay in one place permanently). The exodus Saturday morning, starting about 6 am, was fishing boats and party platforms to the multiple boat ramps across the road. At this point, the Mississippi has multiple branches and long slim islands, so the marina is sheltered and out of the main traffic lane.

Being boatless, we took full advantage of a very special event in town: the 35th annual Prairie Villa Rendezvous. It might best be described as a massive “renaissance fair” that’s actually a re-enactment set in the fur trading days of 1840. There were hundreds of Indian and prairie shelters of all sizes pitched for living accommodations, and dozens of vendor booths rustically made with tent cloth tempting visitors as they wandered the paths in the village. The stands served authentic foods, including buffalo and elk burgers. Admission to gawkers was free, but the “residents” were required to be in appropriate dress of the era.

Our major attention, however, was focused on an EZE-UP booth labeled Native Spirit. It was the “stage” of the nationally famous Brian Hammill, the 2009 World Champion Hoop Dancer. Brian, a Ho-Chunk who was born and raised in Benton, Wisconsin, now lives in Phoenix with his wife Toni and young children, Nedallas and Destiny. His troupe performs all over the world. The family put on shows all day each day in front of the booth; this day (Saturday) he voluntarily expanded them from four to six. A show consisted of education and funny patter, a flute performance, and several dance performances. Nedallas, 7, a straight-A student and brown belt, and Toni, a recent MA graduate from ASU, also performed with the champ. We enjoyed it so much that we went back for a repeat. Native Spirit (www.nativespirit.com) offers numerous CD’s of Brian’s Native American flute music and DVD’s of dance performances.

Prairie du Chien also offered another lovely find, the Villa Louis, an estate that is a stop on the Great River Road Network. The Network is a collection of 65 interpretive centers in ten states along the full 2300 miles of the Mississippi. We are disappointed that we’ve learned about the Network after traversing most of it; this is only the second listed site that we’ve seen. We hope to catch some others in later months.

A property on the River, previously Fort Crawford, was purchased by the wealthy trader and investor Hercules Dousman in 1843, at which time he built a large Greek Revival home on an Indian burial mound. Upon his death, it passed to his wife Jane and son Louis. Louis tore it down and replaced it with the present Italianate structure. Jane live there; Louis and his wife Nina and five children lived in St. Louis until her death. After extensive remodeling, the younger Dousmans returned in 1885, only to have Louis pass on in 1886. It was then that his widow named it Villa Louis. Except for a brief, unsuccessful remarriage, Nina and her children lived in the Midwest and used Villa Louis as their summer home. A very successful manager, she ran the property effectively.

The entire front of the main level is an enclosed porch, very suitable for informal entertaining. By tradition, parlors, living room and dining room graced the interior, and the upper level housed the bedrooms. The furnishings are all authentic and in many cases original. The home had not only electric lighting but indoor plumbing! Our guide, Kyle, was a college student who could not have been better; he was not only knowledgeable of all the history of the place but entertained us with much of the gossip and intrigue in the families’ lives (e.g.: Nina’s second husband was a cad and adulterer!). Most rooms were accessible, and our young host had to keep admonishing people about touching things. No photography was allowed inside. The servants quarters and kitchen were extremely interesting – the butler’s pantry allowed “Jeeves” to see the table without being seen so he could control delivery and pick up of courses with instant response. The grounds include several outbuildings; others like the stable and horse ring were demolished by Louis, who had no interest in his dad’s thoroughbreds. Two neighboring buildings have been incorporated into the historic site, one of which is now a Fur Traders Museum.

La Crosse

La Crosse was a four day stopover, in large part to shift our travel back to mid-week. It was about 60 miles due north of P-du-C, and the drive was a spectacular River view all the way up.

Now for the first downer. Our microwave went south in P-du-C on Saturday evening. It wasn’t simply a microwave; it was a microwave/convection/half-time oven. There was nothing we could do about it until Monday morning, when Dot got on the phone with the Apollo folks. “Gee,” they said, “when that service light comes on it could mean almost anything. Since it’s out of warranty, you’ll have to find someone to service it. And we don’t work with Sears anymore. Good bye.”

You know what that means. Service costs more than replacement, and while we could have found a like-model, shipping and logistics would have been nightmares. So recognizing that we only use the microwave feature anyway, and having two other ovens aboard, we decided to look for a simpler replacement. Fortunately, there was a gigantic home store in La Crosse, where we found a Panasonic that suited our needs. Even better, the trim kit for the Apollo created a perfect surround for it in our odd-sized compartment. I did have to spend a bunch of time making new mounts to secure it against rough riding, but it was up and running by Wednesday morning.

Oh, yes, La Crosse. Needless to say, we didn’t see much of it. But our campground was marvelous; our site backed up within 20 feet of a Mississippi branch. Not only did we feast our eyes on the flora and fauna, we got to watch watercraft of every description (except sail) ply the channel. We didn’t even mind the blinding thunderstorm Monday night, since we felt like we were back on our boat in a beautiful harbor!

Oshkosh

We substituted Oshkosh for our original two western Wisconsin cities. Why? Because we got a good deal on the campground! The Circle R Campground turned out to be very “rustic.” It consisted of about fifty underdeveloped but full-service RV sites and hundreds of tent sites spread over the back acreage. It was very busy, thanks to the presence of the annual Country USA celebration, a five-day Woodstock-like event in a major Ford Motor Company-owned venue nearby. The entertainment this year included Darius Rucker, Toby Keith, Travis Tritt and Blake Shelton. We believe Taylor Swift was in the 2009 lineup! The campground provided us with a discount ticket opportunity, but we passed it up. Driving by, listening to the attendees staying at our campground, and reading press reports, it was a mass of hot bodies and the underage drinking capital of the world for that week.

Instead, we opted for one of the coolest experiences of our trip so far, the EAA AirVenture Museum. EAA is the Experimental Aircraft Association. Founded in 1953 by aviation enthusiasts led by Paul H. Poberezny, the organization now has over 170,000 members. The museum houses hundreds of planes from famous war beasts to space flyers to simple, experimental home-built aircraft. One could spend days and not see everything.

A veteran of WWII and Korea, Lt. Col. Poberezny’s credentials include 30 years of military service as a pilot and test pilot — without ever having military aviation training. He alone attained all seven aviation wings the military had to offer. He has designed, built and flown numerous small aircraft, and his awards list is a Who’s Who.

From a WWII exhibit centered by an actual P38, to a very specialized plane designed by the Johnson Wax family to scour South American jungles for carnauba, to a facsimile of the Wright brothers’ Kitty Hawk success, to an exhibit of space vehicles of all types, the museum is a head turner. These exhibits are interspersed with small planes of every imaginable description, many hanging from the multi-level ceiling. The pictures below are simply a microcosm.

But it didn’t end there. A tram ride took us across the grass landing field to a series of hangers that held another fifty or so vintage aircraft, including a real Fokker. Both a single wing and a biplane were available for brief rides at low prices.

The thrill of the museum and grounds would have paled in comparison to their annual AirVenture Fly-In, scheduled for late July. Over 10,000 aircraft will fly into the neighboring fields, and over 500,000 enthusiasts will compare adventures and provide education.

Now for Downer #2. I had a cap come off a tooth just before our trip began and had it re-cemented by a local dentist. While in Nashville, it came off again, and $90 at an emergency clinic got it restored. By late Iowa, it was off again, and the jaw began to abscess. I got an immediate appointment with an Oshkosh dental practice with a virtually empty waiting room. The tooth required an oral surgeon to remove it, and a couple hours later, another empty waiting room and immediate service. The bill was usury, and now, over two weeks later, the socket is still not fully closed.

Downtown Oshkosh offered a great view of Lake Winnebago. Statistically, it’s about 10 x 30 miles in size, 140,000 acres, 88 miles of shoreline and 15.5 feet average depth. It’s connected to Lake Michigan by a series of 17 locks. It provides in-town Oshkosh with a beautiful waterfront, along which there is a series of parks, playgrounds, marinas and other community facilities. The houses, even with water view, are mostly modest.

So we had three great events – The Prairie du Chien Rendezvous, the Villa Louis and the EAA AirVenture – and two downers (microwave and tooth) so far. You’ll be spared our last experience with Wisconsin until the second episode after this one!

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