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Highway 51, Wisconsin's Own Route 66
Last Updated: 3/12/2013
By Mary Bergin
It’s not hard to fill a passport without leaving Wisconsin.
The “Passport Wisconsin” program takes vacationers about 300 miles, as part of a six-state, 1,275-mile effort to turn the whole highway (which ends in Laplace, La.) into one huge tourist attraction.
Think “Route 66,” but map your route vertically. In Wisconsin, we’re talking about Hurley’s rowdy and bawdy Silver Street to Beloit’s collection of 12,000 angels (the largest in the world, says the Guinness Book of World Records).
You gotta love the contrasts.
“Passport Wisconsin” lists where to go and what to see. It’s not meant to be a thrill-a-minute excursion, but a way to better understand the state’s diversity of culture, character, history, economics and terrain.
There are the attractions, and then there’s the road. The route embraces the nuances of Wisconsin as well as the stark contrasts of its urban and rural, Northwoods and agricultural landscapes.
It is about the unusual crops that earn farmers a living: the ginseng near Wausau, the cranberries of Eagle River, the tobacco of Edgerton. Amish farmers use horses in the fields. Others use machinery that costs more than their house.
It is about paying attention to the roadside as well as your driving, and not getting a cell phone connection for miles. It is about having a red fox cross your path in one town, or seeing a hawk soar.
One farm sells maple syrup. Another has a quilt shop. There are cosmopolitan pursuits, too – fine art and dining, boutique shopping – but not always where they are expected.
These are people who are proud of where they live. They are excited to be part of a multi-state project that encompasses people of a similar spirit, in places they may have never seen.
What can you see along the way? “Passport Wisconsin” contains terrific ideas, but here are a few more that are lesser known.
Hurley – The Anton-Walsh Bed and Breakfast is operated by Gene Cisewski, who loves to cook and is a local history buff. He enjoys telling the stories behind the town’s lurid past as a red light district, when prostitution was the only way for a woman to earn a good income.
Breakfasts include his signature pudding (made with wild rice and cranberries) and meats such as juniper berry sausage.
Manitowish Waters – More artists have begun to call this remote area their home, and studios are open during the Northwoods Summer & Fall Art Tour, during weekends in late July and early October. This back roads tour has 20-plus stops, and art techniques are demonstrated. It isn’t all about chainsaw wood carvings.
Recommended lodging options include Voss’ Birchwood Resort, rustic but charming, full of nostalgia. Family owned and established in 1910, with an ice cream parlor and an inviting dining room that overlooks Spider Bay.
Tomahawk -- Harley-Davidson provides work to hundreds in the area, and plant tours occur during the Fall Ride, in mid September, which turns the area into a little Sturgis. About 40,000 attend; it’s about street dances and Harley demos.
A good choice at the downtown Pine Tree Supper Club is The Spirit (or daily variations of it), which is ham, asparagus and mushrooms, served open-faced and slathered with white sauce and melted cheese. Also on the menu: locally made wines, chokeberry to dandelion.
Merrill – Two sides of this city’s personality show up in a big way in early summer. On separate weekends in June, the Central Wisconsin Polka Festival and Rodeo Days take over the Lincoln County Fairgrounds.
The first event showcases a dozen bands from other small communities, Ringle to Butternut, Trempealeau to Pulaski.
Rodeo Days has music, too, but the tempo is different. Also expect a cowboy church service, professional rodeo competition and mounted shooting demos.
Wausau area – One of Mosinee’s newer summer events is the mid-August Little Bull Falls Log Jam, which includes an old-time lumberjack contest (that means no power equipment) and sanctioned horseshoe throwing tournament.
Wautoma – On the outskirts is Pine Ridge Farms, upscale lodging for people who love trout fishing, bird and deer hunting. “Adding a touch of class to the outdoors” is one of the business slogans; fine dining fare includes – no surprise! – wild game.
Stoughton – This community says it’s the place where coffee breaks began, a fact that is celebrated with a one-day festival in mid August. The biggest bash, though, is in mid May and about Norwegian heritage. Stoughton’s Syttende Mai reportedly is the largest such celebration outside of Norway.
For more about Wisconsin’s U.S. 51, see www.explorehwy51.com or call 866-HWY-51-WI.This entry was posted in Entertainment and Attractions