By Sharyn Alden
At first glance, Gays Mills in southwestern Wisconsin seems almost too good to be true.
This serene pocket of paradise is rich with dense apple groves, glassy-smooth creeks, open meadows, hardwood forests, and small-town charm.
It also sits on the mighty Kickapoo River, whose Native American Algonquin name means “crooked river.” The Kickapoo zigzags on a 125-mile course, and is so famous with canoeists that it almost seems to take on the life of a local personality.
Besides absorbing the lush landscape known as Wisconsin’s Hidden Valleys, visitors in the know head to Gays Mills to find huge clusters of pink and white apple blossoms (the area boasts nine orchards). In fact, the town has long been considered the “Apple Capital of Wisconsin.”
But apples are only one reason you don’t want to ride right past Gays Mills. Plenty of other historical, cultural and recreational magnets draw people here.
Clerk of the Village Dawn McCann, who has lived in the area all her life, says the two biggest events of the year are the Spring Festival and the fall Apple Festival, which bring the buzz of carnivals, parades, crafts and music to the streets.
If you’re a history buff, take Railroad Street past the town’s swimming pool to Log Cabin Heritage Park. This picturesque park adjacent to a spring-fed creek is dotted with several log cabins once home to Gays Mills settlers. You’re just six blocks from downtown, but when you take a self-guided tour of the rustic log homesteads, you’ll feel a million miles away.
On Gays Mills’ Main Street, the Red Apple Inn is a favorite spot for many of the 620 residents who gather there for a meal or a cup of coffee and homemade apple pie. Begin your day here with a hearty breakfast of eggs and bacon before strolling the village center.
Or after a big breakfast, outdoor activities might be just the thing, and there’s a smorgasbord of opportunities in the area. Interested in canoeing the Kickapoo? The most popular stretch is about 30 miles north of Gays Mills. In the mood to fish? The 200 miles of trout waters nearby will keep you busy. Or ride the peaceful byways on your bike; stellar scenery and good roads make the Kickapoo Valley Reserve (in neighboring Vernon County) a premier biking route.
How to feel like you’re a local
You’ll feel like a local if you know about the town’s founder, James B. Gay. Gay, a civil engineer, who built the area’s first dam and sawmill on the river in 1847. The town’s name was selected to honor James as well as his brothers, John and Thomas, who helped run the family business and who built a flour mill just south of the sawmill.
Sharyn Alden is a freelance writer based in Madison.