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Wandering Through Wisconsin

Originally Published in Trailer Life Magazine

I hadn’t been back to my home state of Wisconsin since leaving in 1949 as a small child, so
it was with great anticipation that Richard and I packed up the Gypsy Wagon and headed for
Augusta, the home of my childhood. Located in the beautiful Chippewa Valley, Augusta is a
very small town 18 miles southeast of Eau Claire, which is the area’s major industrial,
retail and medical center. If you like antiquing, fishing or exploring beautiful rural
America, you will enjoy this trip. Approaching from the west on Interstate 90, we made a
stop in Faribault, Minnesota (about 42 miles north on Interstate 35), where one of the last
woolen mills in America still operates. This 135-year-old mill offers tours by appointment
at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. during the week, and it is a real treat to see the workings of the
mill as they take in the raw wool and process it into finished products. Over the years,
the Faribault Woolen Mill has become the nation’s leading maker of wool blankets, and we
wanted to pick up one from their outlet store for our motorhome. As we entered Wisconsin,
we found the hardwood trees cloaked in the blazing colors of autumn. Sunshine filled our
days, but the nights were nippy and we enjoyed the warmth of our new blanket. Our route
took us north on I-94 to Osseo and then to Augusta. The Trailer Life Directory lists a
number of fine campgrounds throughout the Chippewa Valley. More than 400 years ago, the
Sioux probably claimed this region. Then in the 1600s, pressured by events in the East,
other tribes moved in. It was the fur trade that first brought Europeans to the valley, but
it was the tall timber and the loggers who opened it up to settlers, many of them Norwegian
farmers known for their hard work, straightforward honesty and old-fashioned hospitality.
The people of the region still speak with a Norwegian lilt, and though I’ve often thought
the “ya, you betcha” phrase is overdone in the movies, we certainly heard it said many
times while we were there. My grandparents, though of Dutch extraction, had been among
those early farmers, raising sheep, cattle, pigs, chickens and geese. They have long since
passed away, but aunts, uncles and cousins, many of whom I had never met, still live in the
surrounding area. Fortunately, Grandpa’s farm remains in the family, but the old Victorian
house in town where I spent my early years has passed into other hands. In spite of it
being 50-plus years since I’d left Augusta, the town still looked much the same, except for
the Amish buggys that now filled the streets. Drawn from Ohio by the lower cost of land,
approximately 150 Amish families have settled a mile north of town on U.S. Highway 12. This
is one of the oldest Amish orders in the nation, and you can arrange a tour through their
farmlands and see them at work by calling or visiting their Augusta store, the Woodshed. Be
sure to take this tour, as it is a wonderful glimpse into a way of life that has nearly
disappeared from our country. People from around the nation come to the Woodshed to buy
beautifully handcrafted furniture, quilts and other Amish goods. The huge Victorian house
that I remembered looked very small now. The hitching block out front was gone, as were the
graceful old oaks that had lined the street. Grandpa’s farm looked smaller too, but
everything was still pretty much as I recalled. I could almost see him, in his overalls,
rounding the corner of the barn with a milk pail in each hand, and Grandma, in her faded
housedress, scattering grain for the chickens. Driving the backroads around Augusta is like
taking a trip into yesterday. You wind through beautiful farmland punctuated with tall
silos and dotted with farmhouses. Fields spread out in geometric patterns, and tiny towns
with a Norman Rockwell look offer many photo opportunities. Lakes and rivers, abundant with
fish, are everywhere. You can make a good short circle drive from Augusta down State Route
27 to Fairchild, then west on CR 10 to Osseo and back to Augusta, or for a longer trip, you
could travel east on CR 10 to Marshfield. Take any of the little county roads that you see
along the way. While in Osseo, stop at the Norske Nook on Seventh street for a piece of one
of its famous pies. Another good day trip is to travel south on I-94 from Osseo to Black
River Falls and stop at the Chippewa Valley Cheese and Antique Store. They have wonderful
cheese made the natural way without any additives. Sample to your hearts content. Their ice
cream is great too, and if you like antiquing, this place is a treasure trove. A drive down
along the Eau Claire (French for “clear water”) brought back memories of young boys and
their daring leaps from the bridge to the river below. I’m not sure many parents would
allow that these days, but back then it was a regular summer thing. The river is beautiful,
with brilliant red and gold and green reflected in the sparkling water. Oh, to feel the
magic of those childhood summers again. Built in 1864, Dells Mill, three miles north of
Augusta, was the highlight of our trip (other than visiting relatives, of course). We were
enchanted at first glance with the fall colors reflected in the glassy surface of the
millpond. Early farmers came to turn their grain into flour and, like most mills of that
era, Dells Mill became a social gathering place. Today, it is a marvelous museum presided
over by owner Gus Clark, who will greet you in his authentic Civil War uniform and take you
through the building made of hand-hewed timbers. Its 3,000 feet of belting and 175 pulleys
are powered by the water wheel that turns below the dam just outside the mill. Even the
gears, made entirely of wood, are a work of art. The mill has been in Clark’s family since
1894, and he is always increasing his collection of Civil War memorabilia. It puzzled us at
first to see those items displayed along with the historical implements of the region, but
then we learned about the great affect that war had on the area. In the 1860s, more than a
third of the adult male population served in the War Between the States. We thoroughly
enjoyed this trip into my childhood past and, like most trips, it ended too soon. Perhaps
you will see us this fall wandering the backroads of Wisconsin once again.

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