PRAIRIE DU CHIEN AND LA CROSSE, WISCONSIN – When you go on a road trip-style vacation with family or friends, somehow the hapless odyssey of the Griswold family in the first National Lampoon Vacation movie comes to mind. The string of cheap motels, tacky roadside attractions, visits to offbeat relatives and the numerous disasters that plague the road trip-turned-quest for that final destination (and in the Griswolds’ case, it was the mythical theme park Walley World), that just make you want to turn the car around and head for home.
So if you decide to go on a road trip vacation that is scenic, breathtaking and a far cry from what the Griswold family experienced, then check out the Great River Road National Scenic Byway. Officially established in 1938 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Great River Road is regarded as one of the oldest and highly regarded byways in the U.S. It stretches for over 3,000 miles and extends through 10 states, from Minnesota in the north, to Louisiana in the south (and Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi in between). And the common denominator of that 3,000-mile stretch of byway is that it all parallels the mighty Mississippi River, which makes for a road trip that is filled with historical significance and scenic beauty.
During a recent press tour that I participated in with a group of fellow travel writers, we concentrated on a portion of the 250-mile stretch of the Great River Road that inhabits the western part of Wisconsin. During that four-day tour, we journeyed along that portion of the road, as we made stops to visit some of the 33 towns and villages that dot along the route, starting at Prairie du Chien, and making our way north to Maiden Rock … all with the Mississippi River peering at us over our shoulders.
And like many chroniclers, I present a day-by-day diary of what I experienced during those four days goin’ down Wisconsin’s Great River Road.
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Thursday, August 9: After a lengthy three-hour drive south from the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, we made our first stop in our Wisconsin Great River Road journey: the town of Prairie du Chien. After settling in at our respective accommodations, we ventured to St. Feriole Island, located south of the town, where we attended a welcome reception and dinner that was hosted by the Wisconsin Department of Tourism.
It took place at the Dousman House Hotel, which overlooks the banks of the Upper Mississippi. It was built in 1864 and was regarded as the premier hotel in the region. Three years later, it was renamed in honour of Hercules Dousman, the patriarch of the family who built Prairie du Chien as a thriving commerce center in that region during the early 19th century (who also owned much of the railroad stock in the area to boot). It was converted into a meat packing plant during the 1940s, and during the past two decades, was left in a state of disrepair and neglect. But thanks to the efforts of a local businessman, the Dousman House is undergoing a major renovation, in which it is being restored to its original mid-19th century splendour, and will be used for receptions and parties.
During the dinner, we got the chance to sample a taste of what this region of Wisconsin has to offer gastronomically, from the delicious smoked perch from Valley Fish and Cheese, to the apple wines, to of course, cheese curds. Our hosts were topnotch when it came to hospitality; however, one person who stood out was Stephanie Klett, who serves as Secretary for the state’s tourism department, and whose gusto and enthusiasm makes her the ideal booster to promote tourism in Wisconsin (she even hosted her local TV and radio show for many years called “Discover Wisconsin”). Stephanie also entertained us with her wealth of stories and anecdotes, including the time when she represented Wisconsin at the 1991 Miss America pageant, where she won the Bert Parks Talent Award for her skills and prowess as a coronet player.
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Friday, August 10: Today’s leg of the journey was practically a day-long living history lesson of Prairie du Chien’s role in the development of the American West during its infancy – with a surprisingly unexpected Montreal angle thrown into the mix – not to mention a taste of the region.
Our first stop was at Villa Louis (www.villalouis.org), a 25-acre site that was the home of the pioneering Dousman family, and was built on the site of the only battle during the War of 1812 that ever took place in Wisconsin (the Battle of Prairie du Chien, which took place in 1814).
The nucleus of the Villa Louis complex is the family residence that was built in 1870 by Louis Dousman, the son of patriarch Hercules Dousman. Originally called “the House on the Mound” because it was built on one of the few areas that was genuinely flood-proof, the mansion (which was the Dousman family home from 1843 to 1913) has been lovingly restored to its Guilded Age beauty, with about 90% of the family’s original furnishings still in place. With the help of our knowledgeable guides (who were dressed in period costume to add an air of authenticity), you feel that you have stepped back into the 1890s the moment you set foot into the house and explore the mansion from room to room, and find out how everyday life was like according to the region’s founding family, from their rituals and traditions, to their leisure time, to even how meals were prepared in their “modern” 1890s kitchen (even their ornate dining room was set up and ready for a small wedding reception to take place).
From there, we proceeded to a historical site that was a testament to early American military history, the Fort Crawford Museum (www.fortcrawfordmuseum.com). Originally built during the 1820s, Fort Crawford was part of a chain of U.S. Army forts that were established along the Upper Mississippi River and Fox-Wisconsin waterway to give an American presence in this vast, volatile wild frontier, as well as to help keep the peace amongst settlers and the native tribes that inhabited the area.
The site of the second Fort Crawford (and where the museum resides) had its place in American history, as it was the site where the Black Hawk War ended in 1832 (soldiers from the fort fought during this brief war, as well as several militias from across the country; the militia from Illinois had amongst its ranks future U.S. Presidents Zachary Taylor and Abraham Lincoln). The only part of the Fort Crawford installation that remains is the military hospital, which has been preserved to tell the story of the fort, its role in the Black Hawk War, and the story of military medicine and the history of medicine in America in general.
It was amongst the impressive display of medical artefacts from over the past 200 years and historical dioramas that graphically depicted some of the landmark events in American surgical history that I stumbled onto one of the more significant medical events that took place in the fort that actually has a Montreal angle to it.
It involves Dr. William Beaumont, who served as an army surgeon at the fort. In 1822, Alexis St. Martin, a voyageur fur trader who was born in the town of Berthierville just outside of Montreal, was at the fort when he was accidentally shot in the stomach. With the nature of the wound that was fatal at best during that time, Dr. Beaumont managed to miraculously save the fur trader’s life. However, thanks to that gunshot wound, Dr. Beaumont used St. Martin as a virtual medical guinea pig. From 1824 to 1830, St. Martin and the gaping wound he had in his stomach were the focus of a series of medical experiments that were conducted by Dr. Beaumount, in which he discovered how the digestive process worked, especially the gastric juice flow. Somehow, St. Martin managed to survive these rather grisly, yet beneficial medical experiments; he lived until his death in 1880 at the age of 86. The story of Dr. Beaumont and Alexis St. Martin and their unlikely partnership in the study of how a part of the human anatomy works was recounted in a historical novel called Open Wound, which was published in 2013.
After lunch, we paid a visit to the food emporium which was the source of the delicious smoked perch that I enjoyed the previous night: Valley Fish & Cheese (www.ValleyFishMarketpdc.com). This combination food store and curiosity shop is owned and operated by “Mississippi Mike” Valley, a fascinating character who can easily be mistaken for one of the stars of the reality TV series “The Deadliest Catch”. A man who wears his passion for fishing on his sleeve, he proudly boasts that his store is the only one in the area that catches, cleans and smokes its wide variety of “river food” on the same day (and on the store premises, too). Besides its selection of hickory smoked fish (including shrimp, trout, carp and catfish), Valley Fish & Cheese also sells a fine selection of Wisconsin cheeses, wild game jerkies and cold cuts (try the snapping turtle summer sausage), fresh, frozen and canned foods (including “Badger Balls”, really!), plus exclusive souvenirs, gifts and fishing accessories. Not bad for a place that claims on its large storefront sign that it’s “approved by the Sturgeon General”.
After exploring the world of “Mississippi Mike” Valley, we made our way north along the Great River Road to La Crosse, the largest city on our journey where we would spend the next couple of days. Part of La Crosse County, which attracts over 2 million visitors every year, La Crosse is a great mix for visitors who like to shop, explore, dine and enjoy the outdoors.
We were treated to dinner on the rooftop restaurant of the Charmant Hotel (www.thecharmanthotel.com), which is located in the heart of downtown La Crosse. This four-diamond, award-winning luxury boutique hotel is housed in what was once a chocolate and confectionary factory. In fact, that spirit of chocolate is still prevalent at the hotel, with old Charmant Chocolate boxes and ads on display in the lobby, and the front desk doubling as a glass display case offering various types of chocolate for sale.
A converted boot and shoe factory is now the home of the Pearl Street Brewery (www.pearlstreetbrewery.com). Founded in 1999, this made in Wisconsin craft brewery offers tours, a tasting room and live music on its Happy Hour Stage every Friday night. Our guide for the evening was Marty (who bears an uncanny resemblance to actor Wayne Knight, who portrayed Newman on “Seinfeld”) and is one individual who was so passionate about the product, that Pearl Street made him its official tour guide and spokesperson. He certainly knew the story about each of its many brands of beers inside out (and convinced me to try sour India Pale Ale for the first time), and how they got their unconventional names (including its recent addition “Shitty Lyte Beer”, which was based on the response by the brewery’s founder to a customer’s request if they made any type of light beer).
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For more information about visiting Wisconsin’s Great River Road region and what it has to offer tourists — check out the Travel Wisconsin website at www.travelwisconsin.com, or call 1-800-432-8747, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Feature image: Mississippi River at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin