Located on the Mississippi River in Wisconsin's southwest corner, Cassville is probably best known as the retirement haven of the state's first governor, Nelson Dewey. A Democrat, Dewey represented Grant County in the territorial legislature in the 1840s, and, as Robert C. Nesbit wrote in Wisconsin: A History, "had two unexceptional terms as governor during which he did nothing to advance his own career." In 1851, after his second term ended, Dewey built a mansion on some Cassville farmland. Today the land is a state park.
Dewey had a hand in another Cassville property, Denniston House, a four-story red brick apartment building fronting the Mississippi, built in 1836 as a lure to bring the territorial capital to Cassville. Dewey purchased the hotel in 1855. Today it greets visitors with the warning "This place sucks" scrawled in white chalk on its facade.
While Denniston House may or may not suck, Cassville doesn't. It's a charming, homespun town populated by friendly folks who wear their ball caps with the bill pointing forward and shun most other trappings of late-20th-century pop culture, unless it's a new, American-made four-wheel-drive truck, pink trim optional.
To get there, take I-90 north to Rockford, where you'll pick up U.S. 20 going west. Pass a billboard for "The World's First Germ-Free Toilet Seat Handle" in Dubuque and take U.S. 61 north across the Wisconsin border to highway 133 going west. When you see a sign announcing "Cassville--Where History, Bald Eagles and the Mississippi Meet" you're there.
Or you can enter Cassville from Iowa via the Cassville Car Ferry (608-725-5180), a service started in 1836, which transports people and cars across the Mississippi about every half hour from 9 AM to 9 PM, May through October. Rates for cars, vans, and pickups are $6. Motorcycles cost $3, bikes $2, and walk-ons $1. Be decisive; the nearest bridges north or south are at least 35 miles away.
While waiting for the ferry, you can preview the area's fishing, boating, trapping, and hunting options at Pool 11 of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge (319-873-3423). Established in
1924 along the river from Wabasha, Minnesota, to Cordova, Illinois, the entire refuge is 261 miles long and encompasses about 200,000 acres. It is home to 57 different species of mammals, 118 types of fish, and 292 species of birds, and annually attracts three million people intent on shooting them with either a camera or firearm. Expect a heavy fine and jail sentence if you attempt the latter. Cassville Bald Eagle Days (608-725-5374) are held the last weekend in January, when there's a high concentration of bald eagles in the area. Much of the bordering Mississippi River remains ice free during winter, making the area prime realty for feasting eagles and, in turn, eagle watchers. During Bald Eagle Days viewing sites are set up at Cassville's Riverside Park and Nelson Dewey State Park. There is also a candlelight hike. With nightlife rare as an eagle, it's easy to wake up for the peak 8 AM viewing.
The 756-acre Nelson Dewey State Park (608-725-5374), with camping ($11 per day; more if you want electricity or have a vehicle) and nature trails, offers a breathtaking bird's-eye view of the Mississippi basin. The park contains a so-so tourist spot, Stonefield Historic Site, which incorporates the faux-historic Stonefield Farmstead and Village and a reincarnation of Governor Dewey's home, originally built in 1868, gutted by fire in 1873, and restored (by Chicago's General Walter Cass Newberry) in 1893.
Stonefield (608-725-5210), purchased by the state in 1936, was Dewey's name for the 2,000-acre estate he settled after leaving political life. Several of the outbuildings remain from the original layout--including a stone chicken coop that now serves as the ticket seller's hut and a cow barn that houses the Wisconsin State Agricultural Museum. The only items the farmstead and village produce are straw brooms, an occasional edition of the Stonefield Gazette, and road apples. Ice cream is imported from Madison, 105 miles to the northeast. For farm history buffs and families only.
More intriguing is the Saint John Mine (608-763-2121), 18 miles east of Cassville in Potosi, cited by Ripley's for having the longest street in the U.S. without an intersection. During the Civil War this region was known as the "Lead Bucket of the Nation." The mine, taken from Native Americans by capitalist Willis Saint John, contributed much of the lead for the Yankees' (and about 70 percent of the rebs') muskets and cannonballs.
Our tour guide, a friendly University of Wisconsin-Platteville student, had expansive knowledge on everything from the density of lead to Potosi's male-female ratio in 1828. As we strode up the steep grade to the mouth of the mine and knocked around inside, his monologue shifted to information about archaic mining practices, geology, and the midgets who lugged 400-pound buckets of lead for 15 cents a day.
Canoe trips ($11-$16 canoe rental per day) on the Grant and Big Platte rivers are offered at the mine as well, and can last anywhere from an hour to three days with, as the brochure promises, "primitive camping along the way."
It's kind of neat to cruise the farm-country highways and back roads, skirting steep river bluffs or ample green expanses. Dugway Road from Cassville north to Bagley and beyond is a peach of a drive that includes some of the elements that lend this area its disheveled, yesteryear charm: black-eyed Susans, lawn ornaments of frogs, deer, and the Madonna, sandbags left over from the '93 flood, lime green houses, auto graveyards, and postcard views of treetops that stretch up to mingle with low-hanging clouds.
Bring a mountain bike and take advantage of the gravel roads, rolling farmland, oak, walnut, and pine forests, and few cars. Prairie du Chien is a mecca for midwestern outdoorsmen. Wyalusing State Park in Bagley (608-996-2261) includes among its 2,600 acres two bike paths and countless undesignated miles to be used only if you have insurance and good luck with park rangers.
Wyalusing, established in 1917 and situated 500 feet above the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers, also has 14 miles of hiking trails ranging from a half mile to 3.6 miles, 132 year-round, handicapped-accessible campsites (32 with electricity), a boat landing, cross-country ski trails, ice fishing, canoe rentals, and guided hikes.
If you travel by Harley, join the crowd at the Pine Tree Inn (rural route 2 just outside of Prairie du Chien, 608-326-2543). Every Labor Day, owner Chester Barr hosts Bagley Biker Days, which features mummified meat sticks called "Weasel Peters," country music, dusty road-hog camaraderie, and camping on Chester's property. It's called Bagley Biker Days because for some 15 years the event was held at the nearby Dew Drop Inn at Bagley, and it includes cycle tours of Bagley and surrounding parts. "I still have people that ask me how do I put up with the motorcycles," Chester says, glancing down the bar at a guy slumped over a beer."Hey, they ain't any better than you, maybe a little better, because they don't give me any shit."
Dickeyville Grotto (305 W. Main, 608-568-7519) is a paean to the almighty about 22 miles east of Cassville. Observed from a paved road winding between a church and a gift shop, the grotto's "Holy Ghost Park" contains 14 stone "stations" inlaid with a mosaic of "Our Savior" carved with such descriptions as "Jesus Takes Up His Cross" and "Jesus Falls the First Time." The road surrounds a similarly gaudy stone, seashell, and jewel-encrusted monument to Christopher Columbus: a three-tiered water fountain set in a half-circle stone wall topped by an eagle sculpture. On both sides of the fountain are pillars with statues of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. Picture an alfresco chapel designed by Elvis.
Farm Trails Through Scenic Southwest Wisconsin is a map and guide to 31 local independent farms and craftspeople within about an hour of Cassville. You can find it everywhere, or by calling 608-375-5798. The guide will point you to authentic rural foodstuffs, artifacts, and the people who grow, breed, or make them. There's cheese, naturally, and antiques, gourds, quilt supplies, popcorn, hay, wine, lambs, a bed and breakfast, and a place called "Wefarmasmidgen" where you can learn how to spin mohair.
The aptly named Dead-end Woodworkers are Randy and Peggy Beach and their two little girls, who live at the end of Ball Lane in Mount Hope. They farm their 23 acres and support themselves by Randy's craftsmanship. His barn, filled with expensive power tools, is where he creates beautiful furnishings and accessories out of oak, walnut, cherry, and hackberry--from small shelves to pricier wall units and mirrors (608-988-4757).
Plan ahead; most of these places request appointments; we were greeted at several stops only by chickens and house pets.
Cassville's culinary contributions are mainly fried cheese curds, fried catfish, and baked snapping turtle. Locals say turtle has eight different kinds of "meat"--I'm sure they all taste like chicken.
For Friday night catfish specials, you've gotta hit either the Potosi Yacht Club (6659 highway 133, 608-763-2238) or the San-Ray Supper Club (11781 highway VV, 608-725-5416). For hamburgers, try the Pitcher's Pub (218 E. Amelia, 608-725-5854) on Cassville's main drag. It serves a grotesque, bun-dwarfing pound of ground beef. Pitcher's Pub, also the town's sports bar, has the atmosphere and clientele one would expect of a tavern that offers a jar of turkey gizzards on the back bar.
Cassville offers little for nightlife--the closest movie theater is about 25 miles away--except hobnobbing with the natives in one of seven nondescript local bars. The Eagle's Nest (117 E. Amelia, 608-725-5129) is a favorite for the young and wild crowd of big-haired blonds and muscle-shirted studs; Vogt's Town Pump (118 E. Amelia, 608-725-5175) gets an older crowd and offers imported and microbrewery beers for those whose tastes exceed Pabst Blue Ribbon. After the bars close, "We go down to the boat landing a lot and sit there," said one 28-year-old Cassville native. "Everybody will talk--sometimes until the sun comes up." I think "go out to the park and neck" was how the lady at the Sand Bar Motel put it.
Your enjoyment of Cassville lodgings will probably be directly related to the site's proximity to the Burlington Northern Railroad line. The closer you are to the tracks, the more rudely you'll be awakened by the train's roar and whistle.
The Sand Bar Motel (1115 E. Bluff, 608-725-5300), owned by Jeff and Mary Glass, is one of those utilitarian roadside motels, with a sign boasting "We h ve cable" that you speed by on the way to the Ramada. It's $27 for a single and $35 for a double, which includes two wonderfully squeaky twin beds, a 50s dresser with a mirror, lime green walls, and a television but no phone. A bowling alley and a pizza parlor are across the street. Train factor: nil.
River View Bed and Breakfast (117 W. Front, 608-725-5895), a two-story brick building built by a riverboat captain in 1856 as a boardinghouse, has been beautifully rehabbed by its current owners. Rooms are $60 and so gorgeously appointed that we felt ashamed to mess ours up by sleeping in it. We couldn't do much else, as the coughs and snores of the owners in the next room reminded us that this was still a private residence.
The River View offers, well, a river view, a TV sitting room, two shared bathrooms with a shower, an outdoor eight-person jacuzzi, and an awesome, homemade country breakfast--one of owner Kay Muller's little girls was dressing the cinnamon rolls when we arrived--that is marred only if you happen to dine with the same gabby, elderly Iowa lady that we did. Be sure to inspect the variety of game animals whose heads and pelts adorn the walls. Train factor: small tornado.
Our favorite lodging site was Schleicher's Landing (7110 Closing Dam Road, 608-725-5216), though it doesn't allow dogs in its cabins. We liked it because our cottage was air-conditioned, clean, and roomy, we could crank our portable CD player without retribution, and it had a backwater feel--no water pressure, no TV or phone. We noticed a wall calendar from a lime and gravel plant and three flyswatters on the fridge. Train factor: Dinosaur Jr live at the Metro. It's open April through October, and rooms cost $33.50 a night for two nights or more; $200 a week.
Schleicher's Landing rents 16-foot boats and outboard motors and stocks the kitchen with every utensil imaginable. Owner Alma Schleicher turned the garage into a little general store that sells everything from chili to wax worms.
There are 40 campsites with communal showers and rest rooms. Campers pay $9 a day for water and electric hookup. For kids there's a scary rope swing, teeter-totter, swing set, and one of those wheels kids spin around on till they get dizzy.
Before you return to Chicago there's one more place to hit. Back across the Cassville car ferry, there's the Field of Dreams movie site in Dyersville, Iowa, which bills itself as the "Farm Toy Capital of the World." The voice that told Kevin Costner "If you build it, they will come" still works. It's a tourist trap now, open April through October (319-875-8404), with power lines crossing the infield, souvenir stands, a fantasy camp, and a festival on Labor Day weekend. Tourists can even hit lobs to staff on the mound. I popped to second.
The field is carved out of tall corn that still beckons to you from the far reaches of the outfield. Away from the tourists and souvenir stands, you can wade into the green, windswept stalks and everything is cool and calm, your thoughts are your own, and you feel as if you could walk for miles.