The Driftless Area in Southwest Wisconsin is a region of singular rugged beauty. Steep hillsides separate ridge top farms from riverside villages. Rivers and streams cut through the limestone bedrock and weave back and forth among farm fields, low lying sloughs, and unplowed fields that sport a succession of wildflowers from April through September. Drive to a ridge top along the Mississippi River’s east bank, walk to the edge, and you will see one of the most beautiful views in the upper Midwest – a panorama of the very broad “Father of Rivers” from 400 feet above – a 180 degree sight of river, islands, and bluffs to the west.
But while you are here you can enjoy very unique shopping along with the great scenery. We will start our rural shopping jaunt in Prairie du Chien, the second oldest city in Wisconsin. Prairie du Chien anchors the very southwest tip of Crawford County. It is the home to more history than any other Wisconsin city – Fort Crawford,St Feriole Island, the Villa Louis, fur trading, lumbering, commercial fishing, clamming …. In Prairie du Chien begin your day with a stroill down Blackhawk Ave. Have a great cup of coffee at “Simply Coffeehouse and Eatery”; shop for quilts and seasonal décor at “The Pickett Fence”; find a favorite book at “The Curious Cup Bookstore and Eatery”. Walk over one street and find a remarkable selection of Wisconsin cheeses and smoked fish at “Valley Fish & Cheese” on Hwy 18. Take Hwy 35 north and you will find the “Cannery”. housing a huge selection of interior décor in a fabulously restored old cannery building. A bit further north on Hwy 35 and you will find a Cabelas retail store – America’s Foremost Outfitter has a large presence in Prairie du Chien.
Next drive north on Hwy 27. In the tiny village of Mt Sterling you must stop at “Mt. Sterling Cheese”, a creamery devoted to producing some of the best goat cheeses you will ever taste. Continuing north on Hwy 27 you will drive along well kept ridge top farms as you enter Vernon County. If the summer crops are up, notice the contour plowing employed by local farmers. Contour plowing in the United States was first used in Vernon County under the close tutelage of Aldo Leopold, one of America’s great conservationists. Contour plowing was a lifesaver for farming on sloped fields. It put a stop to severe erosion that had significantly damaged hilly farmland across the country.
Plan for lunch in Viroqua. A particularly charming and unique dining spot is the “Driftless Café” on Court St., right in downtown Viroqua. After lunch browse shops such as “Utopia Fiber Shop” for knitting yarns; “Bramble Book Store” which always carries a good selection of books about Southwest Wisconsin; “Simply Country”, a home décor and furniture store that specializes in the “country look”; and the “Public Market” an eclectic group of shops housed in a beautifully restored 1930’s auto dealership. In the “Public Market” especially pay attention to “Viva Art Gallery”, an artist coop featuring many different art media created by local Driftless Area artists. After your time in downtown Viroqua, drive north on Main Street and stop at the beautiful and fun Viroqua Food Cooperative where you will find an outstanding selection of organic and locally produced foods.
Now drive north eight miles along Hwy 14/27 and enter one of the most Norwegian cities in America, Westby. Once here you find trolls, the “Westby Creamery” and its great locally made cheeses, trolls, wonderful Scandinavian gifts at “Dregne’s.” Then, if the trolls allow, continue north on Hwy 27 to Cashton.
The area just east of Hwy 27 and along Hwy 33, between Cashton and Ontario, is home to a thriving Amish community. This Amish community is known for fine furniture makers, skilled quilters, basket weavers, bakers, and candy makers. Begin your exploration of this community with at stop at “Down A Country Road”, a colorful and unique set of small buildings (made by the Amish) filled with the products of the local Amish. If you want to find a particular Amish product, and don’t see it in this set of shops, owner Kathy Kuderer will point you toward the location of an Amish craftsman who can fill your needs. If you drive east along Hwy 33, or if you explore some of the intersecting local roads you will drive past dozens of Amish farms that are also home to productive workshops. Small, hand painted wooden signs outside the farm will announce what products are made there. This is a trip back in time, and you may well see Amish farmers plowing or haying with horse drawn equipment. During the school year you will see barefoot Amish children, carrying their lunch pails as they go to and from school. All black, horse drawn carriages transport the Amish; horse drawn wagons, heaped with hay slowly transport the product of their field work along the local roads to their barns.
This is most likely more than a one day shopping trip. Break it up into two days, relax, take in the countryside and the small shops. This will be nothing like a trip to a suburban mall. You may actually learn to enjoy shopping once again!