Photo by Jerry Quebe
Driftless Wisconsin, which features the regions of Vernon and Crawford Counties located in southwest Wisconsin, is an area rich in history. These regions, along with the Kickapoo Valley, used to be home to Mound Builders and Native Americans, explorers and fur traders, and immigrant settlers and pioneers. Their impact on the region can be seen in the ways they infused their folkways and traditions in historic places throughout the area.
With a variety of historical sites, landmarks, and places on the National Register of Historic Places, Driftless Wisconsin provides access to a variety of historical experiences, events, and celebrations. To have enough time to leisurely explore the history of Driftless Wisconsin and to make sure travelers don’t miss any landmarks, this two day itinerary will make it easy to discover the area and be able to choose which historical places pique their interest the most.
This itinerary will also highlight a historical location where travelers can stay the night, but there are other accommodations throughout the region as well. This Driftless Wisconsin itinerary will take visitors on a two day history tour throughout Vernon and Crawford Counties, including days full of historical reenactments and events, visits to historical landmarks, and learning about the rich history of this unique area. Before you head out for your trip, be sure to call ahead to the history stops that require scheduled tours or register for events to ensure you will be able to visit every stop on the itinerary. Also keep in mind that with all the historical places in the region, you won’t be able to visit them all during one trip, so be sure to pick the places that interest you the most and be mindful of the amount of time spent at each location.
Photo by Jerry Quebe
Morning & Early Afternoon
When heading out on the two day Driftless Wisconsin History Tour there is no better place to start than Prairie du Chien, the second-oldest settlement in the state of Wisconsin, and the oldest community on the Upper Mississippi River. Rich with history and a key location on the Mississippi River, Prairie du Chien offers a wealth of historic sites and glimpses into authentic frontier life. Once a flourishing outpost on the Mississippi River, here French Canadians settled and engaged in the booming fur trade, and various elegant estate homes were built. The best and most scenic way to get to Prairie du Chien is along Highway 35, better known as the Wisconsin Great River Road for excellent views of the Mississippi and the natural scenery of Driftless Wisconsin.
For the first day of this itinerary, visitors will be spending their time exploring the historical sites of Prairie du Chien and a few surrounding communities. The history tour destinations can be visited in any order, or be substituted for other historical stops in the area, as there are too many to visit in one day. A full comprehensive list of historical sites in Prairie du Chien, and their significance, can be found here. To start your history tour of Driftless Wisconsin we recommend heading to St. Feriole Island for your first destination. The island is the area of the earliest settlement in Prairie du Chien and holds historical significance, as it was the center of the fur trade, the site of the Battle of Prairie du Chien during the War of 1812, and the designated place for three important Native American treaties.
During your visit, you can see the St. Feriole Gardens and the Mississippi River Sculpture Park while taking a morning walk around the island. The Villa Louis Historic Site, Brisbois Store – Fur Trade Museum, Brisbois House, Rolette House, the Dousman House Hotel, and Lawler Park are also historical places on the island that you won’t want to miss for your history tour. These stops give visitors a glimpse into Prairie du Chien during the 1800s, highlighting prominent events, places, and people. This first stop at St. Feriole Island will most likely take up your entire morning and into late afternoon, depending on how much time you spend at each location. You may also be visiting the island during one of the many events held each year; the Prairie Villa Rendezvous in June, the Chamber of Commerce Fireworks, War of 1812, the Prairie Dog Blues Fest in July, and the Carriage Classic in September.
After seeing all the historical stops on St. Feriole Island, you’ll hit the road again for the short drive back into Prairie du Chien to discover more history on the mainland. This is a great time in your day to stop for lunch before continuing on your tour. A Prairie du Chien local favorite is the Spring Lake Inn, open at 11am Tuesday through Sunday. Prairie du Chien also offers some great lodging options including Quality Inn & Suites, so if you brought food along for your travels and are planning on staying overnight, you could always head back to your hotel room for lunch.
Your next stop will be at the Fort Crawford Museum. The original Fort Crawford stood guard over Prairie du Chien from 1816 to 1828 until a flood forced American troops to move the fort inland to higher ground. The second Fort Crawford was known as Fort Crawford Hospital, and it stood guard until around 1856. Known then as the Museum of Medical Progress until 1995, the museum is now owned and operated by the Prairie du Chien Historical Society. Open daily from May to October, Fort Crawford Museum is a National Historic Landmark and National Register of Historic Places.
Today, Fort Crawford Museum displays the history of the fort, its city, and the many lives that crossed here. Visitors can come for a self-guided tour, reserve a group tour, or attend an upcoming event. There are exhibits on local and medical history, the history of Prairie du Chien, and a visitor center.
Photo by Jerry Quebe
As evening approaches, visitors should make a plan for dinner and decide if they want to see any other historical attractions before leaving Prairie du Chien on the second day of the itinerary. An easy and relaxing place to visit, either before or after dinner, is the Governor Lucey Marker and Observation Deck. Found in Ferryville, Wisconsin, which is just a short drive north on the Wisconsin Great River Road, this historic observation deck is best visited in the evening hours for epic views of the sunset over the Mississippi River. Along with the scenery, the deck features an interesting historical marker of native son Governor Patrick J. Lucey who was born in Ferryville.
For dinner, we recommend travelers try local favorite, The Barn Restaurant. This charming establishment has a reputation for a unique dining experience and atmosphere, with delicious food, beautiful grounds to explore, and a spacious dining area. Their extensive restaurant features many Wisconsin favorites, but many recommend their homemade, specialty pizzas.
Photo by Jerry Quebe
After exploring Prairie du Chien, you’ll want to start your day early as there will be more traveling time involved during your second day of discovering history throughout Driftless Wisconsin. The second day will take visitors to Gays Mills, La Farge, and Viroqua, so be sure to fill up the gas tank for your travels. Before leaving Prairie du Chien, we recommend stopping at the Local Oven Bakery for a breakfast pastry and some extra treats to nibble on during the day. After a breakfast stop, your next destination will be at the Log Cabin Heritage Park in Gays Mills, Wisconsin. From Prairie du Chien take Highway 27 northeast until you reach Mt. Sterling, then turn onto 171 and follow the road into Gays Mills. It will take travelers around 40 minutes to get there.
A unique open-air museum of log houses, the Log Cabin Heritage Park preserves and features the folk architecture of the Kickapoo Valley. These historical cabins were donated from around the Kickapoo Valley, dismantled log-by-log, and reassembled in the park. There are six different log structures on the grounds, along with a spring fed creek, two shelters, grills, restrooms, a volleyball court, horseshoe facilities, a ball diamond, a swimming pool, and a children’s playground. If you’re traveling with kids this is a great location to get out some energy before spending a bit of time in the car. Visitors will want to be back in the car and on the road by 12:30pm at the latest to ensure they’ll have time to explore the next destinations on the tour
The next two Driftless Wisconsin historical sites on the history tour will be found in Viroqua, a great Wisconsin small town with shopping, culture, arts, and entertainment for all to enjoy. It takes around a half hour to get to Viroqua from Gays Mills coming in on Highway 14, so you should arrive in town around 1:00pm. Once you arrive in Viroqua, you will be heading to the Historic Sherry-Butt House operated and preserved by the Vernon County Historical Society.
This historic home is one of the town’s oldest homes built in 1870 by Lt. Col. Cyrus M. Butt. Today, visitors will see many original pieces remaining in the house, including a Rococo square grand piano, and a range of Civil War artifacts from the Colonel’s time in the war. Open Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend from 1:00pm to 5:00pm, you can tour the house and learn about the family and their time spent there.
After touring the Sherry-Butt House you may be ready to relax for an hour and get lunch. Luckily, Viroqua has some excellent restaurants in the nearby downtown area to try while you’re in town. The Viroqua Family Restaurant, Tangled Hickory Wine Bar, and The Cheese Corner are a few local options. After lunch visitors should be ready to head to the next destination, the Vernon County Museum. Before visiting, be sure to check if the museum is open, as the hours vary by month and day of the week, or book an appointment when you are planning your trip to be sure you will be able to see the museum.
The museum will give visitors a glimpse into the past of Vernon County with a variety of exhibits to explore. The exhibits include the teaching classroom, archaeology, military history, a general store, the Astronaut Mark Lee Space exhibit, and agricultural exhibits. There is also the genealogy and a local history research area.
The final destination for discovering history in Driftless Wisconsin is the Upper Kickapoo Valley Prehistoric Archeological District in La Farge. The drive from Viroqua to La Farge should take approximately 20 minutes, so travelers should arrive around 5:30pm or earlier. The district is located between Wildcat Mountain State Park and the village of La Farge and offers travelers a place to leisurely explore on foot, stretch their legs, and discover a range of prehistoric archeological sites that date back to 12,000 years ago.
With 425 ceremonial sites, burial sites, prehistoric camps and villages, and significant works of art and rock carving, there is a lot to see during your visit. The area also offers beautiful scenic views and exposure to the natural beauty of Driftless Wisconsin.
This project was supported, in whole or in part, by federal award number
SLFRP0135 awarded to Driftless Wisconsin via the Wisconsin Department of Administration by the U.S. Department of the Treasury.