Much to cluck about in, near tiny Paoli

Tis the season to talk turkey and shop for everything, but the conversation, décor and merchandise are all about chickens just nine miles south of Madison.

Cluck: the Chicken Store recently opened in southwest Dane County, a response to the surge of interest in raising backyard chickens, especially in urban areas. Ordinances in Kenosha to Wausau and Milwaukee to La Crosse allow chickens, with restrictions, inside city limits. Even Chicago has network for chicken lovers (see chicagochickens.org) who coop their birds at home.

Susan Troller, Cluck owner, is a lifelong journalist and animal lover who immersed herself in chicken culture during research for the 2011 book “Cluck: From Jungle Fowl to City Chicks” ($35 hardcover, $25 softcover, Itchy Cat Press). She decided to raise chickens, to better understand them, and life hasn’t been the same since.

Cluck, the store, is unusual because of its obsessive theme and blend of practical and whimsical inventory. For sale are chicken coops to chicken feed, plus fine art to dish towels – all of which turn chickens into stars. Even holiday ornaments, all created by local artists, feature chickens.

Feed choices range from conventional to organic mixes, including a proprietary blend made especially for Cluck at an organic mill in Westby. “It’s a no-soy, pelleted, organic feed made with flax and wheat middlings,” says Susan, and that combo reportedly raises omega 3s and 6s in the eggs that chickens on this diet produce.

Southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois artists and crafts people produce the paintings, photos, fiber art and coops (whose prices start at $450 and exceed $2,000). The works of coop builders Jeff Jicinsky of Middleton and Chuck Ostrander of Burlington include portable arks for two or three birds and roomy roosts for up to a dozen.

“We’ve sold five since we opened at the end of August,” Susan says.

What she doesn’t sell is fresh eggs, chicken to eat or chicks to raise. “It would put us in a different category that would require health department involvement,” she explains.

Cluck is the newest business in unincorporated Paoli, whose small size and rural location on the Sugar River belie its ability to attraction tourists. In the community are at least one dozen businesses, most of them galleries and gift shops in revamped historic buildings. These include an 1854 one-room schoolhouse, 1864 stone mill and 1920s creamery.

Aspiring artists can enroll in a one-day Whispering Woodlands retreat to learn screen printing to watercoloring in December. A tiny cheese shop sells dozens of Wisconsin’s finest brands. Neighborhood farmers operate a grocery that sells grassfed meats, organic items and from-scratch meals.

Less than a mile from Paoli is the Badger State Trail, a 40-mile route that links Madison to the Wisconsin-Illinois border (where the Jane Addams Trail continues to Freeport, Ill.). The Badger State Trail also intersects with the Sugar River, Military Ridge and Capital City state trails, plus Madison’s network of bike routes.

For more about the charming community of Paoli, go to visitpaoli.com. Carolers and Father Christmas whoop it up there on Dec. 1, when pre-holiday festivities include cider, snacks and horse-drawn carriage rides from noon to 3 p.m.

How rural is the area? Paoli is part of the town of Montrose, about 35 square miles that also include the hamlets of Montrose and Basco. Total township population is 1,084.

For more about Cluck, 6904 Paoli Rd., consult cluckthechickenstore.com or 608-848-1200. Paoli turns quiet on Mondays, when most shops – including Cluck – are closed.

For more about raising city chickens legally and humanely, check out backyardchickens.com.

Within a five-mile radius of Paoli are other worthwhile and one-of-a-kind stops. Consider this foursome:

UW Swap Shop, 1061 Thousand Oaks Trail, Verona. Surplus goods from the University of Wisconsin are up for sale to the public at least two days (Tuesday and Friday) per week, and the hodgepodge of deep discounts is strange and unpredictable. In the warehouse mix recently: science lab beakers, combination locks, hundreds of books, computer hard drives and cables, sturdy but unstylish furniture. Bicycles sold for $15. bussvc.wisc.edu/swap, 608-497-4440

Dot’s Tavern, 6734 Henry Rd., Basco. Basco is much smaller than Paoli, and Dot’s is a basement bar that opened in 1948, after fire destroyed the dance hall across the street. The dance hall owners dug a basement for their little house, in order to keep their liquor license, and the rest is history. In the long, narrow confines are friendly clientele, fascinating paraphernalia and bumper pool. 608-424-4042

The Sow’s Ear, 125 S. Main St., Verona. The business slogan – “needles and caffeine” – sounds scarier than it is. Sip a latte during the occasional late-night (until 11 p.m.) knitting sessions at this combo coffeehouse, cafe and yarn shop and class site. knitandsip.com, 608-848-2755

Gray’s Tied House, 950 Kimball Lane, Verona. The roomy pub’s specialties are sliders, tenders, wings and beverages (beer, soda) from Gray Brewing Company, Janesville. For dinner? Walleye and steaks to pastas and pizzas (from a brick oven). graystiedhouse.com, 608-845-2337

In Wisconsin are almost 1,500 unincorporated communities, Abells Corners in Walworth County to Zittau in Winnebago County. Many of these places, which are not legal entities that tax or govern, are little more than a historic memory.

Tell me about the exceptions, like Paoli, that are vibrant and worth a road trip. Santa has a beautiful assortment of book giveaways to reward those who share the best discoveries before Christmas.

The earlier you make contact, through an email or letter, the better the chances that a gift will arrive before the holidays. Supplies are limited, and this also is my way to celebrate 10 years of writing this column.