Thanks to a “road closed” sign, my route into town changes abruptly. First it’s farmland, then woods, while navigating from roads of concrete to dirt and gravel, sometimes under tree canopies dense enough to cast a solid blanket of shade during 15 puzzling miles.
I am barely north of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, passing an occasional clearing and gravel pit but no cars or houses. Just as I begin to wonder about wrong turns, sunlight reappears and I brake alongside a guy in a parked truck, cell phone at his ear.
“Where’s Cornucopia?” I ask, and he seems amused. “This is it,” he reassures. “You made ’er all right.”
The unincorporated community, population around 200, has long lived in the shadow of its more gregarious sister, Bayfield, which is about 20 miles southeast.
Guess which is toned and tanned, and which is wild and woolly. Both places sit near the peak of northern Wisconsin, along the shoreline of Lake Superior.
The nickname “Corny” has stuck for at least a century, if you believe the walls of the Village Inn, where photos with captions frame the past. Notice the scene of women dressing herring in the 1950s, when tons of the fish were harvested daily. Another shows sleighs pulling lumber in winter, nearly one-half century earlier, when a dozen lumbering camps thrived in the area.
Today people come to Cornucopia as tourists, and the town – working with nearby Herbster and Port Wing – slowly is making itself better known.
One of the best ways to get acquainted is to come to the Village Inn for a Friday fish fry (choose trout or whitefish, caught by Halvorson Fisheries, just down the road). The restaurant doesn’t take reservations, so expect to wait an hour for a table.
“They’re still fishing – just wait a little longer,” somebody jokes, during my visit.
The locals know to arrive ahead of dusk. Tourists fill and spill out of the adjacent Tiki Bar. The astute ask that pie be set aside, for eating later. Baker Rhonda Adank also is a waitress; her raspberry-rhubarb pie and chocolate-pecan torte disappear especially fast.
A sprinkling of gift shops exist, but don’t dismiss Ehlers, a general store since 1915. Order from-scratch pizza from the deli, load up on sockeye salmon and organic veggies, peruse the stock of souvenir T-shirts and locally made art. Party pinatas and rolling papers, handmade rag rugs and wild plum jam all have a place here.
Outside, a white limousine is parked a couple of blocks from a Ford Pinto with a Jimmy Carter bumper sticker. A wooden carving of Santa Claus stays put during summer. In the marina are a mix of lustrous yachts and battered fishing vessels.
Some travelers spend the night in simple spaces where fashionable décor is not a priority. Others find their way to the secluded and Northwoods-elegant Siskiwit Bay Lodge, a bed and breakfast with executive-level accommodations that go for as little as $110 per night.
“We have a regeneration going on,” says Frank Roman, 68, a third-generation Cornucopia resident and former town chairman. “Businesses are more active about trying to get more tourists here, not just in summer, but all year.”
The area is wild enough for the occasional timber wolf or black bear to wander into town. “You can smell ’em before you see ’em,” Frank explains, and as we talk, a doe and fawn are venturing toward his neighbor’s garden, where electric fencing awaits them.
An annual fish fry in July fed more than 800 people. Everybody helps, “but you can only do so much in a year without wearing people out,” says Frank, whose grandfather moved here from Russia in the early 1900s, then worked in lumbering and farming.
One fundraiser helps the volunteer fire department. Another restores a historic fishing boat. Still another raises enough for a new flagpole in the cemetery.
In an era where everything about everybody seems just a YouTube clip or Facebook note away, the little mysteries and contrasts that define Cornucopia remain a part of the allure.
“We have the best beaches,” says Cheryl O’Bryon, co-owner of the Village Inn.
“Guests from the Twin Cities come with empty milk jugs, for the artisan water,” says Bruce Von Riedel, co-owner of Siskiwit Bay Lodge.
Frank talks about the one-mile walk to waterfalls. A passerby refers to “cathedrals of rock,” the Apostle Island sea caves, about four miles away.
Much of the area’s appeal rests in the delight of discovering what – for now – isn’t aggressively advertised. If you need help doing that, just ask around while waiting for a table on a Friday night.
Upcoming events include the area’s sixth annual Art Crawl, Sept. 18; Port Wing’s 52nd annual Lions Club Fish Boil and Fall Festival, Sept. 4-5; and the Bayfield Shores Harvest Trail food business open houses, Oct. 15-17.
“Roads Traveled” is the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.