Fast Five: Small towns, big personalities

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Earlier this year, Oprah’s “O” magazine introduced “60 charming American towns you haven’t heard of but should visit,” and not one Wisconsin locale made the cut.

That irked my friend and college classmate Greg Peck, retired opinion page editor for the Janesville Gazette. He challenged me was to produce a list of 60 little and worthy communities to visit from just Wisconsin, and that’s sure possible, depending on what you’d consider small.

Peck’s short list included Mount Horeb (dotted with craggy wooden trolls), Cedarburg (home to Wisconsin Museum of Quilts and Fiber Arts), Lake Geneva (whose pretty, walkable shoreline path loops nearly 26 miles) and Minocqua (the Up North destination known as “Island City”).

All are under 15,000 population, easily, and we can go lots smaller without sacrificing charm or character. We won’t make it easy on ourselves by simply mentioning the Badger State’s best-known hamlets, such as Door County’s always-enticing villages/towns, Wisconsin Dells, Hayward, Bayfield and Eagle River.

Count these among my personal favorites, places especially worth the detour when taking a leisurely autumn drive. Most destinations operate under the radar, without a lot of fanfare, especially during this pandemic year.

Rudolph, population 439, Wood County: In Village Park is a memorial to native son Dick Trickle, the gritty NASCAR driver who died in 2013. Ninety years older is the first in a series of shrines to the divine, Rudolph Grotto Gardens, a lush mix of the natural and manmade on five acres. One example: Inside just the Wonder Cave are 26 shrines. Stop at Dairy State Cheese Company to watch cheesemaking from observation windows, be wowed by the collection of antique cheese and butter holders and get your licks of fresh ice cream (flavors might include cranberry, a nod to the popular local crop). centralwisconsin.org

Trempealeau, 1,527, Trempealeau County: At the outskirts of 1,200-acre Perrot State Park and its 500-foot-tall bluffs is this no-pretense and kinda-quirky community. Watch Mississippi River traffic and wildlife while savoring a beer or lunch outside of the 1851 Trempealeau Hotel, whose walnut burgers are good enough to be packaged and sold at grocery stores in three states. Another classic option: Sullivan’s Supper Club, around since 1968. Ride the 24-mile Great River State Trail along the water, to or from Onalaska. Or head seven miles north to Ecker’s Apple Farm, family owned since 1945, for socially distanced music and a beer garden with a dozen craft taps on weekends. trempealeau.net

Hurley, 1,542, Iron County: Lovers of the wild side of life have headed here for more than a century. Rough-and-tumble townsfolk ignored Prohibition, and a state historical marker recognizes Silver Street taverns for long-ago gambling and prostitution. ATV lovers know the area today for hundreds of miles of riding trails, through Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest and to the Lake Superior shore. Add more than one dozen waterfalls, especially along the Montreal and Potato rivers. Look for evidence of a long, proud mining history too, at local watering holes and former mining sites. For fine dining in a casual setting, try Kimball Inn’s rotating specialties, mussels in a spicy creole sauce to roast duck with a sweet chili glaze. hurleywi.com

New Glarus, 2,181, Green County: What a year to celebrate a 175th birthday, especially since this Swiss village – where country-style chalets with gingerbread trim are plentiful – loves a good party. COVID concerns change that – Heidi, Wilhelm Tell, Polka and other festivals are canceled too, but visit anyway. Chalet Landhaus serves traditional pastetli (creamed chicken in puff pastry), cheese and chocolate fondues. A specialty at New Glarus Bakery is marzipan-filled nut horns. Buy cervelas and schublig sausages at Ruef’s, an Old World meat market. If New Glarus Brewing Co. remains closed to visitors, order the popular Spotted Cow farmhouse ale from a tavern patio, to break up bicycling along the 24-mile Sugar River State Trail. swisstown.com

Westby, 2,203, Vernon County: Norwegian pride runs strong and deep, right down to Ole, the 12-foot-tall and 1,000-pound mascot downtown. Look for lefse at Borgen’s Café, gnomes and clogs at Dregne’s Scandinavian Gifts, award-winning butter and cheeses at farmer-owned Westby Cooperative Creamery. An overnight at Westby House ends with a four-course breakfast, served on fine china. The ski jump complex at Timber Coulee attracts international competitors, who zip 50 mph during a winter tournament. At the ski jump base – between bluffs – is nine-hole, par-three golfing. And the drive? Priceless – right along hills, curves, forests and farmland of the beautiful Driftless Area. driftlesswisconsin.com/westby

What else belongs on the list, and why? Let me know and I’ll gladly spread the word.