U.S. 51: Attractions abundant along highway

Here is how reps from six states have summarized the project: One million stories. One hundred cultures. One road.

Wisconsin is leading the pack on development of U.S. 51 as a culturally and historically rich highway that merits the attention of tourists. “Passport Wisconsin” – a free, 36-page, pocket-sized guidebook – contains up to five sites at each of 15 communities that are along the way.

The slogan: “It’s All About the Journey.” The attractions: Hurley’s rowdy and bawdy Silver Street, to Beloit’s collection of 12,000 angels (which has a Guinness record, as largest in the world).

“The easiest part has been telling the story, finding things that would be interesting,” says Darien Schaefer, executive director of the Wausau/Central Wisconsin Convention and Visitors Bureau, a key organizer.

“The hardest part is getting 15 communities to take the time and gather the materials. How do you melt it all down, limit it to a manageable size?”

The work began in 2004, after two tourism execs in Louisiana – Betty Stewart and Sharon Calcote – floated the idea that U.S. 51 could be as revered and famous as Route 66, which links Los Angeles and Chicago. The women have followed all 1,286 miles of U.S. 51, starting with their andouille sausage town of Laplace, which is at the southernmost end of the road.

It was an ambitious and curious road trip. Less than 70 miles of the highway goes through Louisiana. Most of that is in the parish of Tangipahoa, which Darien has learned to roll off his tongue easily, as though it were another Oconomowoc.

Betty and Sharon were wowed by the diversity, charms and significance that they found as they drove. They ventured miles off the path, too, suggesting that Wisconsin Dells and New Glarus be among the cities marketed as U.S. 51 jewels.

That made the project too big to lasso, though, at least for now. As it is, this has turned into an $87,000 effort (just for Wisconsin’s 300-some miles). A $40,000 state grant was matched with local funding.

By mid April, Darien says www.explorehwy51.com and the 866-HWY-51-WI info line will be active. In late May, there will be a ceremonial drive and media splash from Hurley to Beloit.

So far Wisconsin is the leader in this work, Darien says, particularly since hurricanes temporarily wiped out Louisiana’s budget for proceeding. Memphis, home of Elvis, has developed a U.S. 51 sites brochure.

The highway also zigs through Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky and Illinois. The project slogans, which all six states will use, were the result of a group meeting in 2005.

What is there to see and tour along U.S. 51? For Wisconsin’s promotion, these are a few of the answers:

Beloit – Logan Museum of Anthropology and effigy mounds at Beloit College.

Janesville – Rotary Gardens, 20 acres with international and specialty garden themes.

Edgerton – Edgerton Pottery and Porcelain Museum, which includes Pauline and Norse pottery.

Stoughton – The Stoughton Opera House, built in 1901 and restored, now the home of performing arts and concerts.

Madison – Overture Center for the Arts, the $205 million art museum, gallery and performing arts center.

Portage – Portage Canal, dug by hand after the Civil War, to link the Fox and Wisconsin rivers.

Marquette County – John Muir County Park, 125 acres that include the legendary naturalist’s boyhood home.

Waushara County – Walker House Bed and Breakfast, the 1910 home of a bank owner, on acreage across from Pine Lake.

Stevens Point – Stevens Point Brewery, the country’s fifth oldest continuously operating brewery.

Wausau – Van Der Geest Dairy, a 3,000-cow operation, the state’s largest.

Merrill – Chips Hamburgers, a vintage eatery with milkshakes and charbroiled sandwiches.

Tomahawk – Hiawatha Trail, for snowmobiling to hiking, along a former railroad track.

Minocqua/Arbor Vitae/Woodruff – Dr. Kate Museum, a local history museum that is a tribute to “The Angel on Snowshoes.”

Manitowish Waters – John Dillinger exhibit, inside Little Bohemia Restaurant, which also has bullet holes from a gangster shootout.

Hurley – Saxon Harbor on Lake Superior, for water sports, as well as waterfall viewing.

Other stops will go online, as will historical facts and games that families can play as they drive. A hope is that travelers will collect “Passport Wisconsin” stamps at designated locations, then enter a quarterly drawing for a weekend getaway.

Another goal is to present “best of” awards annually, to businesses – lodging to dining to shopping – that travelers decide are exceptional.

“Our commitment to this collaboration is to grow it,” Darien says. “We’re researching the Scenic Byway Program and other opportunities to attract national attention.”