Shopping within Wisconsin’s Amish landscapes

esthersFriends near Cazenovia (Richland County) always invite us to their farm during this time of year, and it is a joy to simply follow the quiet, twisty backroads to their home on a hill with an unobstructed, panoramic view of farmland, wildlife and cloud formations.

About one dozen of us gather for a potluck and, maybe, a game of washers or cornhole. We sit on the porch, spoil the farm cats, smell the lilacs and watch orioles swoop in for a quick peck at a feeder with jelly.

All are reminders of how good this life can feel when simple and pure. Especially when the ritual begins with shopping.

Shopping? That’s right, and the anticipation will begin weeks before we convene. We order cinnamon-topped and cream-filled coffeecakes, gooey pans of pecan rolls, pies, cookies and more from Esther’s Bakery, S3303 Hwy. G, La Valle.

The Amish home business is only open on Friday and Saturday. Those who don’t order ahead will take their chances because the bakery disappears fast. Since there is no website, email or telephone, the only way to place an order is by knowing somebody who will relay it.

Also in the neighborhood is the chocolate toffee, cashew brittle and other sweets made by another Amish business, Sugar Grove Candy Shoppe, S3558 La Rue Rd., La Valle. A 24-ounce variety pack costs $9.50.

One of the oldest Carr Valley Cheese Co. factories is here, too, at S3797 Hwy. G, La Valle, where the most likely purchase is a bag of fresh and squeaky curds. The hops also include Gingerich Greenhouse, E3555 Thomas Rd., La Valle, where four-packs of ground cherries as well as onion sets, shrubs and hanging baskets are waiting for would-be gardeners in search of reasonable prices.

These businesses are all within a five-mile loop, but that doesn’t count The Branding Iron Roadhouse, 132 S. Main St., Lime Ridge. The roadhouse sells grilled burgers of beef (raised nearby), topped with Carr Valley cheese and slid onto buns made at Esther’s. brandingironrh.com, 608-986-2807

Such circuits of Amish businesses are not unique to Richland County, but they are an adventure to find because of the lack of widespread advertising and limited business hours.

Kathy Kuderer of Down a Country Road, 12651 Hwy. 33, Cashton, told me years ago that although Amish families appreciate your business, they also need to work for a living. That means they don’t need gawkers who want to snoop more than buy.

She sells Amish-made products at her Monroe County shop and arranges guided tours of the Amish area near her. The cost is $100 per car/van (she rides with you) for up to two hours of touring and narration. downacountryroad.com, 608-654-5318

If exploring on your own, pay attention to an especially picturesque, 17-mile stretch of Highway D, from Cashton to La Farge in Vernon County. Look for Old Country Cheese, a factory whose gift shop sells Amish specialties and dairy products made with milk from 230 Amish farms. oldcountrycheese.com, 608-654-5411

At one end of the route is headquarters for the Organic Valley farming cooperative, and a small but popular retail outlet at 507 W. Main St., La Farge, sells products at a discount.

Near Cashton is the seasonal Growers Produce Auction, S347 Dell Rd., Cashton, where auctioneers sell the goods of Amish farmers and others within a 100-mile radius. The quick-tongued talk starts at 11 a.m. Tuesdays and Fridays, until the end of September.

Large quantities of produce to plants are sold during these quick bidding sessions, so know exactly what is being sale before jumping in. The auction can be a fascinating experience, even if you don’t bid. growersproduceauction.com, 608-654-7880

Auctions of Amish-made items happen elsewhere, too, including the Wautoma Consignment Auction, 11th Drive North, Wautoma, on July 2 (rjstockwell.com, 715-654-5162); Portage County Fairgrounds, 4504 Fairground Rd., Amherst, on Aug. 27 (maderauction.com, 920-450-1843); and N4310 Hill Rd., Shawano, on Sept. 3 (shawanocountry.com, 715-758-8881).

There likely are others, too, under the radar of average travelers – although signage, flyers and other methods to spread the word are slowly becoming more visible.

That annual drive to Cazenovia? Not until this year did I spot Hillpoint Country Store, E3675 Hwy. 154 (Sauk County). The Amish shop sells liquidated and near-expiration-date groceries and other merchandise – much like numerous other shops that pop up during country drives throughout Wisconsin.

The heavy, sweet cherry pie that I bought for $8 – flakey and warm, with the box cover propped open – was one of the best I’ve ever eaten and reason enough to revisit. I will try to memorize the crust topping design (one way bakers distinguish themselves) and visit on a sunny day (these dim shops have windows but no lights or electricity).

A map for this Amish neighborhood pinpointed 36 businesses: casket making, horseshoeing and clock repairing to taxidermy and baking.

While driving between Rhinelander and Merrill one day earlier, Prairie Pines Country Store, N5448 Hwy. 17, Gleason, was another fun surprise. In the checkout line was a guy raving about the sliced bologna with pimiento and pickle bits. “Can’t get this anywhere else,” he declared.

Rules are a little looser at Prairie Pines because it is a Mennonite operation, not Amish. J. Luke Martin, the manager, sells locally made and conventional groceries.

Wherever you roam, take time to drive on county roads, especially if you see Amish vendors at nearby farmers markets.

A map of Amish businesses can be downloaded at princetonwi.com (under “things to do”); it includes locations in Green Lake and Waushara counties. For ideas about where to venture, check out amishamerica.com.