Wisconsin’s third oldest town, once known for mining and the railroad, Shullsburg today is comprised of friendly, hardworking people who serve as the backbone of this community. From antique shops to quaint restaurants, Shullsburg is a must-visit on your next trip to the dairy state.
Driving along Highway 11 into Shullsburg, Wis., a town of 1,263 citizens, one can’t help but think about Mayberry, the fictional sleepy town in The Andy Griffith Show.
Life in quaint Shullsburg reflects a simpler time. There’s not one stoplight here; in fact, you won’t find one in all of Lafayette County. There is, however, Gravity Hill, located 2 miles away on Highway U, where you can put your car in neutral and feel like its rolling backward up the hill, in some sort of optical illusion.
“I love a small town,” says Brenda Burgess, manager of the Shullsburg Cheese Store and a 20-year resident. “You can leave your car running when you go to the store, and it’s still there when you get back. When my children were younger, I took them to the grocery store and the employees held them while I shopped. Where else can you do that?”
The heart of Shullsburg is Water Street, a downtown thoroughfare lined with gift and antique shops, restaurants, bed and breakfasts, and small businesses including a law firm, funeral home, laundromat and grocery store.
Among visitors’ favorite stops are the Risken Lee Shops, a treasure trove of specialty items housed in a Greek Revival-style building constructed in 1842 by Illinois merchant Edward Vaughn, who ran his store downstairs and rented rooms upstairs to miners. Over the years it’s been a bakery, millinery, plumbing storage and pool hall. Husband-and-wife owners Roger and the late Patricia Duffey brought the building full circle, opening the retail shops in 2000 and completing restoration in 2002.
The large space contains women’s boutique clothing, watches, purses, home textiles, lamps, wall hangings, photo frames and other home décor. Favorite merchandise lines such as Analeece jewelry, Crabtree Bath & Body, Willow Tree and Tyler Candles are stocked, too. Just down the street is Coughlin’s Christmas Store, filled with delightful holiday treasures such as Bethlehem Lighting products, handcrafted decorations, greeting cards and much more.
Other favorite specialty shops in downtown Shullsburg include Cindy’s Quality Embroidery, Ellen’s Soap Pantry, Hanler’s Unique Shops, Tailings Country Store and Cub Hollow Collections.
Shullsburg’s downtown draws enthusiastic crowds for special events, such as Cheesefest, held annually on the first Saturday in October, or the Fourth of July fireworks. No visit is complete without taking home some tasty treats from the cheese store.
Mayor Tom Lethlean, who took office in 2010, grew up on a farm six miles outside of town. “In my opinion, there’s nothing as precious as a small town,” he says. “Going through life, we all encounter some very heartbreaking times. When my parents died, I felt the kindness and support from this community. I don’t know how one would measure it. But it’s twofold – they give it to you and you give it back. It’s the best thing in the world about living in a town like Shullsburg.”
Residents and visitors soak up hot summer days at the Badger Park swimming pool. At the same park, guests can visit the Badger Mine and Museum, which offers an underground tour of a lead mine. The museum contains artifacts belonging to early settlers and reflects the heritage of American Indians who once lived here.
Another key component to Shullsburg’s appeal is the community spirit displayed by both new and longtime residents. Over the past several years, volunteers have purchased flower pots that are placed along Water Street to enhance the look and feel of the downtown area. A year ago, when budget cuts got in the way of city employees maintaining the flowers, volunteers again stepped up. “These people go to the city garage every morning to get the city truck and water the flowers up and down Water Street,” Lethlean says. “Imagine volunteers getting up early just to improve the looks of their community. We all own a part of Shullsburg.”
“Shullsburg has tremendous potential,” says Scott Stocker, CEO of Shullsburg Creamery. “The town has had its heyday with mining and the railroads. Now we need to increase the awareness of this town and develop a few key core services to attract people and businesses who want to be a part of the community.”
Mining and Railroads
Shullsburg became Wisconsin’s third oldest town when it was founded in 1827, more than two decades before Wisconsin achieved statehood in 1848. It was named after a trader, Jesse Shull, who had come to the area nine years earlier while working for John Jacob Aster, president of the American Fur Co.
Legend holds that Shull was walking from Galena to Wiota, when he stopped for lunch and saw a badger digging into a spring’s southern bank, revealing small pieces of valuable mineral ore. Shull decided to make the area his new home, and eventually established the community that would bear his name.
Shullsburg began to take shape in the 1840s, when churches and stores started to spring up. It was the Lafayette County seat until 1861, and home to the state’s first county courthouse, which later became a public school. Not everything went smoothly, however. According to historic documents, there were complaints of stray cows and pigs roaming the streets in 1885.
During the 1880s, a significant mining boom and the extension of the Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad helped to pay for the construction of several downtown buildings, many of which still stand today. Zinc mines enriched Shullsburg for nearly 100 years until they closed in the 1970s.
“Shullsburg is a living and breathing history book,” says Stocker. “The character, the people who invested in this town and the buildings are phenomenal. Architecturally, it’s a fabulous place to visit.”
During a few decades of the 20th century, the old buildings on Water Street fell into decline. But thanks to the efforts of local community and business leaders, the business district came back to life by the late 1980s. Several buildings became national historic landmarks, and today, they house shops, businesses and restaurants.
“Shullsburg is a caring, hardworking, blue-collar community,” Lethlean says. “You’ll find a strong commitment by businesses in our community. That work ethic is instilled into us
Shullsburg’s third major industry arrived in 1934, when Anton “Tony” Pedersen, a young Danish immigrant, started a butter and cheese production company known as the Shullsburg Creamery. Today, the multimillion dollar corporation distributes cheese to stores in eight Midwest states and has a major presence in town, thanks to a state-of-the-art distribution center, warehouse, restaurant and cheese store.
Pedersen ran Shullsburg Cheese until 1972, when he sold the business to salesman Art Stocker. A native of Rhinelander, Wis., Stocker came from a family of seven children. He earned a college degree and became a manufacturing engineer, worked for manufacturing companies in Wisconsin, California, Texas and Illinois.
It was a fluke that he came to own the Shullsburg Creamery. He was traveling through town and stopped at the cheese store to pick up gifts for friends back home. That’s when he met Pedersen, who had run the company for 28 years.
“My dad was disgruntled and looking for a business to buy,” says Stocker’s son, Scott. “He fell in love with this business the moment he walked through the front door. Tony was tired. The cheese business in those days was labor intensive. He had taken it as far as he could.”
At the age of 47, Art cashed in all his assets and bought the company from Pedersen for somewhere between $50,000 and $60,000. While Art loved his new venture, there were lean years.
“We had to freeze wages and consolidate facilities,” Scott recalls. “There’s been an attrition of smaller plants in the cheese business. It’s been a hard-grinding family endeavor. It takes a herculean amount of work and dedication beyond what anyone can comprehend.”
Art ran the company for 18 years, before passing away in 1990 from a heart attack he suffered while doing inventory in the warehouse. “He gave his life to his business,” says Scott. “My father made this company survive. The fact that it did survive is simply a miracle.”
But survive it did, and it has grown from 10 employees to 130. In 1975, total sales were $300,000. This year, revenue is expected to reach $38 million. Shullsburg Creamery distributes products to 1,300 stores in states across the Midwest, including Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Missouri.
Shullsburg Creamery is now owned by the Mid-West Dairymen’s Company, a Rockford-based farmers’ co-op. “We went from a propriety business to a family-owned business to an LLC owned by 165 farmers,” says Scott, who started out as a cheesemaker at age 22. “Having the guidance and support of all those dairy farmers and their families is an honor. It works and contributes to the brand credibility. We have a pristine reputation for product quality, promotion, service, pricing and service delivery. We have state-of-the-art trucks rolling down the road. There’s nothing but clear skies ahead.”
The Shullsburg Creamery produces more than 50 types of cheeses, in more than 200 shapes and sizes. The core group includes Muenster, colby, Swiss, cheddar, and Monterey Jack. “It’s a pleasing product with great mouth feel and wonderful flavor,” Scott says. “It’s a good source of protein. Cheese is an enhancer that has a very strong appeal. Some people enjoy it and others crave it. It’s almost primal. It’s pleasing and satisfying. Customers like the creaminess and versatility of cheese. Our customer is someone who appreciates quality cheese. When they discover our cheese, they get excited.
“My greatest enjoyment is satisfied customers. The customer is king. When I wear my Shullsburg shirt into a grocery store and someone comes up to me and says, ‘I just love your cheese,’ that’s my greatest reward. Happy, satisfied customers are what help us to thrive.”
Housed on the ground floor of the Shullsburg Creamery corporate offices on Water Street is a cheese store, where guests can purchase a variety of take-home products from pizza to wine, sandwiches and, of course, cheese. Adjacent to the store is the recently renovated Brewster House restaurant, a favorite gathering spot for locals and visitors alike.
In addition to being a viable business, Shullsburg Creamery is also a solid corporate citizen. It recently teamed up with another local business, McCoy Truck Group, to help pay for band uniforms for Shullsburg High School. “Shullsburg Creamery is a great asset for the community,” says Lethlean. “It provides well-paying jobs. It’s a great brand name that has helped to put Shullsburg on the map here in the Midwest.”
When it comes to future business, good things may be on the horizon for Shullsburg.
There’s a proposal by the Lac du Flambeau band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians to build an off-reservation gaming facility and hotel in town. If approved, it would mean 800 construction jobs and 600 regular jobs.
“It would be the biggest boost to this area in my lifetime,” Lethlean says. “It’s something we all need. We’re tied to agriculture here. We need a degree of diversity, and I believe this is the best option available to us. It’s a great scenario.”
Shullsburg is promoting a new industrial park on the west side of town to prospective businesses. The Shullsburg Creamery warehouse is the park’s first tenant. “We need to promote the energy, the history and the community activities,” Stocker says. “It’s important that everyone works together to get that accomplished.”
Shullsburg also is home to White Hill Cheese Co., a joint venture between Swiss Valley Farms and Emmi-Roth Kase USA, that produces Baby Swiss, No-Salt-Added Swiss and other varieties. The Shullsburg site includes a 24,000 square-foot cheese manufacturing plant, a 50,000 square-foot warehouse, and a wastewater treatment facility.
Tom and Macy Turpin purchased the town’s only grocery store in September 2011 and renamed it Turpin’s Hometown Grocery. Tom was born and raised in Shullsburg, and Macy grew up in nearby Darlington. After moving to Shullsburg in 1998, Macy got a job at the grocery store while Tom looked for an opportunity to open a welding business; when the grocery store owners put their business up for sale, the Turpins jumped at the chance to buy it.
The grocery store is open daily and employs 11 people. The Turpins are updating the store – painting and adding new scanners – and hope to someday add a coffee bar and larger deli area. Tom makes home deliveries on Thursdays, a service deeply appreciated by elderly customers during inclement weather.
“This is a friendly little town,” says Macy. “The best part about living in a town this size is seeing familiar faces all day long. We’re happy to be in business here and we hope that other businesses decide to make Shullsburg home, too. We want to keep people shopping here in town.”
In 2011, Shullsburg native Gina Leahy decided to open Willow Valley, a 16-unit assisted living facility. A registered nurse, Leahy bought a building, and with the help of family and friends, spent several months rehabbing it before taking in her first resident last October.
The 600 square-foot apartments each have a kitchen, living room, bathroom and bedroom. The facility provides round-the-clock staff and residents can choose from a variety of services such as housekeeping, laundry and prepared meals.
“I thought it would be nice to provide residents with an environment that’s more like home and not so institutionalized,” she says. “The response from the community has been extremely positive so far.”
Lethlean says it’s Leahy, the Turpins and others like them that make Shullsburg such a hospitable town with unlimited potential. “People are the real asset here,” he says. “Our residents will bend over backwards for anyone. Our community has the type of people that still hold the door open and say thank you. That’s not something you find just anywhere. But you do in Shullsburg.”