This quiet gem offers everything we love most about authentic Wisconsin: spectacular scenery, abundant wildlife, recreation galore, fantastic fishing, picture-postcard small towns and mile upon mile of farm-dotted, rolling green hills.
Grant County, Wis., doesn’t call much attention to itself. It has no billboards begging you to visit its man-made mega-wonders. What it does showcase, however, is stunning natural beauty, an authentic traditional Wisconsin lifestyle, respect for history and quirky little gems worth exploring.
Much of its population of 51,000 carries on the work done by ancestors – planting crops, making cheese, brewing beer, raising cows, pigs, goats and sheep. Others work at small, modern manufacturing sites that serve larger companies in the Quad Cities or Madison. Still others work on the UW-Platteville campus or Southwest Technical College in Fennimore, which ranks No. 3 nationally for two-year colleges of its kind.
“Of the 72 counties in Wisconsin, we’re No. 1 in beef and swine,” says Ron Brisbois, executive director of Grant County Economic Development Corp. “We’re also strong in goat farms and dairy, and we grow a lot of corn and soybeans.” With a growing number of wineries, the county recently added “vintner” to its ag credentials.
Like neighboring tri-state counties Jo Daviess in Illinois and Dubuque in Iowa, Grant County is part of the scenic, hilly Driftless Area. Untouched by the glaciers that flattened so many other Upper Midwest landscapes, by filling in valleys with soil, or “drift,” Grant County is ruggedly beautiful.
The earliest settlers here were attracted by lead mining. But because Grant County is flanked by the Mississippi River to the west and the Wisconsin River to the north, river towns and farming communities also developed.
More than 110 miles of river frontage wind through Grant County, often bordered by steep cliffs and rolling hills. Limestone bedrock and spring-fed waters keep the streams cool enough to sustain trout. It’s not uncommon to see cars parked along country roads, their fly-fishing owners knee-deep in water.
“We have hundreds of miles of Class One trout streams,” says Brisbois. “Starting in May each year, we see cars lined up along country roads with license plates from all over. The word has gotten out.”
Class One is the most desirable type of fishing stream because it supports wild, self-sustaining trout that the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) has no need to stock.
Catch and release trout fly fishing using artificial lures is the norm, says Brian Clauer, owner of Angler’s Nook Bait & Tackle in Lancaster, the county seat. But catch-and-keep is allowed at certain times of the year in some locations. He grew up here fly fishing but enjoys traditional fishing just as much.
“Be sure to check the WDNR website before heading out to pick a fishing hole,” he suggests. It provides detailed county-by-county information for all types of fishing. Buy a state fishing license online or at a county clerk’s office.
“Fly fishing isn’t the only way to fish trout,” Clauer explains. “You never want to use live bait for catch-and-release fishing because the fish swallow the bait too deep and you can’t return them to the water and expect them to live.”
How do you know if you’re trespassing when you fish?
Navigability determines whether a waterway is public or private, states the WDNR. “Navigable streams are public waterways. Because they’re public, you may use them for fishing provided public access is available or you have permission from the landowner. As long as you keep your feet wet, you may walk along the bed of the stream and fish in any navigable stream.”
Trout aren’t the only fish here. In fact, the county is home to every fish species native to Wisconsin. Large and smallmouth bass, walleye, northern pikes, saugers, bluegills and all types of catfish ply the waters.
“Most fishing is done along the Mississippi or Wisconsin rivers,” says Clauer. “But the area between Lancaster and Fennimore is full of trout streams.”
Locate rental fishing cabins by calling chamber of commerce offices in nearby towns. They can also tell you about places to rent canoes, kayaks and tubes.
Hunters find opportunity in Grant County, too.
“Turkey season is done and there’s no hunting season again until fall, but Potosi, Cassville and Bloomington all offer trap shooting and archery opportunities,” says Clauer.
Wisconsin Great River Road
The Great River Road follows the Mississippi River some 3,000 miles from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. About a 250-mile segment of it follows the Mississippi through Wisconsin, where it goes through 33 quaint river towns and is called the Wisconsin Great River Road. Many of these towns are along Grant County’s western edge, stretching from Kieler northward to Wyalusing. The Wisconsin River flanks the county’s northern border until it joins with the Mississippi River near Wyalusing.
“There’s a whole section of the Great River Road in Grant County that’s county road and not a U.S. Highway,” says Brisbois, who grew up here. “So it’s a little more off the beaten track and has a different feel to it. There are also state-marked Rustic Roads that veer off from it. I like those. You almost feel like you’re stepping back in time when you follow one. Most are paved. There are a few gravel sections here and there, but the fact that most of our country back roads are paved is very appealing to motorcyclists and also to people like Corvette club members who don’t want gravel thrown up at their cars.”
The Great River Road offers interpretive centers along the way as well as small river towns filled with shops, galleries, restaurants, bed & breakfasts, farmers markets and special events like festivals. Fans of traditional Wisconsin Supper Clubs will find several along this route, including Country Heights in Kieler; 3 Mile House in Hazel Green; and Jones’ Black Angus in Prairie du Chein, just north of the county line.
“It’s pleasant to take the Cassville Ferry across the Mississippi to Gutenberg, Iowa,” says Brisbois. “It leads to where the Turkey River feeds into the Mississippi.”
Take your car on the ferry for $15 or just step aboard for $2 per person. The ride lasts about 15 minutes each way and offers a unique perspective of the coastlines as seen from the middle of the river. It’s also a good shortcut to keep in mind on road trips westward. The ferry runs through October.
Also near Cassville is Nelson Dewey State Park. Along with wooded campsites, showers, picnic areas, hiking and bird watching, its treasures include Stonefield Historic Site, once the home of Wisconsin’s first governor. This lovely piece of land stretches between the Mississippi River and limestone bluffs that tower above it. Dewey’s homesite overlooks a re-created 1900 rural farming village beside the river. Guests may stroll the farmstead and village streets lined with 30 historic shops.
Also in Cassville is the State Agricultural Museum, which unfolds the story of Wisconsin’s farm life before mechanization. Before there was dairy here, there was wheat. The museum houses the widest collection of historic farm implements in the state.
Stonefield is also one of the newest Great River Road Interpretive Centers and features the new “River Connections” exhibit, which tells the story of the site’s relationship to the Mississippi River. It’s open 7 days a week through Oct. 8.
About 30 minutes north of Cassville is Wyalusing State Park, well worth a visit for the birdseye views it provides of the Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers from bluffs 500 feet high. The maze of islands, wetlands, hardwood and pine forests “looks much like it did when Marquette and Joliet first arrived here in 1673 and climbed to the top of these same bluffs,” states the WDNR.
If scenery isn’t your thing, you can instead turn southeast from Cassville and drive about 25 minutes to the town of Potosi for a different sort of exploration.
Potosi is worth a visit for several reasons. First, there’s the beer. It probably won’t surprise you that craft beer brewing is an art form in this region so thick with German descendants. What may surprise you, however, is that a nationally important brewery museum is located here. This joint venture of the Potosi Foundation and the American Breweriana Association showcases a huge collection of beer bottles, cans, glasses, trays, coasters, ad materials and other collectibles.
The National Brewery Museum is located inside the historical Potosi Brewing Company building that originally operated from 1852 to 1972 as the state’s fifth-largest brewery. It re-opened in 2008. Production facility brewery tours, the National Brewery Museum, a brewpub, restaurant, beer garden and the Great River Road Interpretive Center & Gift Shop are all located here. A $12 all-inclusive admission ticket buys you a tour of the Potosi Brewery & Museum tour, a Potosi pint glass and beer samples.
If you prefer wine, nearby Whispering Bluffs Winery offers $8 tastings of five wines, some made from locally grown grapes.
Also nearby is the Great River Road Museum of Contemporary Art and the Gary David Woodworking and Design showroom, each well worth visiting.
The largest town in the county (and the only one with stoplights) is home to 12,000 people and UW-Platteville, known for its strong engineering and agriculture departments. Look for the giant white “M” on the hillside, which stands for “Mining.”
Platteville is also home to The Mining and Rollo Jamison Museum, where you can tour the 1845 Bevans lead mine and ride a 1931 mine train. Both lead and zinc mining were very important to the way communities developed in the Upper Mississippi Valley and this is a fun way to gain an overview quickly.
Among special events in Platteville is “A Day on the Farm Ag-Tourism Expo,” this year on June 16. Visitors learn how to churn butter, raise chickens, milk cows, can food and more.
“Last year they even had a model of a pregnant cow,” says Heather Bontreger, president of the Grant County Tourism Council. “You could stick your hands inside the cow to see if the calf was positioned correctly. For people living in ag communities, this is really useful information.”
About 15 minutes south of Platteville is the Dickeyville Grotto and Shrine, constructed by Father Matthias Wernerus, a Catholic priest, between 1925 and 1930. Without using blueprints, he made it from stone and decorated it to the hilt with brightly colored objects from around the world, including pottery shards, colored glass, gems, porcelain heirlooms, stalagmites and stalactites, sea shells, starfish, coral and petrified sea urchins, a variety of amber glass, agate, quartz and more.
“It’s interesting how people who are very religious and also people who are not at all religious enjoy a stop at the grotto,” says Bontreger. “It’s a one-of-a-kind, completely unique thing.”
The priest dedicated his work to the twin ideals of love of God and love of country. There are also several shrines in the grotto flower garden surrounding the Holy Ghost Church.
Far north in Grant County, on the banks of the Wisconsin River, lies another religious landmark. The Gideon International Bible Society was founded here by two traveling salesmen staying at the Boscobel Central House Hotel in 1898. One from Janesville, the other from Beloit, the men discussed the need for an organization that could aid Christian travelers. Since its founding in 1908, The Gideon Society has distributed more than 2 billion Bibles in 200 countries, often by placing them in hotel rooms free of charge. The three-story limestone hotel building still stands and owners serve up drinks, live music, bar food and, by appointment, Gideon room tours. There’s a plaque on site and a historical marker about 3 miles south of Boscobel.
About 20 minutes northeast of Boscobel, on the Iowa County line, is Muscoda, home to the Morel Mushroom Festival each May. It’s also home to the studio of the late Ellis Nelson, a world renowned metal sculptor. His son, Tom, an artist in his own right, maintains a storefront here.
About 15 minutes south of Boscobel is the tidy town of Fennimore. The Fennimore Doll and Toy Museum has more than 80 display cases brimming with dolls (including 740 Barbies!), 1890s cast iron toys, 1920s farm toys, 1950s western toys, classic Fisher Price toys, circus-themed toys, trains, character toys like Ninja Turtles and much more.
Just a block down the road is the Fennimore Railroad Historical Society Museum, featuring Dinky, a unique narrow-gauge train that operated from 1878 to 1926. Children enjoy riding a 15-gauge rail outside the museum.
Grant County is speckled with charming towns full of 19th century architecture and the county seat of Lancaster is a fine example.
“A lot of people enjoy the old architecture of southwest Wisconsin,” says Bontreger. “The Lancaster copper-domed courthouse is amazing. All of our downtowns are beautiful and respectful of history.”
Lancaster offers a historic home tour that even includes a Frank Lloyd Wright design – the Patrick Kinney House.
Residents also take pride in their close connection to the former Pleasant Ridge community, which was settled nearby by free blacks in 1848 and successfully integrated. Although some early settlers in southern Wisconsin were slave owners, including Gov. Henry Dodge, there also existed a strong anti-slavery sentiment, so much so that Grant County was once nicknamed “Abolition Hollow,” according to the Wisconsin Historical Society. When the Civil War broke out, free blacks from Pleasant Ridge enlisted, fought and died for the Union.
In 1890, Pleasant Ridge Schoolhouse was built on land donated by black farmer Isaac Shephard; together, blacks and whites constructed the school, attended it and taught there.
Pleasant Ridge slowly faded from existence in the 1950s as youths sought opportunity in larger cities. A historical marker about 5 miles west of Lancaster is all that remains.
When driving through Grant County, expect to find yourself crawling behind a horse and buggy at times. Wisconsin has the fourth-largest population of Amish people and Grant County is dotted with their farms. Take a deep breath and enjoy the scenery.
“It’s just normal life for us to slow down for horse and buggies – and tractors,” says Bontreger.
She offers another piece of advice. “Don’t visit on Sunday. Shops aren’t open at night, either. Thursday through Saturday is probably your best bet.”
Be sure to stop at the small cheese factories, farmers markets, wineries, breweries, bakeries (like Sinsinawa), candy and meat shops as you amble through Grant County. They’re the real thing.
Among notable cheesemakers, some of which offer tours, are Carr Valley in Fennimore, Saputo and Foremost Farms in Lancaster, Gile in Cuba City, Hauber’s Processing in Dickeyville, Imperia Foods in Montfort and Meister Cheese in Muscoda.
Wineries include Sinnipee Valley Vineyard in Kieler, Spurgeon Vineyards in Highland, Weggy Winery in Muscoda, Whispering Bluffs in Potosi and Whispering Winds in Fennimore.
Keep in mind that Grant County is surrounded by other great places to visit.
“We’re within a short drive of Dubuque, Galena, Prairie du Chein and Mineral Point,” Bontreger notes. The “Field of Dreams” baseball town of Dyersville, Iowa is less than an hour from Potosi and the House on the Rock in Spring Green, Wis., is 40 minutes from Fennimore.
There’s much to be said for the slower pace and wholesome way of life found in Grant County’s close-knit communities, where people often live close to the land. So load up your fishing poles or hiking boots and head out to explore. The best gems are very often found in our own backyard.