A Drive to the Driftless

Hi everyone,

About a month ago, my Traveling Partner and I decided to take a day trip to Gays Mills, located about eighty-five miles west of Madison. It’s been proclaimed the Apple Capitol of Wisconsin. Our mission was to check out the many apple orchards and do some leaf-peeping of the tree covered landscape. It’s been more than few years since we took a fall drive to this area. When the kids were small, we made the trek every year usually on a Saturday. We’d buy several bushels of apples for eating, pies, and drying. Mom’s dried apples were a favorite snack around our house.

It was clear, crisp, and sunny when we left Madison. We took Highway 14 West past Middleton, through Cross Plains, Black Earth, Mazomanie and Arena. Along the highway before the village of Arena, we passed Heck’s Farm Market. The first time we stopped there was in the fall of 1986 as we traveled back to Fargo, North Dakota where we lived at the time. The Eldest was six and The Youngest was one, they were so excited to see all the pumpkins, large and small alongside the road. Of course, we purchased a few pumpkins to take back with us. After we moved to Madison in 1987, we stopped here every year for several years.

After driving through Arena we crossed the Wisconsin River. Below we could see the tree-lined river and sand bars as we negotiated the bridge. The Wisconsin River has it origin in the forests of northern Wisconsin near it’s border with Michigan. It travels 430 miles through the state before emptying into the Mississippi River near Prairie du Chien. We followed the river through Spring Green and Lone Rock until we reach Gotham, then turned north. We noted that the flat river valley extended out a few miles on either of the river between two ranges of hills. This is a heavily agricultural area with fields of corn, soybeans, and alfalfa. We saw dairy farms and the two Peck’s Farm Markets complete with petting zoos.

From Gotham, we passed through the hamlet of Twin Bluffs and into Richland Center, one of the largest towns in the area at about 5000 people. We stopped at Culvers, the Wisconsin-based fast food chain. We had lunch on the outdoor patio, where we enjoyed our usual butter burger (it’s beef!) and a mini-salted caramel pumpkin concrete mixer. This seasonal treat is our favorite frozen custard dish. It goes off the menu in mid-November, we try to limit ourselves to one a week during season!

Driving west out of Richland Center, motorists can’t help but notice the large field of flags on the right hand side of the road. The 350 flags are maintained by the Bayard de Hart American Legion Post 13, adjacent to their clubhouse. These flags are memorials to those who lost their lives during their military service. The flags are flown from May through November and are replaced when worn, about once a year. A nice restful stop along the busy highway.

About eight miles west of Richland Center, we turnoff Highway 14 at Boaz onto 171. I’ve always liked the name Boaz and wondered where it came from. My research found that Boaz was platted in 1857 along Mill Creek. In regards to the name, my guess is that Boaz is named after the husband of the biblical figure Ruth. At one time, Boaz was a thriving village with stores, mills, a hotel or two, and churches. Today with a population of 156 people, there isn’t much left. They do have a very nice city park near the historical marker describing the antics of famous son, Richard Brewer.

Also in the park, about fifteen feet from the marker above, stood another historical marker. In the background see the Ocooch Mountains where in 1832, the Black Hawk band of natives were being pursued by the U. S. Army. They fled into this mountains (hills) where many died from starvation and exhaustion. This is an excellent example of the terrain in the “Driftless Region” of Wisconsin. Most of southwestern is un-glaciated or lacking glacial drift, hence “driftless.” This explains the steep tree-covered hills, high bluffs, and ridges with low eroded fertile valleys in-between. The Driftless has a large cache of fresh water stored in the sand and gravel. Some of that sand is being mined for use in fracking for oil and gas, this not without controversy. I believe the best book available for understanding the Driftless is “The Land Remembers” by Ben Logan. It’s beautifully written and widely available, click here for reviews. There is also a current documentary, “Decoding the Driftless,” shown on PBS stations. It provides an excellent visual of the Driftless. Check here for more information. 

Before leaving Boaz, we drove through town. The only businesses we saw was the Lonesome Dove Tavern and the gas station/convenience store out on Highway 14. Even the churches looked abandoned.

It’s about thirteen miles from Boaz to Gays Mills. We drove the beautiful tree-covered hills and narrow valleys to the top of a high ridge where the orchards began. Some super smart person opened up a pie shop before we reached the first orchard. We couldn’t resist the temptation to stop to see what they were offering. The parking lot and seating were full at the Pie Depot. A couple of ladies were busy making and serving up slices or whole pies to customers. Even though we weren’t hungry, we chose a couple of apple turnovers to savor later in the afternoon. Mmmmm, they were good!  

We stopped at every orchard on the road to Gays Mills. I think we bought something at every place including a few squash. 

At the Sunrise Orchard, I bought a caramel apple and my Traveling Partner tried one of the Golden Delicious apples. They had several benches for patrons to enjoy the Driftless scenery and munch on their purchases. We noted that the recent plantings of trees were much closer together and tightly pruned. Must be much easier to pick the apples from these trees. By the way, we also purchased a half dozen apple cider donuts at Sunrise, they were out of this world delicious. It was hard, but we rationed those six donut over the next couple of days so as not to eat them all at once!

While we met our goal to get apples, the leaf-peeking was less successful. Some trees were completely bare while others were just starting. Another week or ten days those trees will be showing their full glory. The color isn’t as vibrant this year as it some years. It might be due to the dry growing season and hot temps in the summer.

The village of Gays Mills has a long history. James Gay came to the area in 1847 and built a dam and sawmill on the Kickapoo River. This enterprise was successful so he encouraged his brothers to the move to the area. One started a flour mill and other the first church. To honor them, the local residents named the town after them. As you can imagine, it’s changed a lot over the years. The population has dipped to around 500 people. From the overlook, visitors can see a bit of the village.

The dam is still there but it hasn’t prevented the Kickapoo River from flowing over it’s banks with serious flooding in 2007 ,2008, 2016, 2017, and 2018. Some of the businesses and homes have moved to higher ground on the north edge of town. But there are a few businesses still on Main Street or Highway 171 making it’s way to the Mississippi River just twelve miles away. They have Applefest every fall, we attended a few over the years. 

For our drive back to Madison, took Highway 61 South over the Wisconsin River to Boscobel. We were in this town during the summer of 2017 to attend a Rendezvous. Here’s a link to the post I wrote about that event. We turned on to Highway 133 that roughly follows the river through Blue River, Muscoda, and Avoca. All these town were new to us. Then we came to Lone Rock. It often makes the weather news in the winter recording the coldest temperatures in the area. We were back on Highway 14 for the ride back into Madison. It was a pleasant day in a pleasant and unique part of the world.

To end this post, a photo of a sign we saw in one of the orchards.

Until next week, happy travels!


4 thoughts on “A Drive to the Driftless

    1. I just finished a writing class taught by Catherine Young, she’s lives in the Driftless. She mentions trout fishing in her stories and poems. I developed a new appreciation for this unique part of the world.

  1. Hi Tom,
    So you traveled through Avoca. Our family farm is only 7 miles south of there off Hwy. 80 up in the hills. Hope all is well with you and Donna. Always enjoy your blog.

    1. Thanks Joyce. I knew you and Lyle had roots in the area. I just finished a writing class taught by Catherine Young, she lives in the Driftless and many of her stories and poems reflect the area. Gave me a new appreciation for this unique part of the world. Peace and blessings to you and yours.

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