Wisconsin. Just one of those states you never really think to visit. It’s not as if you pile the family in the car yelling, “hey kids, guess where we’re going! Wisconsin!” Affectionately known as the badger state, its one of those states that when you step foot across the border, you end up gaining five pounds.
A place where the cheese curd might as well be the state food, it is iconic and pervasive in this region of our country. Featured on so many menus and restaurants in Wisconsin, this dish is synonymous with the dining experience. Lets face it, artery clogging menu items reign supreme in Wisconsin. Hell, at one restaurant, The Old Fashioned, a delectable restaurant with a local beer menu that rivals any in Maine, cheese curds can be exchanged for fries. Let that sink in for a minute. Deep fried, oozing, gooey, delicious, golden battered, misshapen hunks of cheese can be substituted for boring old french fries. Yes, that just happened. So jump on a plane for some cheesy goodness and great beer. You won’t be disappointed with either.
And then there is the state pastry, the kringle. This dessert is a beautiful pastry that only people in the upper midwest could invent on those long, dreary, winter days. Having received a kringle accidentally through the mail one Christmas, my wife and I learned to love and indulge this decadent dessert. We hoarded that pastry like it was the last bottle of scotch on earth, and were melancholy once the last bite was consumed.
So aside from delicious, melty cheese, delicious pastry, and malty–please, I’m begging you, stop with the IPAs–beer, what else does Wisconsin have going for it? Well I’m glad you asked.
At first glance, Wisconsin gives you a feeling that deep down within every Wisconsinite, is a serial killer, just lingering beneath the big toothy grin and overtly polite hellos. Manners and greetings oozes from everyone’s pores, and you get this feeling that if they held it in, they would explode from the backup of politeness. Not saying there is anything wrong with this, it just seems unnatural for me, being originally from New York.
The landscape seems so stark and bleak–mind you I visited in December–and the land was flat with a feeling of recurrence as you drove down the road. Every fifth house seemed identical as if you were constantly having deja vu. Dairy farms dot the landscape like breweries consume the state of Maine. There is no urban sprawl. It goes city, suburbs, rural. There is a definite delineation, a line of demarcation. You have entered the city, you have left the city. It is so obvious, the terrain changes with an abruptness that seems unnatural. Yet, is how it should be.
People here were friendly, polite, and were so passionate about sports, you would think athletic fan apparel was mandatory uniform for anyone living in or around Madison. But, while the big city of Madison has sports, a university, and a zoo, they don’t have folkloric creatures lining their streets.
Mount Horeb is a small town just southwest of Madison. This town celebrates its Scandinavian heritage with obvious flair, with trolls lining the streets in all shapes and sizes. No, these are not the trolls that in the 90s would adorn the tops of your pencils, as angsty teens chewed their neon colored hair in a fit of nervous distraction. These are the trolls you will find in Scandinavian mythology and folklore. And they are not hiding under any bridges.
In the original Norse legends, trolls were mean-spirited and did not help humans. Dwelling in mountains, amongst rocks, and the bottoms of lakes, they inhabited places not meant for human occupation. Portrayed as dumb, hairy, and awkward, trolls are imbued with features that can be outwitted by the smart, motivated, and brave, in folktales. But here, in Mount Horeb, trolls and dragons flank main street, and like the residents of this town and state, greet you with a welcoming friendliness.
With a population of just over 7,000 people this town is a sleepy reminder of midwest character. As you amble down the main street, you notice trolls, dragons, Scandinavian architecture, and, surprisingly, the Duluth Trading Flagship Store. You know, that catalog you get in the mail with drawn images of their items and the cheeky commercials. Yes, that Duluth.
Inside the store, amidst all the clothes and other accoutrements, is a small museum dedicated to the mechanical ingenuity of America. A whole assortment of tools adorn the walls, from wrenches to saws, firefighting equipment to farm equipment. This was the personal collection of Wally Keller, who took it upon himself to collect tools that helped industrialize America. Wally passed away in 2009, but Steve Schlecht, owner of Duluth Trading, generously purchased these artifacts, to preserve this collection for posterity’s sake.
Many small stores line the streets, selling Scandinavian tchotchkes out of homes and brick buildings. Norwegian flags proudly fly outside homes lining the sidewalk, and the chamber of commerce is built in the design of many traditional Norwegian homes. A stubbur, a structure found on a Norwegian farm, is a focal piece on main street Mount Horeb. Traditionally built for grain storage, as a pantry, and the center of festival activities on the farm, this rendition is an interesting addition to this peculiar town.
Trolls stand out in the open, welcoming visitors to town. There are no rocks or looming mountain to see. I don’t believe there is a viking treasure hoard of gold close by either, but these creatures populate the streets in cheeky repose and welcoming gesture.
Few are hideous, with the normal features identified in true folktales. Others take on humanistic characteristics like the troll mayor holding the key to the town.
Trolls, Duluth Trading Company, a sleepy town in Wisconsin, Mount Horeb is a must see if you visit Madison. Only twenty minutes outside of Madison, it is a fun little stroll down main street midwest America. Mount Horeb boasts many festivals, even a brew festival in September, so if you want to check out the trolls, maybe try it during a one of these events. And just like the Three Billy Goats Gruff, all you have to do is be cunning and out think the trolls to survive. Although, I don’t think you will have to worry about that with the trolls of this town.