Historic Highway 51 travels 310 miles from Beloit to Hurley, passing through dozens of small towns that make slowing down worth it.

Historic Highway 51 travels 310 miles from Beloit to Hurley, passing through dozens of small towns that make slowing down worth it. Photo By Scott Spangler

Road trip along Highway 51 is a small-town treat

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Traveling the interstate is like eating fast food. The menus, blue signs with iconic logos, offer the same three courses: gas, food, lodging. One city appears much like the next. Traveling two-lane roads, on the other hand, is like a take-your-time buffet. If you drive through towns on less-traveled byways, you can create your own eclectic feast of sights, stops, and meal breaks.

The historic route of U.S. Highway 51 is Wisconsin’s longest buffet. Over a three-day weekend my wife and I decide to follow its original 310-mile path from Beloit to Hurley and travel through 31 towns. Our guides: the map from explorehwy51.com, old maps unearthed at the library, and The WPA Guide to Wisconsin: The Federal Writers’ Project Guide to 1930s Wisconsin. We reserved two nights’ lodging and let our appetites decide the rest.

Starting Out

A block west of Highway 51, we find breakfast on our first day at Beloit’s Saturday morning farmers market and take our yummy baked goods just up the road to Riverside Park. Tempted to swing at Turtle Island Playground, we stroll instead along the Heritage Walkway.

From Beloit, a detour on County Road F takes us to Indianford. Its WPA guide description still fits: a few taverns serving anglers on the Rock River. In 1918, when writer Sterling North pedaled here from Edgerton to fish, Wisconsin had just simplified intrastate navigation with a numbered system that started with State Highway 10. In 1926, using this system as a model, the Federal Highway Administration connected state roads nationwide and Wisconsin 10 became U.S. 51, with Hurley at one end and New Orleans at the other.

We won’t be driving quite that far.

Driving north, our next stop is Edgerton. Before I-90 siphoned U.S. 51’s traffic in the 1960s, this town had three clothing stores, two drugstores, five grocery stores, and a stoplight, says Lucy Ide. “Now we have one grocery store and one drugstore and a stop-and-go light.” Retired, Ide volunteers at the Tobacco City Museum, a restored railroad depot where we learn that Edgerton once grew tobacco for cigars. Before fire and parking lots thinned them, 55 tobacco warehouses filled downtown.

Festivals such as July’s Tobacco Heritage Days, September’s Chilimania (the state championship chili cook-off and qualifier for the national title), and the Sterling North Book & Film Festival draw today’s visitors.

Students statewide visit the Sterling North Home & Museum, says volunteer Rebecca Diedrick, and summer brings a number of Japanese tourists to the white frame house where the novelist lived. Rascal, North’s boyhood pet raccoon and best-known character, is more of an icon in Japan than he ever was here, Diedrick says. While my wife buys Rascal for the grandkids, I surreptitiously touch the keys of the author’s typewriter.

Stoughton to Cambridge

County A takes us back to U.S. 51, which runs west through vast cornfields to Stoughton. As travelers have since the 1870s, we stop at the brick farmhouse built by Nickolas Altemus III. His granddaughter, Elaine Altemus Possin, grew up on (and still owns) the farm. A retired teacher now living in Beaver Dam, she recalls a snowy night in the 1920s before they paved this stretch of U.S. 51 when a Greyhound bus couldn’t make it up the hill. Passengers filled the kitchen while her mother made them coffee and something to eat.

Since 2005 the house has welcomed visitors as the Altemus Corners Bed & Breakfast Inn. Five rooms share three baths and hostess Marge Stokstad has furnished the house with antiques and heirlooms.

Poynette to Plover

Rain hides the capitol dome as we pass east of Madison. Climbing toward Poynette, a wayside marker tells us John Muir stopped on this bluff to admire the rolling farmland and forest as he walked to the university in Madison.

In Poynette we find the state game farm the WPA guide described. In the 1930s, it “bred and closely observed deer, fox, raccoon, otter, mink, karakul sheep, pheasant,” and other birds. Today, it’s all about pheasants, hatching more than 160,000 annually. It shares more than 500 acres with the MacKenzie Environmental Education Center. If you’ve got even more time to dawdle, you can hike and picnic here too.

It’s sunny by the time we pass through Portage. My wife explores the shops in historic storefronts that face U.S. 51 and I stroll the newly restored sections of the canal between the Fox and Wisconsin rivers.

Reunited, we head north on County CX. Halfway to Endeavor a small sign points to John Muir Memorial County Park, the Muir family homestead on Ennis Lake. We picnic on the dock and toast the rewards of two-lane travel. Cruising at 55 mph or slower gives us the time to see, appreciate, and stop for a closer look.

Back on U.S. 51, we keep heading north. Just before Plover, we follow Business 51 which takes us to downtown Stevens Point.

Stevens Point to Merrill

There are 11 buildings here on the National Register of Historic Places, and Dreams of Yesteryear Bed & Breakfast is one of them. Innkeeper Bonnie Maher has loved history — and old houses — since childhood. She and her husband, Bill, bought this 1901 Queen Anne in 1987 to restore it and opened it as a B&B in 1990. “We decided to do our part if only to save one old house,” she says.

After a walking tour through town we sup at the Water Street Grille. Chicken Wisconsin, I discover, is stuffed with broccoli, cheddar, Swiss, Parmesan, and mozzarella, and topped with mushrooms and spinach sauce.

We start our last day at the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame, part of the Schmeeckle Reserve Visitor Center on the UW-Stevens Point campus. Exhibits introduce the hall-of-famers and their causes, like Melvin “Mully” Taylor, under whose leadership Trees for Tomorrow planted 23 million trees and promoted sustainable harvests to preserve them.

County DB takes us to Knowlton and Mosinee, where we pass mountains of logs neatly stacked outside paper mills. After Business 51 takes us through Rothschild, Schofield, and Wausau, we head north on County K. A plywood sign at County A says “Dairy” and “Public Welcome.” From an elevated walkway we explore the dairy farm. With 3,000 cows in a computer controlled free-stall barn and a 24/7 parlor that drains 500 cows an hour, we know the Van Der Geest Dairy isn’t a typical farm, but it’s our first, and fascinating.

Taking County K to Merrill, we admire the restored colonial Lincoln County Courthouse. Last year, residents named it one of Seven Wonders of Merrill, and a roundabout walk takes us to three more: The Queen Anne 1889 city hall, now apartments; the T. B. Scott Library; and Chip’s Hamburgers, where we have a real milkshake.

Tomahawk to Hurley

County S takes us into Tomahawk, and North 4th St. takes us out. On County L, the Windmill Ice Cream Shoppe, built in 1939, is worth a stop before rejoining U.S. 51 on the other side of Lake Nokomis.

At Hazelhurst, lakes start to dot the forested landscape like spilled water. Then to Minocqua and the Minocqua Brewing Company in the old lakeshore Masonic Temple, a short walk from the diverse shops downtown. The pulled-pork sandwich and porter are tasty; my wife goes with Turkey on a Date, a turkey and cucumber sandwich finished with an orange-cranberry-date cream cheese spread.

All along our route, skinny white arrows point out resorts and restaurants. Outside of Manitowish Waters one says “Dillinger Exhibit.” The Little Bohemia Lodge is where the FBI hoped to capture John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson in 1934. They escaped, but the shoot-out’s bullet holes in windows and walls are preserved under glass.

Mercer is a microcosm of Wisconsin travel. Paddlers can follow historic routes, but there’s only enough track at Iron County’s last wooden depot (now a museum) for a Soo Line caboose. The roadbed is now a snowmobile trail that parallels the highway.

At Hurley we pass the sign that marks the end of U.S. 51, turn around, and stop for a quick bite on Silver Street. Interstate efficiency will have us home soon, and we pass the time by deciding on our next two-lane travel buffet. Something east to west would be nice.

Scott Spangler is a writer and photographer based in Omro. This article appeared in the September/October 2008 issue of Wisconsin Trails.

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