LYNXVILLE — A drive along Wisconsin’s Great River Road reveals steep bluffs, several species of water fowl and, of course, the Mississippi River.
The drive provides stunning views and offers a topography more grandiose than a trip along the Wisconsin River.
But here’s a tip to elevate your experience along Highway 35 on our state’s western river bank: Get out of your car or off your motorcycle.
Being curious, asking questions and listening to the stories of its people is how, in its 75th year, the 250-mile National Scenic Byway should be explored.
This is how I found 16-year-old Jacob Whiteaker unloading catfish and bullheads from a flat-bottom boat and learned that his grandfather had been commercially fishing Pool No. 9 since the 1960s.
A cup of coffee at Lynxville Bar yielded homemade sweet rolls from Nancy Ostrander and stories from her husband, retired Crawford County Sheriff Bob Ostrander. Carol Crusan, 67, the former village clerk would later show me the community’s 12-year-old library where there is no Internet access, no fines for overdue books and no library cards. All of the 12,000 books were donated.
“I just pretend to be a librarian,” she quips, since the library is not part of a system and she is not a certified librarian. “It’s been a dream come true for me.”
Upstream in De Soto, Andrea “Andy” Boardman is still working at the Bright Spot Saloon & Grill. She came in for supper in 1966 and hasn’t left. She bought the place in 1979. It also serves as an Elderly Nutrition Program meal site, and she cooks the food for other meal sites in the area.
“I love it here,” said Boardman, 66, who grew up in Soldiers Grove. “It has been a good life.”
The Great River Road winds 3,000 miles along the Mississippi River through 10 states and was established in 1938 by Franklin Roosevelt. The road is managed by the Mississippi River Parkway Commission, a multistate organization “that works to preserve, promote, and enhance the scenic, historic, and recreational resources of the Mississippi River,” according to its website.
The Wisconsin Mississippi River Parkway Commission oversees the state’s portion of the Great River Road and is made up of representatives from among the 33 river towns located along the highway. Many of those communities are celebrating the 75th milestone with special events this year.
This Saturday, for example, Stonefield Historic Site in Cassville hosts the Great River Road Festival that features food, music, presentations on wildlife and a talk from a former barge captain. More events can be found at www.wigrr.com.
My trip last week would have still been beautiful but easier to navigate had I simply driven to Prairie du Chien and headed south to Wyalusing State Park, through Bagley, followed by a stop in Cassville and then lunch at Potosi Brewery.
But I wanted to explore someplace new. So I chose a roughly 20-mile stretch between Lynxville and the Genoa National Fish Hatchery.
The early-morning drive from Madison to Lynxville took me out Highway 14, to the Highway 60 Scenic Byway along the Wisconsin River. Then it was north through Steuben on 131 and then 179 before hitting Highway E. That allowed me to come through Lynxville’s back door with Ferryville, De Soto and Victory to be explored to the north.
“This is an unfound area,” said James Smith, who has been selling real estate in the area for 37 years. “It’s difficult to get to. It’s off the beaten path.”
Smith and his wife, Delight, were hunkered down in Boardman’s saloon sipping cups of coffee after a hard rain erupted during lunch. They left their umbrellas behind at their Four Rivers Realty office a short walk away.
James Smith said he sells property to buyers from all over the country but primarily to those from Iowa, Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago, in that order. Sales are up 20 percent this year over 2012. He’s also thankful for his 20-minute commute from Seneca to De Soto, especially when it’s on his Kawasaki Falcon motorcycle.
“It’s an asset for us,” Smith said of the topography. “I feel it’s a blessing.”
De Soto is named after a Spanish explorer and is near where heavy fighting took place during the Black Hawk War of 1832. Victory was named by white settlers celebrating the defeat of Chief Black Hawk at the nearby Battle of Bad Axe. Ferryville, boyhood home of former Gov. Patrick Lucey and now home to the Cheapo Depot discount store, began as Humble Bush but the addition of ferry service in the mid-1800s changed the community’s name.
Lynxville is one of the state’s smallest villages and is located at “Devil’s Elbow,” a noticeable bend in the river.
This is near where Stan Hagensick, who is now village president, caught a 74-pound, 5-ounce state record flathead catfish in 2001. It’s also where his brother, Bob Hagensick, 65, casts nets as a commercial fisherman and supplies about 350 pounds of catfish each fall for a community fish fry fundraiser.
“I’ve been at it a long time,” Hagensick said of his commercial fishing. “There’s enough catfish that I don’t need to travel anywhere else.”
Pool No. 9 was created in the 1930s with the construction of the lock and dam just downstream from Lynxville. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife service it helps support habitat for over 300 species of birds, 51 species of mammals and 119 species of fish and is part of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife & Fish Refuge.
Lynxville at one time was home to more than 2,000 people but today has a population of just 131 and a village budget of less than $100,000. It’s also home to the Three Wisemen, wooden cutouts that have been perched on a bluff since the 1960s. There’s a hot dog stand but no place to buy gas or groceries, though there is a carpet store in the rear of the Lynxville Bar, which also sells bait and tackle.
On Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, the bar turns into a makeshift coffee shop. It’s serve yourself, with the coffee pot in the same corner as the shrine to the Chicago Bears.
The television is tuned to reruns of “I Love Lucy” while a pair of binoculars rests on the windowsill to provide better views of passing trains, barges and birds.
“You never know what you’re going to see along the river,” Nancy Ostrander, 66, said. “It’s never, ever the same. Every day it’s a different scene.”