Posts Categorized: Places

Community Feature: Westby, WI

Old Traditions and New Opportunities
in Westby, Wisconsin

By Benji Nichols • Originally published in the Spring 2018 Inspire(d)

It would be easy to tell the story of Westby, Wisconsin through quaint scenes of Norwegian Americana: The 50th Syttende Mai festival that will take place this May, the all-volunteer Snowflake Ski jumping Club, heading into its 95th year, or the Westby Dairy Cooperative, celebrating its 115th Anniversary – and marking Westby the “Cottage Cheese Capital of Wisconsin.”

But just focusing on that would be an understatement of “Uff-da” proportions.

Make no mistake, from the Westby Stabbur to Borgen’s café, Dregne’s Gifts to the Historical Society’s Thoreson House, the Norwegian theme is strong. There’s even the Nisse House of Art, two storefronts offering unique artisan wares and class space, including “Koselig”, a tea and coffee counter. Owner Monica Orban has held the outpost in downtown Westby for the past five years – an idea that came to fruition after farming in Vernon County and spending seven years as Organic Valley’s Senior Events Coordinator. But despite the Nordic themes and deep community ties, Monica isn’t exactly an “old timer,” as they say.

“Well, I’m the president of Syttende Mai…,” laughs Monica, a wide grin perched under her browline glasses. “I’m 100 percent Polish. But, the thing is, I’m only a generation away from being an immigrant.”

A tight-knit Polish neighborhood in Detroit proper taught her what it meant to be a part of an immigrant community.

“People are willing to learn – you have to be creative,” says Monica.

The Westby community is on that creative track. Much like the town’s original Norwegian immigrant settlers, folks are taking large leaps of faith – moving forward with the conviction that they can create and re-create the small community they want to live in.

Just down Highway 14, housed in one of the oldest standing homes in town, Ruth and David Amundson are working to tell those immigrant stories in creative “out of the box” ways through their project, “History Alive.”

“When you have a small rural community, it can be very single-minded – ‘oh, I’m Norwegian, I’m German’ – but to know what happened to make a city, that’s something,” says David. Ruth picks up in a heartbeat, “We work to pique interest through active history, working through students, the community, Syttende Mai, and even with students in Gausdal [Norway].”

David, a lifelong photo collector, and Ruth are both retired high school teachers. History Alive’s goal is to share the history of Westby through photos, stories, and projects – often focused towards high school or younger audiences.

It’s the immigrant story of America – one that has come full circle in our recent world, playing out relevant as ever. But the story of Westby is what all of those immigrant stories can become.

In the mid 1840s, after time at Koshkonong and Galena, Norwegian immigrant Even Gullord walked off a boat at Coon Slough (near Genoa, Wisconsin) onto the banks of the Mississippi. He kept walking, hiking up the valleys until he found, with conviction, what would become his new homeland, Coon Prairie. He settled alongside Driftless Native Americans on the familiar-feeling land, filled with abundance. More immigrants followed, with prompting – from Biri, Gausdal, and across the struggling nation of Norway – making the harrowing weeks long trek across the Atlantic Ocean to new opportunities. Among them was Even Gullord’s nine-year-old nephew, Ole T. Tosten, whose family would take the surname of Westby upon arriving in America. Ole would eventually have a mercantile that would warrant a Westby railroad stop. A town was born.

Norwegian immigrants knew how to farm, how to milk cows, how to grow wheat and crops, eventually even tobacco. Farmsteading was incredibly difficult work, but they found success by looking out for each other, sharing the services they could provide, and through the eventual creation of cooperative agreements. Dairy cooperatives were formed, like the Westby Creamery, plus commodity ag cooperatives, including thriving tobacco croppers like M.H. Bekkedal, and the Northern Wisconsin Tobacco Co-op Pool – most with direct Norwegian immigrant ties.

“I’m still amazed I got elected as mayor, I’m only half Norwegian,” jokes Danny Helgerson, second term Westby Mayor. “But, you know, we have a city and county full of coops,” he continues, reflecting on the changes of rural Vernon County.

Even the communication system is cooperative-based. When telephone systems began to grow mid century, many failed to reach rural areas, deemed too unpopulated to be serviced. That didn’t stop a group of Norwegians from picking up the party line though, as Vernon Communications Cooperative formed in 1950. With the same cooperative principles that had led their agricultural successes, the award-winning provider was formed to service the flowing hills and steep coulees of Vernon County. The Cooperative now serves over 7,000 customers in Western Wisconsin with cutting-edge fiber connectivity, cable, 12 community access channels, and additional computer and IT services. It has been nationally recognized as one of the top rural communications companies in the country.

The cooperative model, woven into the very fabric of the region, provided a path for groups like Organic Valley, Select Sires,Vernon Communications, Premier Coop, Vernon Electric Coop, Westby Co-op Credit Union, the Viroqua Food Co+op, and many more.

“A lot of it has to do with heritage, from the Norwegian settlers with that mentality,” says Dr. Dave Brown of Select Sires – one of the largest AI (artificial insemination) and Bovine genetics providers in the world, which has roots in Westby.

“We’re going to help each other and take care of each other…it’s not quite as cut throat. It worked really, really well for lots of small farms, and we’re evolving with it as businesses grow,” he says.

But a business doesn’t actually have to be a cooperative to benefit from the model. In the early 2000s, Borgen’s Café, a Westby landmark for a century, had hit tough times. The Scandinavian café had become tired, and was eventually shuttered, much to the dismay of patrons, who for decades had stopped in for a piece of pie and cup of hot coffee. So the town got together – a group of investors formed to buy the business, make necessary repairs, and re-sell it to a community-minded owner.

“It’ll be 10 years in November,” says Blane Charles, citing the decade he and his wife, Mary, have owned Borgen’s. “It was a great way for us to get into the community. It was a win-win, it benefits the community, and it’s what we wanted to do.”

Mary and Blane have never been short of things to do – the couple embodies the value that there’s no sitting back in a small town. Mary worked her way through nursing school waiting tables, and Blane started cooking in his mother’s restaurant at age 16. They also ran a dairy farm for several years, and are present on a number of community groups and projects. At Borgen’s, they’ve brought back to life a town hub that provides everything from pie and coffee to meatball dinners to banquet and catering facilities – even nightly lodging.

“You have to buy into and be a part of a community to be successful,” says Blane.

“It’s really awesome to see how one hand washes the other, so to speak – how we all benefit. You get people into town, and they stop for lunch, but they’re also going to stop at the gas station, or they’re going to the winery, or cheese store. We’re all in it together – and when we see that common vision, we all benefit.”

Michele Engh, Director of Faith Formation at Westby Coon Prairie Lutheran Church, agrees. “You work to build your community; you don’t sit and wait for your community to build you.”

For years, Michele worked with CouleeCAP (the regional Community Action agency) and Vernon County on a grassroots level in economic development and grant writing, before finding her way to Coon Prairie Lutheran. But it was a statewide call for action from the Wisconsin State Associations that sparked her most recent endeavors. “From AARP to the churches, teachers unions, town associations – all of these state associations and leadership groups realized, ‘Hey, I’m working on this, you’re working on this, how do we cross these ‘silos’ and help put them together?’ How can we make this area better for our grandchildren?”

Once folks from the different organizations started meeting, challenges within economic development came to the front, and immediately under that heading came childcare.

“We live in a childcare desert,” says Michele, “and that prevents employers from being able to hire. So how do we address the need in Vernon County?”

With small communities like Cashton, Viroqua, Viola, and Westby all several miles from each other, the physical challenges of rural communities are magnified. There is no one-size fits all answer, Michele says, so by working with various agencies, they came up with a “Shared Services” model. “There are about 25 of these that operate nationwide, much like the many cooperatives that operate in our area.”

The group received a $400,000 grant from the Medical College of Wisconsin, disbursed over four years, to help get the program off the ground. Their focus is on in-home childcare providers who are legally allowed only three kids at a time. That number can be raised to eight, Michele says, but the work to get there can be daunting.

“So we’re creating a structure, along with the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association, to do the majority of the paperwork, training, and pooling of resources to get these providers licensed and regulated for eight kids,” Mary says. “That doubles our current capacity across the county. Providers will also receive training in early education awareness, communication, and support systems to not only help themselves, but parents of children as well… a sharing of services.”

This spirit of cooperation – working from the ground up to move a community forward – is a cornerstone principle behind Servant Leadership, a timeless philosophy that’s been inspiring the Coulee Region for years.

The phrase, “servant leadership,” was coined, in recent times, by Robert K. Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader, an essay first published in 1970. A “servant leader” is essentially a person who, first, wants to serve their community in some capacity – on the city council, as a mentor, anything that gives back. Second, they lead in their community with positivity – through a specific project, on a board, anything that helps move things forward.

“Our communities change when good people get together and do good work,” says Tom Thibodeau, Director of the Master of Arts in Servant Leadership (MASL) program at Viterbo University. “This is what changes communities, this is what impacts lives, this is what creates a sense of trust.”

Mayor Danny Helgerson has seen firsthand the impact of everyday leaders. “I got a phone call at city hall,” say Danny, “and Lori Pedretti wanted to know if we could talk… we’d never met. So we did, and she said, ‘I’d just like to know what we can do to make this a better community?’ That’s a great conversation. We got talking about servant leadership – I was sold once I understood that you basically start with what you have that is positive and build on it. All the way through is positive.”

On a chilly Driftless evening, Lori Pedretti walks into The Logan Mill – one of the oldest buildings standing in Westby, which now offers travelers a place to stay or gather with groups. The historic structure represents not only a unique place in history, but like Lori, a renewed sense of purpose in the community. Lori completed Viterbo’s Master of Arts in Servant Leadership program in three years, while being a full time RN, raising a toddler, and nursing her husband through a battle with brain cancer. Along the way, she started connecting with community members to bring the concepts of Servant Leadership to town.

“As I started talking to people, I realized there were all these great things happening but people didn’t even know about them – nobody helping bring it all together. I just had this big ‘a-ha’ moment, where I knew I wanted to do something. I started talking with anyone who would listen – telling them what we wanted to do: Build relationships in the community, identify all the things we already have in place, acknowledge the positives, and figure out the needs,” she says. “It was important for me to get a wide audience – farmers, business owners, single moms, families, our seniors.”

So Lori, with the help of her professor Tom Thibodeau and Michele Engh, set a series of community meetings to share the principles of Servant Leadership.

“Our goal was to have conversations – what are the things that would make this area better? How do we, as a grassroots movement, find answers? Not looking from the top down, but what will fit our area and make sense from the bottom up?” says Michele, an edge of excitement in her voice. “It’s so easy to look at the community and say what’s wrong instead of what’s right – and saying what’s right is more fun. It’s exciting to be in Westby right now, because when you bring 100 people together and talk about what’s good with a community – it’s amazing what happens.”

But the work of gathering community conversations is real work – make no mistake.

“Everyone needs to be protected, respected, and connected to the community,” says Tom Thibodeau, “and this is the good work that Lori and Michele are helping to facilitate in the Westby community.”

They hope to do six more meetings in 2018, Lori says, with the goal of supporting current initiatives, identifying what needs to meet next, and always moving the community forward.

In many ways, the Servant Leadership ideals were already in place amongst community members of Westby. The group that helped realize the vision of the Westby Area Performing Arts Center is a great example of that.

In 2001, the Fine Arts Foundation of the Westby Area (FAFWA) was formed to figure out how to build a performance facility for the Westby community and schools.

“Seventy-four percent of high school students in Westby are involved in music, and consistently do well in contests,” says Linda Dowling, FAFWA Chairwoman. “A lot of us felt it was time for them to have a performance space that fit, and not just a gym.”

But funding was a challenge. The process drew on for years, with small successes, but no momentum.

In 2014, a community member challenged the foundation to get things moving. The group was reinvigorated, and a referendum passed with the agreement that FAFWA would come up with a sizeable amount of the budget – both in short and long-term views. Four years later – February 2018 – the facility celebrated its grand opening.

“But that’s what I see with a small town – how people come together to help each other,” says Linda. “The timing was right, the energy was there, the commitment.”

Common good, shared services, cooperative business models. This could be the description of a modern Scandinavian country, but it’s not; it’s rural Vernon County.

“There’s definitely a tipping point – I don’t know if we’re there yet, but I can’t wait to see what’s next,” says Monica Orban. “When all is said and done, you can have the small town us and them, the insiders and outsiders, but when push comes to shove, people offer a hand. Time and time again, they just give. We’re celebrating Westby, we’re celebrating history, it’s like the sign says – we have these old traditions, and new opportunities – boom. That’s the formula to move forward.”

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Benji Nichols is a big fan of kind people, the hills and valleys of the Driftless,  communities that are working hard to make positive change, and cheese. This story is a living testament to those truths. A special thank-you goes out to Evelyn Larson for the use of her Nisse and button art in this story. 

 

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Westby’s 50th Syttende Mai!

Westby, Wisconsin celebrates the 50th year of their most well known community celebration, Syttende Mai, May 19-20, 2018. The small town comes alive with a troll hunt, folk art displays, food demonstrations, sporting events, great music, church services, the kiddie parade Saturday, and Grand Parade Sunday!

Evelyn Larson  (Pictured at left) has designed the Westby Syttende Mai buttons ever since year two of the town’s celebration (the first year the button – at right – was made by the American Legion Auxiliary). Evelyn is the local Nisse creator as well. Don’t miss her Nisse at Syttende Mai (plus a couple of her drawings in this story!).

Find the entire 50th Westby Syttende Mai schedule at
www.westbysyttendemai.com

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Norskedalen Nature and Heritage Center

“Norwegian Valley” started as a 100+ acre farm near Coon Valley, WI that was donated by Dr. Alf and Carroll Gundersen to the UW La Crosse foundation in 1977. An arboretum was established on the farm in memory of Gundersen’s mother, and  in 1982 the Thrune Visitor’s Center was completed. Since then, the Nature and Heritage Center has grown into a 400 acre treasure of coulee, springs, creeks, and prairie. It also holds the Bekkum Homestead – a collection of original log buildings built by first generation Norwegian Immigrants arranged in a traditional horseshoe-shaped ‘tun’ or farmstead. Various trails, shelters, and facilities are available by reservation, and the facility is supported by visitors and memberships. Plan a visit and find out more at www.norskedalen.org

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Westby Rod & Gun Club

The Westby Rod & Gun Club is a unique conservation club that has been serving the region since 1937. The Club is also Wisconsin’s longest surviving conservation club to stock trout each spring in local streams. For over 75 years the club has been providing opportunities to sportsmen, and supporting local conservation and habitat projects, as well as fundraisers like their Christmas Toys for kids drive, which raised almost $4,500. for local families. The club maintains a bar & kitchen on Main Street in Westby, which is known for huge weekend breakfasts, and occasional events like smelt fries and hosting sporting contests. With additional camping, range, and banquet hall facilities just outside of the city, membership is available on an annual basis with unique perks.

Cool New Places in the Driftless!

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RockFilter Distillery

Hey – We love whiskey, and that’s just that. Local, hand crafted, organic whiskey and bourbon in the Driftless? Why, yes please! As they say at RockFilter, “No barn nor glass should be raised alone.” Nor spirit crafted, one could add. The RockFilter crew, just up the road in Spring Grove, Minnesota, have been hard at work creating unique whiskey and bourbon – beautifully bottled and sold in small batches, as well as served in their extremely well-designed tasting room just off the park in downtown SG. Local grain – and local talent – are playing out well for this start-up distillery. And we couldn’t be more excited to have (another) reason to visit this cute little town. Currently, the distillery and cocktail room are only open Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings, so check their website or Facebook for hours before visiting. www.rockfilterdistillery.com

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Kickapoo Coffee Viroqua Café

While you’re in Viroqua for the Harvest Parade October 14 (or any day, really), we also highly suggest that you swing in to the new Kickapoo Coffee Café. The Kickapoo Coffee kids have been hard at work upping their – already pretty amazing ­– brand the past couple years, with a successful partnership launch of a Milwaukee Kickapoo Café. So it only makes sense that they bring the good stuff to the masses at home in the Driftless. The space, on the corner of Terhune and Main St, is a clean, beautiful building with indoor / outdoor communal seating and simple, beautiful décor. Delicious baked goods from Crumb Bakery fill the case, in addition to simple, delicious, local café fare. Kickapoo has been “farmer focused” since the beginning of their coffee roasting adventures in 2005. They’ve come a long way from the old train depot they started in, and we couldn’t be happier for them (unless we drank even – more – of their delicious coffee…). Swing by the café next time you’re in Viroqua, or make the trek just to check it out – it’s worth it!  www.kickapoocoffee.com

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Pizza!

High, Wide & Handsome

Word on the street is that there is some tasty pizza flying out of High, Wide & Handsome in Calmar, Iowa these days! That would make sense, since it’s the Sparrow family dishing up the pies. Jason, “Mr. High, Wide & Handsome” Sparrow is realizing his take-out pizza dream at 117 E. Main St. Call ahead – 563-562-9029 – to order a Three Little Pigs, or a Bacon Cheeseburger (pizza, that is…). Kudos to Calmar – with the new PIVO Brewery set to open in Calmar sometime later this year – it seems like this awesome community is ever-reinventing itself as the crossroads of NE Iowa! Like High, Wide & Handsome on Facebook to stay in the pizza-know.

Luna Valley – Pizza Farm Nights 

While we’re on the subject of Pizza (we could do this all day…), you may recall a “loving” write up from our Spring 2017 issue about the start-up of our friend Maren and Tom Beard’s Luna Valley Farms Pizza nights. Well, tick-tock, and guess what? They’re slinging farm fresh pizzas out of the wood fired oven every Friday night through October. Here at Inspire(d), we are big fans of the “pizza farm” concept, where local producers use their own and other local ingredients to put out tasty pizzas for you enjoy picnic-style on Maren and Tom’s gorgeous Driftless farm. Find details on Facebook or at www.lunavalleyfarm.com.

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New Downtown Decorah Digs!

There’s been some grumbling amongst the coffee klatch crowds this past year about empty storefronts in downtown Decorah – but huzzah, we’re here to say never fear! While our favorite stores and restaurants continue to breathe new life into our community, Decorah is in the midst of a slight renaissance, with some new and relocating businesses just on the horizon! A duo of buildings in the middle of Water Street have recently been transformed into new office spaces for Thrivent Financial and Midwest Group Benefits, Inc. Just down the street, adjacent to the Hotel Winneshiek (in the old Hallmark) our friends Lisa Lantz and Scott Bassford are busy beautifying the space to become “The Getup” – a cool new shop that will buy and sell quality used children’s clothes, gear, and maternity ware in-store and online (www.getupdecorah.com). Meanwhile over on Winnebago, Gabi Masek has been busy at Wildcrafted Acupuncture and Herbs – check out the community acupuncture and personally crafted Wai Ke Botanicals. Across the street from there, find Cardboard Robot (in the old StoryPeople wood shop), self-described by the legendary Eric Sovern (owner) as a “supply depot for makers, artists, kids, former kids, goofballs, and nerds.”

Back on Water Street, Decorah artist Paula Brown has opened a retail shop for her work ‘The Goods’. You may remember reading about Paula in Inspire(d) before – she’s offering some really cool art and services downtown now! It’s so exciting to watch Decorah continue to grow! Now if we can just figure out what to do with that old JCP building…

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Fat Pat’s BBQ Truck

Well, well. If it’s not the craft whiskey distillery gussying up lil’ ol’ Spring Grove, then it’s a kick ass new BBQ food truck! That’s right, Patrick Longmire Jr may have cut his teeth bagging groceries at his Pop’s IGA (read about Red on pg 42), but it was several years on the road playing music in Texas that brought him into the world of BBQ. When he and his family circled their wagons for Spring Grove, his love of BBQ led him to explore the idea of a BBQ truck – and it was an excellent idea! The menu is simple BBQ, the sides are beans, slaw, or potato salad, and the customers are raving. The best part is that you don’t ever know where Fat Pat’s may be pulling up next – recent favorite spots have been the new RockFilter Distillery (Spring Grove), Karst Brewing (Fountain), and Turtle Stack Brewery (La Crosse). Keep an eye on www.fatpatsbbq.com or instagram @fatpatsbbq, or Facebook to see where you can catch some killer BBQ next!

15+ Boredom-Busting Kids’ Activities in the Driftless

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And the Livin’ is Easy: 15+ Boredom-Busting Kids’ Activities in the Driftless
By Kristine Jepsen • Originally published in the Summer 2015 Inspire(d)

So, school’s out, and the snow clothes have been washed and pushed to the back of the closet (finally). Light plays out longer in the evenings, breathing extra life into after-dinner games of tag, dog-walking, and park-going.

Sounds magical, right? Like everyone in your family should understand summer to mean shade-sitting. And catching up on reads that friends have been recommending. Or leisurely picking of wildflowers. Surely?

More likely, I – er, you – won’t make it through one golden evening before the summertime chorus starts up: “I’m bored!”

If this refrain has you locking yourself in the bathroom for a sanity check, try these kid-friendly pursuits in the Driftless. From spelunking to strawberry picking, there’s something for every pint-size naysayer. Best of all, many activities are free.

INTO THE WILDS: EXPLORING NATIVE LANDSCAPES

Driftless Safari
Best for: Anyone!
Open: Memorial Day through Halloween
www.driftless-safari.org

Rare trees and prairie plants, springs to splash in, wildlife tracks. Driftless Safari is both a self-guided tour of natural resources in Northeast Iowa, Southeast Minnesota, and Southwest Wisconsin and an introduction to community programs that support educational adventures for families.

To get started, pick up your guidebook and map packet for this year’s destinations from a public library in Winneshiek County (or print one online), then visit sites in any order. Prove you were in each location by making a crayon rubbing in your guidebook of the ‘marker’ placed there (crayons provided in your packet). When you have 15 or more rubbings, you may return your guidebook to the library to register for awesome prizes.

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Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center
Location: Lanesboro, Minnesota
Best for: 6+ (Kids able to hike some distance without whining! Ability to read is also a bonus.)
Open: June – August (by appointment in off-season)
www.eagle-bluff.org

Located on nearly 100 acres of Root River bottom, limestone bluffs, and tall-grass prairie, Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center offers organized outdoor education courses for kids during the school year and family programming and multi-age ropes/zipline courses on Saturdays and Tuesdays ($25/person) in the summer months. Free stuff includes its nearly nine miles of hiking trails and public geocaching course, as well as access to the Schroeder Visitor’s Center.

The center also hosts River Roots Skills School courses for teens 15 and older and adults (generally $40/person) ranging from orienteering to Amish bread-baking to taxidermy basics. Follow the directions online, rather than your GPS, to avoid sometimes-impassable back roads.

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Driftless Area Wetland Centre
Location: Marquette, Iowa
Best for: Anyone!
Open: Year-round
www.driftlessareawetlandcentre.com

The Driftless Area Wetlands Centre opened its doors in August 2013 with one goal in mind: To connect people of all ages to the natural world and empower them to positively impact their local environments. The facility provides a shared environmental education and community gathering space, covered plaza area, and 24/7 bathroom, in addition to the beautiful, man-made Wetland and viewing platform. See a full story on the Centre on page 14 of the Summer 2015 Inspire(d).

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DRIFTLESS REGION FISH HATCHERIES
Best for: Anyone
Open: Sunrise to sunset year-round

The Driftless is home to renowned fishing along its creeks and winding rivers, and some of those fish (hundreds of thousands, actually) are stocked from Department of Natural Resources fish hatcheries in the summer months. Many hatcheries are open year-round, allowing kids to feed varying ages of brook, brown, lake and rainbow trout a quarter’s worth of pellet food, available from gumball-like dispensers. Tips: Bring a small bucket or cup to hold the food, and wear closed-toed shoes suitable for walking.

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Locations and hours:
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IOWA
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Decorah Fish Hatchery (Decorah)
This facility raises around 150,000 “catchable” rainbow and brook trout annually. Features include their stately limestone office, built in the 1930s as a Civilian Conservation Corps project, and family-friendly (clean) bathrooms. Group tours are available 7:30 am – 4 pm daily by calling the office at 563-382-8324.

Big Spring Fish Hatchery (Elkader)
Located on the Turkey River and fed by the largest cold-water spring in Iowa, this hatchery raises 150,000 rainbow and brook trout from 2” in length to 10-12” over 15 months on average. The Big Spring Watershed is nationally renowned among researchers of karst (limestone) groundwater activity. River access at the hatchery is open for trout fishing and primitive camping, featuring a new angler access trail, a trout pond open for public fishing, and Iowa’s first kids’ fishing pond for anglers 15 and under. Fisherpeople must have appropriate licensure. Group tours are available 7:30 am – 4 pm daily by calling the office at 563-245-2446.

Guttenburg Fish Hatchery (Guttenburg)
This hatchery spawns Northern Pike fry in the spring, then operates the kid-friendly Guttenburg Aquarium and Fish Management Station May – October 8 am – 4 pm. See 35 species of fish, fresh-water mussels and turtles native to the Mississippi River ecosystem and its tributaries. Admission to this Great River Road Interpretive Network educational site is free. Call ahead for tour information and special events: 563-252-1156.

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MINNESOTA
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Lanesboro Fish Hatchery (Lanesboro)
This spring-fed hatchery produces a jaw-dropping 120,000 pounds of trout per year:
450,000 brown trout fingerlings (spring or fall of their first year)
24,000 brown trout yearlings (spring following their hatching)
85,000 rainbow trout fingerlings and 200,000 rainbow trout yearlings
Guided group tours are available by reservation (507-467-3771). Hours for self-guided tours are 7 am – 3:30 pm Monday – Friday.

Peterson State Fish Hatchery (Peterson)
This hatchery specializes in spawning lake trout, stocked to deep, cold lakes in northern Minnesota, and rainbow trout stocked in the Driftless and urban lakes in the Twin Cities. Self-guided and curated tours are available 7am – 3:30 pm Monday – Friday: 507-875-2625.

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WISCONSIN
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Genoa National Fish Hatchery
Located on both sides of the Great River Road Scenic Byway (State Highway 35), three miles south of Genoa, Wisconsin. Visitors should first head to the office (west side of the highway) to check in and learn about operations. There are 13 species of fish reared on site and a number of mussel species common to the upper Mississippi River basin. You’ll also find a 1,000 gallon aquarium, a wetland and native prairie boardwalk with outdoor classroom area, a walking trail , and culture buildings housing 24 species of fish, freshwater mussels, and amphibians. Call 608-689-2605 to schedule group tours, generally provided 7 am – 3:30 p.m. Monday – Friday.

CAVE SYSTEMS
Locations: McGregor, Iowa, Preston, Minnesota, and Harmony, Minnesota.
Best for: Anyone, but best for kids who don’t mind cool, damp conditions and close enclosures.
Open: May through October
The Driftless Region’s craggy bluff topography offers stunning viewscapes underground, too, where water has carved formations and caverns into the area’s soft(ish) bedrock.

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Spook Cave & Campground near McGregor, Iowa, offers 35-minute curated boat tours 9 am to 5:30 pm daily. No walking is required, as you travel by boat through the cave chambers. With a free picnic area and reasonable camping hook-ups and cabins on site, Spook Cave suits families, especially those with small children and seniors in the mix. Be sure to dress for the coolness (literally) of the cave itself, which remains 47 degrees year-round. Tour admission is $11 for adults 13 and older; $8 for kids ages 4-12, and free for kids 3 and under. spookcave.com

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Mystery Cave, managed by the Department of Natural Resources, lies between Spring Valley and Preston, Minnesota, and is the longest cave system in the state, at nearly 13 miles. Park naturalists lead curated tours of the stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, fossils, and iridescent underground pools, where flash photography is allowed, if you’re up to it.

Programs range from a scenic tour for all ages and degrees of mobility (available daily; $12/adults, $7 ages 5-12, youngers are free) to flashlight and geology expeditions for children 8 and older ($13-$20/person). If your teen can’t resist mud or physical challenge, check out the Wild Caving tour, a four-hour exploration of undeveloped sections of the cave system, outfitted with real spelunking gear ($75/person; 13 and older; group maximum of five people).

Reservations for Mystery Cave tours are recommended and available online (dnr.state.mn.us/mystery_cave) or by calling the Minnesota DNR at 866-857-2757.

Photography, Wild Caving and advanced geology tours are arranged by calling cave personnel directly at 507-937-3251. Follow guidelines for appropriate dress (48 degrees underground!) and be sure to consult the GPS-defying travel directions online.

Mystery Cave is located in a state park and requires a park day pass ($5) or sticker valid for the year ($25). While you’re in the gate, consider visiting Forestville, a living history replica of the settlement before railroad development in Minnesota.

Uniquely Minnesota

WaterfallNiagara Cave near Harmony, Minnesota, boasts a one-hour, one-mile, guided tour April through October (see niagaracave.com for current hours). Visitors climb down a set of stairs into another world – there’s an underground stream leading to a waterfall nearly 60 feet high, tiny and massive stalactites, calcite flowstone, and fossils that have been dated to more than 400 million years old. There’s also an in-cave wedding chapel where more than 400 weddings have been performed. After the tour, take your minis for mini-golf or gemstone mining. Reservations for tours ($14 / $8 for 4-12 / youngers are free) are recommended, but not required. 507-886-6606.

Check out Inspire(d)’s in-depth (haha) Driftless cave feature from 2012.

Splash Down: Awesome Swim Facilities
Locations: Spring Grove, Minnesota and Hokah, Minnesota
Open: June – August (or, when the lifeguards go back to school)

There are city pools, and then there are swim destinations. Spring Grove Swim Center, in quaint Spring Grove, Minnesota, offers a toddler slide, waterfalls and a zero-depth entry wading area for younger kids, and more thrilling two-story water slides, drop slides and diving boards for, you know, older guests who usually beg off getting in the water. If you’re willing to let carb and sodium counts slide for a day, you can find a whole meal at the poolside snack bar.

Admission is $4/person; ages 62+ or 2 and under are free. Hours are 1-6 pm Monday through Sunday, and a cool-deal $2 admission 7-9 pm on Fridays. Toward the beginning and end of season or whenever weather might interfere, call ahead at 507-498-7946 to check pool hours. www.springgrovemn.com/swimcenter (Spring Grove pool photos courtesy Marlene Deschler.)

SpringGrovePool_Marlene Deschler

If chlorine isn’t your thing, head over to 20 Como Street in Hokah, Minnesota, where you’ll find a natural phenomenon uncommon beyond the Yellowstone Caldera of the West: a sand-bottom, spring-fed swimming area. The Hokah ‘pool’ offers diving boards, an in-water volleyball court, snack concessions and sandy banks for land-locked ‘beach’ play. Admission is $3/person Monday-Saturday 12-5 pm and Sunday 11 am–3 pm. Get in for $1 on Wednesday nights 5-7 pm. Call ahead to confirm pool hours at 507-894-4557. www.facebook.com/HokahPool

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STICK A FORK IN IT: FOOD ADVENTURES WITH A DRIFTLESS TWIST

Wold Strawberries
Location: Rural Mabel, Minnesota
Best for: Anyone who can pick more than s/he eats.
Open: Daily when berries are ripe. Call ahead for details.
woldstrawberries.com

Summertime means seasonal food-a-palooza in the Driftless. If you’re looking to dig in beyond visiting your local farmers’ market, check out Wold Strawberries between Decorah and Mabel, Minnesota. Established in 1973 as a pick-your-own strawberry farm, the Wold plantation now offers ready-picked and pick-your-own varieties of strawberries in early to mid-June; raspberries (red, black and purple) in mid-July and late-blooming red raspberries again in mid-August.

If you’re on top of the season’s optimal weather for berry harvest, you might also get in on their sought-after blueberries and currants in mid-July through early August. (Hint: Call Wold’s at 507-493-5897 each week for peak picking forecasts, or follow them on Facebook.) In 2015, the highway entrance to the Wold farm is under construction, so follow alternate directions on their site (woldstrawberries.com) to get picking.

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Northeast Iowa Dairy Center
Location: Calmar, Iowa
Best for: All ages
Open: Daily
www.iowadairycenter.com

Read about robotic milking or seen it on YouTube? It’s here in Iowa – and truly hands-off – as the newest innovation in dairy science. At the nationally acclaimed Iowa Dairy Center, cows produce more milk when they self-select when to enter the robotic milking parlor – up to six times per day. Get a bird’s-eye view from the visitor platform, open 24/7. The center also has a human-powered milking parlor for another 140 cows, where visitors can watch the process three times per day – 4 am, 12 noon, and 8 pm. The adjacent calf barn gives you a peek at doe-eyed dairy youngsters, and if you’re lucky, you might see a calf born in the transition barn.

Don’t miss the annual free/free-will donation Breakfast on the Farm. Fill up on ‘Dad’s Belgian waffles,’ sausage and dairy products made in Northeast Iowa before exploring the center’s educational exhibits, including a curated tram tour of the barns. For more info, call the center coordinator at 563-534-9957 ext. 107.

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Seed Savers Exchange Heritage Farm
Location: Decorah, Iowa
Best for: Mobile kids or those content to traipse about in a backpack or sling
Open: Daily 10am-5pm March 1 through October 31
seedsavers.org

If your kids are just getting the food-to-earth connection, visit the internationally renowned Seed Savers Exchange Heritage Farm north of Decorah, especially at the height of summer, for a look at where a diverse diet comes from. Spread over 890 acres, the farm is home to display gardens growing 1,000 seed varieties of heritage vegetables and flowers; an orchard (preserving 950 apple varieties); a herd of Ancient White Park cattle; and heritage breeds of turkeys, chickens, ducks and geese.

Explore eight miles of hiking trails or cool your heels in bubbling Pine Spring Creek (where trout fishing is allowed). If your kids are game, you could spend a good day getting between the growing areas. Pack a lunch and regroup at the Lillian Goldman Visitor Center, which offers picnic facilities, (air-conditioned) bathrooms, a water fountain, and a gift shop. Check online or call ahead to dial in the best times to catch up with the cattle herd, for example, and to learn about special events that may affect visiting hours.

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Cooking Classes at Oneota Community Food Co-op
Location: Decorah, Iowa
Best for: Ages designated in course descriptions (young’uns through teens)
oneotacoop.com

Someone brilliant once suggested that we parents should let kids do the cleaning while they still think it’s fun. The same might also go for cooking and kitchen skills.

To give your kid a knife (with supervision!) and encourage an interest in cooking with fresh healthful ingredients, try a summer session from Oneota Community Food Co-op. Courses cater to little ones through teens, and use the co-op’s stylish new cooking classroom, adjacent to the store on Water Street. Register for classes online (starting at $40) and check out the co-op’s free educational kids’ booth at the Winneshiek Farmer’s Market most Saturdays in May, June and July.

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SHOW TIME: SUMMER ARTS OPPORTUNITIES

ArtHaus Camps, Mud Club at The Clay Studio, and Drama (of course!)
Location: Decorah, Iowa
Best for: Ages designated by course descriptions (ages 2 through teens)

Do you find yourself confiscating all the household writing or snipping tools from your little artist(s)? Sanctioning the Playdough? Send them to an ArtHaus camp or Clay Studio class, where professionals with more patience will help channel their creative impulses. Read about ArtHaus classes – from Saturday morning art studio for tots to Art Innovations Camp for kids ages 6 through 12 – and register online at arthausdecorah.org.

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Mud Club at The Clay Studio in Decorah is a monthly night in for kids ages 5-13 featuring a project-based lesson, art games, and a snack. Sign up online at theclaystudiodecorah.com for upcoming Mud Club events (6-8 pm occasional Saturdays). Note: Register at least a day in advance; online sign-up is not available the day of an event. (Photos courtesy ArtHaus & Clay Studio)

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If your kids are more at home on the stage, don’t miss summer productions by area community theaters. The region is also home to outstanding professional companies, including the Commonweal Theatre  in Lanesboro, Minnesota, and the Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona, Minnesota. Great River Shakespeare Festival even offers summer youth education programs like Shakespeare for Young Actors or Creative Drama and “Chill with Will” (Shakespeare, of course) free performances for ages 10-18. Me thinks there’s an alchemy in the warm night air, bright stage lights and stories from far-off places.

Check out these area theatre options for current shows:
Wisc. Community Theatre for Youth
New Minowa Players
Elkader Opera House Players
Ye Olde Opera House

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Photo by Kathy Greden Christenson – Shakespeare for Young Actors, 2014, The Tempest.

 

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Kristine Jepsen is definitely one of those parents in need of a go-to guide for kids’ activities in the warm season. When she’s not hunched over her laptop, writing on assignment and for herself (kristinejepsen.com), she’s outdoors drumming up something to do with her family, including her daughter, Eliza.