Thursday, November 21, 2002

Chili Changes: Old traditions and new

Old traditions and new mingle in a bowl of spicy comfort food
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
(unpublished so far -- except for on this blog)

Chunks of meat stewed with chili peppers: that’s the essence of traditional chili, a dish with ancient origins in Mexico and points south. Some accounts credit the cattle drivers of the Old West with inventing chili – as the story goes, cowboys pounded together dried beef and chili peppers, then stewed up the mix while on the trail. But as chef and writer Rick Bayless, widely regarded as this nation’s foremost authority on Mexican cuisine, points out in his book “Authentic Mexican,” the idea is farfetched – both ethnocentric and sexist. For millennia, human beings on the American continents have been eating both meat and chili peppers. The first one to put them in a cooking pot together was assuredly not a white male.

Chili does come to us from the Southwest border regions where Mexican and American cultures and cuisines mingle, but its roots go back centuries, through generations of cooks who learned how to soften both the toughness of meat and the chili pepper’s fierce flavor with hours of slow cooking.

History has the demimondaines of old San Antonio dishing out chili from nighttime open air stalls near the Alamo. By the late 19th century, the fiery hash was a Texas specialty, and the state sponsored a chili exhibit at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. This became the venue through which chili – like the Ferris wheel, diet soda and Juicy Fruit gum – entered the American mainstream.

Beans, tomatoes and even ground beef are twentieth-century, middle American introductions. Authentic or no, I like beans in my chili. Their starch thickens the broth, and they add a wonderful, creamy flavor. But when there’s time for the additional prep and the slow cooking, the traditional chunks of beef have a lot over ground. Chunks add a rustic quality, and they’re fun to eat and prepare. I enjoy the sensuousness of cutting a big slab of meat into pieces, of seeing how individual and distinct each piece remains, how impossible it is to make them perfectly uniform. Note that you need a good, sharp knife for this to be fun instead of toil. A heavy cleaver is ideal, but a 6" or 8" chef’s knife will work well, too.

[The recipe]
Here’s my favorite chili recipe, a full-flavored stew I’ve tinkered with over the years to incorporate various elements from Mexican cookery. Note the absence of commercially mixed “chili powder”! About the ingredients: Chiles anchos aren’t hot; they add a dark, gentle sweetness to long-cooking dishes. In Mexico, the rich, dusky flavor of cocoa is used in many dishes, not just in sweet desserts; here, it plays against the chiles anchos beautifully. The earthy, faintly tangy herb epazote (available dried from Penzey’s) goes well with beans. Masa harina is a finely ground corn flour. And the red pepper flakes are the only hot ingredient: adjust according to your preference. For me, the amount of heat given here is pleasantly peppery. However, sensitivity to capsaicin, the hot stuff in chili peppers, varies among individuals and through time.

2 pounds beef, cut in 2" cubes. You want a tough, cheap cut, like shank, chuck or brisket, for a slow-cooked, tender stew.
2 Tbs. oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1-2 tsp. red pepper flakes
1/2 tsp. sugar
1 Tbs. epazote, dried and fine
1 Tbs. Mexican oregano
1 Tbs. cumin, ground
1 Tbs. cilantro (fresh or dried)
1 Tbs. cocoa powder (unsweetened)
5 (or one package) dried chile ancho pods, stems removed
2 (15 oz.) cans kidney beans, including juice
2 cans (14 oz) tomatoes (Diced, stewed, whole, or whatever you like)
1 cup hot water

2-4 Tbs. masa harina ( or corn starch) mixed in some cold water (optional)

In a big (six-quart), heavy pot set on medium-high heat, add oil and brown the meat in batches, transferring to a bowl. Reduce heat to medium-low, add onions and garlic and return the meat to the pot. Simmer 10 minutes, covered. Add all other ingredients (except the masa, which is used for thickening at the end). Simmer gently, covered, another 2 to 3 hours, stirring occasionally. When the meat is tender, stir in the masa harina and water and simmer for a couple of minutes. You can garnish the servings with a sprig of fresh cilantro. This is a delicious one-dish meal in itself, but for a super-hearty repast that’ll keep you satisfied for hours, ladle over a wedge of your favorite corn bread.

Friday, March 1, 2002

Mount Horeb, Wisconsin

Norwegian heritage is alive in this magical southwestern Wisconsin town
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
In Wisconsin Trails, March-April 2002
Gone for the Weekend, Spring/Summer Travel Guide
Photos: Kortney Kaiser

In Norwegian legend, trolls guard hidden treasures. On visiting Mt. Horeb, a tiny hilltop burg perched just within Wisconsin’s rugged Driftless Region, I figured out the secret to its improbably dense cluster of unique attractions: the place is protected by trolls.

How else to explain, for instance, Cave of the Mounds a few miles away? Discovered in 1939 by miners quarrying for gravel, the cave is a miraculous trove of geologic splendors millions of years old. By rights it should’ve been demolished 10,000 years ago during the last Ice Age—but the glaciers stopped just short. “Any cave in other parts of Wisconsin would’ve been crushed,” Joe Klimczak, who manages the cave’s tourist operations with his wife, Anne Wescott, tells me. “The glaciers really scoured the earth flat.” Joe lets drop that trolls, celebrated in sign and sculpture everywhere in and around Mt. Horeb, have a special affinity for minerals.

So it was trolls who kept this spectacular cache safe and hidden.

As we walk underground, where it’s a comfy 50 degrees year-round, Joe switches various lights on and off. A stalactite appears, slowly dripping water onto a point of rock. Each back-lit drop explodes into a sparkling pompon of light and color. Joe makes other formations appear and disappear: hollow “soda straws,” a painted waterfall, strips of bacon, coral.

Though not as large as some other tourist-accessible caves, this has more variety of shape and color than most. “It’s remarkably decorated,” Joe tells me. “It looks like an artist painted it—minerals like iron oxide and manganese give the different colors.” Then the former electrical engineer uses a term I’ll hear often around Mt. Horeb: “It’s a magical place.”

Cave of the Mounds is located on the 1828 homestead of Ebenezer Brigham, the first white settler in Dane County. Brigham owned the pair of limestone peaks known as the Blue Mounds. His descendants still own the cave and some surrounding East Mound land. Most of this mound is now Brigham County Park, which offers camping, hiking trails, and scenic views. The West Mound is the site of Blue Mound State Park, home to the state park system’s only Olympic-size swimming pool.

At the park, the splashes and squeals of children slip away as I start along a narrow, hilly path winding among huge, green-patched boulders. The day is hot, but the woods are cool, dark, green. At the top of the mound I leave the solitude of the forest to join the groups of people who’ve driven to the upper parking lot to climb the wooden lookout tower and behold, through this day’s blue haze, a colorful, hilly vista of farms and forests. Thanks to the trolls who protected the Blue Mounds from destruction by glacier, this is the highest point in southern Wisconsin.

In a tiny wooded valley nearby, I explore Little Norway, a living history museum patterned after the outdoor museums of Norway. There a guided tour takes visitors through furnished farm buildings: a storage house on stilts, a sod-roofed cabin, a spring house, more.

Once a Norwegian farmstead, in 1927 Little Norway was purchased as a summer retreat. Isak Dahle, a Chicago businessman who grew up in Mt. Horeb, restored the traditional Norwegian farmhouse buildings on the property. He had the furniture and buildings decorated according to Norwegian custom, with paints and carvings. “He was a third generation Norwegian who felt he’d lost his heritage,” says manager Scott Winner, a great-grand-nephew of Dahle. “He recreated the place for his family, not for public display.”

In 1935, Dahle added the Norway Building. This ornate wooden structure, patterned after ancient Norwegian churches and using Viking motifs, was originally built in Norway for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

News of the farmstead and its treasures spread, and people began showing up to see it. “He’d come to visit, and there’d be people walking in buildings, looking in drawers.” Little Norway officially opened to the public soon after.

“This is a place time has forgotten,” Scott says, “The magic here is really special.” Little Norway’s other name is Nissedahle, or “Valley of the Elves.” And there are trolls here, too: wooden carvings by local artist Mike Feeney dot the landscape, part of the Mt. Horeb “Trollway.”

Most of Feeney’s statues are downtown, along Main Street, where, though it’s only 20 miles southwest of Madison and just off a major highway, Mt. Horeb feels like a remote getaway.

Driving westward on 18-151, I pass the site of the original town center at the intersection with 78. Centered around the meeting spot of several roads, the community was once known as “The Corners.” During the Civil War, Norwegian immigrants began calling the place “Stangjii,” or Liberty Pole. Today, long-established local businesses line what was once a military road to the Mississippi: Yapp’s Antiques in a boxy old brick building, the Danish-modern Karakahl Motor Inn. Cheerfully appointed Victorian manses house gift and antique shops.

Soon I reach “New Town,” the heart of Mt. Horeb’s commercial district. When the railway sited a depot here in 1881, businesses relocated and used the name once given to the post office at the nearby farm of a Methodist Episcopal minister (Mt. Horeb is where Moses saw the burning bush). Downtown is a comfortable jumble of old and new: 19th and early 20th century storefronts—some slickly renovated—and modern structures. Particularly striking, in an offbeat way, is the mid-century Mount Horeb Telephone Company building adorned with giant Viking-themed motifs: a horned cap, a ship. Across the street, Dick’s Market, a homey grocery store seemingly out of a Norwegian spin-off of Mayberry RFD, sells homemade brats, jerky and lefse, a sort of Norwegian potato tortilla. Dick tells me, with a jolly smile, that he ships lefse all over the country at Christmas time. Does he advertise? Does he have a Web site? No. How do people find out about him? “Beats me,” he says with a shrug.

Downtown bustles, but somehow I can always find a parking spot right in front of the shop I’m headed for. I chalk it up to trolls.

Though it’s only 20 miles southwest of Madison, just off a major highway, Mt. Horeb feels like a remote getaway. As well as boasting a fine array of gift shops and eateries, Mt. Horeb is an antique shopper’s paradise, with over 100 dealers represented in its many storefronts and antique malls. Wares range from high-ticket items like jewelry and fine refinished furniture to collectibles like glassware and old kitchen tools.

Also on Main Street is the quirky Mount Horeb Mustard Museum (see related article in this issue's State Talk), which displays antique mustard memorabilia and sells thousands of varieties of mustards from around the world; every one is available for a taste test.

A few blocks off Main Street. I visit the house where Isak Dahle, Little Norway’s founder, grew up. Built in 1908 by his father, U.S. Congressman Herman B. Dahle, this graceful Victorian home with unusual neoclassical and mission-style elements is soon to enter the National Register of Historic Places, thanks to the efforts of its newest owners, Don and Peggy Donaldson from Naperville, Ill. In 2001, they renovated the house and opened it for business as the Arbor Rose Bed & Breakfast. Fortunately, Peggy says, the Dahle house was treated well through the years. “Every piece of hardware matches—doorknobs, window pulls, everything. We feel so privileged to be here. It’s not just our house—it belongs to the whole community.”

Before giving me a tour of the rose-themed B&B rooms upstairs—cozy antique-furnished rooms, a step-up 4-poster canopy bed, a shady upstairs porch—the Donaldsons ply me with homemade sweet treats and coffee. Peggy tells me about her trademark apricot-glazed Arbor Rose rolls, which rise overnight in a fruity almond sauce. “They’re gooey, but good,” Peggy says. “I usually share recipes, but this one, I’m keeping secret.”

A winding ride from the center of town through Stewart County Park takes me to another B&B: Othala Valley Inn, a cozy, Norwegian-style limestone lodge on an 80-acre organic farm. Farmer/innkeepers Linda Derrickson and Mark Kessenich set out a mini smorgasbord, all grown on the premises or crafted by neighboring artisans. Dane County Farmers Market fans will recognize these names: Bleu Mont cheese, Cress Springs Bakery bread, Gentle Breeze honey. “We produce what we can here, and support local growers,” says Linda. The sausages are made from the hardy Highland cattle that Linda and Mark raise. Mark gives me a tour of the farm, and I get to meet chickens, ducks, and a small flock of Jacob sheep.

Linda explains how they chose this dappled, four-horned breed, which look much like goats to the neophyte (me): “We wanted delicious meat and great fleece. Plus, we like the horns.” They’re attractively curved, and, says Linda, “Horns act like antennae—they bring in good energy.”

At dawn, I watch from my enormous bed as the valley slowly fills with light. The birches light up first: glowing, dappled white rods. Rocks poke out in places from the impossibly steep hillside. I remember Linda’s telephone description of the valley: “It’s magic here.”

Many of Othala’s furnishings are Norwegian antiques. “We collected these for years, not knowing what we’d ever do with them,” says Linda. In the living room near the huge fireplace, she shows me a print hanging prominently among the books and games. “I put this up on a whim at first,” she says. “Didn’t really think about it. But one of our guests was all excited when she saw it. Seems it’s a real find.”

I take a look. Long, bushy tails, four fingers on each hand, big, warty noses, patched clothes: it’s a family of trolls.

Vesna Vuynovich Kovach is editor in chief of Erickson Publishing, a Madison-based company which produces niche publications and events celebrating the people and places of Wisconsin.

ARBOR ROSE BED & BREAKFAST—$85-$125. (608) 437-1108 or

OTHALA VALLEY INN B&B—$65-$120. 3192 County Hwy JG, Mt. Horeb. (608) 437-2141 or

SCHUBERT’S OLD FASHIONED CAFE AND BAKERY—[Now defunct -VVK, 2006] Step back in time in this retro luncheonette with its classic soda fountain. Try the delicately seasoned Norwegian meatballs. Bakery specialties include lefse, rosettes and Swedish rye bread with a lovely, light, even texture. 126 E. Main St. (608) 437-3393.

THE GRUMPY TROLL BREWPUB—Great burgers, excellent beers in a former Swiss cheese factory. Try the five-beer sampler for $3.75. Troll’s Beer & Cheese soup is delightful. 105 S. Second St. (608) 437-BREW or

—Official pub of the Mustard Museum; ask for the free sampler basket. Famous burgers, meat fresh ground daily at Dick’s Market across the street. Wisconsin beers on tap. Friday fish fry, Saturday prime rib. Sugar River Euchre League, in its 75th year, meets Saturdays, 6 a.m. More euchre Saturday evenings. 120 E. Main St. (608) 437-5733.

GENERAL INFORMATION—The Mt. Horeb Area Chamber of Commerce can provide maps, event listings and guides to antique dealers. (608) 437-5914, 1-88-TROLLWAY (1-888-765-5929) or

LITTLE NORWAY—$8. Open May through October. Cave of the Mounds Road exit from State Highway 18-151. (608) 437-8211 or

CAVE OF THE MOUNDS—Adults $12; children 5-12 $3. Open daily March through Nov. 15, weekends Nov. 15 through March 15. . Cave of the Mounds Road exit from State Highway 18-151. (608) 437-3038 or

MT. HOREB MUSTARD MUSEUM—Open daily. 100 E. Main St. (608) 438-6878 or

MT. HOREB AREA MUSEUM—A first-rate presentation of ethnic evolution. Highlights include a restored grocery store. Gift shop. Fridays and Saturdays, 10 a.m.-5p.m., Sundays 12:30-5 p.m. Free. 100 S. Second St., Mt. Horeb. (608) 437-6486 or

MILITARY RIDGE STATE TRAIL—This 40-mile biking and hiking converted rail bed connecting Fitchburg to Dodgeville runs right through Mt. Horeb. Buy bike trail passes in town or stop here for a bite. Camping near trail in Blue Mound State Park. (608) 437-7393.

TYROL BASIN SKI AREA—Mountain bike trails through woods and hayfields. Summer Snow-Fest draws snowboarders and freestyle skiers from around the country. June 1-2 (weather permitting). 3487 Bohn Road, Mt. Horeb. (608) 437-4135 or

Wheels of life

Eco-aware cheese making in America’s dairyland By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach In Madison Magazine
March 2002
Column: Table Talk

“To make great cheese, you’ve got to have great milk. And great milk does not come from factory farms,” says Willi Lehner, a maker of fine cheeses in Dane County. A Dane County Farmers’ Market favorite since 1988 (in the off season, it’s available at Star Liquor or by calling 767-2875), Lehner’s Bleu Mont Dairy is one of Wisconsin’s many small-scale operations dedicated to producing cheeses that are worlds beyond ordinary, commercial fare.

Lehner is especially excited about a new cheddar he’s introducing at the Farmers’ Market this spring: “Last summer I hooked up with a farmer who does rotational grazing. I made cheese from the milk of his Jersey cows.” Jersey cows are renowned for their sweet, delicious milk. But because they’re not the biggest producers, they’re now rarely used by the mainstream dairy industry.

“This cheese – oh!” he sighs. “It’s complex and rich, with more depth of flavor.” The cows’ natural, fresh diet results in a high carotene content in the milk, which lends the cheddar a golden hue. “It almost looks like we added coloring to it,” says Lehner. Traditionally, cheddars made with the richest, most delicious milk were yellowish, so cheese makers began the practice of adding color, he explains. If you want to magnify this cheese’s qualities even more, Lehner says you can age it at home. “If the package is hermetically sealed, cheese will age gracefully in the fridge. You can easily age it for a year or two or three.” Won’t it go bad? Lehner says not. “The expiration date on cheese is kind of a joke, except for high-moisture ones like camembert and brie.”

Another feature of the spring cheddar: “It’s made with raw [unpasteurized] milk, which makes the most flavorful cheeses.” Pasteurizing destroys the naturally occurring enzymes that produce the intricate, enigmatic tastes of traditional cheeses. “Up until 50 years ago, almost all cheese was made from raw milk,” Lehner says. In recent years the USDA has been trying to ban raw milk cheese entirely.

The movement against raw milk is just one aspect of industrialized dairying that bothers Lehner, and his feelings are common among artisanal cheese makers: “I have a huge problem with the way the industry is headed. Cows are injected with rBGH to maximize production, and they burn out after a few years. My father visited a place in California where they had 3000 cows in the herd. They were milking them three times a day, making them stand on concrete.

“At the Farmers’ Market, I try to educate people about this – where do they buy their food? If they buy from small scale producers, they’re supporting farmers who’ve made a commitment to sustainable agriculture, who treat animals humanely.”

For thousands of years cheese was a highly individualized signature item, different at each farmstead. Modern technology has transformed it into a uniform product suitable for mass marketing. But the 1980s saw a renaissance of small scale cheese making. Today, Wisconsin is one of a handful of states that abounds in cheese offerings like Bleu Mont’s, each a one-of-a-kind treasure lovingly made in limited quantities by conscientious craftspeople who seek a balance between humans, animals, food and the land. What makes their products distinctive varies: some use certified organic milk, some use raw milk, some use the milk of animals other than cows.

At Lovetree Farms in northwestern Wisconsin, Dave and Mary Falk age their raw milk sheep’s cheese in a fresh-air cave they dug themselves, where the wild yeasts of the Northwoods can inoculate the cheese with their unique flavors. Consequently, no cheese in the world is quite like their fruity and nutty Trade Lake Cedar.

Upland Cheese Company near Dodgeville is one of only a few cheese makers that use the milk of their own cows. These cows graze in pastures of thick, soft grasses and wildflowers from early spring through fall, instead of subsisting on barn-fed silage year-round. Their award-winning cheese, Pleasant Ridge Reserve, is available at only a few outlets, including Whole Foods in Madison and a few cheese boutiques in Manhattan.

Many cheese makers favor goats’ milk for its velvety, vanilla-like flavor – and because goats have a lighter impact on the environment than cows. Wisconsin has more goat dairies than any other state.

As the country’s top cheese producer, Wisconsin makes 2 billion pounds of cheese each year, or one-third the national total. It’s nice to know that it’s not all about quantity.

Cheese lover Vesna Vuynovich Kovach is a contributing writer to Madison Magazine.

Tuesday, January 1, 2002

Minoqua: Born to be beautiful

Minocqua, Woodruff and Arbor Vitae have been delighting vacationers longer than you might think
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
in Minocqua-Woodruff-Arbor Vitae Area Visitor Guide

Into a lake once called Kawaguesaga, a fist of land reached southward, knuckles nearly brushing the opposite shore. Norway pines and white pines—80 to 100 feet tall, three to five feet across their trunks—towered over the land for miles around. The wigwams of a Chippewa village gathered near the west shore of this odd-shaped peninsula, so much like an island, connected to the mainland by a narrow, swampy wrist.

Through the waters of the lake rowed a little fishing boat. It had come from a logging region some thirty miles to the east, and it held Minocqua’s first summer tourists. The year was 1886.

Lore has it that Minocqua and Woodruff, both founded in the 1880s, began life as logging towns. When the timber ran out some thirty years later, so the story goes, locals turned to tourism to keep the towns alive. But the story isn’t true. Minocqua and Woodruff were never industrial centers. From the earliest days of settlement, this corner of the Northwoods was a destination for recreation and commerce—just as it is today.

Minocqua and Woodruff each had a sawmill, but not on the scale of the great logging centers nearby. Still, the logging industry was key to their growth. Loggers visited these towns for trade and for fun. Summer was the off season for logging, and a good time to enjoy the natural beauty of the Northwoods. When logging opened up the forest floor to the sun, the acidic soil grew wild with all sorts of berries—strawberries, gooseberries, raspberries—which Native Americans would pick and bring into town, for sale to merchants who would sell them as far afield as Chicago. And for decades, Minocqua was home to the only bank and the only hospital for miles around.

In the latter half of the 19th century, railroads and lumber companies worked together to speed the harvest of northern Wisconsin’s virgin forests. A railroad company would build a railway to an agreed-upon spot. Once the track arrived, the lumber company could set to work putting in a sawmill and workers’ housing.

As early as the summer of 1886, guides brought fishers from logging towns like these to the area that later became Minocqua. An early tourist, John Mann, returned in the fall of that year to build Minocqua’s first permanent building: a fishing resort on the mainland overlooking the “island” (then as now, this is how the peninsula is usually described). Here loggers and others from nearby communities could while away peaceful summer days fishing for muskellunge and pike (walleye) in the quiet of the Northwoods. This building, the earliest in Minocqua, survived until sometime in the early 1940s; no one is sure when, why or how it was finally destroyed. In 1887 the railway came to Minocqua. It passed just a few yards from Mann’s year-old resort. The following year, Mann sold out his interest in the resort and moved farther north. It’s said he left because he felt Minocqua was becoming too crowded.

It wasn’t easy bringing the railroad across the moist earth of the Lakeland region, as workers on the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway discovered. The extension from Merrill to a point some miles north of Minocqua was expected to be finished by late summer. But sinkholes, swamps and marshes defied the efforts of construction crews. Laborers quit, plagued by flies and mosquitoes. Worst of all was a half-mile stretch of swamp and marsh near the present day Kawaga Road, not far from Minocqua. Winter was approaching as the men built one trestle after another across the marsh, only to watch them sink into the dark 90-foot depths. They tried stretching a log road across the marsh. The marsh swallowed the road, along with twelve oxen, six horses and 13 railroad sand cars. It wasn’t until January that the first locomotive chugged across Lake Minocqua onto the island. Today, the tracks leading into Minocqua are gone, and the hard-won rail bed has been converted to a bicycle trail, the 18-mile Bearskin State Park Trail.

By the spring of 1888, the island had been logged off and the town platted. Hopes were high for the spot’s recreation potential. “It will be a fine summer resort,” predicted the Lincoln County Advocate. “The town will be beautifully situated and right in the center of the best hunting and fishing districts in Northern Wisconsin,” remarked the Northern Wisconsin News. The town grew steadily: by 1891, Minocqua, population 200, boasted six hotels and ten saloons. Whole families rode the train from Merrill, Wausau, and points south for fishing parties. Resorts and summer cottages sprang up along the shores of the region’s lakes. A headline in the Rhinelander Vindicator proclaimed Minocqua “The Queen of Summer Resorts.”

For seven years, Minocqua was at the terminus of its rail line. The St. Paul Railway promoted the town as a tourist destination. For the area’s many logging camps, it was an important supply point.

Meanwhile, a competing railroad company, the Lake Shore Railway, planned to connect Rhinelander to Hurley, several miles to the northwest. Where the railway passed just north of Minocqua, the town of Woodruff was born.

Woodruff’s 1888 origin is something of a mystery. Lakeland towns are typically situated right along a body of water or a waterway, but Woodruff is not. For a village located in the heart of the world’s most dense concentration of lakes, this is a puzzle in its own right. Another unusual feature: Woodruff’s main street was sited several blocks away from the railroad junction that would be the central feature in a waterless town. And, Woodruff was founded years before the junction even came to be. No one may ever solve the riddle of Woodruff: no written records from its settlers survive, and the 1888-1889 issues of the newspapers most likely to have recorded its early days are all missing.

In fact, the town foundered in its early years. But in 1893, the economy got the boost it needed. Overnight, Woodruff became a popular destination for the hard-working loggers in a new lumber town just to its northeast: Arbor Vitae, a company town where the sale of liquor was not allowed.

For over 100 years, Woodruff and Minocqua have successfully built their economies on recreation and commerce. Compared to the booming logging towns, Minocqua and Woodruff grew relatively slowly. But when the trees were gone, Minocqua and Woodruff didn’t experience the economic crashes that many other Northwoods towns suffered.

In contrast to Minocqua and Woodruff, Arbor Vitae was a company town, built around the Brooks & Ross Lumber Company’s massive sawmill. In 1914, when the virgin wood was gone, the lumber company pulled out—and took the town with it. The company dismantled the mill and the homes, packed up what they could on the train, and rode out, leaving behind a Northwoods ghost town. Today, a single building remains of old Arbor Vitae. An out-of-the-way, abandoned little white structure with a glass storefront and a faded sign, “Mykleby’s Store,” is all that remains of the building that once housed a company store. Here Jacob Mykleby and his son, Albert, opened their own general store the year the lumber company left town. Nearby, at Big Arbor Vitae Lake, where a sawmill roared and lumberjacks toiled, cheerful summer housekeeping cottage rentals, condominiums and homes are woven along the shore among shady trees.

The giant virgin pines of the Northwoods are, sadly, gone, but new forests have grown in their stead, cared for by today’s stewards of the area’s natural resources. Today, more than a century after their birth, Minocqua, Woodruff and Arbor Vitae carry on a tradition of hospitality that continues to nurture and refresh those who come to enjoy the serenity of the woods, the amusements of the lakes, and the beauty that is Wisconsin.

Minocqua Historical Museum
416 E. Chicago Avenue
(715) 356-7666

Step inside the Minocqua Historical Museum and travel back to the community’s early days. Each year, the museum showcases artifacts from a different pioneering Minocqua family. “We keep it in sequence as to when they came into the area,” says Mary LeFrenier of the Minocqua Historical Society. The Karl Witt family, featured in 2002, arrived in 1892. The Witts farmed a plot of land southwest of the island in Riversmeet, named for the confluence of the Tomahawk and Squirrel rivers. The Witt descendants have since dispersed around the country, but, says Mrs. LeFrenier, the family still owns the original homestead, and members “come up for reunions every year.”

While at the museum, be sure to obtain a copy of “Strolling Back in Time,” a guide to the 1.25 mile historical walking tour of Minocqua. With this 24-page booklet in hand, you can trace the town’s development. Find the oldest surviving building in town, which was the home of Bolger Brothers’ General Store from 1896 until the early 1920s. The current establishment, T. Murtaugh’s Pub and Eatery, is named after one of the Bolgers, who lived upstairs with his family. Formerly on Front Street, Minocqua’s first commercial strip, the Bolger building was moved to the corner of Oneida Street and Milwaukee Street in 1904. The move saved the building from Minocqua’s fire of 1912, which destroyed half the town’s commercial district.

Dr. Kate: A true pioneer

Charismatic caregiver left an enduring legacy
by Vesna Vuynovich Kovach

In Minocqua-Woodruff-Arbor Vitae Area Visitor Guide

Why is a country doctor who passed away nearly half a century ago the hero of Woodruff? You’ll understand when you see the video at the Dr. Kate Museum.

Kate Pelham Newcomb, M.D. (1885-1956), affectionately known as Dr. Kate., was the daughter of Thomas Pelham, president of Gilette Razor Company. Against his wishes, she attended the University of Buffalo Medical School, earning her degree in 1917. She practiced medicine in Detroit until she and her husband, William Newcomb, moved to the clean air of Wisconsin’s Northwoods for his health in 1922.

She believed her brief medical career was over. She was wrong. In 1931, Minocqua’s beloved, aging, Dr. Thomas Torpy (Torpy Park is named after him), the area’s only practicing doctor, convinced her to head out on snowshoes to answer an emergency call. From then on, Dr. Kate was in active practice, driving 100 miles a day to logging camps, remote farms and far-flung towns. She earned the title “Angel on Snowshoes” for her heroic treks to snowbound homesteads. In 25 years of practice, she delivered about 4,000 babies.

For years, Dr. Kate worked to build a hospital in the region. But by 1952, the partially completed Lakeland Memorial Hospital was a stalled dream. There simply wasn’t enough money. Then a group of Woodruff-Arbor Vitae High School students rallied with a penny drive that garnered international attention in newspapers and magazines and raised the needed money for the building. A 15-foot penny, on public display near the Dr. Kate Museum, memorializes the Million Penny Parade.

The story might have ended here, but for an episode of the wildly popular TV show named “This Is Your Life.” Thinking she was in Los Angeles for a medical convention in 1954, Dr. Kate found herself in the live audience of a show she knew nothing about—there weren’t many TV sets in the Lakeland. When host Ralph Edwards proclaimed, “Dr. Kate Newcomb, this is your life!” the 68-year-old physician was stunned.

The audience may have been familiar with the show’s format, but Dr. Kate was not. Girlhood friends materialized. Grateful homesteaders told how Dr. Kate had rescued their loved ones in trying circumstances. An elderly man, Sam Williams, appeared; he’d saved the doctor’s life once when she was dazed and lost in the snow. These moving tales, told in the broad, honest accents of the Wisconsin Northwoods, struck the heart of the nation.

But most striking of all was Dr. Kate herself, an obscure figure from a remote wilderness, suddenly cast into the spotlight. As it turned out, she was enthralling. Her pure surprise was deeply touching. Her courage was impressive. And her quick, lingering smile—it was like the sun bursting apart a snowstorm. Her grandmotherly warmth was like an early spring compelling mayapples and wood violets to life. Viewers fell in love with her.

No one, not even the show’s producers, could have known what the episode would trigger: Money for the hospital would flood into the town from all over the world, and Dr. Kate would become famous, an international celebrity whose biography made the New York Times bestseller list. Twenty years later, Lakeland Memorial Hospital would receive $20 million from an art dealer, S. Howard Young, that would transform the tiny facility into the multi-faceted, ever-growing Howard Young Health Center.

In 1988, the Dr. Kate Museum was founded. There, the star exhibit is a video of the captivating 48-year-old TV show, which delights visitors of all ages, and continues to bring alive Dr. Kate’s powerfully engaging personality to new generations.

Dr. Kate Museum
923 2nd Avenue
Woodruff, Wis.
(715) 356-6896 or (715) 356-9421
Hours: Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Second Monday in June through Labor Day
Other times available by appointment