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.
WHERE TO STAY
ARBOR ROSE BED & BREAKFAST—$85-$125. (608) 437-1108 or ArborRoseBandB@aol.com.
OTHALA VALLEY INN B&B—$65-$120. 3192 County Hwy JG, Mt. Horeb. (608) 437-2141 or www.othalavalley.com.
WHERE TO DINE
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 www.grumpytroll.com.
MT. HOREB MAIN STREET PUB AND GRILL—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.
WHAT TO DO
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 www.trollway.com.
LITTLE NORWAY—$8. Open May through October. Cave of the Mounds Road exit from State Highway 18-151. (608) 437-8211 or littlenorway.com.
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 caveofthemounds.com.
MT. HOREB MUSTARD MUSEUM—Open daily. 100 E. Main St. (608) 438-6878 or www.mustardmuseum.com.
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 www.mounthoreb.org/museum.htm.
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 www.tyrolbasin.com.