Miners made their mark in southwest Scratch the surface in southwest Wisconsin, and you'll find treasure.
In the 1820s, it took the form of lead ore that early miners, to their amazement, could find "at the grassroots." Lead and zinc made this area bustle when Milwaukee and Madison were just getting started; one of its smaller villages served as the territory's first capital. Today, visitors find a lode of history just below the surface of a beautiful landscape. Mine tours show what life was like underground; above ground, sturdy brick and stone buildings reflect the prosperity that mines brought.
In Mineral Point, the entire downtown is a national historic district, and stone cottages built by Cornish miners are part of the Wisconsin Historical Society's Pendarvis complex, where costumed guides give daily tours. Merry Christmas Mine was right across Shake Rag Street, named for a mealtime ritual: When women in the cottages below had dinner ready, they'd wave a dish towel to catch the attention of the miner working atop the hill.
"Mineral" first was found at the point where two streams converged. Today, this pastoral spot at the end of Commerce Street is the start of the 47-mile Cheese Country trail and home to a little cluster of inns, restaurants and shops where people like to stroll on warm evenings. One of the two men who restored the Pendarvis cottages was an artist, and artists have migrated to the town over the years, opening shops and studios along its hilly streets.
Mineral Point was the first stop on my mining-country tour. From there, I drove south to Shullsburg, where mining continued until 1979. It has weathered the full cycle: from the scrabbling of the earliest miners, whose "badger holes" inspired Wisconsin's nickname; to mining companies and corporations that pulled up millions of tons of lead and zinc ore; and to the eventual bust caused by drops in demand and new environmental standards.
But Shullsburg was left with a handsome collection of brick storefronts, and now it hopes to emulate another lead-mining town that lined its main street with shops and became a tourist favorite: Galena, just across the border in Illinois. It's a rose-colored vision to match the town's new rose-colored sidewalks, now adorned with old-fashioned lampposts.
From Shullsburg, I drove just out of town to an attraction of longer-standing: Gravity Hill, a spot at the foot of two hills where, sure enough, my car began rolling backward, seemingly uphill, when I put it into neutral.
From there, I headed west past the site of the big Calumet and Hecla mine, the last to close in 1979, and the pile of tailings that marks the Mulcahy Mine, where eight men died in a 1943 cave-in, the worst mining accident in Wisconsin history. The landscape is lumpy here, its rocky skeleton breaking through a thin skin of vegetation. The hills of Illinois rise only 2 miles to the south; that state's official high point is just across the border, near the village of Scales Mound.
In New Diggings, a weathered frame general store/bar and a few houses are almost all that remains of the early boom town. But up the hill, there's one thing more--St. Augustine Church, built in 1844 by Father Samuel Mazzuchelli, who founded 40 parishes and built 17 churches between Mackinac Island and Muscatine, Iowa. This one he built with hammer in hand, notching wood planks to resemble stonework of churches in his native Italy, complete with dentils and moldings.
George Burns, a member of the Mazzuchelli Awareness Campaign who showed me around on my visit last summer, said its existence should count as one of the miracles required for the priest's canonization.
"For it to be still standing, without any alteration, in an isolated place like this--that's a miracle," he says.
(Mazzuchelli's grave is a few miles away in Benton, behind another church he built, this one of stone.)
Rustic Road 66 led me along Coon Branch, a twisting stream in the valley floor, past the tunnel of an old rail line that led to Galena and along the banks of the Fever River (Galena River, in Illinois) to the Kennedy Mine. It's one of three Rustic Roads in the area, all worth driving.
In Platteville, I descended 90 steps into an 1845 lead mine. The mine was rediscovered under a schoolhouse in 1972 and now is part of the Mining Museum, where guides explain what life was like underground.
"The miners had to quit in their 40s," said guide Jackie Johnson, a University of Wisconsin-Platteville history major. "By then, their eyes were bad, their ears were bad, and their knees were bad. They had coughs and, of course, lead poisoning." Life-size mannequins portray the men who toiled by candlelight; one of them is black, representing the slaves who were sent north to work in Wisconsin mines.
Outside, I visited the hoist house, where ore was lifted out of the shaft and sorted, and rode around the grounds behind a 24-gauge locomotive that once pulled 1,500-pound ore cans.
Many similar mines lie under the streets of Platteville, the region's largest town. It's also home to the nation's first mining school, whose students created a 241-foot-tall white "M" on a hill east of town; today, it's part of UW-Platteville.
Along the Mississippi west of Platteville, a pockmarked hillside preserves remnants from even earlier days. Across from St. John Mine in Potosi, a nature trail leads past outcroppings of dolomite and limestone--a sign to early prospectors that lead might be nearby--to two badger huts.
"They had a sod roof, and if it rained one day outside, it rained two or three days inside," said guide Stacy Reynolds. "That's another reason miners were called badgers; they were very irritable. They worked 12 hours a day and went to bars at night. They got the name because they were rough and mean; I'd be that way, too, if I worked in a mine."
Halfway up the opposite hillside, Reynolds leads visitors into the old Snake Cave, where it's said local Indians first showed lead to French explorer Nicolas Perrot around 1690.
In 1836, thanks to lead-mine owner Henry Dodge, the village of Belmont became the first capital of Wisconsin Territory, which included all of present-day Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and part of the Dakotas. Today, that Belmont barely exists (the current town is a few miles away), though the state historical society still preserves the two lodging houses into which 39 legislators squeezed, hammering out a legal and judicial framework in 46 days.
Dodge became the first territorial governor, and Nelson Dewey, who also became a lead-mine owner when he bought St. John Mine, was the first state governor.
The California Gold Rush soon led to the first bust in the lead-boom cycle, siphoning off local miners.
Then the rest of Wisconsin grew up, making the state famous for other things: motorcycles, paper, outboard motors, beer, cheese.
But in this niche of Wisconsin, the landscape still stands testament to those who took the lead.
If you go...
From Chicago, it's about a three-hour drive to Shullsburg, Wis. Take Interstate Highway 90 to Beloit, Wis., then Wisconsin Highway 81 west to Wisconsin Highway 11. Mineral Point is about 45 minutes farther north.
St. John Mine in Potosi. 608-763-2121, www.potosiwisconsin.com/rec.html.
The Mining Museum in Platteville, with the 1845 Bevans Lead Mine. It's at 405 E. Main St., just east of downtown. 608-348-3301, www.mining.jamison.museum/.
In Shullsburg's Badger Park there is the Badger Mine & Museum. 608-965-4860, www.shullsburgwisconsin.org/shullsburgbadgerminemuseum.htm.
In Mineral Point, Pendarvis is open daily May through October. 608-987-2122, www.pendarvis.wisconsinhistory.org.
For Gravity Hill, drive south from Shullsburg on County Road U 2 miles, past Rennick Road. Stop just short of the farm-field gate on the right and put car into neutral. Watch out for other cars.
Mineral Point: 888-764-6894, www.mineralpoint.com.
Shullsburg: 608-965-4424; www.shullsburgwisconsin.org.