Slowing Our Roll in Madison, Wisconsin

After relatively brief stays on our route north, we are starting a pattern of longer visits as we explore our primary summer destinations, Wisconsin and Michigan. We began with eight days in Madison, Wisconsin that included the Independence Day holiday weekend. Having a longer stay (and holiday closures) meant we had time for errands, reading, and some hikes, instead of spending every moment racing to the top attractions in the area.

State Capitol and History Museum

This is our fourth state capital of the trip and true to form we took the free tour to learn more about yet another impressive Capitol building. Since we were the only people who turned up at 9 am, we enjoyed a private tour with a friendly guide. This Beaux-Arts style edifice is yet another gorgeous public building, with a soaring dome and rich details everywhere you look. The governor’s conference room is based on meeting rooms in the Doge’s Palace in Venice and is a masterpiece of decorative detail and murals. The house and senate chambers feature huge art glass ceilings that both illuminate and beautify the space.



I particularly liked the Kenyon Cox glass mosaics below the dome and the frequent use of badgers throughout the decorations. I also liked the fact that six of the seven members of Wisconsin’s Supreme Court are women. Another interesting feature of this capitol is that visitors can climb up to the base of the dome to enjoy an outside observation deck with views of the surrounding city, and also see displays set up inside the wall of the dome itself about the process of constructing and restoring the building.

We followed this up by visiting the Wisconsin Historical Museum across the street. The museum was about average for destinations of this sort, and it was helpful to us to find out more about the state where we’ll be spending almost a month. We learned at our last stop in Springfield that Illinois became a state in 1818. Meanwhile Wisconsin, its immediate neighbor to the north, was still very much a frontier at that point. In 1820 there was no recognized land ownership by any Europeans anywhere in Wisconsin; all the inhabitants were Native Americans, French Canadian fur traders who lived among them, or a few people living on lands leased from the federal government. In the 1820s and 1830s the federal government “negotiated” with the Native Americans to “buy” the vast majority of their lands and corral them in small corners of their ancestral lands. Some of the areas were designated as new homelands for tribes from the east, especially members of the Iroquois Confederacy, that were being pushed west. That’s how Mohican, Oneida, Pequot, and other tribes came to live here alongside the Menominee, Ojibwe (Chippewa), Potawatomi, and Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) inhabitants.



The vast majority of the land “purchased” by the federal government was sold to settlers, predominantly immigrants from Europe who flooded the territory in the 1830s and 1840s. In 1880, 72% of the state’s residents were either foreign born or the children of immigrants, the highest percentage in the country. The museum highlights the immigrant experience before jumping into explanations of advances in transportation and the types of industries that soon developed. Initially the settlers were engaged primarily in natural resource extraction — lead mining and logging — with some wheat farming in the prairies of southern Wisconsin. These didn’t last long, however, as mines soon ran dry, old growth trees near rivers were rapidly eliminated, and the relatively poor soils were exhausted by wheat farming. At this point Wisconsin started to focus on the things for which it became famous. Forests were replanted with fast-growing species to support a huge paper industry, and farmland was converted to pasture for dairy cows.



The museum covers modern social history of the state with special attention to the strong progressive movement of the early 20th century. Under the leadership of people like Robert La Follette, Wisconsin became the first state with an income tax, the first state with workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance, the first state with statewide open primary elections (to curtail the power of party bosses), and the first state to ratify the 19th amendment for women’s suffrage. And of course there is plenty of information about Wisconsin’s strong union history and iconic products like Harley Davidson. This visit prepared us well for the coming weeks.

Gardens Galore

Madison has an extensive systems of parks, greenways, and gardens, and we visited several during our stay. The most traditional botanical garden was the lovely Olbrich Botanical Garden. Despite occupying just 16 acres, the garden is absolutely packed with a variety of plants and sculptures. High hedges dividing different sections and narrow pathways that disappear into the densely planted garden make the place seem quite large and are just perfect for losing track of a spouse.



While normally we are not overly impressed with conservatories — we can see orchids and palm trees at home — the Olbrich conservatory had some really interesting specimens of ginger, heliconia, and other tropical plants. The garden also features the only authentic Thai pavilion in any US garden, fabricated in Thailand as a gift from UW alumni and reconstructed on site using only traditional building techniques (i.e., no nails). I was most impressed by the garden’s extensive and creative use of containers to bring a variety of textures and colors into the garden.



We enjoyed seeing such a lush, attractive garden in a place with extremely unforgiving winters. This is zone 5, where the plants in the ground have to survive temperatures as low as -20 degrees F! I’m sure moving all those containers into greenhouses for the winter is no easy task but the summer season shows the value of that work.

We had a completely different experience over at the UW Arboretum on the south side of town. This property covers 1,200 acres and has two distinct formal gardens of permanent plantings. The Wisconsin Native Plant Garden is exactly what it sounds like, while the Longnecker Horticultural Garden demonstrates plants from around the world that are suitable for Wisconsin’s climate. The collections of lilacs, magnolias, and conifers are particularly popular and well-recognized. But we thought the real highlight of the Arboretum was the less manicured part of the property. More on that below.



Chazen Museum and UW Campus

College towns tend to have great museums along with a vibrant social and culinary scene, and Madison is no exception. One relatively hot day we visited the Chazen Museum of Art on the UW campus and spent several lovely hours taking in the collection. It’s a perfect survey collection that would be a tremendous asset to any art history class, with pieces ranging from ancient times to modern and covering virtually all major periods and styles. We particularly liked that the museum had works in many media, including Roman mosaics, Greek urns, European metalwork, Asian pottery, furniture from many periods, and contemporary glass pieces. Not surprisingly, the museum’s strengths were works by Midwestern artists and 20th century artists. One standout collection was a series of 20th century Soviet realist paintings acquired by a Stalin-era U.S. ambassador who later donated the art to the Chazen. A high quality, comprehensive collection together with interesting rotating exhibits make this free public museum a marvelous addition to the community.



After visiting the museum we wandered around the UW campus for a bit, enjoying the eclectic architecture, before meeting up with friends Eric and Laurel on the terrace of the Student Union overlooking Lake Mendota. It was hot, the local beer and ice cream were very welcome, and catching up with friends was even better. Because great minds obviously think alike in trip planning, we’ll see those guys again in Duluth.


Ken picked up new pair of hiking shoes at the REI in town — we are now an all-Merrell family — and he had a few opportunities to break them in on the trails at the state park where we camped as well as at the arboretum. Lake Kegonsa State Park is not large and its trails are short, but they do cover several different environments: deep woods, prairie, and lakefront. We always love having opportunities for walks right outside our door so we explored various sections of the park over several days.


During our visit to the UW Arboretum, after leaving the formal gardens we explored some of the very extensive trail network that runs through a variety of different ecological communities: deciduous forest, coniferous forest, prairie, and wetland. We traversed about 5 miles and enjoyed seeing the variety of environments as well as deer, turkey, sandhill cranes, and many other types of birds.



We barely scratched the surface of the many parks in town. The fact that all these green spaces exist in the city is a testament to the vision of Madison’s early city planners. The idea of preserving the Arboretum as open space for use by the public and by wildlife was proposed in the 1920s and came to fruition the following decade thanks to low land prices in the Depression. The university’s horticultural director made a good idea even better by setting about restoring natural habitats like the prairies and savannas that had all but disappeared from southern Wisconsin. With the help of CCC workers, the university began the process of resuscitating exhausted farmland and turning it into the marvelous showplace and sanctuary that it is today. It is both a research center and a lovely way to bring nature into an urban environment. And people here definitely take advantage of the outdoors! In our travels around the city we saw tons of people biking, walking, sculling on the lakes, and otherwise making good use of the outdoor amenities. There is a very youthful, active vibe all around town, which makes sense for a college town.

Food and Drink

It’s a good thing we did some hiking, because I promised Ken that we would be consuming beer, brats, and cheese in Wisconsin. And I keep my promises, especially when it comes to delicious foods. To get some local goodies, we made sure to visit the huge Dane County Farmers Market that takes place Wednesdays and Saturdays on the square surrounding the Capitol. The market claims to be the largest producer-only market in the country, and I believe it. This market has been operating since the 1970s so it’s not exactly a secret. The hundreds of vendors and their fresh wares — mostly vegetables, meats, eggs, cheese, and cut flowers, but also baked goods, honey, soaps, and more — attract an enormous crowd to the Capitol Square.  The authenticity is really appealing; most signs are hand-lettered and vendors selling items in coolers like eggs and meat decorate their tables with photos of their farms and livestock. The endless crowd was a bit dizzying, but we still managed to snag some marvelous local products.


I also had it on good authority that no visit to Madison is complete without a stop at Culver’s, a regional burger chain founded in nearby Sauk City. We tried their signature butterburgers (hamburgers on buttered buns) and fried cheese curds; but after all that cheese I couldn’t even think about having a frozen custard for dessert. We’ll have other chances to try this regional treat while in Wisconsin.


And we didn’t forget about our long-standing commitment to try local beer, although we were a little intimidated when we visited Total Wine and saw that the “Wisconsin Craft Beer” section was an entire aisle. I doubt we’ll be able to sample them all, but that won’t stop us from trying. Here in Madison we started by checking out the beer at Great Dane Pub and Brewing Company, the oldest microbrewery in Madison (est. 1994). The porter, stout, and scotch ale were all outstanding. We also really enjoyed the canned beer from Madison’s Delta Beer Lab that we purchased at Total Wine. I hope it’s a sign of great beer experiences ahead.



Where We Stayed

Our campsite was at Lake Kegonsa State Park, a relatively small state park located about 15 miles southeast of downtown. The campground is very heavily wooded, giving us plenty of shade and privacy. Perfect! The dense forest around us was a haven for wildlife, and we were overrun by rodents (the cute kind): squirrels and chipmunks. We also had constant chatter from birds in the trees, including cardinals, robins, and many unfamiliar species that had us scrambling for our bird book. Of course all these critters were too busy foraging during the short summer season to pose for photos for me.

A very nice campsite

Our one complaint about the park is the terrible showers. We hate those campground showers with the timed push-button control, and even more so when the duration of the water flow from each push is a whopping 9 seconds (not kidding; I timed it). We discovered through trial and error that one of the three showers in each bathroom had much longer duration (55 seconds! yes, I timed it). So we spent our entire visit angling to take a shower at a time we could get the good showers, which was not easy on a busy holiday weekend. Life on the road has some drawbacks.

Next: We head to Sheboygan to catch our first glimpse of Lake Michigan.


12 thoughts on “Slowing Our Roll in Madison, Wisconsin”

    • So we had not considered either duct tape or a bungee-cord contraption, which I guess shows that you are a better problem-solver than we are. That being said, time spent analyzing and timing shower lengths is NEVER wasted time. #mydadisanengineer

  1. I’ll see your duct tape suggestion and raise you: super glue.

    Alright, alright, it’s not an environmentally sound solution, but perhaps they should think about that when designing terrible showers. Jeez.

    Seriously, these local visitor bureaus should hire you to write up their “how to spend a weekend in…” pages on their websites. You guys are masters at finding the good stuff and really getting a taste of all the options in a given spot – history, architecture, art, food, booze, gardens, hiking… y’all do it all!!!

    Looks like a great stop!

    • While I can’t endorse super glue, I have another idea for reducing water use: just get low-flow shower heads. And let people turn them on and off at will! It would probably be a better environmental solution than the timed showers that give users so little control.

      Anyway, I’m glad you think we are good tour guides, even if it takes us a week to do all the things that normal people might do in a weekend. 🙂 We are definitely enjoying the diversity of activities in these Midwestern cities.

  2. Your history of WI mirrors my dad’s family history in MI. Son of Irish immigrants he grew up in Kalamazoo, a paper mill town. His father frequently hired local Potowami indians to help at his farm. I own a little berry basket made by the wife of one of the last Potowami chiefs. Hard to believe it was all wilderness just a few generations ago.
    Thanks for sharing your stories!

    • I was surprised to find out that Wisconsin’s history of European settlement is so new, but it definitely helps explain why there are such strong ethnic vibes here — especially the German beer and sausages! But you already knew that from your own family history. I really believe the best part about travel is learning new things about our own country.

  3. Took me a minute here in the wilds of Wisconsin to get internet good enough to read your post and see your photos. As always, you do a remarkable job of writing about and photographing your travels. I agree with Laura, the local visitors’ bureaus should hire you to write travel guides. You provide such great information, and you write with personality. I can hear you talking when I’m reading your posts!

    As you know, we love Madison. It’s such a cool town (doesn’t really even seem like a city) with all of the things we enjoy about civilized life. Art! Gardens! Great food! All of the things that do not really exist on the Forgotten Coast. The one thing we didn’t do was visit the state museum, and I regret it after reading your post. Then again, you provided enough information for me—distilled down to the most interesting aspects—so that I feel like I was there.

    It was fun meeting up with you two on the terrace overlooking the lake. Looking forward to seeing you in Duluth…where hopefully, we will enjoy a happy hour together that is not so danged hot and humid.

    • We had a great time in Madison, thanks to mainly copying what you did on your prior visits. Madison really has a lot to offer, and yet the downtown area is compact, walkable, and very human-scale. The restaurants, breweries, art galleries, other museums, and extensive park system are all so attractive. I could definitely see it being the sort of place where people come for university and never leave.

      Looking forward to seeing you in Duluth!

  4. Farmers markets, botanical gardens, pretty trails, and fried cheese!! You got more bang for your buck with all the museums, etc., but those first four would be plenty for us. I am cataloging garden display ideas, so keep those coming. Can’t wait till you get to the north coast!

    • I agree with you that those first four things make for a pretty high quality of life. We’re so relieved to be enjoying nice weather, time for outdoor activities, and good food — this summer is turning into success after the hot, hot start. I’m sure we’ll be even more impressed as we head further north.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.