A Tour of Portage County
Don’t expect to find Portage in Portage County. It’s not there. Do expect to find more of interest than vast stretches of sparsely populated land would seem to offer. Wisconsin "Week-End" leads the way on a discovery tour of our state’s heartland in this Silver Anniversary reprint by Lee Hill, updated by Sandi Moore.
Where else would you find lakes named Glisezinski, Jacowski and Kranski? Where else are there fences that weigh tons, a river called Tomorrow, and a mailman who married a princess? Where but in Portage County, heartland of central Wisconsin.
To most tourists, hurrying through on their way to northern Wisconsin, Portage County appears to be a place of pine trees, marshes, rivers and rocks, and not much else except Stevens Point, the college town of 23,000 persons which U.S. 51 by-passes.
But, taking a leisurely ramble through the county on the first warm day of spring, we discovered its hidden charms - and they are plentiful.
You might start a tour, as we did, in Plover at the intersection of two of the state’s major routes - east-west Highway 54 and north-south Business 51. At Plover, the home of Ore-Ida, Del Monte and American Potato Co. plants, you are just about in the center of Wisconsin as well as in the center of Portage County. Plover is named for the long-billed, long-legged bird which can be seen on Wisconsin mud flats and beaches in spring and fall.
Plover was once a bustling lumber camp with hopes of becoming a metropolis. Settled in 1846, it became the county seat, courthouse and all, but lost out to its larger neighbor, Stevens Point, shortly after the Civil War.
Driving north on Business 51, you pass McDill Pond in Whiting, a popular fishing spot. It’s hard to tell when you leave suburbs and enter Stevens Point. You’ll know you're there for sure, though, when you look up to your right after passing through a viaduct to see a Soo Line engine, coal car and a red caboose on display. They’ve been preserved for future generations in this area which has been so dependent on rail transportation.
Stevens Point, the home of Gov. Lee Dreyfus, consists of a sprawling residential area with tree-lined streets, a small college campus, a quaint downtown business district, a commercial strip loaded with fast-food establishments, and all the other components of an average community its size. Stevens Point is not average, however, as you will soon discover.
Heading north on Business 51, you are approaching the campus of the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point. Turn right on Fourth Street, go to the first stop sign, then turn right again. You’ll find metered parking lots on the second street on your left and on the first street on your right. The tall building across from both lots, with ramps leading up to the front entrance, is the Albertson Learning Center, home of the Museum of Natural History. Open seven days a week and carrying no admission charge, the museum features animal, fish, rock and Indian displays.
Once inside you will be confronted by a mammoth brown bear, said to be the largest flesh-eating animal on earth; a black bear in a native forest setting; a huge Blue Marlin sailfish; several eagles and a timber wolf - all stuffed, of course. The most surprising exhibit is the skeleton of an allosauros, a carnivorous dinosaur that roamed the western United States 140 million years ago.
Return to Business 51. If you want to continue to the north end of it you’ll see the impressive headquarters of Sentry Insurance Co. and the state’s largest Holiday Inn. But taking Business 51 back south, turn right onto Main Street. As you head downtown you’ll come across the most famous house in the city, popularly known as “the castle”. It’s the Kuhl-Gurath residence, a Victorian era house with a mansard roof, ornate ironwork, decorated twin towers with parapets, and 52 tall, skinny windows and doors on the exterior. The color scheme is red, orange, green and yellow but it’s impressive rather than gaudy. The structure was built in 1886 at a cost of $10,000 It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Stevens Point’s downtown district has maintained much of its charm with interesting brickwork on the old buildings. Antique and gift shops dot the area.
THE MARKET SQUARE
The most interesting spot in town is the public square at Main and Second streets. Originally an open-air market paved with red bricks and edged with taverns, grocery stores and harness shops, the market took on a new look early in this century when cars replaced horses. It underwent more change in 1957 when the city covered the old bricks with blacktop and installed parking meters.
The square still has a certain old world charm. From mid-May to late October or early November, farmers from throughout central Wisconsin gather here from sunrise to sunset every day but Sunday to peddle produce and plants. The goods are offered at reasonable prices but there’s still room for bargaining, just as in the open air markets of Spain or France. Peppers, tomatoes, gourds, corn, bittersweet, roses and carnations are among the numerous offerings, depending on the season.
Round the square are bars with such varied names as Grin and Beer It, The Square Bar, Upper Wisconsin River Yacht Club, Joe’s, Big Moon Saloon, Little Brown Jug, and Elbow Room. Typically, they have long, slender bars and are housed in narrow buildings. They all seem to feature Point Special Beer, the local brew which is produced a few blocks away on Water Street.
Decorating the brown, red, green or gray exteriors of the many brick buildings on the square are vivid paintings of roosters, hex signs, flowers and other designs. The most eye-catching is ‘Polskie Wesele” or Polish Wedding’’ which features dancers in a rainbow of colors. It is painted on the side of a surplus store, an example of Polish architecture with its bright yellow domes.
The square is the location of the annual "Art on the Square” arts and crafts show which takes place in late September or early October.
This month there’s another popular event, the Downtown Business Association’s rummage sale and flea market which will be held on Saturday, May 19, from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. Last year’s event attracted nearly 10,000 people.
Leaving the square you’ll come to the Chamber of Commerce building where you can get both information and an excellent view of the Wisconsin River. A stone marker indicates the landing place, in 1839, of George A. Stevens for whom the city is named. A trade center built up at this point, a common resting place for the lumbermen of that era on their grueling journey from Mosinee to Wisconsin Rapids.
For more river views continue west on Highway 10 and rake the first left beyond the bridge onto West River Drive. It’s a beautiful drive along the Wisconsin River where wooded isles are reflected in the water and where picnic sites invite you to stop.
You will see a black iron railing surrounding a tombstone and grave on your left. The marker bears the name of Isaac Ferris, a river pilot who died Dec. 12, 1862, but leaves us to guess whether he died in a house on this site or lost his life in the cold, swirling waters on a winter day.
Just beyond this site, Al Tech Park overflows a spillway, roaring white rapids and a small rock islet. The county has provided a fenced, concrete platform so that you can get the best possible view over the turbulent waters. There is also a handrail to aid those who want to venture a closer look from the river’s edge. Take care.
Backtracking along West River Drive, return to Highway 10, turn left, and head northwestward to Junction City. You might see a red and white candy-striped Soo Line engine pulling a lengthy train and you’ll catch several glimpses of the Wisconsin River off to your right. The route passes a public boat landing on Lake DuBay.
THE CITY THAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN
Junction City is not really a city, although it might have been if things had worked out. It took its name from the crossing of two railroad lines. There’s not much of a downtownalthough you may enjoy the twin churches on the east end and the faded yellow depot on the west side of town.
One day in 1893 a Junction City woman took some dark stones from her cellar and used them to blacken her kitchen range. The mineral turned out to be graphite. Frank Taggart, who had mined for gold in Central America, heard about it and promptly organized a couple of graphite mining companies. Hopes ran high.
Plumbers used the material as pipe joint cement and a paint company used it as a base. But graphite of better quality was being imported from Mexico. After several years both the Pioneer Mine and the Wisconsin Graphite Company closed down.
The mine shafts were abandoned. A tornado destroyed the Pioneer Mine buildings in 1908. The site is on County Road G about a mile north of town.
Rock collector may be interested to know that, in addition to graphite, Portage County contains red granite; rhyolite, formed 1 1/2 billion years ago from lava, gneiss, which has a marble cake appearance; and boulders of many sizes and shapes. In fact boulders from the glacial era along Mill Creek in the western part of the county are said to be the oldest known rocks in the state.
When graphite hunters and the rest of the family decide to move on, backtrack through Junction City along Highway 10 to Highway 34. Turn left and follow 34 almost to the north end of the county where a right turn on County Road S will bring you to DuBay Park. The distance on E is only two miles but watch those sharp curves.
DuBay is a pleasant park featuring a dense forest of tall pines and a sunny stretch of beach along the waterfront. From this vantage point it’s hard to believe that the Wisconsin is the world’s hardest-working river. It’s just too relaxing. You can camp overnight here for $3 or $4 if you want electricity. (The rate is the same at the three other county parks offering overnight camping - Collins, Jordan and Lake Emily.) The park also offers fishing, boating, a playground, swimming, ball fields, picnic tables, fire-places and a shelter house. Portage County abounds in attractive parks. There are 19 county parks and many others within the communities.
There’s no way to get across the shimmering waters of Lake DuBay at this point so you’ll have to retrace your route on S to 34, then follow it north through Dancy. Along the way you’ll come across the Knowlton Bridge, built in 1894 for horse and buggy traffic. It’s a unique structure, offering one lane each for cars and railroad trains.
The bridge takes you to Knowlton in Marathon County where there is an official marker telling about the American Fur Co. trading post established in 1834 by John Baptiste DuBay. The site chosen by DuBay was an important fording place on the river, much used by the Indians. It was also well known to white men. Dubay's own father spent a winterthere as early as 1790. The marker is not on the actual site. The place of the old trading post now lies under the waters of Lake DuBay, formed when a dam was erected in 1942, creating the largest lake in that part of Wisconsin.
John DuBay was married to Princess Madeline, daughter of Chief Oshkosh, leader of the Menominees. If his wife gloried in the title of Princess, DuBay reveled in the title of Prince for he was known as ‘‘the prince of mail carriers.’’ He pioneered the first post-routes in central and northern Wisconsin.
Here we should point out that, if you plan to make this tour sometime this summer, there’s a good chance you won’t be able to take the easy route to Knowlton. A contract has been awarded for the construction of a new bridge across the Wisconsin. Traffic will be detoured. Because of this factor, we’ll pick up our Portage County tour back at Junction City, returning along Highway 10 toward the eastern half of the county.
TO POINT AND POTATOES
As you drive through Stevens Point on Highway 10 East, look for Iverson Park where “Art in the Park” is held in September. Featuring the works of local artists and craftsmen, along with wandering minstrels and other entertainers, it is one of the city’s favorite events.
Just before crossing Highway 51 you’ll see a frontage road on your left. If you’d like to pick up a needlecraft kit, here’s the place to do it. The catalog showroom of Herrschner’s, Inc. is about a mile down the road.
Continuing east on 10 you’ll come to County Road J several miles out of town. Take J, south to Arnott, then head east on County B.
Follow signs to Standing Rocks Park on Bear Lake. Though it has only two “standing rocks” it’s a pleasant place to swim, hike, fish or have a picnic. It’s used in wintertime for cross-country and downhill skiing.
Take Standing Rocks road east from the park to County Road K and go south on it until you hit County D. Take D west to County EE and stay on that road for several miles until you come to County A. Turn right on A and follow it to Almond.
Potato warehouses dominate much of his community which holds an annual summer festivity known as the Tater Toot. Besides potatoes, Almond's claim to fame is the number of irrigation rigs it utilizes, per capita. While the sandy soil produces a healthy crop it also drains rapidly and needs extensive watering. Almond has an unusual stone-terraced hillside cemetery and a Lutheran church with a unique bell tower, four tall posts with a sunbonnet hood to protect the bell.
Take County A north from Almond until you meet D at the four corners in Blaine. If you’re ready for another side trip, take D east to Hartman’s Creek State Park which lies in both Portage and Waupaca counties. The site of a former fish hatchery, the park features excellent fishing and swimming. You can picnic, hike in the woods along paths or old logging trails, or just relax. Tall Norway pines border the area.
Returning via County D to Blaine, take County A northeastward to Amherst. Be careful on the roads around Blaine. There is a large Amish population in the area and you never know if you’ll round a corner and come upon a horse-drawn buggy.
Amherst is the home of a 122-year-old mill and of the venerable Amherst Motel. You might think Amherst was named for Amherst College. It wasn't. It was named for the town in Nova Scotia which was named for the English soldier whose name was given to Amherst College.
The old mill, which hugs the banks of the Tomorrow River has been covered with aluminum siding, concealing its original red and white pine exterior. It was the start of the village and also the first location in Amherst to have electricity. Although the mill doesn’t look the same as in days gone by, nothing has spoiled its picturesque millrace.
There are many white houses in Amherst but the most notable is the structure now known as the Amherst Motel. Built in 1877, the old landmark is up for sale.
Leave town heading west on County B, then west on Highway 10 toward Amherst Junction. As you pull onto 10 you are just blocks from the county fairgrounds (east of B, south of 10). This year’s fair will be held July 19 to 22.
As you approach Amherst Junction a building on the left can’t help but attract your attention. It’s the ‘Happy Worm” farm! Amherst Junction, like Junction City, took its name from the crossing of two important railroads. It has a small downtown area with quaint post office.
Return to Highway 10 head west the short distance to Lake Emily County Park. The park offers the same recreational activities DuBay park does but it has something extra - Indian burial mounds.
A RIVER CALLED TOMORROW
Back on Highway 10, take a short drive east and turn north on County Road SS to Nelsonville. Named for Jerome Nelson, who expanded a beaver darn in 1855 so that he could open a sawmill, Nelsonville is dominated by the Tomorrow River.
There is a belief that the river gets its name from the Indians who, upon reaching this river, would say “Tomorrow we reach the father of waters.” By father of waters they meant the Wisconsin, not the Mississippi.
Rather than return to Highway 10, you'll now head into another section of the county. Take Route 161 east from Nelsonville, then turn north onto County A toward Rosholt. When you reach County MM you might want to sidetrack a short distance eastward to Sunset Lake Park, another nice place to visit. There is no camping but it does have most of the other amenities.
While you’re on County MM, you also might want to stop at the Central Wisconsin Environmental Center and walk the “Web of Life’ nature trail.
As you continue north on County A, you’ll pass white silos standing alone in fields like ivory towers. Eventually you’ll arrive at the four corners in Alban, where you should turn left onto Highway 66 toward Rosholt - unless you're in the mood for another digression, in which case you can go another mile north and visit the Wisconsin Lions’ Camp.
When you get to Rosholt turn onto Main Street and follow it north through the business district and up a rise to a pine covered area known as Hill Park. This is an unusual park for a town the size of Rosholt. The site was donated by John Gilbert Rosholt who helped build the community into a great logging area.
The park contains several buildings used for the Rosholt Community Free Fair, held every Labor Day weekend. A log cabin, barn, and old schoolhouse in the park are used as a pioneer museum, surrounded by a fence rails split in 1885. They’re open for the weekend of the fair. Pioneer photographs, farm and lumbering tools, guns and household articles are displayed.
The museum also features one of the last giant logs from the white pine forests which were once the glory of the state. You'll see lofty pines all over Portage County and the rest of central and northern Wisconsin but they are small compared to their ancestors. Logging is still a big industry in this section of the state. Don’t be surprised if you encounter at least one logging truck some time on this journey.
At the foot of Hill Park stands a marker beside a little waterfall on Flume Creek as it leaves the Rosholt millpond. Like Nelsonville, Rosholt got its start from a beaver dam which was expanded by an early settler who built a grist mill in 1864. This later became a sawmill and the community began to grow.
Leave Rosholt now and head south-west on Highway 66. Along this route the land is reminiscent of the kettle moraine of southeastern Wisconsin, with rolling, wooded knolls and bowl shaped valleys. Many hold round ponds, like water in a cup.
A short distance out of Rosholt is County I which leads to Collins Park. Like the others mentioned it has all the facilities, including camping.
Continuing on Highway 66 you’ll see a rocky landscape. Gigantic boulders, some of which must weigh tons, have been dragged from the fields and deposited in fencerows. These stone fences remind one of New England. After more than a century of farming, this stubborn land must continue to harass farmers. In spring large rocks lie on the surface of fields which were plowed last fall. They make hard work for many a farmer before he can plant this year’s crops.
PLACE OF THE POLES
Soon you’ll arrive at the turnoff to Polonia, also known as Little Poland or The Place of the Poles. Except for a colony in Texas, Polonia is the earliest settlement of Poles it the United States. Their coming here in 1857 accounts for the fact that such a large percentage of the county's population’ is of Polish descent. If you don’t believe it, look in the phone book. A quick look at the tombstones in the town cemetery also leaves no doubt that this is a Polish area.
“Gwiazda Polarna,” a weekly Polish language newspaper, is still published in Stevens Point. That community once had the largest concentration of Poles in the world other than in Warsaw and Chicago. When a visitor asked a Stevens Point hotel clerk, “What is the population of the city?", the answer was “Polish!”
The little community of Polonia is dominated by an enormous brick church, built in 1934 at a cost of $75,000 and said to be one of the largest rural churches in Wisconsin. Sacred Heart Church, run by the Felician Sisters, an order based in Poland, can seat 1,200. For many years sermons were preached in the Polish language. Saints Casimir and Hedwig look down from stained glass windows. Farm buildings spread eastward from the church.
The special delight of Polonia, aside from its ethnic flavor, is to be found at the farm end of the church property. Surrounding the church’s barnyard and stone barn is a high stone wall, probably the most unusual and handsome wall anywhere in Wisconsin. It is made entirely of cobblestones, the many-colored stones native to the region, and the top of the wall is scalloped. We didn’t measure the distance but this wall must be a block long. By contrast, the lower wall is made entirely of tiny cobbles.
A PARK THAT HAS EVERYTHING
After seeing Polonia, return to Highway 66 and head west toward Steven’s Point. You'll pass through Ellis, known as Poland Corners in we 1860’s.
A few miles farther is Jordan County Park, north and south, named after an old logging community. This park has virtually everything. There is a retired hydroelectric dam, a historical marker, benches on the banks of the Plover for use while relaxing or fishing, a great place to start a canoe trip to McDill Pond in Plover, nature and bike trails, an old schoolhouse convened into a nature center (open from Memorial Day to Labor Day), and animals.
There is a deer yard where visitors can get a close look at whitetail and fallow deer. In the next set of pens are sandhill cranes. Across the road, in a small holding pond, are beautiful ducks and swans.
Jordan Park also offers swimming, boating, excellent fishing, picnic sites and grills, a sheltered pavilion and camping. But there’s even more. The park is on the site of archaeological digs which resulted in the unearthing of 5,000-year-old tools and pottery.
As your trip draws to a close, going westward on Highway 66 towards Stevens Point, you’ll pass the municipal airport where the Jaycees’ traditional Fourth of July celebration will be held this year from July 5 to 8.
Highway 51, just a few yards west of the airport, marks an excellent place to bring this county tour to an end. Here you’ll encounter all those speeding cars and trucks, bound for other places. All that most of these motorists will see of Portage County is a blur of pines and waters, fields and marshes. Think of what they’re missing!
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