Galena and Mineral Point

We don’t have the dough for a big vacation this summer, so we’re spending time doing what we love: exploring the Midwest.

We just got back from a long weekend in Galena, Illinois and Mineral Point, Wisconsin. Both towns are in the Driftless region of the Midwest, an area (primarily Wisconsin, though it also includes a bit of Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota) that is known for its natural beauty and unique topography. The landscape  is a result of it having been untouched by glaciers when they were last moving over much of the rest of the region. The material (silt, sand, gravel, boulders) that glaciers leave behind is called drift, so the region is driftless.

Despite having spent almost all of my life in the Midwest, I had never been to this particular corner of it and was overwhelmed by how beautiful it is. A rolling agrarian landscape dotted with farmhouses and cows and sheep. Ridges and river valleys. It reminded me of central England, and at times even of Iceland.

We started our adventure in Galena, a 19th century (former) port town that has been beautifully preserved. At one time the Galena surpassed Chicago in population and importance, but now the river that once brought steamboats and trade to Galena is reduced to a stream. The former glory of the city is evident everywhere, and in fact the town seems to be experiencing a bit of a new kind of glory. The charming curved main street that followed the form of the river has now been turned over to tourists, which means it is mostly fudge shops and places that sell flavored olive oil or hand-painted signs that say “Live, Laugh, Love” or something. Businesses seem to be booming judging from the lack of vacant storefronts on main street. I might not go to Galena for the shopping, but the beauty of its natural landscape and well-preserved architecture has me eager to return.

We stayed at the Aldrich Guest House, which I can’t recommend highly enough. I am generally wary of bed and breakfasts (especially in the Midwest!) for a variety of reasons. Often they are so visually offensive to me that the deal is broken on first glance. The faux Victorian fantasyland style (doilies on every surface!) that most of them have adopted bums me out. Also, they tend to be in rural locations and as a gay couple, you gotta be careful. Anyway, the Aldrich is owned by a friendly young couple who picked up their hospitality training in Chicago. Which means you get private bathrooms, individual temperature controls, and a truly delicious breakfast. The owners are super knowledgeable about the area and about the beautiful home they renovated and decorated in a way that manages to satisfy both me, and people who are harboring those Victorian fantasies.Judging from the group staying there when we were, the place seems to attract an interesting, friendly, and eclectic group of people. Also, Abraham Lincoln stayed in the home, which I really loved learning, especially having recently read the beautiful Lincoln in the Bardo.

In Galena, we had a meal we liked at Log Cabin Steakhouse, a Greek steakhouse that opened in 1937 on the main drag. Service was charming, food was satisfying, and the space was cozy. I look forward to returning. We also had some bad meals in Galena (though always friendly), so I guess you gotta be careful or do better research than we did.

After a night in Galena, we drove up to Mineral Point, Wisconsin, a small town in the southwestern part of the state known for its art scene. The main street is full of galleries, art studios, and antique stores—there is even an art school in town. I was totally charmed by Mineral Point. It is one of the friendliest places I have been. The kind of place where everyone makes eye contact with you and says hello. By our second day we were already running into locals we’d met the day before and catching up with them. We stayed in a beautiful 19th century cottage that had been thoughtfully updated and was super comfortable, it is also highly recommended. My favorite shops in town were Mayday press, a super hip print/graphic design studio that sells its well-designed line of paper products. I liked The Foundry Books, which specializes in “Haiku plus Wisconsin & Western Great Lakes Rare, Out-of-Print Books, Maps & Materials”. I also genuinely enjoyed all of the ceramic studios and galleries we visited. I came home with three new pieces of pottery that I really love. We had some great meals in town, including satisfying pub food at Brewery Creek and solid wood-fired pizza at Popolo. We spent a nice evening drinking wine and listening to music with locals at Esperanza, a recently opened wine bar. And I liked the good vibes at Cafe 43, a coffee shop in town that was gearing up for an upcoming Pride celebration. The Mineral Point Farmers Market which takes place on Saturday mornings in a local park was great, and we scored some pretty stellar local grains from Meadowlark Organics.

Mineral Point is also a good central location for exploring more of the Driftless region. We spent some time in Spring Green, where I loved Arcadia Books, which is a stellar bookshop and cafe. And then, of course, there is the famous (infamous?) House on the Rock which kind of needs to be seen to be believed (but I think the photo below gives you a sense). Unlike anything I have ever seen. I loved it.

On the way home we stopped in New Glarus and had one of the best breakfasts in recent memory at Cow & Quince. Perfect in every way. I also picked up some nut horns at New Glarus Bakery, which is a place I have grown to love over the years. It is an old fashioned bakery making quality products. Those nut horns are so good.

It was a great weekend. I always come home from trips like this glad that I live in the Midwest. It really is best.

But wait! I almost forgot the best part:

Somewhere near Dodgeville, Wisconsin, in the middle of farmland, I discovered my favorite cheeseburger, possibly ever, at the Pleasant Ridge Store. I can’t stop talking and thinking about it. The simplest thing really: some good beef, maybe with a sprinkling of seasoning salt, a hearty amount of Wisconsin cheese and a grocery store bun with sesame seeds. No toppings. No condiments. Perfection. It is a burger I will be dreaming of until I am lucky enough to return.


15 comments to “Galena and Mineral Point”

  1. We grew up in Madison, and live in Kansas City, so we are always driving past Mineral Point when we go home to visit. Sounds as if we’d better get off 151 one of these days and spend some time there!

  2. You make the Midwest look so dreamy! Especially that shot of the trees at dusk, which captures Midwestern summer nights spot on.

    Can’t believe I’ve never heard of Mineral Point before but I’ll be adding it to the list. Another hidden gem is Southern Illinois. It takes forever to get there but Jackson Falls and the neighboring towns full of little wineries are my favorite places to go back to.

  3. Kristin- Do it!
    Sally- Thanks for the tip on Jackson Falls, will add it to our list.

  4. (hey… I’m Sally! How many of us can there be!?!)

    Anyway, thanks for blogging – I love your voice, and only regret that I don’t “hear” it more.

  5. Sally (Best name! I hope people call you Sal, which is my fav nickname ever)- I am going to try to be better. I always intend to write more often and then life happens and time passes. But I am trying, so thanks for the encouragement.

  6. Tim! This post made me feel like I had just opened a handwritten letter. I must get out that way! x

  7. I love your travelogues, in particular. You make me want to get to these places even if I doubt I ever will. Have no idea what a nut horn is but I want some and the idea of a simply made, great hamburger that still haunts you upon your return makes me feel like we could be kindred spirits.

  8. I just moved to Madison six months ago and I’m always looking for more places to explore in this area. I just put so many places on my list to visit!

  9. I have followed your blog and read your posts for the last few years. Very quietly, I must say.

    But I had to comment, because I recently bought a waffle-maker (my first) and for my first try, I made your coffee waffles. They turned out beautifully and made me cry a little. It reminded me of the time I lived in Monmartre, and would walk up the alleys towards Sacre Coeur and have waffles smothered in Nutella, for breakfast. Thanks for that!

  10. Tim, ONE person calls me Sal! I’m called a variety of other nicknames, but almost never Sal.

    Anyway, I wanted to comment on an old recipe of yours, but couldn’t, so wanted to thank you here for discussing this cake – – I made it last night and LOVED it. Huge hit. Thanks!

  11. We’ve gone to both cities in the past to celebrate our anniversary. They are both so charming! A reminder to re-visit Mineral Point. And I will never forget House on the Rock. How does one even begin to explain that mind-bending experience?!

  12. I visited House on the Rock several times as a kid and young adult. It was most impressive to me before all the over-the-top additions turned it into a bit (that is e being generous) of an amusement park, but it still merits a trip. That cottage looks great and I have bookmarked it for a future stay.

  13. I grew up in Oak Park and visit your blog for nostalgia now that I live far from Chicago. House on the Rock?! You’ve really outdone yourself this time. We used to go there when we were kids and to describe it is nothing, it must be experienced to be fully understood. What a wacky place.

  14. I’m so glad you’re back, keep writing! I love whatever you write, but I do especially enjoy the ones about your travels.

    I had a Grandma Sally! Her real name was Salomea, and I think when she was younger she was kind of a farmgirl femme fatale. She grew up in Manistee Michigan, which I haven’t been to in over 40 years, think I need to go check it out sometime. Grandpa was a real life traveling salesman. I wish I’d been more interested in learning more while they were still around.

  15. I can’t wait to move back to the midwest and go there!

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