We’ve taken quite a journey through “Wisconsin Favorites” over the years. With this longstanding regular feature of the Wisconsin Energy Cooperative News, we aim to discover and promote the many wonderful places to see and things to do in the small communities and rural areas served by Wisconsin’s electric cooperatives. In doing so, we’ve logged a lot of miles, visiting the unique attractions that make rural Wisconsin a great place to explore. Often we find unexpected surprises in pursuit of larger stories—special little spots that define an area, tucked here and there just off the beaten path. These mini attractions often have historical or cultural significance, or they’re just plain fun and quirky enough to make them worth a stop if you happen to be driving by. Even better, they’re mostly free, although sometimes donations are appreciated.
This month, we’re shining a light on some of these roadside attractions that make a distinctive mark on rural Wisconsin. If you’re driving about, stop and take a closer look. You might just find that it truly isn’t the destination that matters—it’s the journey.
The World’s Biggest M
If you’ve driven down Highway 151 in Grant County, in Scenic Rivers Energy Cooperative territory, you’ve no doubt noticed the huge white M built along the side of Platte Mound four miles northeast of the city of Platteville. And unless you’re familiar with the area’s history, you’ve no doubt wondered what that big letter M stands for.
The giant M is a symbol of the area’s lead-mining history and of the nearby University of Wisconsin-Platteville, which started out as the Wisconsin Mining School. According to UW-Platteville documentation, the M first appeared in 1936 when a couple of Wisconsin Mining School students stomped the letter out in the snow on the mound. The following spring, another student suggested constructing a permanent stone M into the mound, one that would bring bragging rights as the country’s biggest M—even bigger than Colorado School of Mines’ M that was 200 feet high.
Completed in the fall of 1937, Platteville’s M is still something to brag about. At 241 feet high and 214 feet wide, it’s touted as The World’s Biggest M, offering a spectacular view that extends into Illinois and Iowa for those who are care to climb the 266 steps to the top. With a newly renovated parking area at its base, the M is accessible year-round, although the steps are not groomed during winter months.
Rock in the House
Traveling north along the Great River Road, you’ll pass through the Mississippi River community of Fountain City, in Riverland Energy Cooperative’s territory. Just off of Highway 35 you’ll come across the turn-off to the Rock in the House. And yes, we do mean Rock in the House. This isn’t the more widely known House on the Rock in Spring Green, with all the bizarre collections. This is indeed the Rock in the House, and it’s exactly what the name implies—a (very huge) rock inside a house.
This unusual attraction got its most unusual start on April 24, 1995, when a 55-ton boulder rolled down the hillside behind the house belonging to Maxine and Dwight Anderson and into what was the Andersons’ master bedroom. The Andersons, who thankfully weren’t injured, sold their house to a local real estate developer who kept the house exactly as it was on that fateful day—furniture, big rock, and all—and turned the home into an attraction.
Visitors can turn into the parking lot and walk around to the back of the house to see the boulder embedded in the hole it tore through the back wall. Inside, photos and newspaper accounts of the crash are on display. Handwritten notes provide details, including a sign pointing to what was, remarkably, the only window in the house that broke when the boulder burst through.
The house is unstaffed, and the requested $2 admission is collected on an honor system. As you drive away, we guarantee you’ll eye the signs along the highway warning folks to “be aware of falling rocks” a little more warily.
Laura Ingalls Wilder Cabin
Farther north on the Great River Road is Pepin, in Pierce Pepin Cooperative Services’ territory. This little village is famous as the hometown of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the beloved “Little House in the Big Woods” series that chronicles her life growing up in a westward-bound, pioneering family. Pepin is the official starting point of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway, linking Wilder sites across the Midwest, and it was the official starting point of Wilder’s life.
Seven miles northwest of Pepin, on County Road C, is the Little House Wayside, located at the site where Wilder was born in 1867. The centerpiece of this three-acre park is a re-creation of the one-room log cabin where Wilder was born, and where the first book in her series was set.
The cabin is open every day, year-round, for self-guided tours. The surrounding park has picnic tables and fresh water, but not in the log cabin—that’s just as it would have been when Laura and her family lived there, with no electricity and no running water. Spending a moment inside this charming little cabin will leave you feeling like a pioneer.
UFO Capital of Wisconsin
While Pepin County’s claim to fame is its link to a young pioneer who grew to become a highly successful children’s author, neighboring Pierce County’s notable connection is with a very different sort of frontier experience. This county is home to Elmwood, a village that’s known as the UFO Capital of Wisconsin.
According to local history, the community’s chief of police at the time, George Wheeler, spotted an extraterrestrial object of some kind in the area in 1975. Multiple sightings were recorded in the years that followed, with some of the locations marked today with signs announcing “UFO Sighting at this spot” and a list of when and by whom the sighting occurred.
It’s fair to assume that not all Elmwood residents are believers, but all seem to have embraced the village’s unique UFO connection. In non-pandemic years, large crowds gather for the community’s annual UFO Days held during the last weekend in July. But even now, it’s fun to pass through Elmwood and stop at Sailer’s Meats on the west side of town, where a cluster of metal flying saucers and alien statues makes for some fun selfies.
World’s Largest Talking Cow
A detour east along Highway 10 will take you to Neillsville, in Clark Electric Cooperative’s territory. This is where you’ll find Chatty Belle, the World’s Largest Talking Cow. Chatty is a fiberglass statue standing 16 feet tall, seven times the size of a normal cow of her breed. She’s been an enduring symbol of this dairy community for five decades since she was brought over from her original place as part of the Wisconsin exhibit at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York.
For many years, visitors would put a quarter in Chatty Belle’s voicebox and listen to her cite impressive statistics about the state’s dairy industry, including the fact that if she were a real cow, at her size, she’d be able to produce 270 pounds of milk a day.
These days Chatty is mostly quiet, but she’s still a sight to behold. Equally impressive is the Wisconsin Pavilion right next to her, with its distinctive round shape and teepee-like top. This historic building was Wisconsin’s exhibit at the New York World’s Fair from 1964–65. Its odd shape symbolizes the state’s native history, with mosaic scenes of Native Americans on the walls and a spire with giant letters spelling Wisconsin rising from the top.
This pavilion is now home to a local radio station, with a cheese store on the ground level offering some of the delicious dairy products Chatty Belle has been chatting up for years.
Birthplace of Old Abe
Back toward the west, in the community of Jim Falls, located northeast of Eau Claire within Chippewa Valley Electric Cooperative’s territory, you’ll find another fiberglass statue of an oversized creature. This one is a replica of Old Abe, the legendary war eagle that served as mascot of the 8th Regiment of Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War. There are likenesses of the famous eagle all over the Chippewa Valley, but this 10.5-foot-tall statue is especially distinctive because of its location in Old Abe’s birthplace.
It was in this area where Old Able was hatched and captured as an eaglet by the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe in 1861. Just a half mile north of Jim Falls, on Highway 178, you’ll come across a wayside located on the site of the Tom McCann farm, where Chief Sky traded the young eagle for a bushel of corn. The eagle came to mean so much to the McCann family that when the 8th Regiment was organized for Civil War duty, McCann, who was unable to serve himself due to an infirmity of sorts, reportedly offered his eagle’s services as a mascot instead, reasoning that “someone from the family ought to go.”
Old Abe would serve in 42 skirmishes over three years and go on to live a long and famous life, living his retirement years in the Wisconsin State Capitol, where he presided over political rallies and other events. His likeness continues to preside over Wisconsin today.
A little farther north, a looming metal structure towering at an angle for 175 feet into the sky presides over the city of Cornell, where Chippewa Valley Electric Cooperative is headquartered. This massive steel structure—the heart of the Mill Yard Park where the city’s visitor’s center is located—is an historic pulpwood stacker, built in 1911–12 for the Cornell Wood Products Co. Once a key tool of the paper milling industry, the Cornell pulpwood stacker is believed to be the last of its kind in the world and is listed in the State and National Register of Public Places.
Although now a relic, in its time, this pulpwood stacker represented modernization as it mechanized the labor-intensive task of stockpiling logs. The wood would then be floated down a sluice to the paper mill where it was reduced to pulp and converted to paper.
The stacker ceased operating in 1971, but it still stands in proud tribute to the once-booming logging industry that flourished in northern Wisconsin. It’s also impressive as simply a feat of engineering, leaning as it does at a 45-degree angle maintained by counterweights.
Fred Smith Concrete Park
More impressive manmade creations await a little farther north at the Wisconsin Concrete Park on Highway 13 in Phillips, in Price Electric Cooperative’s territory. We deliberated long and hard over including this site as a roadside attraction, because we consider this place to be a destination in itself, especially when combined with one of the art classes or other events that are held regularly in the adjoining classroom building. In fact, the entire compound has been a Wisconsin Favorites topic all its own (March 2014).
However, the park alone, filled with whimsical concrete sculptures and free to the public year-round during daylight hours, makes for a perfect pit stop. And how do you not include a park that’s been identified by Travel Wisconsin as one of the Seven Manmade Wonders of Wisconsin?
The Wisconsin Concrete Park is more of an outdoor folk museum, housing 237 concrete and mixed-media sculptures created by retired lumberjack Fred Smith and installed throughout his 16-acre property. A self-taught artist, Smith created all the life-size statues in a brief but prolific stretch starting when he was 62. Many of the statues reflect significant moments or changes in Smith’s lifetime, while others just seem to have been created for fun. Visitors can explore the statues up close and decide for themselves what they all mean.
There’s no question about the meaning of the giant bird that greets you was you enter Mercer, in Bayfield Electric Cooperative’s territory. Located on the Turtle Flambeau Flowage and boasting more than 200 lakes in the area, Mercer is billed as the Loon Capital of the World, with the highest concentration of nesting loon pairs in the continental United States.
Of all these loons, one stands out—way out. Claire d’Loon is a 16-foot, 2,000-pound loon statue perched proudly outside the Mercer Chamber of Commerce building on Highway 51.
Claire can’t quite claim the title of “World’s Largest Loon,” but she is, however, the “World’s Largest Talking Loon,” demonstrating loon calls with a recently restored voice box. And although it’s not an official title, she is also very likely the world’s most photographed loon, judging from the many selfies and group photos she appears in.
From cabins to UFOs to giant fiberglass birds, our list of roadside attractions covers a big variety of sites, but we know it’s just a small sampling of the many interesting little places that await in rural Wisconsin. If there’s an attraction in your area that you’d like to share, please go to www.wecnmagazine.com/submit-a-photo/ and upload a photo and a brief description. We’d love for this journey to last a little longer!