When my buddy Jay recently told me he was moving from Washington, DC to Montana, I jumped at the opportunity for the road trip.
The only question was, the Northern or Southern route?
Northern would mean a trip through the Bakken shale oil fields of North Dakota, a place I’d read about in countless analyst reports and the gold-standard book on the shale revolution, The Frackers, but never actually experienced in person. The Southern route – with “southern” in air quotes – was through South Dakota with all its epic scenery.
It really boiled down to, see one of America’s great industrial breakthroughs and boomtowns, the backbone of the world’s greatest economy, or see some of the only the wild expanses left in America, the slice of the old frontier at the heart of the American experience?
We decided to go southern, but it turned out we got a little slice of both…
This is Day 2 of 4. (You can find Day 1 here)
Day Two: Chicago, La Crosse, Sioux Falls
As you cross from Illinois to Wisconsin, you cross over US Highway 50, aka the “50-yard line” of demarcation between Bears and Packers nations. The oldest rivalry in the NFL, the teams first faced off in 1921; the George Halas Trophy, named after the Bears founder, is given to the NFC winner, while the Vince Lombardi Trophy is awarded to the Super Bowl champ.
As Chicago’s skyscrapers fade in your rear-view and you enter “America’s Dairyland,” you can see that Bears fans and cheeseheads really do come from different worlds. But perhaps an even fiercer rivalry is between the Wisconsin Badgers and Minnesota Golden Gophers, who have battled since 1890, football’s oldest rivalry.
If you need to know one thing about what kind of world you’re entering when you drive through Wisconsin and Minnesota, just know that the trophy for the Gopher-Badger game was a big slab a bacon until 1943, and following WWII, became Paul Bunyan’s Axe – a six-foot axe that players use to mimic chopping down the opposing team’s goal posts.
This is timberland, the furthest navigable stretch up the Mississippi when it isn’t frozen over. We drove through an area that geologists call the Driftless Area, which – sparing you the detailed geological history – was untouched by glacial activity. The result is what the National Park Service calls “a plateau dissected by steep coulees, bluffs, and ridges above the Mississippi River.”
While geologists call it the Driftless Area, local tourism boards call it Bluff Country, and its heart is the town of La Crosse, Wisconsin on the banks of the Mississippi. Nestled between a waterfowl paradise of a floodplain and 600-foot Granddad Bluff, it is a town of redbrick hotels, taverns, and mansions built in the late 1800s by wealthy lumbermen.
When Mark Twain visited La Crosse in 1883, he observed, “Up in this region, we met massed acres of lumber rafts coming down – but not floating leisurely along, in old-fashioned way, manned with joyous and reckless crews of fiddling, song-singing, whiskey-drinking, breakdown-dancing rapscallions; no, the whole thing was shoved swiftly along by a powerful stern-wheeler.”
La Crosse was the state’s second largest city by 1890, and one of its leading citizens and owner of the largest mill on the Upper Mississippi, C. C. Washburn, had been elected governor (Mr. Washburn’s business would become General Mills, now based in Minneapolis).
Flocks of industrious immigrants of northern German and Scandinavian stock were also streaming in. By the time of the Great War, both Minnesota and Wisconsin had 15 deutschsprachige newspapers each and dozens of others in Germanic languages.
In addition to bratwurst, beer, and a 32-foot statue of Hermann the German in New Ulm, the Deutsche also left their mark on politics of the region – to this day, an electoral map of Wisconsin shows Republican areas closely tracking the areas most populated by German-Americans.
After grabbing a bite from Fat Sams at the base of the old Rehfus building in La Crosse (built in 1894 by a first generation German-American), we crossed the Mississippi and headed up into the Root River Valley.
The Root River Valley begins as a wide floodplain buffeted by craggy limestone bluffs, but as you go upriver, in narrows and the snowy, wooded valley begins to look like what you might imagine in the Black Forest or Bavarian foothills. We took this to its headwaters before climbing back on to the Minnesota plains.
The timber industry has moved on from here, but the industrious spirit lives on. Turns out that that Driftless Area limestone makes great sand for fracking, and Trempaealau County next to La Crossee is now the leading frac sand mining county in the nation, bringing in a whole new cycle of capital and labor.
- The maps below show the Packers and Bears nations by county from Facebook "like" data, the Badgers and Gophers nations by zip code also from Facebook data, a birds-eye view of La Crosse in 1867, the German-born population of the US in 1914, the German influence on Wisconsin elections in 2004, and the frac sand mines in Wisconsin in 2015.
- The pictures shows the Rehfuss Building in La Crosse (built 1894), a homage to the Steamboat "War Eagle" which burned in 1870, the Mississippi River flood plain, a farm in the Root River Valley, and a Lutheran church in the Root River Valley.