The Riches of Pierce County

Pierce County Photos

Pierce County Fairgrounds Round Barn
Pierce County Fairgrounds Round Barn
Great River Road Visitor Center
Great River Road Visitor Center
Confluence of Kinnickinnic  and St. Croix rivers
Confluence of Kinnickinnic and St. Croix rivers
View from Nugget Lake County Park trail
View from Nugget Lake County Park trail
A round barn on a scenic back road in Pierce County
A round barn on a scenic back road in Pierce County

This lush Wisconsin county offers a multi-faceted experience

Growing up in Hudson, a Twin Cities border town, I never felt like I really lived in Wisconsin until we’d visit the grandparents in neighboring Pierce County. To me, it seemed like the real thing — America’s Dairyland, the Badger state, the Copper state — full of treasures waiting to be explored.

Once we’d hit Beldenville, an unincorporated burg with a post office and two taverns, it meant high alert. Hovering over the Rambler’s front seat, my sister and I would compete to spot “Grandma’s tree,” a majestic American White Elm seen for a mile before their home on a hill at the edge of Ellsworth, the county seat and its geographical center.

The elm’s now gone and the hill’s been leveled, but a spruce near the old driveway—where I’d find fossils in the gravel—remains, as do a line of trees in the Wealthy apple orchard where Grandpa, a plumber, supposedly buried cash during the Great Depression.

My sister and I would always ask Grandma to see the box of arrowheads or the rusty Victor-Victrola needle tin housing pearl slugs, relics found by our great grandfather on his farm. An original land-grantee in Trimbelle Township, he collected pearl wings, slugs and blisters in freshwater mussels from the Trimbelle River, which cuts a winding swath, hugged by County Road O, as it meanders south to the Mississippi. When my grandparents would check on the old homestead, we’d tag along to scout the Trimbelle’s banks to the burial mounds on the property, hoping to find more arrowheads.

Pierce County’s soil was richer than the sandy St. Croix River-bottom soil near our house. The Ellsworth garden produced so many strawberries that we would set up shop along the highway. In the spring my brother would find morel mushrooms in the pasture, and in autumn we’d collect fragrant green husks housing the treasured black walnut.

While the U.S. Census now deems Pierce County part of the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area, its rural riches and lush nature remain. That’s likely due to the varied geography of two major riverways and more than a dozen cold, clean rivers, creeks and streams harboring trout. Or so explains Paige Olson, president of Pierce County Partners in Tourism and owner of Kinni Creek Lodge and Outfitters in River Falls.

“When you think of Pierce County you might think of barns, fields and cows,” Olson says. “But when you look closer there are wonderful geological features … a contrast between forests, rolling farmlands, and the bluffs along the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers. It creates a unique roadway system among the coulees that makes for beautiful drives. It reminds me of Europe.”

Pierce County’s diverse geology includes Wisconsin’s longest cave, river confluences with sandy deltas and scenic bluffs, and even an ancient asteroid impact site the size of Lambeau Field. Diamonds and gold have been discovered in its glacial drift, and it once boasted the most conical native burial mounds in the state.

A century ago, lucky clammers like my great-grandfather would glean a rare Mississippi River pearl while harvesting mussel shells from the region’s rivers for the booming button-making industry along the upper Mississippi. Today, the remaining mussels are endangered, threatened or choked out by the invasive zebra mussel, and it is illegal to remove many mussel species from the Upper Mississippi riverway.

Recognizing Pierce County’s uniqueness, geologist Bill Cordua, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, along with fellow professor and cartographer Charlie Rader, created a road-trip CD and map showcasing more than a dozen sites. “The landscape of Pierce County is quite scenic, particularly along the Mississippi River and its coulee-style tributaries,” says Cordua. “It is far enough south where the glaciers stopped so there is some bedrock and some glacial materials.”

The tour highlights bedrock formations, geological history and time, landforms, land use, and water and other resources. While I always knew the landscapes of Pierce County were special, I never knew they had such significance to the science types. And thankfully—rather than some boring lecture,—the good professors’ CD brings to life Pierce County’s landscape full of wonders – both down under and piercing the surface.

An asteroid and diamonds

There’s a pretty peculiar spot east of Ellsworth near Plum City. The Rock Elm Disturbance in Nugget Lake County Park is not the site of an outdoor concert gone awry but rather is an ancient meteor impact site where the usual bedrock is absent, bent downward, folded or faulted along the tilted, exposed beds of Mount Sinai sandstone, a layer of sediment usual found flat hundreds of feet underground. “Blue Rock,” east of the park’s entrance, is a noticeable outcropping at the site’s perimeter. “It’s the strangest geology we have in the county,” says Cordua, who is credited with the discovery.

Established in the 1970s for flood control, Nugget Lake was named for gold found long ago in the park’s Rock Elm and Plum creeks. Several blue and yellow diamonds—as large as 10 carats—were reportedly discovered in the park. That’s why campers and fishers sometimes bump into hopeful rock hounds alongside them as they explore the trails and creeks.

Crystal Cave

In 1881, a farm boy discovered Crystal Cave, the state’s longest cave. It opened for tours in 1942 and hard-core spelunkers continue to discover new segments of the cave.

Jean Cunningham worked in the visitor’s center there as a tour guide, and also waited tables before the restaurant closed in 1972. She went on to become a geologist and to marry one, too. She and her husband Blaze were working for Gulf Oil in 1986 when the two purchased the beloved cave from her youth. “The combination of working at the cave and some of the instructors I had at UW-River Falls, including Bill Cordua, piqued my interest in geology,” she says.

One-hour guided tours that begin on the half-hour April through October take visitors down 70 feet to view stalactites and other ancient formations. Outside, kids can pan for “gems” in a working sluice. Each June the caves hosts a “sleep under” for caver groups.

Riverside wonders

Two more stops reward visitors with beautiful sand beaches, both the result of flowing water meeting solid earth.

From Spring Valley, take Rte. 29 to River Falls, and follow County Road FF to find Kinnickinnic State Park and the Kinnickinnic delta. Then trail the St. Croix River south to the confluence of the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers at Point Douglas Park in Prescott.

Any geological tourist should know about Berg’s Rock Shop in Prescott, suitable for amateur and professional gemologists alike. From rock tumblers to jewelry, the tiny shop in a garage is an informal, one-stop information center for those who explore the area.

Prescott’s newest gem is the Great River Road Visitor and Learning Center in bluff-top Freedom Park, with expansive views of the confluence and exhibits of river history. Freight trains still charge across the lift bridge and through downtown Mercord Mill Park, where you can peer into the old Gearhouse, housing the original 1923 lift machinery. A popular pier for boaters, Prescott has many restaurants and shops.

Downriver in Diamond Bluff, named for its founder rather than a gem discovery, is the Mero Site, an Oneota Indian village that once had several hundred burial mounds. According to the local archaeological society, Pierce County at one time recorded 700 conical mounds, with many at this site.

Stories in the stones

Further southeast, near Hager City, a curious stone design set in the hill can be seen from a historical marker on Highway 35. Called the bow-and-arrow, the structure is thought to be a Native American symbol.

Pure silica sand and smooth-edged gravel were created by the melting glacial flow in the county’s bluff region, and several quarries produce sand and decorative rock. My guide materials told me that Lake Superior agates are often found within the gravel. The River Bluffs History Center, housed in a former Bay City church, has information on mining history.

Next up is Maiden Rock, named for an Indian woman who is said to have leapt from the spectacular sandstone, siltstone and limestone bluff above the town rather than marry a man she didn’t love. The downtown riverfront park is a great spot for a romantic picnic, with stunning Mississippi River sunsets.

So, whether you are up for some serious spelunking down under or simply out for a splendid drive in the countryside, take my word for it – you will never look at Pierce County in quite the same way again after visiting some of these great spots. The richness of the lands reveals an abundance of geological wonders, telling a tale of the past and inspiring a true appreciation for the beauty that surrounds us here in the present.

Highlights

Here are some events, attractions, diversions and eateries to try when visiting the places mentioned in this story. For more, visit www.travelpiercecounty.com.

Bay City

· Flat Pennies Ice Cream is a pet-friendly destination with some railroad history as a bonus. There’s a Soo Line caboose on the grounds, and a special pet park. Homemade “Woof Wafers” are available for sale. W6442 Hwy. 35; (715) 594-3555, www.flatpennies.com.

Ellsworth

· Pierce County Fairgrounds is home to the mother of round barns: a 130-foot-diameter exhibition building built in 1920. The building and surrounding grounds host the Cheese Curd Festival in June, the Beldenville Old Car Show or Polka Fest in July, and the county fair in August.

Maiden Rock

· Vino in the Valley is a vineyard with an open-air pavilion set along the Rush River. A small menu of pizzas and pastas are served in an outdoor setting, along with local wines and beers including taps from Rush River Brewing in River Falls. Check for seasonal hours. Grapes will begin producing in three years and the wine will be produced by Northern Vineyard in Stillwater Minn., said owner Larry Brenner. W3826 450th Ave.; (715) 639-6677, http://vinointhevalley.com.

Prescott

· A number of eateries in Prescott cater to the boaters at the confluence of the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers and bikers traveling the Great River Road. Right at the junction is Point St. Croix Marina Pub, 101 Front St., with just two items on the menu along with beer and wine: fantastic grilled shrimp and pizza.

River Falls

· Lund’s stocks an array of wooly buggers, creels, hackles, midges and other necessities for trout fishers. Kinni Creek Lodge and Outfitters offers lodging, equipment and kayak rental, and guides who can accompany you for a few hours or a full day to teach you the fine point of fly-fishing and special spots. Lund’s: (715) 425-2415. Kinni Creek Lodge: 545 N Main St.; (715) 425-7378, www.kinnicreek.com.

· Art on the Kinni is an art festival in historic Glen Park, where a 130-foot swinging suspension bridge, built in 1925, offers a memorable vista. It takes place in September. www.rfchamber.com.

Spring Valley

· Eau Galle Recreation Area is the site of the Midwest’s highest earthen dam. Above the dam is great pan fishing. You’ll also find equestrian trials, hiking trails, boat launches, campgrounds and more. (715) 778-5562, www.mvp.usace.army.mil/recreation (see “managed facilities”).


Trout: Another local treasure

While the geological attractions are plenty in Pierce County, trout is treasured, too. My grandparents were avid fishers of the county’s trout waters; I recall the whir and snap of their fly rods as I fished for chubs with a cane pole along the Rush River’s public access points.

County Road A is a beautiful drive that ambles along the Rush, and other trout habitats include the Kinnickinnic, Trimbelle and Eau Galle rivers.

River Falls is fly-fishing central, with 17 points of entry on two branches of the “Kinni,” a Class 1 trout stream, running through the city.

Because the Kinni is a spring-fed trout stream, the water is cold and clean, making it a cherished resource.


Where barns and bikers mix

At one time Pierce County had more than a dozen round or octagonal barns. The St. Croix Valley Riders and Gas-Lite Lounge in Trimbelle organize the Round Barn Run, a motorcycle tour highlighting those that remain in Pierce and surrounding counties east of the Mississippi bluffs.

Held in June, guided tours leave from the Gas-Lite every 15 minutes in groups of about 20 bikes. A pig roast, bands and other festivities follow at the Gas-Lite’s three-acre site on the Trimbelle River.

“Each year the route changes among the eight barns in the area,” says Dave Elnick, Riders’ road captain, who initiated the event six years ago. “The exact route is held in confidence until the event, and maps are provided the day of the run and for those who don’t want to join in on the guided tours.”

The event complements the many motorcycle runs along the Great River Road, says Mark Koon, the group’s vice president. “We thought it would be different to explore some of the back roads and … the round barns seemed like a good idea. Often street rods trail us, and cars are welcome.”

The mother of round barns is in Ellsworth: the 130-foot diameter Pierce County Fairgrounds Exhibition Building.

Gems from the earth: Gardens and edibles

One of the pleasures of a trip around Pierce County is the cornucopia of orchards, apiaries and sugar bushes are set among the hills and dales. Here are some of the agricultural producers to know about if you’re planning a trip. Many have seasonal hours, so check ahead.

* Funkie Gardens in Prescott, a restored pre-Civil War era home set on three acres right in town. Wander the gardens display gardens and propagation beds full of unique perennials and native wildflowers you won’t find anywhere else: Yellow Trout Lily, the Double Great White Trillium, Soloman’s Seal, and Double Bloodroot. 618 Pearl St.; (715) 262-5593, www.funkiegardens.com.

* Skyline Greenhouse Nursery in River Falls, on the county line near the Kinnickinnic State Park is. In addition to regular nursery products, Skyline offers pond supplies, aquatic plants, and koi of all colors and sizes. 148 County Road F; (715) 425-1468.

*My family would visit Eaton’s in Ellsworth to watch the sweet sap boil, sample syrup and maple-infused goodies, and ride on a wagon through the Sugar Maple stand. When Eaton’s closed, we moved on to the S & S Sugar Bush, also in Ellsworth, and it’s an early spring ritual worth keeping—or starting. N3870 730th St.; (715) 594-3632.

* Ellsworth was proclaimed the “Cheese Curd Capitol of Wisconsin” by Gov. Tony Earl in the 1980s, and its Co-op Creamery on the east end makes almost two million pounds of cheese, butter, curds and whey per day. Five cheese machines operating 24/7 churn out four million pounds of curds a year, including garlic, taco, ranch, Cajun and natural cheddar. A&W restaurants serve the coop’s signature lightly battered cheese curds. The salsa cheddar cheese is scrumptious, and cheese curd crumbles and butter, both at around $2 a pound, are bargains. 232 N. Wallace St.; (715) 273-4311, www.ellsworthcheesecurds.com.

* Circle K Orchard near Beldenville is a pick-your-own orchard with retail shop in an 1865 cabin. Applewood for smoking and barbecuing is available as is maple syrup, cider and other forest goodies. Marvel at the machinations of the cider press and on-site pasteurizer while watching the apples roll on the commercial packing line. Each year the orchard hosts the Lion’s Club Annual Apple Festival in September. N7653 650th St.; (715) 273-7799, www.circle-k-orchard.com.

* Gehl’s Buffalo Hill Ranch in River Falls produces low-fat bison meat that’s served in area restaurants, such as the Highway 63 Diner and Shady Grove in Ellsworth, the West Wind Supper Club in River Falls, Sneakers in Spring Valley, Slipp Inn in Prescott and Ole’s Bar and Grill in Maiden Rock. The ranch offers guided tours by appointment and its Octoberfest celebration includes entertainment and a buffet of buffalo brats, burgers, meatballs, chili and other fare. N7573 730th Ave.; (715) 426-5566, www.buffalohillmeats.com.

* The smell of fresh roasted nuts wafts out when you open the door to the National Nut Co. outlet store in the Ellsworth Industrial Park. Ring the bell and someone will assist you in selecting fresh roasted nuts, trail mixes, dried fruits, baking supplies and nut-candy assortments. The roasted and salted green peas are a unique taste and a bargain at $1. The company primarily sells to retail outlets, restaurants and distributors. 411 Industrial Rd.; (715) 273-5231.

* Best Maid Cookie Co., the River Falls company behind the rich, warm chocolate chip cookie served on Midwest Airlines flights, sits on the border of Pierce and St. Croix counties in the River Falls Industrial Park. At the sweet-smelling outlet store you can sample one or several full-size cookies, depending on your personal guilt meter. A bagged dozen cost around $3: try the key lime white chip, mini-gingers or the oatmeal varieties including cranberry walnut, butterscotch walnut or blueberry. 1147 Benson St.; (715) 426-2090www.bestmaid.com.

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