There are worse things than being called the Troll Capital of the World. And actually, that’s kind of a fun title to hold. Just ask anyone who lives in Mount Horeb, Wis., a village of about 7,000 just west of Madison, Wis. A dozen or so slightly mischievous trolls, largely carved from thick, old trees, populate Main Street, a k a “The Trollway.” And when you see them, you can’t help but smile. Many visitors try to find every one; others mug for the camera with their favorites. But the town is more than a handful of stumpy, big-nosed men and women grinning at you from the main drag. It’s home to specialty shops, good restaurants and even a winery, all of which make it a great spot to explore for a day or two.
Mount Horeb was settled by Norwegians in the 1840s. It might have remained an anonymous little town overshadowed by Madison, the state capital, which sits just 10 miles away. But it didn’t, thanks to a bit of luck and a bit of pluck. The village first garnered attention when Dr. C.S. Gonstead opened a chiropractic clinic in 1923, which quickly became wildly popular, drawing people from throughout the region and even nationwide. Then, in 1939, a huge tunnel and cave were discovered on a nearby farm; the two were transformed into Cave of the Mounds, a popular tourist attraction. In the 1980s, an abandoned railway bed that cut through town became part of the 40-mile Military Ridge State Trail right around the time a highway bypass was announced. The village cheered the new recreational trail, but feared the bypass would kill tourism. So the townsfolk brainstormed, and recalled how visitors and even passing truckers loved the trolls that a local Scandinavian gift shop had set out on its lawn since the 1970s. From that recollection, the plan to become the Troll Capital of the World was born.
WHAT TO DO
Mount Horeb’s main attraction is the Trollway. Pick up a map at the Welcome Center on Main Street, and find as many as you can. At one time about two dozen trolls guarded the compact downtown area. But, being made of wood, many fell prey to the elements over time. Today about a dozen are left, although three or four are set to make their debut within the next year. And the village plans to continue repopulating the Trollway for many more years.
Shoppers can spend their time browsing through Mount Horeb’s specialty shops. Duluth Trading Co. is one. The store at 100 W. Main St. sells tasteful workingmen and women’s clothing, gear and accessories, and is also home to the Wally Keller Tool Museum, a niche within the store that’s filled with tools crafted between 1860 and 1950. Olson’s Christmas and Collectibles (220 E. Main St.) is the spot for holiday lovers, while Artisan Woods Gallery (109 E. Main St.) attracts those who appreciate fine handcrafted wood pieces: tables, mirrors, bowls, boxes and more. Don’t miss Open House Imports (308 E. Main St.), the Scandinavian gift shop that inspired the Trollway.
If you enjoy easy cycling, bring your bike and pedal along the relatively flat Military Ridge State Trail, which runs from Madison to Dodgeville, Wis. (www.startribune.com/a2430). More experienced riders might prefer to hit the roads. The Mount Horeb area is quite hilly, and its challenging terrain is part of Ironman Wisconsin’s bike portion. If Chicago had won its bid for the 2016 Olympics, the biking events would have been held in this area, too.
When you’re ready for a break, stop in at Fisher King Winery for a little wine tasting and a snack (102 W. Main St.; www.fisherkingwinery.com). Quality Wisconsin foods are available to pair with your wine, including Gail Ambrosius chocolates, Sartori cheese, Potter’s Crackers and artisanal meats.
WHERE TO EAT
For a smaller village, Mount Horeb has several great dining spots. Chic Bistro 101 (101 E. Main St. #150; 1-608-437-9463; hoffbistro101.com) offers fine-dining Mediterranean fare with a Midwestern twist. A few blocks away, the Grumpy Troll (105 S. 2nd St.; 1-608-437-2739; thegrumpytroll.com) serves up tasty, traditional brewpub fare you can wash down with hearty craft beers. Don’t leave without trying the Uff Da Pretzel, a massive 1.5-pounder you can enjoy with Spetsnaz Stout mustard. Later, grab a cup of joe and some handmade chocolates at Sjölinds (219 E. Main St.; 1-608-437-0233; sjolinds.com). You won’t regret it.
WHERE TO STAY
Architecture buffs will love spending the night at the Gonstead Guest Cottage (602 S. 2nd St.; 1-608-437-4374; mthoreb.com/gonstead). Inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, the 1952 cottage features a kitchen, living room with fireplace, bedroom and entertainment room. A fire pit awaits your use outside, and two bikes are reserved for your use. If you plan to spend time in Madison during your visit, the Hilton Garden Inn Madison West/Middleton (1801 Deming Way, Middleton, Wis.; 1-608-831-2220; hiltongardeninn3.hilton.com) is conveniently spaced between the two communities.
IF YOU GO