While living near Madison, Wis., a few years ago, I was biking through the hills south of the city when I came to the tiny town of Paoli. At the time, I actually lived on Paoli Street, and I knew, vaguely, that there was a town called Paoli at the other end of it. But I'd never stopped there because Paoli is so small that you'd miss it if you weren't looking for it.
Apparently, many people were looking for it, because as I rolled through the town, I saw strange things for the heart of farm country: Art galleries. Out-of-state license plates. Tourists.
Wisconsin is known for many things (most of which are edible and delicious), but art is not one of them. Georgia O'Keeffe and Frank Lloyd Wright may have come from the state, but you just don't expect to stumble upon an oasis of fine art out in the middle of nowhere.
Paoli, it turned out, was a bohemian island of art and culture surrounded by an undulating ocean of corn.
A mill town
Paoli sits on the Sugar River at the north end of what's known as the "Swiss Valley" (the heart of yodeling country is a few miles south, in New Glarus). It started as a mill town, and a huge 1860s building still dominates the town today. It's a giant limestone structure built to cut lumber, then later was used as a gristmill.
Nowadays all it grinds out are images for postcards.
The mill is still the center of town. Shops and galleries are clustered around it, and even the old whey house has been converted into the Paoli Cheese Shop, which is packed with artisan specialties, including Butterkase, Gruyere Surchoix and Wild Morel & Leek Jack.
I don't live in the area anymore, but my fond memories of Paoli persist. Recently, I was passing through, and found the town just as I remembered it. On a Wednesday afternoon, the streets were full of cars. The shops were busy. The Creamery Cafe was full of people sitting in the sun, talking, laughing and watching the river flow by.
I sat down to join them, and ordered a delightful turkey sandwich with green apples and melted cheese. The young chef came out to tell me the food was local, and he designed the menu to keep it that way.
After lunch, I stopped by the Artisan Gallery, which is attached to the cafe. Owner Theresa Abel said that the Paoli renaissance started in this building in 1987 when Eileen Berkley bought it and filled it with art. That 1910 creamery building, where Swiss immigrants once made cheese and butter, now features paintings by artists such as Kelli Hoppmann (kellihoppmann.com), Marlene Miller (www.millerclay.com) and Jose Sierra (www.cheo art.com).
After admiring the artworks, I strolled down the road, crossed the Sugar River and stopped by the cheese shop to load up on curds. Next stop was the Paoli House Gallery, where I met Christian Grooms, an artist who splits his time between Paoli and New York.
Grooms sat at his desk, which was overflowing with papers and files and invitations to upcoming shows, including one by Pedro E. Guerrero, Frank Lloyd Wright's personal photographer. Back outside, I could see that a few things had changed since my last visit. There was a new organic grocery store. Across the road, an old gas station was being gutted, probably to make room for another gallery. And there was a new restaurant in the Paoli Schoolhouse Shops and Cafe.
A rural getaway
As I rolled out of town with cornfields flanking the road, it struck me that Paoli might be a bit like the Texas canyon where O'Keeffe finally found the space for her art to flourish.
"It was all so far away," she wrote. "There was quiet and an untouched feel to the country, and I could work as I pleased."
Frank Bures' work appears in "Best American Travel Writing 2009."