Most small-town history museums I've visited have been cramped and cluttered places with haphazard displays of local castoffs. Wandering through them reminded me of rummaging through my grandparents' attic as a kid.
But visiting the Driftless Historium — a fledgling $1.8 million local history museum and research center in the small Wisconsin town of Mount Horeb, about 30 miles west of Madison — feels more like visiting a state historical museum, albeit a cozier one.
This June, one year after opening with temporary exhibits, the Historium unveiled its permanent exhibit, "Life and Change at the Edge of the Driftless," tracing the history of Mount Horeb (pop. 7,462) and several smaller towns in southwestern Dane County, a gently rolling landscape dotted with dairy farms.
The exhibit features an impressive collection of artifacts, photographs and documents, most donated by locals. The stuff has been put into context — chronologically ordered and professionally displayed, with appealing graphics, maps and interactive elements.
The result is a compact, cohesive and compelling chronicle of everyday life in this verdant patch of Wisconsin, the communities people built over time, and their pursuits and passions.
"The interaction between the people and the land is the most important part of the story — how the area's beauty has drawn people here for thousands of years," says Destinee Udelhoven, director of the museum, operated by the 43-year-old Mount Horeb Area Historical Society.
The new exhibit starts with Ice Age geology, including a helpful explanation of the "driftless" term, which refers to the hilly terrain in western Wisconsin, southeast Minnesota, northeast Iowa and northwest Illinois. Bypassed by glaciers, the region was free of the sediment and rock — aka "drift" — that glaciers left behind.
The bulk of the exhibit covers 1830 onward, with Native Americans followed by Swiss, Irish, German and Norwegian settlers. Later came hippies, back-to-the-landers, intellectuals and modern niche farmers.
Nineteenth-century artifacts — a young settler's worn doll, a painted Norwegian wood trunk, a hand-carved wooden church steeple — are followed by 20th-century relics, including a 1944 war munitions plant uniform and a 1960 Ridgeview Rockets (a small country school) sweatshirt "worn by one of the Baker triplets, Sally, Sonja or Susan." Twenty-first-century objects include local wine and honey.
Visitors learn about big events including the railroad's arrival, wars and rural school closings; institutions such as the opera house and the general store (the museum has the interior of one that operated from the 1890s to 1980s); activities like school band and "Mom's Club"; and work (mining, farming).
Fun fact: This area had one of Wisconsin's highest "cheese factory densities" (with about 170 factories between the 1870s and 1960s). Small-town life revolved around a "school-church-cheese factory" trifecta. Although the factories closed, artisanal cheese is now made locally by the renowned Bleu Mont Dairy. You can find its bandaged Cheddar and Big Sky Grana at the Saturday farmers market in Madison.
The exhibit also highlights local tourist draws, from the popular Cave of the Mounds to Blue Mound State Park, southern Wisconsin's highest point, with rustic 40-foot observation towers offering glorious panoramic views.
Oh, and trolls. Mount Horeb bills itself as the Troll Capital of the World. In a nod to its Norwegian heritage and to lure visitors in the 1980s, life-size trolls by a local woodcarver were installed around town. I liked the bike-riding troll beside the Military Ridge State Trail, a 40-mile limestone recreational trail popular with cyclists and walkers.
The Historium replaces a smaller museum opened in 1996, replacing an even smaller one opened in 1977. A three-building hybrid located off Main Street, near the bustling Grumpy Troll brewpub, the Historium includes a renovated 1890s former hardware store (home to museum No. 2), a new modern building (with a fun gift shop) and a replica of a former 1882 railroad inn.
Behind the scenes are extensive archives (photographs, oral histories, diaries, scrapbooks) and storage housing more artifacts. Only 10 percent of the museum's collection is exhibited. The holdings are available to researchers, from academics to genealogy buffs, by appointment.
As Udelhoven gave me a sneak peek at the new exhibit in late May, volunteers were still pounding nails and fussing with details. From the start, the museum has been a community endeavor, involving about 85 volunteers. "I don't even know how to say 'thank you' anymore," says Udelhoven, who became the museum's first full-time professional staff member in late 2014. A part-time curator soon followed.
The all-volunteer historical society board fundraised for 10 years, garnering over 625 donations including 120 of $1,000 or more. A big chunk came from the family foundation connected to the Duluth Trading Co., the workwear company begun in, yes, Duluth, that is moving its headquarters to Mount Horeb from nearby Belleville, Wis.
"This community has accomplished so much and been so supportive," says Udelhoven, who has a museum studies graduate degree and has worked at other history sites. "The size of this collection and facility is amazing. Compared to other small towns, this is pretty extraordinary."
If you build it, will they come? During its first eight months, the Driftless Historium had about 10,500 visitors. Locals hope the new permanent exhibit will lure more. "It's kind of a big experiment," says Udelhoven.
Mount Horeb is 261 miles southeast of the Twin Cities. The Driftless Historium is at 100 S. 2nd St. (1-608-437-6486; mthorebhistory.org).
Swim in Stewart County Park's lake. Hike in Donald County Park and Brigham County Park.
Shop along pretty Main Street at Artisan Woods gallery, the Pop Place Store (selling soda pop) and Duluth Trading Company's first retail store.
Where to eat and sleep
Bakery/coffee shop Sjolinds Chocolate House (sjolinds.com) also makes bean-to-bar chocolate. The 1860 Stone House (airbnb.com/rooms/5345379) is a rural hideaway, with shared bath. Campo di Bella (campodibella.org) is a working farm and winery, offering farm-to-table dinners and farmstays. In nearby Mount Vernon, the roadside bar Marcine's serves good burgers.
Mount Horeb Area Chamber of Commerce: 1-888-765-5919; trollway.com.
Betsy Rubiner, a Des Moines-based travel writer, writes the travel blog Take Betsy With You.