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Four things to do before the autumn leaves fall

Sarah Kessler /Contributor

(Published Oct. 2, 2007, 3.29 p.m.)

It occurred to me while working my summer job, my arm half-buried in a tub of turtle ice cream as I repeated the directions to Lake Geneva for the hundredth time that day, that people come here, to Walworth County, for vacation.

All the whining I had done in high school about there being absolutely nothing to do in the area had been unfounded.  Walworth County is actually packed with interesting activities--enough to make it sixth out of 72 counties in Wisconsin at producing tourism revenue.

And, as tourist season dwindles to a close, fall is the perfect time to explore what draws visitors to Walworth County. So don't let the tourists have all the fun!  Go on vacation, locals, and do it without the bother of leaving the area.  Here are four activities to get you started:

1 Explore Geneva Lake

Lake Geneva is the city where Walworth County's tourist tradition started, according to Harold Friestad, the vice president of Gage Marine.

 Just before the Chicago fire in 1871, Chicago's wealthy began buying the land that surrounds the lake for $1.25 an acre.  The same year the fire hit, the Chicago and North Western Railway built a line to Lake Geneva, making it the perfect destination for escaping the charred city.

"Timing was everything," Friestad said.  "You had the railroad here.  You had the people who bought land here.  And then the fire kind of got them up here even more than they had planned on because they needed a place to stay for a while.  And, after that, this just continued to be a playground for Chicago's wealthy." 

         Even if you're not a Chicago aristocrat, you can still enjoy the lake they lounge on.  And you can do it without spending $35,000 on every foot of Geneva Lake lakefront property.

Geneva Lake remains one of the only lakes with a path around the entire shoreline--through the front yards of mansions--that is open to the public. 

If you're not up for the 20.2--mile 10-hour hike, you can take a boat tour of the lake on Gage Marine's Lake Geneva Cruise Line.  The tour provides the history and gossip of all the lakeside mansions.

Gage Marine also has exclusive access to the Blackpoint Estate, which has been open for tours since June 14.  The estate was built in 1888 and still contains most of its original furnishings.

It was turned into a museum by the state of Wisconsin because it is an ideal example of a summer cottage during that era.  That is, if you can call a 13-bedroom, three-story ornately decorated mansion a cottage.

2 Visit the 19th century

The 70,000 to 80,000 visitors Old World Wisconsin entertains each year is impressive for any attraction, even more so for one located in Eagle, a town of 5,125 people.

The costumed guides, 66 original historic Wisconsin buildings and live animals make Old World Wisconsin seem a little too real and a little too much fun to call a museum.

But a museum it is.  For anyone interested in the living conditions, farming techniques, or architecture of the 19th century, Old World Wisconsin is a history buff's paradise.

Not one of these people? There are also stilts, baby animals, puzzles, demonstrations of Old World tasks and games. One challenge, called graces, involves tossing rings back and forth using what look like giant chopsticks.

This area was lucky enough to have the ideal terrain, animal life and flora to be selected by the state of Wisconsin to host Old World Wisconsin, which was opened in 1976 as a bicentennial gift.          
Historic buildings were moved from every corner of the state--in chunks, piece and numbered bricks--to the site in Eagle. 

Three of them were moved from Walworth County--the Sanford House from LaGrange, the Loomer Barn from Sugar Creek and the Peterson Wagon Shop from Whitewater.

Even if your family's heritage isn't one specifically represented at the museum, Parker says it's still the perfect place to learn about your ancestors.

"This is a place where you can discover what makes you and your ancestors Americans," he said.  "It's a place to see how people from a variety of places--from Norway, from Finland, from Poland--came and over time transformed themselves into Americans ... and to have a great time doing it."

3 Stargaze at Yerkes Observatory

Not many people live near a place that can call itself "the birthplace of astrophysics."  But this honor is just one among many benefits of living in Walworth County.

Yerkes Observatory, the University of Chicago facility in Williams Bay to which we can attribute this bonus, houses the largest refractory lens telescope in the world.

  George Hale built the telescope in 1897; at the time it was the largest telescope of any kind in the world.  He later built two more telescopes that were bigger than the Yerkes Refractor and laid the groundwork for a third.
"One person single-handedly transformed the course of astronomy in the early 20th century," said Rich Kron, professor in the department of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago. "And it all started at Yerkes."

There are several advantages to having a giant telescope in your backyard that go beyond the Saturday morning guided tours of the facility. 

To begin with, there are 77 acres of land surrounding the telescope, which keep light pollution to a minimum. Although using the telescope requires a reservation and money, the excellent stargazing location surrounding it is open to the public.

Also, during daylight hours, the land surrounding the observatory becomes an ideal park for walking a dog or having a picnic.

And finally, when there is a particularly interesting event in the sky, scientists often invite the public to the observatory to look through small telescopes on the lawn.

Yerkes offers free Saturday tours year-round at 10 and 11 a.m. and noon. For more information about special programs, call 245-5555.

4 Pedal a Kettle

More than 20,000 years ago, two lobes of ice collided in southeastern Wisconsin.  They left ice buried in glacial deposits, which later melted and formed craters, or kettles, in the landscape.  In other words, Walworth County was bestowed with its great bicycling terrain. 

Paul Sandgren, the Southern Unit Kettle Moraine State Forest superintendent, estimates the 28 miles of John Muir mountain bike trails, located on Highway H in LaGrange, are ridden by 100,000 visitors every year.
"We're frequently told that the John Muir trails are the most popular trails in the Midwest," he said.  "The variety of terrain is one of their biggest attractions."

Road riding in the Kettle Moraine is also supreme.  The rolling hills, light traffic and beautiful forest scenery make portions of Walworth County major destinations for cyclists who prefer to stay on the road.
The Backyard Bike Shop in LaGrange hosts open road rides during summer and fall.  Owner Michael Bettinger said rides this summer attracted up to 40 cyclists.

He contributes the popularity of road biking in the Kettle Moraine to "the flow of the roads." 
Cyclists of any age are welcome to explore this "flow" with the Backyard Bike Shop group ride every Tuesday and Thursday night.
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