To say that the House on the Rock is a collection of oddities is to underscore greatly what is inside. I am pretty much convinced that The House on the Rock is a purgatory of lost souls stored inside dolls and other carnival looking creations made by the creative and questionably sane mind of Alex Jordan.
Alex Jordan is the creator of The House on the Rock, which is located about 20 miles outside of Madison, Wisconsin – pretty much in the middle of nowhere. However, there are now resorts that cater just to the visitors to the House and the Wisconsin Wine Country that resides in this particular area of farmland.
Alex wanted to study under Frank Lloyd Wright, but Frank rejected him. So luckily, Alex had family money and a vision, a creative mind, and some architectural training and know how. He was also slightly obsessed. The original building of the House on the Rock was built on top of Deer Shelter Rock, a location special to Alex because his family picnicked there (as did many others in the 1930's and 40's before Alex's project took it over). Alex carried the majority of the building materials for the project up the 75 foot high rock, all by himself. He also did a majority of the work on the house all by himself, and was viewed to be eccentric at best. However, building the house was only the beginning, as the house became a curiosity that he could not keep at bay, Alex opened the house to the public and began his collections and creations. Creations including the world's largest carousel, self-playing musical instrument displays, dollhouses, and model boats (all of shipwrecks), and other things that one might not think to collect unless they had unlimited money and space (which apparently Mr. Jordan did).
The House on the Rock is featured in Neal Gaimon's book American Gods. Having now visited this place, I understand all the better why it had to appear in that book. If you are a fan of the strange and weird, or the roadside attraction, or the photo opportunity for no other reason but say "I've been here!" It is worth the trip to central Wisconsin to check out this landmark. Go however, with an open mind and a closed soul so you don't get sucked into purgatory and stuck there forever like this poor doll.
Also in the middle of Wisconsin, not that many miles from The House on the Rock, and near many other wineries is the Cave in the Mound. The cave is an amazing geological formation that was accidentally found in 1939 and was luckily turned into a park to preserve it and provide educational opportunities to the masses.
It also provided us with some really needed cool air, as the middle Wisconsin humidity and heat index on this fine day was punishing (if the House on the Rock was purgatory, Wisconsin was the fires of hell). Like your ice cream melting in the moment you remove it from the freezer kind of heat. The tunnel in the cave was a nice 50 degrees and quite pretty. I took almost a hundred photos that now look very similar looking back at them.
The cave is the result of water and limestone making some sort of chemistry and becoming a hive of stalagmites and stalactites. The grounds on the outside are devoted to education about rocks and minerals – and the sale there of. There were a lot of inviting rocks to take home, but since I now had vintage cookbooks, high school journals and half of Lake Superior's agates from Huron Bay, Michigan in my second suitcase I held back on the instinct to purchase large chunks of unfinished tiger's eye and other lovely pieces on display in the gift shop.
My favorite part of this visit was what I heard in the introductory video that said about the caves discovery in 1939. "New discoveries in Wisconsin are kind of unusual. Nothing surprising ever happens here." And the runner up comment from our faithful narrator. "This is one of the most beautiful caves of the Upper Midwest." Just think about that for a moment. It pretty much means its the most beautiful cave in Wisconsin and Minnesota – which is very accurate, but not that exciting.
After our cave adventure we checked the maps and it looked like we were about to hit afternoon rush hour in Madison again so we needed to blow a little time before making the drive back and going to dinner. So I suggested we check out one of the Wisconsin wineries that were all around us. We have drank wine in Tennessee and Georgia after all, why not try Wisconsin?
We did and the wine was actually good. Botham Vineyards had lovely whites, reds, and roses made out of varietals I never heard of resulting in balanced, drinkable and affordable bottles of wine. The majority were priced between $10 and $15 dollars per bottle. I was pleasantly surprised and impressed.
Now it was time to return to Madison and go to dinner. Dinner was a bit of a touchy spot because we had very different ideas of edible food and favorites in the car, no reservations, and no consensus. But instead of rounds of "I don't know, what do you want to do?" resulting in a mediocre compromise ruining my possibly one opportunity to eat yummy food in Madison – I took to the internet and found the top-rated places that had locally sourced ingredients and made a bold suggestion. Mint Mark was coming up all thumbs up from local foodies, critics and the average person who was willing to eat farm-to-table. It also appeared to have pork chops on the online menu so there was a simple Midwestern fall back for the group if need be.
It did not have pork chops on the menu when we got there (because it is one of those places where the menu changes every day) but it did have a picture of Anthony Bourdain on the wall and was at the location of an old bank and minting facility. Which I thought was really cool. I stepped into control the situation mode by declaring that I was buying dinner and we were just going to get one of everything on the menu. It was a good time to be generous to ensure that we tasted all of the things.
We had grilled cauliflower with parmesean
spicy nutty zucchini
perogis that tasted like Indian spices
chicken liver pate with black raspberries (a very local to Wisconsin specialty)
a local cheese plate
mushroom ravioli with asparagus
burrata with blueberry compote and cornmeal pancakes
beets with fishy flakes and
the best biscuit I've had in recent memory (beating out even the biscuits in Savannah). We finished it all with a shared dessert item of a baked chocolate chip cookie with whisky ice cream.
So good. Gooey cookie dough goodness topped with rich creamy light whisky flavor. I'm drooling remembering it right now. It was really a great food experience with such diversity made from ingredients local to the Wisconsin heartland, done in styles a little less domestic, but riffs on things that were well-known, and very vegetable forward.
We had one more stop as the sun was setting – a stop a the Almost World Famous Baumgartner's Cheese Store and Tavern for a Limburger Cheese sandwich.
There is nothing that says Wisconsin culture more than cheese, and specifically Limburger cheese. It is a special type of stink and funk that is Limburger – and albeit when my grandpa opened up a foil container of Limburger on his bar in Solon Springs, Wisconsin, next to a package of ground venison ("tartare" aka raw ground venison) with red onions and saltine crackers – I used to wrinkle my nose at the stinky cheese and grab a cracker full of raw meat instead. Today, on this day in Wisconsin, I wanted to do what the locals do and have my Limburger cheese sandwich. Even if I was already full of fancy farm to table food from Madison. When would I be back in Monroe, Wisconsin again?
The red onions and rye bread actually balanced out the sharp funk of the cheese in a surprising way. I managed to eat one half of the sandwich and wash it down with a schooner of New Glarus cherry sour beer for the sake of a palate cleanse. It was an experience I will never forget. Just like this day in the middle of Wisconsin looking at strange things.