September 06, 2022
This article was first published by MEUW in the Live Lines newsletter, Volume 71, Issue 9.
“The community of Brodhead is very warm; everyone loves everyone, and everybody is willing to help everybody,” shared Terri Chapman, executive assistant of Brodhead Water & Light. “I’ve lived my whole life here. Everything has changed, but everyone stays the same.”
Chapman was describing the people of the area while alluding to the many changes that have taken place over the decades. And she is an expert on all things Brodhead, having worked at the locally owned, not-for-profit utility for the past 38 years. After speaking with Chapman, one thing was certain: Brodhead is a place worthy of a closer look.
There are many ways to explore the community, but three stand out above the rest. The first option is to bike in using the Sugar River Trail, part of the Wisconsin State Park system and designated as a National Recreational Trail. The trailhead is in Brodhead, and the path follows 24 miles of a repurposed former railroad line ending at the New Glarus Woods State Park. The trail highlights southern Wisconsin’s natural beauty, crossing through farmland, woods, and prairies over a covered bridge and multiple wooden bridges.
A second, and increasingly popular, way to experience Brodhead is via an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) or utility-terrain vehicle (UTV). Brodhead has designated all streets, with the exception of First Street, as ATV and UTV routes. On any given day, visitors will notice locals driving their ATV to purchase groceries from Piggly Wiggly, meet friends at Bridges for the fish fry special, or simply out to enjoy an afternoon drive.
The third possibility is to arrive via water, on a floating tube slowly meandering down the Sugar River. Multiple businesses north of Brodhead rent out tubes and kayaks for customers to enjoy the great outdoors Wisconsin-style, with an optional tube designed specifically for coolers to hold beverages.
Navigating to Brodhead via river, visitors will float past the Three Waters Reserve. Located on land that once served as the area’s golf course, the reserve illustrates how, as Chapman indicated, everything in the area has changed. Today, the property is a conservation and regenerative nature center, with the former clubhouse transformed into an event space hosting weddings and other celebrations.
Further downriver toward Brodhead, where the Mill Race splits from the Sugar River, the Pearl Island Recreational Corridor is situated on land maintained by the city to keep the Decatur Dam accessible. In a community-wide effort a few years ago, everyone pitched in to create a park here for hiking and biking. Brodhead Water & Light donated time and machinery to aid the effort. The outdoor recreational amenities have paid off greatly, especially during the pandemic, when many residents took up walking the trail the two miles into Brodhead or the 0.6 miles up to the dam, enjoying the scenery and welcoming the social connection as they greeted friends and neighbors along the paths.
Tucked up along the bank not far from the dam is Sugar River Apiaries, supplying honey, beeswax, lip balm and more to people in the area. Owners Jenny and Mike Krause believe the business complements the other changes gradually unfolding in Brodhead. “I grew up here in Brodhead and it’s a place worth investing in,” shared Jenny Krause. “Without bees, we don’t have future crops. This is our way to take care of the land and provide a meaningful product.” The Krauses rent out their hives each winter to almond groves in California, where the bees help pollinate almond trees before making the return trip to their home along the Sugar River.
The Sugar River was diverted in the mid-1800’s for local flour mills, and tubers can portage the dam and remain on the river or pass through the headgates and float along the water race. Continuing down the waterway, which carries the formal name of Mill Race but is known fondly as simply the Race, one will arrive at the northern edge of Brodhead. The first sign that you’ve approached the city is the Brodhead Municipal Swimming Pool, which is set along the Race as part of Putnam Park.
Joining the land on either side of the Race beside the pool is a newly constructed covered bridge, an homage to the 130-foot Clarence Covered Bridge built in 1864. Although the original bridge was replaced in 1931 with a modern, non-covered counterpart, resident artist and barn muralist Frank Engebretson (1882-1972) drew many renderings of it over the years and it remains the namesake of the city’s Covered Bridge Days still being celebrated today.
At one point, the Race even generated electricity and powered the city. Maintaining Brodhead’s tradition of locally owned, not-for-profit power, the community is now a member-owner of WPPI Energy. In partnership with 50 other public power utilities, the joint action agency has a diverse, competitive and responsible power supply portfolio to serve member utilities and their communities.
If one chooses to skip the water and enter northern Brodhead using a more conventional method via Highway 104 or Highway 11, they will first notice a drive-through coffee shop, Bullwinkle’s Coffee & More. The coffee shop is a popular destination for grabbing a favorite latte, after which one can continue a block down the street to the Tastee Creme. You’ll want to remember and return to the location of this little trailer later, as the business has been serving ice cream to the children of Brodhead for many decades and is a true Brodhead delight. Located across the street from the baseball fields, it is the perfect destination to end a hot summer evening.
Travel straight on and you will pass a charming flower shop, 1st Center Floral & Garden, where the florist remembers each of the 20 Rose-of-Sharons purchased in the past year and can also tell you which ones survived the winter.
Just a few blocks further and one arrives at the downtown square where residents celebrate Covered Bridge Days, the Wildflower Art Festival, Autumn Fest, Fire and Ice, and many other community events. The idyllic square is surrounded by two-story red brick businesses encircling a pleasant white gazebo in the center.
Don’t forget to stop by the local airport, boasting of three grass runways, 50 hangers, and a museum all on 88 acres of land. Every February, you can witness planes equipped with skis at the Groundhog Chili Fly-in, which is open to the public. Or come in July for the Pietenpol/Hatz Fly-in, a national gathering for builders and pilots of the Pietenpol and Hatz series of home-built airplanes. The 12,00-square-foot Kelch Aviation Museum opened last year featuring vintage aircraft from the 1920s and 1930s.
Also keeping the city’s history alive is the Brodhead Historical Society and its museum at the restored Milwaukee Road depot, built in 1881. On the historical society’s webpage one can find many treasures, including the story of the pearl rush that took place along the Sugar River in the early 1900s producing southern Wisconsin pearls shipped far and wide, from London to Bombay. It was this period that likely led to the naming of the Pearl Island Recreational Corridor.
Another little-known fact is that Brodhead was built on the only desert spot in southern Wisconsin. According to the historical society, the sand prairie landscape was formed in the ice age, on the dry bed of an old glacial lake.
It is unsurprising to note that the area was known to numerous Native American tribes living there or simply passing through. According to both the historical society and Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources, “As late as 1861, a chief, with some of his tribe, camped twice each year, on the banks of the Sugar River.” The tribe told local settlers about a burr oak tree they used to mark the halfway point between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River. The designation was later confirmed by a US geological survey to be accurate within a few miles, and a plaque still commemorates the spot.
Throughout its rich and storied history and into the present, Brodhead continues to make its mark on today’s world. The community’s modern-day industry includes a world-renowned cheese producer. Decatur Dairy has won both national and international recognition, including the 2022 World Championship Cheese Contest best-in-class award for the company’s muenster curds. Producing cheese since the 1940’s, the factory recently broke ground on a 24,000 square-foot addition to expand production.
Another well-known company in Brodhead is Kuhn North America, which manufactures agricultural equipment such as spreaders, mixers, and tillage tools. On the occasion of US Senator Tammy Baldwin’s tour of the facility in April of 2022, Kuhn President Greg Petras remarked, “Thanks to the support of leaders like Senator Baldwin, we can continue to manufacture the equipment that feeds America. We are encouraged to hear about her efforts to strengthen America’s supply chains and build the next generation of skilled workers, allowing our company and our industry to thrive in Wisconsin and across the United States.”
Powering the community’s growth for well over a century is Brodhead Water & Light. Ed Hoff, superintendent, has witnessed firsthand the city’s progress for the past 28 years. Hoff’s big project over the summer was overseeing the construction of a second 7200-volt substation to replace two of the community’s 2400-volt substations. The new facility will add more capacity for industrial energy users and serve as a backup for the utility’s other 7200-volt substation.
Kuhn North America and Stoughton Trailers are the two largest industrial customers in Brodhead. The local Stoughton Trailers site is configured to produce 10,000 units per year.
Hoff describes the utility as a big supporter of the community and is proud to serve the people of Brodhead. The utility has acted as an expert resource for the school district’s many lighting projects over the past decade, as new technology enables the buildings to work more efficiently and cost the community less. Utility employees also distribute their children’s book, “A Day in the Life of a Lineworker,” to local students and offer scholarships each year in support of kids heading off to college.
Other community projects include updating the streetlights to LED lighting to further reduce costs for the city, and hosting a spot on local television to spread the message of the value of the public power utility.
Whether visiting Brodhead by water, trailways, or more traditional travel methods, plan to spend a little time uncovering the community’s many hidden gems. Treasures abound in Brodhead. You just need to know where to look.