Viroqua, the county seat of Vernon county, sits perched on a high plain, overlooking the meandering hills in the “driftless” region of southwestern Wisconsin. The glaciers of the last ice age stopped short of this area, resulting in a landscape of winding rivers, meandering valleys and rolling hills peppered with sandstone bluffs. The varied terrain provides locals some of the best road biking in the country, world class trout fishing, and first-rate birding in addition to a wide variety of other adventures, including hiking, single-track mountain biking, canoeing, caving, golf, stargazing, and, in the winter, Nordic skiing and snowshoeing.
Capitalizing on the beauty and diversity of the region’s landscape, Bluedog Cycles opened for business in 2006 and has fostered an increased enthusiasm for outdoor recreation among locals and visitors alike. Under the guidance of Bluedog owners Pete and Alycann Taylor, the area has seen a steady increase in the number of public trails (entirely built and maintained by volunteer labor) open for mountain biking and hiking in the summer, and groomed for fat biking, cross country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter.
It is also worth noting that the progressive spirit of the town – along with a good quality of life and reasonable cost of living- has attracted many artists and other creative folks whose works and performances can be found at every turn —woodworkers, printmakers, potters, painters, fiber artists, theater groups, musicians and community singers, and storytellers permeate the community making a culturally dynamic place to live. Music, in particular, abounds with an abnormally high percentage of highly trained classical, rock, folk, jazz and “indie” musicians coalescing in Viroqua and calling it home. The recently formed Wisconsin Roots Music Cooperative aims to “create and operate a multi-stakeholder marketing and production cooperative composed and owned by artists, venues, studios, management organization agencies and consumers” while Driftless Books and Music —a bookstore/music venue housing nearly half-a million used books in an old tobacco warehouse— has drawn an increasing number of stellar out-of-town performers traveling between Chicago and Minneapolis bringing increased recognition and culture to this small town of 4000 residents. The Driftless Music Festival has also grown in size and scope since its beginning in 2012, attracting many of the best regional acts to be found.
The educational opportunities found in Viroqua are also noteworthy for a town of 4000. In addition to the public elementary, middle and high schools, Viroqua is home to a chartered Montessori elementary school, a Waldorf elementary and middle school, a chartered alternative High School, a Waldorf High School, and a folk school. There is even a micro-college currently in development and set to start classes in 2017.
It is the long and deep agricultural roots of Vernon County, however, that define the community most strongly and today the area is nationally recognized as a leader in the shift towards sustainable and organic farming. An influx of “back to the landers” in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s brought with it an emphasis on small scale, organic farming that continues to permeate the area, and has established the driftless area as having the highest number of organic farms per capita in the country. In 1988, a group of 8 original farmers founded the Coulee Region Organic Produce Pool Cooperative —today known as the Organic Valley brand and, with over 1,800 farmer-owners, the largest organic farmer-owned cooperative in the world.
Numerous platforms purvey the bounty of the land. From the Driftless Cafe which serves locally sourced lunches and dinners 5 days per week, to the Rooted Spoon –open Friday evenings for craft cocktails, finger-licking tacos, and ping pong—to locally crafted and honey sweetened Wisco-Pop, Viroqua has become somewhat of a locavore foodie paradise. The Viroqua Food Co-op, and the weekly Farmer’s Market both host a wide variety of locally grown, organic foods in addition to showcasing the wares of many local crafts-people. The deli at the co-op also offers reliably good meals 3 times a day, 7 days per week- usually featuring local meat and produce.
But the predominant quality of Viroqua is its spirit. With so many passionate and creative thinkers residing in one of the “poorest” counties of the state, a spirit of collaboration and creative problem solving saturate the collective ethos with a “can do” spirit. In short, the combination of good food, a strong land ethic, a wide variety of independent and creative thinkers, a commitment to community, and the rich offering of outdoor activities brings vibrancy and life to this small town, even on the darkest Wisconsin winter day.
Population: 4,318 Avg Temp in January: 22/4 Avg Temp in July: 80/58 Known for: Road & Mountain Biking, Canoeing, Local Food Initiative, Fly Fishing, Arts and Crafts, Music