A DRAW TO THE DRIFTLESS
Local businesses pull visitors to the unique Wisconsin region
by Samantha Benish
Nearly 10,000 years ago, the southwestern corner of Wisconsin went untouched by the passing glaciers. In turn came its recognizable name: the Driftless Area, which indicates a lack of the deposits of silt, gravel and rock that retreating glaciers leave behind.
Its distinctive terrain is filled with carved bluffs, rolling hills and river valleys across more than 24,000 square miles. The geography is defined by a number of rivers, including the Mississippi, the Wisconsin and the Kickapoo. Fur trade settlers flocked to the area in 1783 in search of success, and despite their small population sizes, they began to develop towns and villages filled with rich history and prosperity.
Tourists come and go to admire the area’s geographical charm, hoping to escape to its peaceful tranquility.
However, the real story of the Driftless Area can be told by the people who live there. Locals contribute to the flourishing area with their remarkable drive, creating prosperous businesses in the heart of their homeland. Understanding their endurance unravels the true heartbeat of an often forgotten area of the state. It explores the raw, human narrative of the perseverance and sentiment that locals have for the place they call home.
PIER 4 CAFE
600 N. Main St., Alma
Nestled beneath the bluffs in the Upper Mississippi River Basin, Pier 4 Cafe sits quietly along the river in Alma. The bright red building is hard to miss. Located along Highway 35, one of only two roads in the small river town, it faces Lock and Dam 4 and the town railroad.
However, the charm of the cafe is on the inside, where its walls are filled with family portraits, school event calendars and town memorabilia.
It was exactly this charm that drew Elizabeth Walker to Pier 4 Cafe. She, along with her husband and two daughters, decided to purchase the restaurant in April 2020 — in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re like, let’s take the plunge!” Walker says. “It was trial and error the first year and you know, it’s been really well. The hardest part, of course, is your staffing.”
The town of nearly 700 is located on The Great River Road, which draws in tourists from around the country who come to see its breathtaking views of the Mississippi River Valley. The town is most popular in the summer months which leaves locals to struggle when the tourists disappear.
“We’re going on our third winter, and people still don’t know that we’re open all winter,” Walker says. “It’s tough. It’s blood, sweat and tears, and you just hope and pray that your locals will support you.”
Despite its slight population, Walker has learned throughout the years just how resilient her community is. Supporting the small businesses in Alma is what keeps it alive, she says.
“The locals, they understand,” she says. “You know, tourists come in and they don’t care what a cup of coffee or a steak dinner costs. But the locals are the ones that we’re trying to keep the costs low enough so they will come.”
That vibrant spirit and support is what keeps Alma on the map.
“How many times do you get to sit at a table and have a train drive by?” Walker says. “They thrive and love that like they’re little kids. Everybody just loves coming to Alma because everybody is so nice.”
For the past 52 years, Janet Erschen dedicated her life to what she loves most: her family, her hometown and flowers.
In 1970, Janet and her husband, John, started Erschen’s Florist after one of their daughters expressed interest in the craft. They began the small business in the basement of their family home, with eight children to fill the space.
“I found out that you have to be in the public’s eye for people to remember you and find you,” Erschen says.
When Erschen’s husband was laid off from his job of 23 years, the family decided to dedicate their livelihood to the practice. It wasn’t until Erschen’s husband was laid off from his job of 23 years that the family decided to dedicate their livelihood to the practice. The business was relocated to a larger commercial space in the heart of their hometown, and they continued to expand their reach into the surrounding area. Work began to pick up, and although Erschen was overjoyed, she struggled.
“When we first opened, people just did not pay their bills. Then I had all the kids at home,” Erschen says. “It was a hard time. On my breaks, I would go in the bathrooms and say a novena. Just so people would pay their bills.”
Days were filled with hard work and long hours. Erschen and her husband had a small staff but mainly relied on one another to get through each day, sometimes delivering the flowers themselves.
Despite numerous hardships, Erschen’s Florist prevailed and has brought decades of joy to Grant County. Erschen’s daughter and her husband now own and operate the company, including a second shop located in Platteville. However, 81-year-old Erschen continues to work weekends in the original Dickeyville shop.
“It’s a fun and joyous vocation,” Erschen says. “Working with flowers, it’s happy, and you make people happy.”
Lavon Heinricy, a current part-time worker at Erschen’s, has dealt with an array of emotions that come with working in the profession.
“You never know what’s going to happen,” Heinricy says. “You might get someone walking in here one day that’s just overjoyed because they just got a new grandbaby. Then the next day you’ll have a husband coming in, and he wants flowers for his wife because his wife is fighting cancer.”
“My husband used to tell me all the time, ‘This should have not been a flower shop. It should have been a guidance, counseling service for people,’” Erschen says.
Going on its fifth decade of service, Erschen’s Florist is a true testament to the value of hard work, sacrifice and hope. The shop represents more to the community than a place to simply purchase fresh flowers — it’s a place to connect and remember what matters most.
“This morning, the first customer I had said, ‘I am so grateful that you are still here,’” Erschen says. “They appreciate us here yet.”
WISCONSIN CLOTHING COMPANY
Corey Kaiser always knew he loved the state of Wisconsin. Growing up in Kieler, an unincorporated town in the far southwestern corner of the state, he learned to appreciate the unique features of his hometown — from the simplicity of privacy to the comfort of knowing everyone in town.
“I’ve lived in Kieler my whole life. When I went to school, I went to Platteville — I didn’t go too far away,” Kaiser says. “It’s just because I’m a very small-town vibes guy.”
In his final year of college, Kaiser discovered that he wasn’t the only one who felt this way: People loved Wisconsin, and they wanted to show it.
“I just knew that there was a market for people that for one, love the state as much as I do and that didn’t want to break the bank trying to buy clothes for them and their family,” Kaiser says. “We wanted to be able to have affordable, really good-quality clothing that all resembled the state in a lot of different ways.”
Kaiser began the 608 in 2018 and rebranded to Wisconsin Clothing Company in 2021. The brand creates high-quality clothing that is tailored to telling the unique story of Wisconsin — from its unincorporated villages to its largest cities.
“People are going to talk about it if they have nice clothes,” Kaiser says. “You want people to wear it and be proud to be a part of the small community that we have.”
Through trial and error, Kaiser exponentially grew Wisconsin Clothing Company’s reach. Social media has played an extensive role, with its total number of followers surpassing 50,000 across TikTok, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube. The brand opened up a second location in downtown La Crosse which Kaiser says has been valuable.
“You know, it’s like a puzzle. It’s like, you finally figure out where the last piece goes, so it’s definitely been a journey,” Kaiser says. “It’s been a lot of hours, but it’s been fun. For sure.”
Running a small business isn’t easy, and Kaiser finds himself doing most of the work behind the scenes. However, when situations become stressful or difficult, he remembers the reason why he started in the first place: to show his love and appreciation of his hometown.
“When we first started, they’re the ones who were buying the clothes and just supporting what I’m trying to do,” he says. “Without that, we’d probably be done, to be honest.”
“I always feel like it’s crazy that people give it such a bad rap, like if people don’t leave their town where they grew up. Some people don’t have to. Some people kind of find what they need and what they want right in their hometown.”
Featured photo by Samantha Benish.