History Along the Highway
HIghway 51 has been coursing through Wisconsin long enough to have seen its share of history. Part of the fun of exploring this or any other road is uncovering some of that history.
A marker between Beloit and Janesville along Highway 51 notes that Abraham Lincoln traveled this road not once but twice, in 1832 and again in 1859. (This was long before there was a U.S. Highway system, of course.) In 1832 Lincoln was serving with the Illinois Militia when it was called to join fighting in the Blackhawk Wars in the Wisconsin Territory and his company passed by this site. In 1859 Lincoln was gearing up for a run for the presidency and delivered speeches in both Beloit and Janesville, traveling past this spot on his way from one engagement to the other.
John Muir View
Outside of Poynette, Wis., is a marker denoting the “John Muir View”, a spot where the famed naturalist is said to have stopped on his hikes from Marquette County to Madison when he was a student at the University of Wisconsin. Muir later founded the Sierra Club and is considered the father of the national park system. There were no power lines to spoil the view back then.
The village of Plainfield (population: 880) is about as unremarkable as it can be but it is a village with a past. Plainfield was home to one of Wisconsin’s most notorious serial killers, Ed Gein. Gein had an unwholesome appetite for women’s bodies. His grisly crime spree started in 1947 when he began making clandestine trips to local cemeteries to dig up freshly buried corpses. He took them back home to dismember them and fashion their parts into fashionable accessories for his home. When authorities searched his home after his crimes were discovered they found a lamp shade made from the skin of a woman’s face, bowls made from skulls, chair seats covered in skin and entire “suits” made from human skin which Gein is said to have worn.
In 1954 Gein turned to murder to acquire the bodies he sought. He “only” committed two murders but the details of his crimes were so disturbing that they became a national sensation. His story is said to have inspired characters in the movies “Psycho”, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “The Silence of the Lambs”.
Don’t bother looking for Gein’s farm house if you visit Plainfield. The good people of Plainfield were so disgusted by his crimes that they got together and burned it down one night.
If you saw the movie “Public Enemies” you’ve seen Little Bohemia. The lodge was built in 1931 by Emil Wanatka whose lawyer, Louis Piquett, just happened to also be John Dillinger’s lawyer.
Northern Wisconsin was a popular destination for Chicago gangsters in the 1930s. In April 1934 Dillinger and some cohorts headed up Highway 51 to Manitowish Waters to hang out at Little Bohemia for a few days. Wanatka’s wife and her brother tipped off the U.S. Attorney’s office in Chicago that the gangsters were there and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover quickly ordered that a team be assembled to storm the lodge. Special Agent Melvin Purvis was in charge of the operation and bungled it badly. Two innocent civilians were shot dead as they were casually leaving the lodge after dinner and the bad guys all got away.
Little Bohemia is still there and is now a popular local supper club. Bullet-riddled windows from the night of the ambush are still in place and personal effects that Dillinger left behind are on display in the foyer.