Former Milwaukeeans find serenity and community in small-town Viroqua
During the last Ice Age, the glaciers bypassed southwestern Wisconsin, preserving the rocky, mountainous landscape that's very different from lefse-flat parts of the state, like Milwaukee, that didn't escape the massive ice sheets.
The unique character of the region – dubbed the "driftless region" by geologists because it doesn't feature the "drift" of gravel and boulders left behind by glaciers – features an abundance of ridges, hills, valleys and sandstone bluffs.
The varied terrain offers some of the greatest biking, canoeing, caving, skiing, hiking and trout fishing in the country. It also inspired a plethora of organic farms – the area has the highest number of organic farms per capita in the country – and attracted several thriving Amish communities.
The progressive spirit of the town – along with a reasonable cost of living – has drawn many artists, "hippies" and other creative-minded business people to the area in search of a simpler, nature-rich lifestyle since the '70s.
There are about 4,400 people living in Viroqua, the county seat of Vernon County, and it's located just over three hours west of Milwaukee. In recent years, myriad Milwaukeeans relocated to the town and last month OnMilwaukee.com went to find out why.
"After so many years in the city, I was starved for the sort of lush plant and animal life that you see here, and for the quiet life offered by this hilly country," says Jennifer Morales, a writer, teacher and activist who lived in Milwaukee for two decades before moving to Viroqua with her partner, Keren Orr, in April.
Morales fell in love with the area during a bike trip in the '90s. Although drawn to the driftless area, she moved to Milwaukee and had two sons. After they graduated high school, she decided to move to Viroqua where she and Orr bought a trailer about five miles outside of town.
So far, the country life agrees with Morales, who is currently writing "the great American lesbian divorce" novel. She also has a collection of nine short stories about race relations in Milwaukee coming out in the spring of 2015.
"The quiet is really important to me," says Morales. "I love the city and I love the diversity of people, but for my sanity and my writing I need a place where there's a lot less going on."
The desire for a quieter life, both literally and figuratively, is one of the main reasons why many former Milwaukeeans relocated to Viroqua.
"I don't even have a radio in my van. My whole day is quiet and I really like that," says Mike Koppa, who moved from Milwaukee to Viroqua in 2004. "The only noises I hear are the birds, the wind and the chimes."
In 2001, Koppa, and his wife Vicki, purchased land in the town of Liberty, about 10 miles outside of Viroqua. Over time, leaving the cabin became more and more difficult.
"The more we came out, the more we wished we could stay," says Koppa.
Koppa, whose family owned Koppa's Farwell Foods on the East Side, worked in the grocery store and later as a beer sales representative, teacher, artist and waiter. All the while, he pined for a different life and started to investigate employment possibilities in Viroqua.
Koppa applied for a graphic design position at Organic Valley – the largest employer in the area – but did not hear anything from the company for a few months. Finally, on the same day he quit his serving job, he received a call from Organic Valley and was offered the job.
Koppa worked at Organic Valley for seven years before buying a gravestone-engraving business called Viroqua Lettering. Over the course of seven months, he engraves 700 "final dates" on gravestones within a 60-mile radius of Viroqua.
Before Koppa committed to buying the business, he agreed to try the job with the original owner for three days. After two days, he knew it was right for him and today he refers to obtaining the business as "the ultimate prize."
"Some people prefer to be outside all day, and I'm one of them," he says. "I have a very simple job to do. It needs to be done well."
Vernon is the second poorest county in Wisconsin and finding work can be a challenge. Many people move with a business plan in place or with a willingness to piece together a variety of different jobs, at least temporarily.
"People don't just end up here. They consciously come here to be a part of something, but something that's not defined," says Eddy Nix, owner of Driftless Books and Music, located in the former Viroqua Leaf Tobacco Co.
Rachel Jepson Wolf, who grew up in Brookfield and attended the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, moved to Viroqua eight years ago with her husband, Pete, and their business, LuSa Organics.
"Many people come here with the awareness they need to bring their own income with them," says Wolf.
Today, they both work full time at LuSa, which offers a line of natural body and baby care products online and in many Wisconsin businesses including Beans & Barley.
Owning their own business has allowed the couple to homeschool their two children.
"For many reasons, this is the right place for us," says Wolf. "A friend once said Viroqua is the intersection of our values and our 'non-negotiables' and she was right."
Lynn Kronschnabel, who lived in Milwaukee for 18 years before moving to the Town of Kendall and then to Viroqua, created her own opportunities. She and her former husband, Mike Bieser, started Fizzeology, a fermented foods business that's still in existence today.
When the couple divorced, Kronschnabel reinvented her professional self and started Del Sol Chocolates, an "artisan bean to bar chocolate workshop," at the end of 2013.
Kronschnabel says Viroqua businesses are very supportive of one another and will occasionally take turns delivering each other's products to nearby cities.
"Viroqua is a wonderful place for food entrepreneurs to test products," she says. "The co-op is very supportive of new, local products and there are so many foodies in the area."
But not everyone moves to rural Viroqua with a cemented plan. Nine years ago, Erin Murdock, along with her husband, sister, two daughters and pets, packed up their Subaru and rolled into Viroqua without a place to live.
"We took a leap of faith," says Murdock.
The family stayed at a motel for a few weeks and eventually moved into a permanent place. The couple later bought a home. (Notably, they never received a key to the house nor have they needed one because they, like so many in Viroqua, never lock their doors.)
Murdock heard about Viroqua through friends at the Tamarack Waldorf School in Milwaukee and visited a few times with her family before deciding it was the right place for them.
"I was on a very different path before moving to Viroqua, but I can honestly say the Murdocks are happier here," says Murdock. Page 1 of 2 (view all on one page)
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