Monroe County, Wisconsin

January 31, 2024

Monroe County, Wisconsin

A picturesque county with much to offer


Putting its residents first, Monroe County provides the right vision

In many ways, Monroe County offers residents and business owners the perfect combination of tranquility and opportunity. Nestled between the Wisconsin Dells and the Minnesota border in the west-central part of the state, it is centrally located close to most large metropolitan areas in the Midwest with convenient accessibility to Interstates 90 and 94. Green Bay, Madison, Minneapolis, and Milwaukee are all less than 190 miles away. Rochester is around 100 and LaCrosse is just a half-hour drive. With such a desirable location, it is no wonder that residents are proud to call Monroe County home.

Much of Monroe County is covered by the Driftless Region. encompassing portions of three neighboring states as well, this region avoided the flattening effects of glaciation during the last ice age. Its beauty is highlighted by steep and heavily forested ridges, large river valleys, and an environment that offers spring-fed waterfalls, and other outdoor delights.

Monroe County is also known for its trout fishing, hiking, canoeing, kayaking, and more, drawing visitors to the region.

Key initiatives for residents

Although enjoyed by tourists and visitors for its unique assets, putting the needs of its residents front and center takes precedence for the county’s local leaders who continue to devote their efforts to key infrastructure initiatives.

One example is the county’s Broadband Project, which is managed by local co-op Vernon Communications. While the plan to provide all areas of the county with top-of-the-line broadband services may take a few years, it was be launched in 2023 with plans to offer the service to six initial communities.

“What we can successfully sell is clean water, valleys, and beauty with a lot of access to multicultural diversification,” says County Administrator Tina Osterberg. “There can be some places that are hard to get to but for some (residents) that is part of the appeal.”

Monroe County is located in the driftless area of Wisconsin, untouched by the last glacier where the origins of 4 rivers wander through the Wisconsin & Mississippi River basins. Blessed with beautiful landscapes which often turn violent in these extreme rain events has led to flooding challenges in recent years, with damage resulting in three breached dams in the historic Coon Creek Watershed.

Local officials, community leaders, and residents have worked together to create a cohort designed to improve flood resilience in these vulnerable watershed, helping to strengthen land sustainability and recreation. The Climate Change Task Force comprises a group of staff and residents investigating how to respond to recent flooding incidents and the increase in rain intensity.

In all Monroe County covers more than 580,000 acres with a population of around 46,000. About half of the county is covered with forests. The presence of artesian wells and the many outdoor wonders helps to bring in regional and national visitors, says Monroe County Board Chair Cedric Schnitzler, who has spent his entire life in the area. Many families of German, Norwegian, and other diverse backgrounds populate its communities.

“There’s always something for (our residents) to do,” Schnitzler says.



Evolving industries in agriculture and elsewhere

The county has traditionally been known for agriculture, particularly in the dairy sector. Much of the dairy business has disappeared over the years because of technology and consolidation, with some of the former dairy structures and barns being transitioned to event venues, recording studio and Distilleries to name a few. However, an increase in poultry manufacturing has helped to fill the void.

Agriculture as a whole remains critical to the community, as many farms excel in providing organic produce. The conversion from dairy production has meant an increase in row crops, orchards, and beef farming as well as poultry, says the county’s Land Conservation Director Bob Micheel.

One of the country’s leading agricultural producers is Organic Valley, a cooperative of farmers producing award-winning organic milk, cheese, butter, produce, and other items. It supports small, organic, and often family-owned farms that not only produce high-quality products but have a positive impact on people, animals, and the general environment.

Fort McCoy is a training center, mobilization force, and strategic support area used for training members of the military. It is known as the Total Force Training Center because Fort McCoy supports active military personnel from all branches of the US. Armed forces. Named for Robert Bruce McCoy, the son of a Civil War captain, Fort McCoy has been used for military purposes since the early 1900s in the city of Sparta.

According to Schnitzler, Fort McCoy has a $2 billion economic impact on the region annually and provides a stabilizing impact to both the county’s economy and its social environment.

Today the village of Warrens is known as the state’s “cranberry capital.” That’s significant given industry estimates that Wisconsin produces more than 95 percent of the world’s cranberries. They are native to the marshlands of central Wisconsin, having first been harvested by Native Americans in the region.

While agriculture is the county’s prominent industry, there is a push for ongoing economic development, says Osterberg. The county is actively seeking ways to attract new businesses and plans to host economic development conferences to support it.

The aforementioned musical scene is supported by McPherson Guitars, known for the manufacturing of high-quality wood and carbon fiber acoustic guitars. Located in the city of Sparta, McPherson Guitars will attract artists from around the world to perform in the county. Another growing business in Sparta is Mathews Archery, which manufactures and sells hunting and competition-bows and related gear to a global customer base.

A home to many community events

Given its modest population in such a beautiful and picturesque part of the state, Monroe County is serious about its festivals and annual events.

Some of the more notable ones include the Warrens Cranberry Festival, which is held every September. It has grown into one of the Midwest’s premier fall gatherings with shopping, food, and other fun activities. It can attract up to 150,000 people per year with everything from marsh tours to art and craft booths, antique markets – and of course food and music.

The Monroe County Fair held the last weekend in July features grandstand entertainment and activities, 4-H competitions and displays, arts and crafts, rides, and much more. The Tomah Tractor Pull held in the city of Tomah attracts many of the top tractor pullers from around North America. The Budweiser Dairyland Super National Truck and Tractor Pull contest at that event is one of the most highly respected competitions of its kind annually.

Other notable county events include the Fort McCoy Armed Forces Day with interactive activities and military equipment displays held each May and the Monroe County Dairy Breakfast in June which includes the best breakfast experience you will find with educational displays, farm tours, horse-drawn wagon rides, and more.

The Sparta Butterfest offers numerous events and a softball tournament each June that draws some of the top teams from around the Midwest. Finally, if Friday night fish fries are your thing, there are many options throughout the county.

“We’re rich in traditions and we like to gather together and have fun,” says Schnitzler. “Every municipality has some sort of festival.



County infrastructure and attractions

Road infrastructure is key, says County Highway Commissioner David Ohnstad. There are 667 lane miles of state highways in the county alone.

Recent building upgrades have included the newly constructed Rolling Hills Senior Living Center by Sparta. Monroe County management is looking to consolidate its officers to highlight additional efficiencies as well. Says Osterberg, “We always want to be forward-thinking.”

Perhaps the county’s biggest attraction is its Rails to Trails open to all. The Elroy-Sparta State Trail is a 32-mile route that winds through five communities, four of which are in Monroe County: Kendall, Wilton, Norwalk, and Sparta.

The most unique features of this trail are the three train tunnels that range in length from a quarter mile to three-quarters of a mile. They are particularly popular in the summer, offering a cool reprieve for travelers venturing along the path. The La Crosse River State Trail is 22 miles long and parallels the La Crosse River between Sparta and La Crosse.

These two trails also connect with the Great River State Trail to the north and the 400 State Trail to the south, creating a continuous bike route stretching more than 100 miles long.

“It’s one of the highlights that makes us such a family-oriented county,” Osterberg says.

Monroe County also offers highly rated schools and healthcare facilities, including Tomah Health and (VA) Veterans Affairs Hospital in Tomah and Gundersen and Mayo Clinic Health Systems in Sparta.

If you like classic architecture and impressive old buildings, the Monroe County Courthouse is a historic building constructed in 1895 and located in downtown Sparta. Just about any city or village in the county has a thriving, unique downtown area full of activities and a growing number of hospitality options year-round.

Looking ahead

According to Ohnstad, Monroe County residents don’t want it to become a “traditional suburban area.” By focusing on the environment, the people, and what’s best for those who live, work, and play in the county, Monroe County will continue to be a place where many choose to build their lives.

“Environmental aesthetics is what draws people here,” says Ohnstad. “But we also need to support opportunities for industrial growth as well as recreation and we work every day to do that.” Local access to state and county highways will help with that, he adds. The county is always creating new partnerships with conservation groups and modernizing its operations and systems.

Above all, residents in Monroe County are “free, willing, and looking to have fun in their lives,” Schnitzler says.


Monroe County, Wisconsin

What: A strategically located, naturally beautiful county with key infrastructure projects in the works

Where: Wisconsin, USA



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January 2024 cover of Business View Civil and Municipal

January 2024

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