More than a decade before Laura Ingalls played on the banks of Plum Creek, and 70 years before the fictional Kit Kittredge solved mysteries in Ohio, a girl named Caroline "Caddie'' Woodhouse roamed the Wisconsin wilderness.
To many readers, Caddie was the first and best American Girl.
She came of age during the Civil War and loved the outdoors, gathering hazelnuts in the woods, dodging rattlesnakes on the bluff and poling a log raft on the lake.
When I was a child, I had a wild imagination. Anything would fire it up, especially tales of exploration: in dank, twisting caves; along rushing creeks shadowed by stone bluffs; on sun-kissed hilltops, with the world stretching out all around.
And I loved the tales told by two real-life childrens-book heroines: the resourceful tomboy Caddie Woodlawn, who roamed the wilderness of western Wisconsin during the Civil War, and Laura Ingalls Wilder, who relished life in the Big Woods above Lake Pepin before they became farmland.
Western Wisconsin, it seems, has fired many young imaginations. One September, I took my own two children there, on a 185-mile tour with six spots that appeal particularly to kids.
In Chippewa Falls, people owe a debt to two kinds of folks: the bubbas and the geeks.
The first came to harvest the lumber and stayed to drink the beer, or so claims the brewery: "It takes a special beer to attract 2,500 men to a town with no women,'' says Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing, founded in 1867 and now the oldest business in town.
Then came the guys with slide rules. Seymour Cray, the son of the city engineer, spent his childhood in Chippewa Falls tinkering with radios, then went off to war and college.
On Wisconsin's Kinnickinnic River, paddling is a lot like playing pinball except your boat is the ball.
Quickened by springs and creeks as it flows toward the St. Croix, the Kinni is no lazy river.
There are certain bicycle trails that inspire loyalty in those who ride them.
For many, its the trail thats closest to home. For others, its the trail that runs by a really fine restaurant. And for some, its the route with the most wildlife.
One of my favorite trails, the 14½-mile Red Cedar State Trail out of Menomonie, Wis., has all of these things and more. Its one of the least crowded trails, because the crushed-limestone surface keeps some people away.
In the western Wisconsin college town of Menomonie, shops and restaurants come and go.
One building will stay for the ages: the Mabel Tainter Memorial Theater, built of sandstone blocks backed by brick.
Lumber baron Andrew Tainter built it in memory of his daughter Mabel, who died at age 19 of a burst appendix. With two renovations, the town has polished its gloriously golden interior, fit for a Moorish princess.
The can-do spirit of the 19th century can be felt everywhere along a 19½-mile stretch of the Chippewa River.
Jean Brunet built his own dam and sawmill in 1836 and piloted his first raft of lumber to Prairie du Chien himself. Jacob Leinenkugel arrived in 1867 and founded the Spring Brewery.
Ezra Cornell bought up logging and mineral rights in the area, which became the logging center of the world in the 1880s, although the profits went to Ithaca, N.Y., where hed founded Cornell University.