“Well, hello there!” from Ben Bikin! Ben is the honorary, mostly-silent mayor of Sparta, a small town known as the “Bicycling Capital of America.” Ben stands (well, sits) 32 feet high on his 1890’s Penny Farthing bicycle. Check the Chevy Suburban in the photo for a sense of scale! That’s right, Ben Bikin is livin’ large (really large) in Sparta.
We’ve been a lot of places that could vie for the title of Bicycling Capital, so why does Sparta get the nod? Because they have the first-ever railroad bed to be converted to a bike/hike trail way back in 1967, effectively starting the “Rails To Trails” movement.
The Elroy-Sparta State Trail is a 32.5-mile Wisconsin State rail trail between Elroy and Sparta, Wisconsin.
Besides miles and miles of a gorgeous trail completely isolated from traffic, the highlight of the Elroy-Sparta trail are a series of abandoned railroad tunnels. The longest tunnel (#3) is 3,810 feet long … almost 3/4 of a mile … so long that the light of the outdoors at either end disappears completely once you enter! Knowing this, we had lights on our handlebars, but still …. eeek! It was a little creepy, in the most fun, best possible way.
It was also freezing cold, and dripping wet. The natural rock walls seep water from overhead, drip out as small waterfalls in various locations, and create little rivers on the sides of the raised path. At the darkest parts, it was too pitch-black to safely ride, so we walked the bikes. It was also so hollow and echo’ey that you could barely understand the words of the person talking right in front of you! What a trip!
This was super-cool, but not our FAVORITE rails-to-trails path! Wondering which one gets top honors? Check out the Hiawatha Trail in eastern Idaho! A 15-mile bike ride, downhill all the way, through gorgeous forests with incredible scenery, along the path of a historic abandoned railway route, through 10 train tunnels and over 7 sky-high trestles, with a shuttle to take you back to the top when you’re done? Yes, please!
But back to Ben Bikin. He was created by a local company called FAST, which stands for Fiberglass, Animals, Shapes, and Trademarks. Their mold “graveyard” is a quirky stop and a totally fun place to wander around.
The grounds are full of molds that were used for all those iconic fiberglass roadside giants that dot the country, especially on classic road routes like Route 66. Perhaps you recognize this fella?
Or maybe this one! It’s lookin’ mighty familiar to us!!!
If you recall from a prior post, we visited Pinky the Elephant (Nearsighted Pinky) just outside Madison, and subsequently spotted another Pinky the Elephant (Top Hat Pinky) near Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. Though they aren’t exactly the same as the mold, FAST’s brochure does note that they have made a number of pink roadside elephants.
Besides fiberglass statues and roadside attractions, FAST also makes themed water slides, magical playground equipment, and all kinds of larger than life creations. If you can dream it, they can build it! It was a blast to stroll around unfettered and to pick out what these molds had turned out.
Another free-to-visit and fun-to-wander place outside Sparta is the Wegner Grotto. Dubbed a “sculpture complex,” and now a county park, it’s a small property filled with fascinating creations that were all made from shards of glass … even the fences surrounding the park!
Paul and Matilda Wegner lived in this very spot, and after retiring from farming and sending their 5 kids on their way around 1929, needed something to do. They started building things out of concrete and embedding broken glass shards (… and the occasional chunk of a piece of a dish, gunpowder casings, Indian arrowheads …) into them.
They had no formal art training, and presumably very farming-toughened hands to survive this hobby. The Glass Church is the showcase of the place, a tiny chapel that can hold 7 people. Regular church services were held here for hundreds of people on Sundays throughout the 1930s.
Besides church services, over 70 weddings (and one funeral — Paul Wegner’s himself) have been held, and you can still get married here today if you make special arrangements.
The door was locked, but through the window we spotted the altar. Beautiful!
Our favorites were the prayer garden, and a full 12-foot-long replica of the USS Bremen, the ocean liner that carried them to American in 1885, made out of seashells and telephone pole insulators.
Fittingly, Paul and Matilda’s headstones, in a mostly-unnoticeable graveyard down the road from the Grotto, are similar encrusted with the broken glass they became known for.
If you like the quirky kind of “grassroots art” as much as Paul and Matilda Wegner did, you’ve got to check out Lucas, Kansas!
Sparta is a quiet, country kind of place … just the way we like it! Doing our grocery shopping at a charming “honor stand” like this, stuffed with fresh fruits, veggies and home-canned delights, make us question why-oh-why we live in a big city!
Meanwhile, my love affair with RV Destinations Magazine continues, because even though I write for them, I also soak up every word of all the other articles and all the destination inspiration every time a new issue comes out, as it just did this week!
WANNA SEE FOR YOURSELF? You can get a free year's subscription to this gorgeous online mag at https://www.rvdestinationsmagazine.com/subscription12! Just enter your email and you'll get instructions on how to register to read my most recent article about McCall, Idaho (plus many many more) for a year!
That’s it for our brief stop in Sparta … next we’ll be hitting the road (like this guy, but without a mailbox between our legs) for a grueling 30 mile journey to La Crosse, WI!