PAOLI — Ever since a commercial artist ruined a man’s plans to turn the old grain mill here into a colossal car-crushing enterprise about 35 years ago, good luck has graced this quirky unincorporated village that draws an eclectic mixture of artists, bicyclists and nature lovers.
Bill Hastings saved Paoli when he outbid a scrap metal salesman for the historic mill buildings at a sheriff’s auction and then turned the structures and two other Civil War-era buildings into unique shops, art galleries and restaurants that have helped give the village its special ambiance.
The upbeat unofficial mayor of Paoli basks in the glow of its many successes, including its preparation for an expected influx of kayakers, canoeists and fisherman from a new Dane County park adjacent to Paoli that already has drawn rave reviews from shop owners here.
“What could we possibly hope for here that’s better than a nature park?” said a smiling Hastings from his office on the top floor of the main mill building that was built in the mid-1800s and kept the village vital until the end of the mill era in the early 1900s. “The park isn’t going to make or break the town. It can only enhance it. At least that’s what we’re hoping.”
The Falk Wells Sugar River Wildlife Area was created last year when the county reached an agreement with the Bruce Co. to acquire 466 acres in the town of Montrose that includes 2½ miles of the Sugar River that runs through it before heading through Paoli and Belleville. Already popular with fishermen because it’s full of trout and several other species of fish, the quick-flowing river also has great potential for kayakers and canoeists now that the county has cleaned up all the fallen box elder and cottonwood trees that had blocked clear passage.
“In my seven years here, I have never seen more excitement over a public land acquisition,” said Dane County Executive Joe Parisi. “That’s why we’re trying to be responsive as quickly as we can.”
Workers from the county and Trout Unlimited cleared out some shrubs and trees near a small section of rapids that empties into a pool chock full of trout near the Highway 69 and Paoli Road intersection and it quickly became a haven for fishermen and “en plein air” painters.
The county also is in the process of constructing a canoe launch on the north end of the park near the Sunset Drive and Highway 69 intersection. A trailhead for the start of a new bike trail is getting built there.
It’s busy in the village, too, and Hastings is in the middle of most of it. He gave his blessings to Mark Dilley and Dilley’s wife, Bonnie Lubet, to turn the upstairs of the Paoli House that he owns into an inn complete with two bedrooms, a sitting room and a kitchen. In its heyday more than 125 years ago, the Paoli House was a rooming house, saloon and brewery.
The hope is that everyone who travels to Paoli will want to stay there, including during UW-Madison football weekends. A group of four can stay there for $195 per night weekends and $175 weekdays during summer.
“The possibilities for this town are huge,” said Dilley, who, along with his wife, owns the Mill Park Gallery located on the first floor of the Paoli House.
Next door is a beat-up barn and some property that Hastings has for sale for $175,000. “It’s the last choice piece of real estate for sale in town so it will have an impact on its future,” Hastings said.
It has already generated interest from potential buyers, but Hastings has been a skeptical seller. For instance, he said he has turned away potential buyers who wanted to build condos on the property.
“That doesn’t fit the spot,” said Hastings, who admitted that he worries about protecting Paoli’s persona as well as its good fortune.
“We don’t want Paoli to get spoiled and that can happen,” he added. “I love this town because no franchises are here. There isn’t a Kwik Trip. No outsiders own anything here.”
It’s also historically close to the town that popped up in 1846 after Peter Matts built a sawmill over the Sugar River so he could use the water to power it. By the mid-1870s, the sawmill became a busy grain mill and Paoli grew to include a school, post office and two hotels.
Paoli’s fortunes took a hit in the late 1800s and early 20th century when the railroad bypassed the town and the mill era ended, but it still prospered for a while because of a theater group, a band and an excellent baseball team.
“It has been and always will be a place to love and a place to celebrate,” said Cherri Bell, who owns the Paoli Bread and Brat Haus that is located in the old mill’s flour house.
After Hastings bought the mill, he bought and renovated the one-room school house that was built in 1854 and then sold it to Debbie Schwartz, who turned it into the well-known and respected Schoolhouse Shops and Cafe.
The Artisan Gallery that is across the street from the Schoolhouse Shops and Cafe at Highway PB and Paoli Road has one of the best and largest collections of artwork in Wisconsin.
On the other end of Paoli Road, an old gas station that had fallen into disrepair has become Cluck, a store for owners of chickens, and fits perfectly with neighboring art galleries and shops. Across the street is Paoli Local Foods, which boasts a cafe that prepares local food from scratch and a grocery that sells organic foods like grass-fed meat.
What most of the stores and restaurants share in common is an open-door policy for bicyclists no matter how smelly or sweaty they appear when they walk in and ask to use the bathroom.
“I love the grocery. They let you use the bathrooms and give you water. They understand the whole cyclists thing,” said Jesse Lyne, 44, of Madison, who has been making the 40-mile, three-hour road trip from his residence near Madison East High School to Paoli and back about 10 to 15 times a year for 20 years.
Lyne said bicyclists from Madison love what is called “the Paoli loop” because it’s a good training ride. “Not too hard, not too long,” he added.
He also has mixed feelings about Paoli’s growth. “It’s the pastoral element of the ride that you like. You want to keep it to yourself, but the roads are busier,” Lyne said. “On the other hand, you like that it’s becoming stronger economically.”
The name of the park honors former county executive Kathleen Falk and her chief of staff, Topf Wells, both of whom did much of the initial work on the agreement with the Bruce Co. That news was welcomed in Paoli because Falk and her husband, Peter Bock, have been regular visitors and, like many others, usually travel there on their bicycles.
“They understand what makes Paoli so special to so many,” Bell said.
Some question how it survives economically when it caters mostly to bicyclists and artists. Theresa Able, the co-owner of the Artisan Gallery, said Paoli survives because it caters to what is important to many people who live in Madison.
“Maybe all things go hand in hand like buying local and the environment. All those interests are correlated,” she said.
Plus, while they might be sweaty and smelly, many of those cyclists are also educated, socially conscious and have disposable income. “Bikers come in here and find a painting they like on their credit card and then drive back later to pick it up,” Able said. “It works really well.”
There certainly is a Field of Dreams element working in Paoli. Hastings cleared away some trees along the banks of the Sugar River next to his mill a few years ago and, almost overnight, it became a popular site for weddings.
But he’s worried that a wedding could get disrupted someday soon if a kayaker or a group of canoeists decide to get out of the water right next to where the ceremony is taking place. It could turn into a full-fledged crisis if they, much like the bicyclists, need a bathroom when they arrive.
“Growth problems are better than others,” Hastings said while sporting a grin, “but they are still problems.”