When you've been around as a Wisconsin Dells tourism town for 150+ years, it's inevitable that some attractions will be viewed as more "flashes from the past" than nods to the future. Good thing residents of the Dells have found those "flashes" to be worthy of preservation and visitors have found them to be worthy of continued patronage, because some of these are the last of their kind.
We'll start a short drive out of town in a quaint little community known as Baraboo. There you'll find a national historic landmark -- Circus World. The Ringling Bros. Circus was founded in Baraboo in 1884 by five Ringling brothers and, naturally, they named their property in Baraboo "Ringlingville." This compound along the Baraboo River served as the winter quarters for the troupe. The buildings date from 1897 and, while they are the largest surviving group of original circus structures in North America, the museum's collection of circus artifacts may just be the largest in the world. It includes more than 210 original wagons and an exceptional collection of thousands of circus ads and posters. You can't miss the Buffalo Bill Wild West poster which measures nine feet high by 70 feet long. During the warm weather months, take in a performance in the Hippodrome, see live animals and daydream about what it must have been like to be a circus performer all those decades ago.
For the next stop, it's the Mid-Continent Railway Museum in the town of North Freedom. Stroll museum exhibits of steam locomotives that date back to the 1880s and then hop aboard a restored steel coach for a 50-minute ride through the countryside.
As long as we're on the subject of transportation, let's add to the itinerary a horse-drawn wagon ride at Lost Canyon Tours, located on the south shore of Lake Delton, back in the Dells. This mile-long tour gets you so close to cliff-walled gorges that it's a wonder the large Percheron horses don't get spooked. According to the guides, who really live the part, the deeper recesses of Lost Canyon have not felt the touch of the sun in more than 50,000 years.
Then it's on to Parsons Indian Trading Post & Museum. This business was opened in 1885 by Glenn Parsons, an honorary chief of four Native American tribes and a local river boat captain. Today it stands as one of the world's largest purveyors of Native American gifts and artifacts. Beaded moccasins, satchels, ceremonial capes and bold jewelry are inspired in both their design and technique. Parsons features the work of tribes from the United States, Canada, Mexico and Central America.
No historic tour is complete without a visit to the H.H. Bennett Studio, believed to be the oldest business in the Dells. Here, you'll see haunting images of Native American tribespeople and loggers, even Bennett's family. It was Bennett's other-worldly photos of the river and bluffs that helped turn Wisconsin Dells into a bustling tourism town.
Last stop is the Big Sky Twin Drive-In Theater with its two big screens, each featuring a first-run double feature. Before the show starts, make a dash for the snack bar for some hot buttered popcorn, icy cold soda and sticky cotton candy. Now that'll take baby boomers back.