Seven Acre Dairy Hotel is a Rural Wisconsin Treasure
By Brian E. Clark
I grew up working for a small dairy in the Midwest, delivering milk in bottles three early mornings a week during my high school days and even on return trips home from college. In the spring, summer, and fall, the sunrises were beautiful. In the winter, it could be painfully cold.
So when I read that a former milk processing plant on the banks of the Sugar River in Paoli, Wisconsin – population 153 – had been turned into a restaurant and boutique hotel, I knew I had to check it out.
Besides, I’ve long been a fan of the village of Paoli – named after Pasquale Paoli, a Corsican resistance leader – because of its renovated stone mill, cheese store, bike shop, music scene, and Schoolhouse Bistro. All of which is just a 15-mile bicycle pedal from my home, Madison, mostly on trails.
I’d seen the old plant – now dubbed the “Seven Acre Dairy” – and wondered what would become of the abandoned dairy cooperative, which had closed in 1980 after a nearly 100-year run and been used as an art gallery and other purposes since then.
Nic Mink had the same thoughts when he visited the burg. But Mink, who holds a doctorate in history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and ran a successful Alaska salmon distribution business from 2010 to 2020, did more than admire the old structure.
He liked it so much that he cobbled together a team of more than two dozen backers – some local farmers – plus loans from several banks and a couple of state and federal grants in 2021 to buy the plant. Then, he renovated the 21,000-square-foot building listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Two years and an investment of a whopping $11.2 million later, the spiffed-up former cheese and butter-making facility now consists of eight hotel rooms, a bar, a farm-to-table restaurant, and a cafe where visitors can get soft-serve ice cream, smoothies, sandwiches, and other light fare. There’s also a patio and a grassy area along the riverbank where Mink shows movies.
The Seven Acre Dairy is now attracting folks from the Madison area for dinner, date nights, music concerts, and ice cream, as well as overnight visitors from farther away, including the Twin Cities, Milwaukee, Chicago, St. Louis, and New York City. He said some of them are UW-Madison alumni visiting their old stomping grounds.
“This place could have been knocked down and developed with condos,” said Mink, whose titles are innkeeper and chief restoration officer.
“But I didn’t want that to happen,” added Mink, who teaches part-time at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, home to poet Carl Sandburg.
“As a historian, I saw a lot of what makes Wisconsin special in this place,” he said during a recent chat at the boutique hotel’s Kitchen Restaurant, where much of the food comes from nearby gardens and farms.
Mink, who grew up in Miami but went to summer camp in Wisconsin, said he wasn’t looking for a new project as ambitious as Seven Acre Dairy after he sold his share of Sitka Salmon.
“What I wanted to do was take some time off, which I did,” said Mink, who is 42. “I asked myself ‘what’s next?’ because I wasn’t ready to just sit around. I tend to think of my life in 10-year chapters. And I guess this is the next chapter.”
Mink said he and his artist wife, Danika Laine, had become enamored of Paoli and thought it would be a good place to build a small business.
“We really weren’t sure what it would be, but we did have an interest in hospitality and perhaps doing a pizza restaurant,” he said. “In a nutshell, we were inspired by our love for this little village. And as it turned out, the dairy building was for sale then.
“This was certainly a much bigger effort than we anticipated. But as we began to do due diligence on the property, we were inspired by the stories and the histories of the dairy farmers, milk haulers who delivered here, and the people who worked here, many of whom were Swiss immigrants.
“A lot of those memories were fading because those people are now in their late 70s, 80s and 90s. It became increasingly important and exciting to us to preserve this building and restore it in a way that kept the dairy in some fashion and preserved the stories of those who made this place their livelihood for many years.”
He said the campaign to revive the building was “community-driven.”
“And now I love it that people of all ages come here and play in the Sugar River, enjoy the building, stay overnight, dine, grab some ice cream, and appreciate the seven-acre green space and savanna that has been preserved,” explained Mink.
“That became the reason why we are doing this. It ultimately manifested itself in a farm-to-table restaurant and hotel. I think it’s pretty cool that just last night, a former milk hauler came here for dinner,” added Mink, who said the establishment will soon have a micro-dairy making artisan butter.
There are photographs on the walls of a common space in the hotel that tell the stories of the Swiss and German farmers in the area and the award-winning butter and cheeses produced in the plant.
“In fact, we are getting meat and vegetables from the descendants of some of those same families,” he said.
As for the lively bar, he said the wood used for it was harvested from trees on the site as part of the effort to restore the oak savannah. Furniture also came from felled trees.
The interior decor is boldly unique. One of the paintings on a back wall showcases a giant rooster.
“The eclectic colors are bright on purpose because I told the artist that I wanted it to feel like a ‘farmhouse on acid,'” Mink said with a chuckle. “I’d say we achieved that goal.”
Outside on a slope where visitors can stroll, there is a collection of blue, totem-like “birdzel” statues by Michigan artist Mark Chatterley that stand above the Sugar River among tall oaks.
“They are sentinels that look out over the land,” he said.
When my partner and I visited, we stayed in the comfy Creamery room with an eight-foot circular window in the wall where a large milk tank was once located.
Mink said the Thalmann Suite – the largest in the hotel – was named for Otto Thalmann, “our factory’s big cheese, who produced award-winning butter and cheese known statewide.”
Likewise, he said, the Bolstead Suite is named for L.L Bolstead, “who put our little factory on the map, taking honors for the state’s finest butter twice in the 1910s. He was one of the most celebrated butter makers of his time.”
We had cornmeal-crusted fried bluegill for dinner, a cheese-covered zucchini dish, roasted mushrooms, and sunchokes from nearby farms. Dessert was, of course, ice cream served on apple pie.
“Nearly all the food comes from farms within several miles of Paoli,” he said. “I describe it as farmstead fine dining with dishes you can share.
“We wanted to do something like an old-school neighborhood food shed, where you’d be going to neighbors to get eggs and cheese and milk and chickens to make your meals. Hyper-local sounds a bit like navel-gazing, but that’s pretty much what we are doing.
“Our beef, our veal, a lot of dairy and cheeses, our lettuce and zucchinis, beets and tomatoes are all coming from neighbors’ farms.
“You could go into our kitchen now, and 90 percent of your food came from the farms down the road and traveled less than a mile. That’s certainly less than you traveled to get here, even if you live in Madison, about a dozen miles away. I think that’s pretty neat.”
Mink said when he was working on his doctorate, he never imagined that he would one day become an innkeeper.
“Then again, I wasn’t quite satisfied with the traditional academic model,” he said. “I never really wanted to do research for research’s sake. But I always was interested in having a public component of my work.
“So I think what we’ve done here is part of the ‘Wisconsin Idea,’ that work you do at the university should go out into the community and improve the lives of others. That was important to me, even when I was deep in the archives doing pretty arcane stuff as a historian.’
Mink said Seven Acre Dairy is a reflection of that concept.
“This is a public place, too, because of the storytelling” he said.
“There are hundreds of thousands of dollars of investment in what might be called ‘historical interpretation.’ Preserving the histories of the buildings and the stories of the people who worked here that’s graduate work in history.
“Which pleases me a lot, because I always wanted my research to go out beyond the ivory tower.”
Visit Seven Acre Dairy.
Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.