The Trail to Riley Tavern

The day a bicycle ride in pursuit of beer and pizza took a fateful turn.
An illustration of a man and woman holding bicycles at the end of a trail, and the trail leads to a house in the distance
Illustration by Casey Hoaglund

I pushed my secondhand mountain bike through the crowd, my oversized “Hier for Das Bier” T-shirt a stark contrast against a sea of Spandex. This was July 2019. My husband and I had just arrived at a Verona parking lot that claimed to have easy access to both the Ironman Wisconsin loop and the Military Ridge State Trail. Perhaps I should have felt a bit self-conscious as I made my way through the super-athletes-in-training, each unloading pricey bicycles and stretching their lean muscles before a group ride. But I was focused. I had my eyes on the prize. These cyclists filled their back pockets with “nutrition” for their lengthy ride, but we had come in search of real food. We were destined for pizza and beer at the Riley Tavern, just 6 miles down the trail. As the cyclists headed south toward their impressive loop, we mounted our bikes and headed west for our leisurely Saturday adventure.

The first 2 miles of our journey were a delight. I gushed about how lucky we were to live in a place like this, and my husband agreed. Such easy access to so much natural beauty, I told him. Again, he agreed. We pedaled along, enjoying the sound of the breeze rushing through the long grasses that flanked the trail, relishing the occasional shade of wooded stretches and inhaling the sweet smell of prairie plants.
But around mile 3, the general discomfort of being on a bike for the first time in a long while started to set in. The bicycle seat was punishing for the next several miles, and I lacked even the most basic level of fitness. As I serenaded my husband with an expanding catalog of physical complaints, the landscape opened up and we could see (or rather, smell) dairy farms to our left, while the tremendous presence of the Epic Systems campus loomed to our right. I tried to enjoy the changing landscape and shift my focus to the indulgences that awaited me.

At long last, we made our final crossing of the snaking Sugar River and spotted the Riley trail sign just ahead. I gladly dismounted and ambled to an informational board posted at the site of the former Riley Station. As my husband locked our bikes, I rubbed my sore behind and read a bit about the Rails to Trails project and the history of the area. Looking in the direction of the Riley Tavern, I tried to imagine the area as it was in the 1880s, when the building was new and the bike trail we’d just traveled carried freight and passengers by train. Surprisingly, I suspected not much had changed. The tavern stood just uphill, unmarked and unassuming near a disjointed intersection of country roads and a smattering of old houses.

Later, I’d find a sesquicentennial document published by the town of Springdale in 1998 that contained a community essay by Carol Statz. That’s how I learned that a man named John Brown had constructed the building in the 1880s as a general store. At that time, the store serviced the neighborhood and visitors to the Riley rail stop, which included a stockyard and water tank for the trains. “Quick sales and small profits” was John Brown’s motto. Maybe not the most inspired business mantra I’ve ever heard, but the man’s legacy lived on some 135 years later, so who am I to judge?

But on that hot July day in 2019, my husband stood from the bike rack and clapped his hands together. “Pizza!” he exclaimed, and we headed up the short hill to the tavern. As we walked up the porch steps, I noticed a weather-worn “FOR SALE BY OWNER” sign posted to the building as my husband pulled open the front door to a welcome air-conditioned breeze.

That afternoon, we downed (more than two) ice-cold Esser’s Best lagers and thoroughly enjoyed our house-made pizza amid conversations that buzzed down and across the bar. We capped off our Saturday by pedaling slowly back to Verona, chatting back and forth, and hazily considering what it would be like to be next in the long line of proprietors of that historic country tavern.

I’m certain those Ironmen returned from their rides with a sense of accomplishment. (I’m also certain their shorts were padded.) And though we’d left that Verona parking lot earlier that day with lesser ambitions, we returned with full stomachs and grand ideas.

If you have the chance, treat yourself to a bike ride along a segment of the Military Ridge State Trail. Should you find yourself passing Riley, you’ll notice that the old “FOR SALE BY OWNER” sign is gone. It came down the day my husband and I closed on the purchase.

But the beer is still cold and John Brown’s legacy lives on. Our Saturday pursuit of the best tavern pizza within miles led us to the doors of the Riley Tavern and straight into the ongoing story of that historic little tavern, still looking unmarked and unassuming, just 6 miles from Verona down the Military Ridge State Trail.

Kate Teasdale is a guest essayist to Madison Magazine.

Would you like us to publish your essay? Submit your Wisconsin-centric piece for consideration here: madisonmagazine.com/essays. This essay appeared in the August 2022 issue of Madison Magazine.

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