By BARRY ADAMS
Wisconsin State Journal
LONE ROCK, Wis. (AP) — Marc Higgs remembers when this flat stretch of earth bounded by the Wisconsin River to the south and the unglaciated bluffs to the north was essentially a desert, complete with prickly pear cactus.
Heavy rains were rarely a concern and flooding was kept at bay by sandy soil that would drain quickly.
But for the past 25 years or so, water has been increasingly troublesome at the Tri-County Regional Airport.
The land here now resembles a swamp, and the cactus have been supplanted with cattails and reeds. The water table is near the surface and ducks, geese and sandhill cranes are a constant threat to aircraft that land on a nearly mile-long paved runway lying 719 feet above sea level.
Last week, work crews were busy making repairs to the pilot’s lounge, which had been damaged by flooding last fall, and the primary taxiway remained closed and covered with water from a heavy downpour on June 26. A new lightning-detection system was being kept busy, but there wasn’t enough rain to flood the tarmac.
“This was all dry. It was a totally different ecology,” said Higgs, who was named airport manager in 1995. “It was sandy and the water table was about 20 feet down. It’s definitely not the same as when I came here. It’s turned into a wetland. It started in the mid-(1990s), but the last three years have been the worst.”
Studies are being done to try to mitigate flooding, and there is a plan to raise the taxiway and install a culvert underneath. Such changes would keep water from pooling on the pavement and forcing aircraft to take a longer route to and from the runway when the water level becomes too deep, Higgs told the Wisconsin State Journal.
Flooding was first recorded at the airport in 1993 and has become ever more frequent. In 2019, the airport was flooded in March and then again in the fall. Of the 200 acres of land owned by the airport, about 80 acres are no longer able to be rented to local farmers because of near constant wet conditions. Higgs was thankful last Monday’s storm, which dumped several inches on southwestern and southern Wisconsin, bypassed Lone Rock. The possibility of so much flooding was something he never thought about in 1988 when he came here to work as a mechanic.
“Three inches would have been really ugly,” said Higgs, 68. “It’s as flat as a pool table here.”
But the floods affect more than the taxiway and airport operations. They have also been detrimental to the Piccadilly Lilly Airport Diner, a popular spot for locals and pilots alike, that was named after a famed World War II bomber. Found in a building that at one time was used for flight services, the cafe was closed for a week in spring 2019 and for more than three months last fall because of flooding.
In March, COVID-19 brought another obstacle to Jessica Hein, who began working at the two-room cafe in 2014. In December, Hein took over operations from her aunt, Kathryn Spenulson, who had run the restaurant since May 2008. A few weeks after purchasing the business, Spenulson experienced a big flood when most of southern Wisconsin sustained record rainfall. Fortunately, the building is elevated.
Hein’s been offering carryout service and outdoor seating under a tent, running the restaurant largely by herself. She has some seating inside and, beyond being open for breakfast and lunch seven days a week, brings in additional revenue by serving a spaghetti dinner on Monday nights and fish on Friday evenings. A friend started a GoFundMe page in early June in an attempt to raise $40,000, but it had generated just $690 by last week. Hein didn’t qualify for the Payroll Protection Program and was turned down for a small business loan.
“It’s been really rough, but I’m not one to give up,” said Hein, 34, who is unsure how long she can hang on. “I love it here. I have a lot of good customers who support me as much as they can.”
One of the regulars is Herman Kaldenberg, who quit high school to serve in the 24th Infantry Division during World War II. Kaldenberg, 96, of Lone Rock, had an order of coffee and toast last week as he read the Wisconsin State Journal and chatted with customers.
He was set up just inside the front doorway, while Hein worked in the kitchen, cleaning and hoping for more orders. The usable space inside the restaurant has been reduced by half in response to COVID-19.
“We need to support this diner so it stays,” said Kaldenberg. “We can’t get along without eating, and (Hein) can’t survive without customers.”
The airport has been around since the early days of aviation and before there was a commercial airport in Dane County. Established in 1923, the Lone Rock Airport, as it was called then, was designated in 1927 as an emergency airmail landing field because it was halfway between Chicago and Minneapolis. At the time, what is now the Dane County Regional Airport was a cabbage patch and Royal Airport was just getting up and running in Monona at what is now South Towne.
According to a history published in Midwest Flyer, the Lone Rock airfield was a destination for training flights from Glenview Naval Air Station near Chicago during World War II. After the war, it was controlled by the Civil Aeronautics Administration and a flight-service station was established to provide weather reports and air-traffic control for southwestern Wisconsin.
In 1954, the CAA relinquished control of the airport and it became the property of Richland, Sauk and Iowa counties. The flight station remained in service until the mid-1980s before it was converted into a restaurant. In 2002, automated equipment was used to replace the Federal Aviation Administration’s manned weather station.
The airport is now home to 42 aircraft and has hangars for Cardinal Glass, Gold Leaf Investments and Meister Cheese, and a operation for Johnson Bros. Flying Service, an aircraft maintenance and restoration company. Prop and jet aircraft land here from around the country.
But COVID-19 has resulted in a decrease in traffic. The airport has an annual budget of $240,000, about 85% of which comes from operational revenue, including the sale of about 20,000 gallons of fuel. By last week, Higgs had sold only 2,600 gallons, most of which went in January.
There also won’t be a bump in fuel sales and customers at the diner in late July and early August since AirVenture in Oshkosh is canceled. In addition, Iowa County will give up its ownership piece of the airport in January and no longer provide $16,000 in funding.
So for now, and likely the remainder of the year, the airport and diner will rely primarily on hobbyists who can isolate themselves in the cabins of their small planes.