It’s that time of year again — when cookies are a main course, the chill in the air is warmed by twinkling lights, and shopping for gifts becomes an excellent source of cardio. Here in Sauk County, Wisconsin, we’re in full-on holiday mode — mug of hot cocoa in hand — and ready to make your trip to the area the best it can be.
There’s no doubt that Sauk County is a winter wonderland with activities the whole family will enjoy. But, beyond the great outdoors, if there’s one thing we really pride ourselves on, it’s our local artisans. These are the folks who fill our shops, craft bazaars, markets, and fairs with unique, handmade goods you can’t get anywhere else in the world. Ahead, we spotlight five Sauk artisans who not only take pride in their work, but also make us proud. Be sure to give them and their shops a visit when you’re in town. And if you can’t get away, shop them online to bring a little Sauk County goodness home for the holidays — or any other time of the year.
If diamonds are a girl’s best friend, consider the opal her celestial twin. An iridescent gemstone that mirrors the galaxy with all its interstellar clusters, the opal is a fascinating piece of rock. Colorless, translucent, even opaque, the prettiest hunks flaunt luminous plays of color that rival the Milky Way. Perhaps there’s no one more fascinated by this earthly gem than Dennis Dahl, a.k.a. The Opal Man.
Dahl opened his jewel shop in Spring Green in 2010, but his adventure with the amorphous opal began way before opening day. A master opal cutter with 50 years of experience, Dahl’s love affair with the precious stone began in 1969, when he worked at an opal shop in Surfers Paradise, Queensland. A year later, he started his own business, first in New York City and then in the Midwest, cutting and sourcing the gemstones.
A couple decades later, Dahl set up shop in Spring Green, in a darling building on Winsted Street that looks like it fell right out of the pages of a fairy tale. “I truthfully didn’t really want a retail store, but I felt the Lord always poking me about it, so I relented and took over [the] store,” Dahl says about entering the retail space.
Today, The Opal Man remains the only all-opal store in the country (well, unless you count the new Lake Geneva shop that opened in 2019, which Dahl also owns). Equipped with a staff of master opal cutters who cut and polish right there on-site, Dahl’s Spring Green jewel box specializes in high-quality Australian, Mexican, Brazilian, and Ethiopian opal varieties. And just FYI: His leather-opal bracelets and silver-and-gold studs are flying off the shelves. Stocking stuffer ideas: check and check.
Looking through his gallery, it won’t take you long to recognize the driving aesthetic in a Kyle Martin original: It’s home, sweet home. A Volkswagen bug, cows in a pasture, the neighbor’s cat — they may not sound sensational to the average Joe, but to Martin, these ordinary sightings are inspiration fit for brushstrokes, and paintings fit for that gallery wall you keep saying you want to hang.
An en plein air (French for “in the open air”) landscape painter who works out of his Chicken Coop Studio on a farm that’s been in his family for a century, Martin creates all his impressionist oil paintings outside — all the better to see the sincerity in a herd’s demeanor, the way the light dances around St. Joe’s in the evening, or the detail in the blushing hollyhocks decorating Anderson’s Dock. It’s his attention to detail and playful use of the rainbow that may make you think he was born to do this. But it actually wasn’t until his junior year of high school that his passion began taking shape.
Crediting an art teacher with nurturing his passion, Martin told Wisconsin Life in December 2021 that she played a role in his painting, really by just allowing his skill to bloom. Later, at Madison Area Technical College, where he studied graphic design and illustration, Kyle was introduced to painting en plein air. “And after that day, that was it. I was just hooked,” he told the outlet.
Beyond capturing his subject, Martin’s paintings play with light: the way it illuminates Mother Nature’s gifts, the way it paints its own masterpieces. He uses active brushwork and broken color, building layers of different colors without blending them, a technique that causes his pigments to look like they’re shimmering. Often, Martin will paint the same scene in different lights — each offering its own mood or story.
This year, owning a Kyle Martin original is as easy as snagging a pack of his greeting cards. Blank on the inside and encased in Sauk County charm on the outside, they make for the ideal holiday tidings.
While most of us were still stitching together our ABC’s at age 5, Char Kudla was learning to sew. Her mother, Helen, taught her and her younger sister to wield a needle and thread not knowing it would one day lead to a burgeoning handbag business call Helen’s Daughters Studio. But before Kudla would ever put pin to fabric, she would hone her skill with one of the handbag’s humble tote mates: the willow basket.
For 14 years, Kudla trudged through swamps and wetlands foraging her own willow to construct baskets to sell in her community. She even taught classes and wrote books about the art of basket-weaving. There came a time, though, in 1989, when sourcing her materials became too rigorous an activity, forcing Kudla to carve out another path in the craft world. Noticing a lack of cloth handbags at local markets in Baraboo, where creations of leather, nylon, and straw were aplenty, she set out to fill a gap.
Now, Kudla makes sturdy and durable, yet soft and pretty, tapestry bags that have garnered a cult following. “Once you buy one, you’ll buy more,” she tells us. Her ornate designs begin with the stroke of a pencil on a trusty sketchbook, then make their way to social media for a little crowdsourced critiquing. When a winner presents itself, she hits the studio, turning prototype into her next pride and joy.
Her most popular design is The Whatever Bag, a simple pouch made from scraps that goes for $10. “People will buy handfuls of them,” she says. Working with various silhouettes and shapes and embellishments, Kudla follows the trends. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned from her whimsical business: Trends come and go, but Helen’s daughters are here to stay.
Moisturizing, cleansing, eco-friendly — all benefits of a trusty bar of soap. Factor in various essential oils, luxurious salves, and creamy goat’s milk, and you have yourself a reason to fill the tub for a soak, and lather up on the daily. We can’t say enough about the importance of self-care, and that’s an ethos we seem to share with Baraboo star seller Suds & Such by Annie Dyer.
A real family affair, the biz bubbled up nearly two decades ago when Dyer, a soaper who values the benefits of small-batch soaps over commercially made bars, was offered an opportunity to turn her trade into a profession. “We were looking for a business we could do with our kiddos, and here we are, coming up on our 20th year, still making soap and enjoying the journey,” she says.
Dyer’s soaps, though transparent in their composition (the contents of each bar are listed right there on her site), actually do include one secret ingredient. A little thing called joy. The Dyers revel in their craft and “are thrilled” to be able to offer the public single-batch soaps that not only give back to their community by using milk from a local farmer, but also bring a smile to every buyer’s face. There are eight types of soap to choose from, with nourishing ingredients like olive, palm, and coconut oils, and featuring accents such as red rose petals, poppy seeds, and even chocolate espresso.
“In a world that is so busy, we like to share products that cause one to slow down, enjoy the experience, and put a smile on your face,” Dyer shares. Her favorites this year? The Shampoo Bar, which is refreshing and uplifting, as well as the Eden Salve, which promotes healing and restoration through an effective blend of herbs and natural soothers.
In Sauk County, there’s no shortage of shops pouring fresh-brewed cups of joe. But there is perhaps none more welcoming than Bella Goose Coffee. An international coffeehouse and roastery inspired by the close-knit coffee huts in Costa Rica, Bella Goose goes beyond just filling mugs with midafternoon pick-me-ups. This is coffee with purpose.
Run by husband-and-wife duo Jordan and Allison Heesch, the coffeehouse opened its doors in Wisconsin Dells in 2013 with “a desire to serve people well and care for those in need in our community,” Jordan tells us. “We always resonated with the idea of sharing our table with others.” And share they do. As its name implies, Bella Goose prides itself on being a leader in the hospitality industry, inviting all walks of life through the doors. Much like that of the shop’s namesake bird, the qualities of loyalty, leadership, and empowering others are rooted in the brand DNA. When you’re here, you’re part of the flock.
No matter your desired fix, Bella Goose has beverages and bites to satisfy all cravings. Of course, caffeine in all its forms is the star here. The team starts by roasting its own beans for the traditional espresso and single-origin coffees. From there, all the syrups are also made fresh, and only locally sourced milk is served, including cow juice from Sassy Cow Wisconsin. Do yourself a favor and snag a bag of the Holly Jolly Holiday Blend, along with some of the cafe’s sublime small-batch caramel syrup. It’s so good, you’ll get goosebumps.