When our family moved to Wisconsin in the mid 1960s, Dad found us a little two-story Cape Cod in the village of Maple Bluff.
By all appearances it was a perfect starter home for an insurance claims man and his wife, featuring a backyard big enough to punt a football in and an elm tree with a swing, all within walking distance of Lakewood Elementary School.
But my folks, swept up in the civil rights and anti-war movements, soon discovered they were out of step with some of their new neighbors in the conservative suburb on Lake Mendota's northeast shore. My peacenik mom created quite a stir in the village at one point by sending me to school with campaign literature for 1968 presidential candidate Gene McCarthy, who opposed the Vietnam War.
"Communism isn't so bad," I explained to the sons and daughters of bank presidents and real estate developers in my third-grade class. "It just means you share."
Eventually, we moved to the near west side, putting me at West High School, where I never advertised myself as a "Bluffer." Instead, I billed myself as an "east sider," which earned me a certain amount of street cred.
But that was long ago.
Now, after going for Democrats in the last two presidential elections - and with liberal Kathleen Falk grabbing nearly 60 percent of the vote over Nancy Mistele in the recent Dane County executive race - the old political stereotypes about Maple Bluff no longer hold.
Consider the roughly 200 Obama supporters who gathered in front of the Maple Bluff Beach House at a rally last fall.
"It was a beautiful sight, a glorious sunny day, with people streaming down Lakewood Boulevard and Fisk Place," recalls Paula Cooper, 47, who relocated from San Francisco in 2002 with her husband and young daughter.
Cooper is just one of the arrivals who've put a different face on what was historically an island of red in the blue sea of Madison. Its proximity to the downtown and the affordability of its older homes has made Maple Bluff attractive for many who don't fit the old mold: Ruth Conniff, political editor of the Progressive Magazine; Tia Nelson, environmental steward and daughter of the late Sen. Gaylord Nelson; and former Go-Go's guitarist Jane Wiedlin, among others.
"It's an active, outdoorsy place to live and raise a family," says Kari Douglas, a mother of three and Obama supporter who's now lived in the village for 20 years. "I don't think you can peg it as a Republican enclave."
But it was at one time.
Ronald Reagan, for example, secured nearly 80 percent of the village vote in unseating incumbent Jimmy Carter in 1980. When Democrat Russ Feingold upset incumbent Sen. Bob Kasten in 1992, he carried every community in Dane County - except for Maple Bluff.
As recently as 2000, the majority of village residents pulled the lever for a Republican, with George W. Bush topping Al Gore by an 8 percent margin.
To be sure, there's still plenty of money in the village, which has 1,380 residents. With dozens of lakefront mansions, the average home value in Maple Bluff is $603,000 according to the 2008 assessments. That compares to $245,000 in the city of Madison.
But voting patterns have clearly shifted.
"The election results speak for themselves," says newly elected Village President Eric McLeod, a Republican who supported Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman in his win over Louis Butler last year.
An attorney with Michael Best & Friedrich, McLeod says the switch from red to blue in Maple Bluff may reflect a larger overall trend among voters rather than anything about the village in particular.
"Very few communities have been voting Republican," says McLeod, who grew up on Madison's west side before moving to the village in 1992.
Obama rallies aside, McLeod isn't ready to label Maple Bluff a new liberal hotbed. He says residents seldom mix politics and pleasure at gatherings like the annual Upper Bluff vs. Lower Bluff softball game or the popular summer boccie tournament.
"Honestly, I couldn't tell you for sure the partisan leanings of my neighbors," he says.
A political rally of any sort was a surprise to longtime Maple Bluff resident Hank Whipple.
Back in the early 1970s, Whipple remembers being asked by a village police officer to remove a campaign yard sign for liberal Dane County Circuit judge candidate P. Charles Jones, who eventually unseated longtime Judge Carl Flom.
"The officer said something like, 'We don't allow that kind of thing here,' " recalls Whipple, a retired attorney. "Apparently there was somebody on the Village Board who didn't like Jones."
Today, Whipple says Maple Bluff still offers what it did when he and wife, Judy, moved there in 1967: quiet, tree-lined streets just three miles from the Capitol Square.
"It seems like the neighborhood turns over about every 25 years," Whipple says. "Right now, there's a lot of younger families moving in."
It was location, not politics, that sparked Progressive magazine political editor Conniff and public defender husband Mitch Cooper (no relation to Paula Cooper) to move there in 2001. She says the village, contrary to conventional thinking, offered affordable housing for a growing family. They live on Fisk Place in a home assessed at $290,000, according to county tax records.
A mother of three, Conniff grew up in Madison, was a track star at East High School and was always aware of Maple Bluff's reputation as home to old money conservatives - family names like Yost, Hovde, Bolz, Gage, Kessenich and Manchester. "At first I was a little embarrassed to tell my friends I was moving to Maple Bluff," she admits. "But in some ways, it seems a little less snooty than the PC west side."
Real estate developer and Maple Bluff native Terrence Wall agrees, even though he comes from the opposite end of the political spectrum as Conniff. He recently finished fourth in a race for three seats on the Village Board.
"It's not an enclave of the rich," says Wall. "I'd argue it is one of the most mixed communities in the state. You can go from a little house on Sherman Avenue for $150,000 to a $1 million house on Lake Mendota."
Count Wall among the latter, of course. He lives in a new home on the lake assessed at $2.3 million that replaced a "tear down."
Paul Rusk doesn't live in Maple Bluff but he represents the village on the Dane County Board and is well aware of the changing political landscape there.
Rusk and state Rep. Kelda Roys, D-Madison, helped organize the Maple Bluff Obama rally and he says it was one of the highlights of his political career.
"Over 200 people attended and contrary to a silly rumor we did not bus people in," he says. "The only ones not from the Bluff were me, Kelda and the Obama staffers."
Rusk notes that Jim Doyle narrowly carried the village in the 2002 governor's race, suggesting the tide has been turning for a few years. Rusk himself got 48 percent of the village vote when first elected to the County Board in 2002, then grabbed 70 percent in winning re-election last April against Maple Bluff resident and real estate agent Ted Krez.
Rusk thinks the changing demographics in the village have contributed to the political shift. He notes the last census showed Maple Bluff with a high number of "alternative families," a category that covers single-parent households, gay and lesbian partners and others.
"When I first ran in 2002 I was advised to spend a lot of time in the Bluff to reach these 'alternative families' and I could get about 50 percent," says Rusk. "Based on the election results, this trend has been continuing."
Scott Evertz, a leader among gay Republicans in Wisconsin, is a Maple Bluff resident. In 2001 then-President George W. Bush appointed Evertz to serve as the director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy. It was the first time an openly gay man or a lesbian had been chosen for appointment by that Republican administration.
Maple Bluff Village Administrator Tim Krueger says the dynamics of the community have changed even in his eight years on the job.
"There is still a lot of the old guard here, multigenerational families, but there has also been quite a bit of turnover," says Krueger, who doubles as village police chief, overseeing a staff of six officers.
"There is a false impression that everybody in the village is rich but there is a tremendous variety of people, which is one of the beautiful things about the community," says Krueger, 42, who lives in the village of Cambridge and commutes to his office in the Village Hall.
Still, Krueger says he's heard of families who've moved out because of dissatisfaction with the Madison Metropolitan School District. Village students attend Lakeview Elementary School, Sherman Middle School and East High School, although many parents send their kids to the private Madison Country Day School on River Road outside Waunakee - including Village President McLeod.
From a real estate perspective, Mary Duff of the Stark Co. says the lack of new homes in the village can prove challenging. Some of the smaller homes built in the 1920s or 1930s have only one bath and a tiny garage.
"You really need to find someone who appreciates the charm of an older home," she says.
Still, Duff notes the Bluff does offer some affordable properties. Recent sales include a home for $165,000 on Sherman Avenue and one on Kensington Drive for $197,500.
"I love living here," says Duff, a two-year resident. "When you drive home, it feels like you are really getting away from it all."
Indeed, the Maple Bluff area was largely cut off geographically from the rest of Madison until the early 20th century. The bluff itself drew its name from the dense hardwood forest on the north end of Lake Mendota, which was protected from the prairie wildfires that would sweep the landscape from the south.
Early settlers like James McBride and Leonard Farwell found it more convenient to travel by water than land. "McBride's Point," as it was first known, was regularly visited by the ferry "Mendota," which launched in 1877.
The first permanent road running through the village was Farwell Drive, completed in 1897 by the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association. Two years later, the Maple Bluff Country Club was established, the first golf course in the Madison area.
With better road access and the arrival of the automobile, more prominent names from Madison's past began to build grand homes along the lake, including Carl Johnson, president of the Gisholt Machine Co. Designed by local architect Frank Riley, the home on Cambridge Road would later become the Governor's Mansion, the executive residence of Wisconsin's governors.
After World War I, developers worked to market lots in the new Lakewood subdivision. The idea was to sell the large lakefront lots to business owners and the smaller interior lots to the working class.
But the concept never caught on, according to a history of the village written by Doug McLean. While a few houses were erected, many owners were still paying for their lots when the Great Depression hit. By the middle of the 1930s, a lot could be purchased for as low as $700.
Two other plats were promoted at the time: Maple Bluff and North Bay. Eventually the three plats of Lakewood, Maple Bluff and North Bay were marketed by the North Shore Development Association.
By the late 1920s, the residents petitioned the city of Madison for annexation but the city refused, saying the area was too rural. Taking a cue from Shorewood Hills on the near west side, the area was officially incorporated as the Village of Maple Bluff in 1931.
Residents eventually financed the paving of village streets, a storm sewer system, sidewalks and street lights. One resident donated a large tract of land for Lakewood School, which served as the village elementary school before being closed and then demolished by the Madison school district in 1986. The grounds are now maintained as Johnson Park.
For years, Maple Bluff was considered a "tax island" with residents in the village often paying less in property taxes than their counterparts in the city. Changes in the state's equalized value law in the 1980s, however, largely removed any tax advantages for affluent suburbs.
Democrats in the Legislature also took a few stabs at ending the property tax exemption for the Maple Bluff Country Club, a move vetoed repeatedly by Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson in the 1990s.
Politics aside, Maple Bluff residents are quick to talk up their neighborhood, whether it's the family-friendly Manna Cafe or Vic Pierce Liquor, which is open until midnight and was annexed into the village four years ago as part of a land acquisition on the east side of Sherman Avenue.
"We've got a groovy little beach town," says Paula Cooper, a native New Yorker who spent 20 years in California before deciding to relocate with her husband, Craig Hughes, who works at the state Justice Department.
Cooper says they chose Maple Bluff specifically after visiting her sister, Wendy, owner of the now closed Wendy Cooper Gallery, who lives on Woodland Circle.
"Craig and I were very pained to leave California but we did it for our daughter," she explains. "This place is like a throwback in time. This is just such an incredibly warm place to live with so many services that benefit everybody whether they are singles or couples."
The only complaint, Cooper says, is a lack of "hip places" to shop or dine.
"Sometimes, I wish we could just take Monroe Street and move it over to Sherman Avenue," she says.