Driftless Wedding Series: Cache of a lifetime – How an avid geocacher found his greatest treasure

Matt and Abby (Panoch) Cahalan are pictured on their wedding day with their boys, Muri and Alfie, on the banks of the Turkey River. The couple held their wedding and reception at the Inwood Ballroom in Spillville Oct. 14, 2023. (Photos by samurrayDesigns)

By Denise Lana,

(Photo by samurrayDesigns)

When Matt Cahalan moved from Decorah to Ridgeway in 2015, he had no idea his future bride worked less than a block away from him. Matt moved in with good friend and schoolmate, Chris Zidlicky, and joined by fellow friends, they went out to local hangouts, drank beer, enjoyed Friday and Saturday night dirt track races and the like.  

One rainy Friday night the races were cancelled, and Matt and Chris settled on staying close to home and chose to grab a beer at The Fireman’s Inn, Ridgeway’s answer to pub fare and libations. Unbeknownst to him, this was a night that would change Matt’s life forever. 

“I walked into Fireman’s, and as soon as I saw her, I said to myself, ‘that girl’,” Matt emphasized. “I asked Chris, ‘Who’s that girl back there making pizzas?’ And Chris said, ‘Oh, don’t worry about her! You’ll never get her!”

“That girl” was Cresco native, 19-year-old Abby Panoch, who had been working at Fireman’s since she was 16. 

Super-shy Matt didn’t talk to her that night, or for weeks afterward. 

Finally, after several months of thinking about Abby and wanting to reach out to her, Matt messaged her on Facebook.  

“It took some liquid courage!” he laughed, recalling how hard it was to compose a simple “Hello” to send to Abby.  

Abby, who had never paid any attention to Matt before then, began conversing with him via messenger, and with several friends in common, they all began hanging out together on weekends. Abby was “one of the gang” as they continued going to races, local bars and similar.  

“We immediately became great friends, and our friendship grew as we began talking more and more on the way home from the races,” Abby recalled.  

True to the idiom, “Slow and Steady Wins the Race,” Matt and Abby’s relationship progressed through their gradual friendship. Still texting and hanging out in groups through 2016 and 2017, it was becoming obvious they were becoming a couple. In 2016, they shared their first kiss; “We were hanging out, watching TV, and it was a simple kiss!” Abby giggled. “I thought, maybe he did like me!” Soon after, Matt took her mini-golfing for their first “date”. In 2018, two-and-a-half years after that fateful night when Matt walked into Fireman’s and saw “that girl”, Matt and Abby finally made their relationship “Facebook Official.” On Jan.6, 2018, Abby added, “In a Relationship with Matt Cahalan,” and most everyone they knew replied, “About damn time!” and, “OMG! Did hell freeze over?”

Transitioning into relationship mode, they went out to supper with her parents, she met his family and they spent holidays with each other’s family. 

Matt was more than ready for the next step in life, purchasing a house in Ridgeway in 2019 for he and Abby. She moved into their home July 4 of that year, and soon after, they adopted their dog, “Muri,” a Labrador mix. When not working at Bruening Rock Products, Matt, along and Abby, who was hired at Driftless Multimedia as a graphic designer in 2017, spent months working on the house, cleaning it up, painting, working in the yard and making it theirs.  

As Abby laughed and explained, “I would not have moved in with him unless it was leading to a marriage! I wanted a ring, and he made me wait!”

The “M word” didn’t come up too much in conversation, according to Abby. 

“We talked about getting married, but Matt would always say, ‘Someday’!” 

Several years passed, and in early 2022, unbeknownst to Abby, Matt had been strategizing. He went to Abby’s dad, Lee, and got the green light to ask Abby for her hand. “I knew I had to go to Mark’s Jewelry in St. Lucas, because that’s where Abby’s parents got their rings, and where her brother got his wife’s ring.”  

Matt recalled choosing the ring, saying, “She said she wanted a rock! I saw the one I liked the best, and that was it!”  

Matt, who was a fan of geocaching (recreational hunting of hidden stashes of objects, using GPS coordinates), took Abby on a Ranger ride to St. Anthony of Padua Chapel, better known as the World’s Smallest Church, in rural Festina. It was May 14, the day after Abby’s 25th birthday, and she was silently crestfallen because all he had given her for her birthday was a small metal chicken-shaped yard accent. When they arrived at the church, Abby recalled, “We walked around, and the geocache wasn’t where he said it was.”

“It was raining, and she was near a fence looking, and her back was to me,” added Matt.  

“I was holding an umbrella, and when I turned around to face Matt, he was on one knee in front of me!”

As shy and brief as ever, Matt simply asked, “Will you marry me?” 

Laughing, Matt recalled, “Her immediate response was ‘Really?!”

She followed that up with a resounding “yes”, and after putting on the ring, calling family and taking pictures, they celebrated at Fireman’s, the place where their story began.  

“My ring is extra special, because he picked it out completely by himself,” expressed Abby. “Jill from Mark’s Jewelry helped him, and together they did a great job!”

They chose a wedding date of Oct. 14, 2024, giving them 18 months from the date of engagement to plan and put into action their dream wedding.  

Abby went to The Dress by Morgan Lynn in Decorah, where she picked out her wedding dress.  

“It was the fifth dress I tried on, and it had pockets — that sold me! It was perfect!” recalled Abby. “Julie Vulk did the tailoring for my dress, and it fit beautifully!” Vulk crafted a heart-shaped-swatch from a blue handkerchief owned by Abby’s grandfather, Eddie Dotzler, who passed away in 2006. The blue heart was sewn into the hem of Abby’s wedding dress and served as the bride’s “Something Blue.”  

Matt and his groomsmen went to Leutholds for their head-to-toe attire, and Abby created personalized hats for each of the men to wear.  

The Inwood Ballroom in Spillville was a definite for their reception, since that was where Abby’s dad, Lee, and mom, Michelle, had their wedding reception in 1993. Michelle is one of 18 children, and Lee is one of 10 children. Matt, the son of Ted and Norma Cahalan of Decorah, has a smaller but still substantial size family, so they knew they would need a larger venue for the 350+ family members and friends who would be in attendance.  

Matt crafted wooden lantern centerpieces and a pallet photo backdrop, and the couple, along with several friends, collected stems and bunches of pampas grass, to be used for centerpieces and vases, from all around the Driftless Area.  

Abby’s flowers, corsages and boutonnieres were made by Flowers on the Farm in Waukon, and the bridal party enjoyed makeup and hair completed by The Hair Company in Cresco. 

When the week of the wedding arrived, the weather was cold and rainy, nixing any outdoor wedding possibilities. The wedding was moved inside the Inwood, where spirits were not dampened by the rain. Abby’s uncle, Kevin Weselmann of Decorah, presided over the ceremony, and after exchanging vows, the couple kissed for the first time as Mr. and Mrs. Matthew Cahalan. Everyone snacked on charcuterie cups created by Plum Delicious and assorted popcorn from Pinters Gardens in Decorah. Dinner was a rack of pork and swiss chicken, with potatoes, green beans, and Caesar salad, all provided by U2 BBQ, followed by assorted cakes by Norske. The two-tiered wedding cake was comprised of classic cheesecake and sponge cake, strawberry sauce, and white chocolate ganache icing and handpainted decorations by Plum Delicious. Day became night as the bride and groom danced with family and friends to music provided by Thoroughbred DJ, and wedding-goers celebrated the union by enjoying a late night personal fireworks show and devouring slices of assorted pizzas made and delivered by The Fort in Fort Atkinson.  

Looking back at their special day, Abby grinned as she lamented, “You do all this planning, then you blink and it’s over! It went by way too fast! It was a perfect day.”

Matt added, “It was such a good time, especially marrying her! I couldn’t stop smiling all day.”

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