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Highlights I wanted to share, 

    the next stories, those I want to tell

Chris Claremont, a Brit by birth, is an American comic book writer and novelist, who worked for Marvel Comics. He once wrote, “The more stories I told, the more I found I wanted to tell. There was always something left unsaid. I got hooked by my own impulse of 'Well, what's gonna happen next?’”

That’s the way I feel about highlighting stuff about Wisconsin for you that cannot be left unsaid.

Claremont expresses my feeling perfectly: “What excites me, what attracts me, what gets me up in the morning is telling the next story and getting it out in front of readers and hoping they'll love it too.”

 There is no end to the stories I could tell. I hope you enjoy these.

Prairie du Chien’s St. Feriole Island, an abundance of history

"St. Feriole Island, where the city began, has the greatest concentration of historic landmark properties in the country." So wrote Mary Bergin in 2004. 

"The Prairie du Chien terrace derives new interest not only because of the antiquity of its occupance and the variety of its cultural successions but also because the historical geography of this site, for the two centuries following 1685, epitomizes that of the Upper Mississippi Country." So wrote Glenn T. Trewartha in 1932. 

"It is the uniqueness of historic buildings that makes each place individual. The history and heritage of a city give it a sense of place. Preservation of historic buildings is changing the face of and actually saving many towns." So wrote Mary Jane Hettinga in 2005. 

St. Feriole Island is a magnificent area of our country. In this area, the Wisconsin River meets the Mighty Mississippi, where Wisconsin meets Iowa, and the location of Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, in the southwest corner of the delightful Crawford County.

Mary Bergin wrote an article in 2004 about the "Grand Excursions 2004" spotlighting the Upper Mississippi Valley. She said something about Prairie du Chien that rings true to me:

"The city is recreating an 1890 riverfront, complete with gazebo, boat boarding facilities, period lighting, and a paved walkway. St. Feriole Island, where the city began, has the greatest concentration of historic landmark properties in the country."

In June 1932, the Annals of the Association of American Geographers published Glenn T. Trewartha's article, "The Prairie du Chien Terrace: Geography of a Confluence Site." On page one, Trewartha says this about Prairie du Chien:

"It may well be contended that a geographic study of any area requires no defense since it deals with a portion of the earth's surface. The Prairie du Chien terrace derives new interest not only because of the antiquity of its occupance and the variety of its cultural successions, but also because the historical geography of this site, for the two centuries following 1685, epitomizes that of the Upper Mississippi Country."

In the paragraph before this, Trewartha said this:

"An Indian village, a frontier fur-trading community for nearly a century and a half, a military post under three flags, a bustling river and railroad town of commercial fame during the third quarter of the nineteenth century, each of these successive tenures profited by the river location and the confluence site, and to a degree they all had their origins rooted in these facts of situation. The present town is a quasi-dormant community, with the same locational facts that were raison d'être for the earlier forms of settlement, now acting to circumscribe its services and handicap its prosperity."

The yellow arrow points to the island; to the east (right) is Prairie du Chien; to the west is the Mississippi River dotted with islands; and Iowa is on the far left, on the western side of the Mississippi. Many people call this area the Upper Mississippi.

There are several historic and meaningful attractions on this island. Some of these attractions are being nicely developed, some are not, and some are languishing. I’ll not attempt to delve into why that is. My approach here will be to highlight the obvious attractions and ask you to view them and the entire island as a single developmental entity, even though often each falls under the scope of different parties.

The island is 240 acres and on the Mississippi River's east channel. It has a mix of habitats, including beaches, floodplain forests, and grassland. In the spring, floodwaters create mud flats ideal for migrating shorebirds. 

The entire area is a haven for eagles. Prairie du Chien was initially built on this island, but repeated floods and fires caused the city to move across the channel.

At the southern end of the island (bottom) is the St. Feriole Island Railroad Bridge. Sadly, while visiting the island, we missed this.

I entered the island just north of the bridge, on West Blackhawk Ave., and immediately saw the St. Feriole Island Baseball Park. The St. Feriole Island Baseball Park is run by the St. Feriole Island Park, Inc., a tax-exempt, non-profit organization formed in 2002. The facility allows adult baseball, Home Talent Baseball, boys' and girls' little leagues, and other uses. There are one baseball and two softball diamonds there.

I drive up Water Street as I tour the island. There is a railway track right next to it, the road to the left, and the track to the right.

There is a lovely, small limestone building on the left called "Eagles on the River," also known as the Rock Building. It was dedicated in 2002. The windows were the gift of Madison Gas and Electric Foundation, Inc. and the Prairie du Chien Eagles Club.

The artist is Jo Van. S

It was a drizzling, hazy fall day, fantastic nonetheless. That's the Mighty Mississippi River East Branch, and you are looking at one of the many islands in it in this area.

This is the view looking north along Water Street. There are some rail cars parked on the track to the right. 

Note the greenery along the wall on the left side of Water Street, lined by period lighting fixtures. It is also lined with street furniture. 

This extends roughly from the Brisbois Store on the north to St. Feriole Baseball Park to the south. It is known as Lawler Park. Mississippi River Cruises depart from this area.

The park has two large picnic pavilions, playground equipment, restrooms, and a public boat ramp. The park is separate from the other recreational facilities on the island. 

Lawler Park is a section close to the river where people can enjoy the sights and sounds of the Mississippi River rolling by. The city operates it.

This is the Depot Bar, a lovely place. The Depot was originally built in 1864 and has been fully restored. I understand Linda "Jonesy" Jones runs it. She has been described as a "bubbly" person, "a fun person to talk with, a real doll!" I visited it the previous spring and enjoyed it. 

Looking carefully to the left of the Depot Bar, you can see some ice still on the Mississippi I saw last spring. The Depot Bar serves food daily, lunch, and dinner. To the right, you can see part of the Dousman House, which I’ll get to shortly.

A neat little boardwalk between the Depot Bar and the river is a great place to enjoy the river view. 

This is the old Dousman House Hotel, built in 1864. It was once an elegant hotel. It is named after Hercules Dousman, a fur trader credited with bringing that trade to Prairie du Chien. 

Dousman lived on the island, and legend has it that during the flood of 1828, he saw that the rising water did not flood a large mound area where he would build his home and later this hotel. Buildings on this mound survived the floods of 1870, 1892, 1920, and 1922, though much of the surrounding land was under, and the waters came right up to the building, especially in 1920.

 A flood in 1965 and another in 2001 did cause trouble. Susan Lampert Smith has written an excellent article about all this, entitled "Born and raised on the river," published in the Summer 2002 edition of the Wisconsin Magazine of History.

Dousman House

This is another view from the northern side of the house. I believe the white house is known as the Rolette House. If I am right, Joseph Rolette started building it in 1840 but died before he could finish it. It was remodeled in the 1870s, became a hotel, and then a boarding house. It looked well restored to me, though I have seen reports the restoration is not quite finished. I love those tracks! I’ll mention Rolette a few more times.

In 1869, the Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway advertised the Dousman House as a place that "affords ample facilities for accommodation of travelers, and in the best style."

The Dousman House was purchased in 1994 by Blair Dillman, a resident of Prairie du Chien and owner of Prairie Sand & Gravel. There have been efforts to restore and operate it as a hotel on the island. Regulatory issues have been associated with the floodplain, and, of course, it's a costly project. Dillman has been involved in many restoration projects in the city and on the island.

As I continue northward on Water Street, the next main stop, quite a stop it is, is Villa Louis. Regrettably, I did not have the time to go inside Villa Louis, where guided tours are offered, but I most certainly was enchanted by the grounds and buildings from the outside. The house is said to contain a magnificent collection of Victorian decorative arts, and I believe it.

Villa Louis is also known as the Dousman Mansion. Ft. Crawford used to be here but was moved. In 1843, Hercules Dousman had a large brick Greek revival house built atop an Indian mound near what had been Ft. Crawford's southeastern blockhouse. As a result, it is known as the "House on the Mound." Upon his father's death in 1868, his son Louis demolished the home and had a more modern Italianate-style home built. His mother, Jane, moved in. Over time, the estate hosted stables and a horse racetrack. It has been remodeled. The race track was across the street from the front of the home.

The last of the family left in 1913 but continued to own it and rented the mansion as a boarding school. In the 1930s, two Dousman children restored it to its 19th-century appearance, named it Villa Louis in honor of Louis, and transferred it to the city to be operated as a museum. The Wisconsin Historical Society acquired it in 1952 and expanded the area to include the Brisbois House and Brisbois Store. The site also hosts the Rolette House and other buildings operated as part of the estate.

The gardens on the south side of the estate are magnificent. We'll show you a series of photos. Remember, rain and haze, and still wondrous beauty.

I believe these are the old stables to the rear of the home.

Volunteers work at the Villa, dressed in 19th-century wardrobes. They present tours of the grounds and the interior.

The grounds were always intended to create a park-like setting. The grounds host a wide variety of vegetation.

These gardens are breathtaking.

As I mentioned earlier, there are many structures still on the estate. Here are a couple I noticed.

The Brisbois Store, now called the Astor Fur Trade Museum, chronicles the fur trade that flourished here—first the view from the front, then from the rear.

Fur traders had long used this property, and it became the US Fur Factory following the War of 1812. The American Fur Co. bought the land in the 1820s. Bernard Brisbois was born in Prairie du Chien in 1808 and worked as an agent for the American Fur Company. Bernard bought the land in 1851 and built the Brisbois Store in 1851-52.

This is the Brisbois House, built by Joseph Rolette in 1837, the same Roulette we highlighted earlier. Like so many other structures here, this is built of limestone, which is plentiful in this region to this day.

This is the Museum of Prairie du Chien, housed in what used to be a carriage house serving Villa Louis. It displays the town's early history.

Now, if you are a little boy like me, this place is really fun.  Every kid wants a fort!

This is a blockhouse, all that is left of the first Fort Crawford on the island. It has a spectacular firing view upstream and downstream of the Mississippi River. This was originally Ft. Shelby, set up during the War of 1812 with Britain. The British captured it in 1814 and renamed it Ft. McKay. The British occupied Prairie du Chien until 1815. 

The British and US signed the Treaty of Ghent that year, restoring the US-British Canada borders, burning the fort, and leaving the city. In 1816, a new fort was constructed and called Ft. Crawford in honor of William Crawford, the Secretary of War under President James Madison. The fort had two blockhouses, one on the northwest side, which is this one, and one on the south side, which has since been destroyed in favor of Villa Louis. 

The fort had to be abandoned anyway in 1826 because of a significant flood. It moved to another section of town.

Interestingly, the Treaty of Prairie du Chien was signed here in 1825, one of the largest Indian Councils in American history involving over a dozen Indian Nations. The history associated with all of this warrants careful study.

I mentioned earlier that a horse race track was across the street from the front of Villa Louis. The track is gone, but in its place is a vast open grassland space and, in one corner of that, a growing effort known as the Mississippi River Sculpture Park.

Those building this park aim to present over two dozen sculptures that will walk the visitor through that part of human history that shaped the Upper Mississippi River Valley. 

Master Sculptor Florence Bird, a resident of the region, is doing the sculptures. She has said this:

"I believe this area, in our country's midwest, where the peaceful Wisconsin River meets the mighty Mississippi, where people have traveled and worked and traded and fought since time began, is the enriched place which can express the creative identity of our whole nation." 

Patrick and Janet Leamy donated the sculptures.

This is a sculpture of Black Hawk, born Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak (Black Sparrow Hawk). He was born in 1767 near present-day Rock Island, Illinois, of the Sauk Nation, a nation with roots around the Great Lakes and the Upper Mississippi River. The history surrounding this man and his nation demands particular research. 

Blackhawk and his nation constantly had to confront US territorial expansions, many of which he opposed. Many confrontations involved considerable carnage. He and his people fought for the British in the War of 1812. Following that war, he came up against the Territories of Michigan and Iowa in what became known as the Blackhawk War, much of which was fought in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois. He was ultimately captured and sent east. He told his autobiography to a government interpreter, which was edited and became a best-seller: Black Hawk: An Autobiography. He later died in what is now southeast Iowa.

This is a Victorian Lady, circa 1894. There is a plaque next to this sculpture with a poem inscribed, "Victorian/Victorious" by Sherrie Ball. This poem highlights the achievements of several women of the time. It's closing goes like this:

"I am not simply a 'Victorian Lady.' I am a woman who conceives victory. For if I am victorious in my life. The world will be improved an eternity." 

This next sculpture is of Dr. William Beaumont and his son, Israel. Dr. Beaumont is widely viewed as the "Father of Gastric Physiology." 

Born in Connecticut in 1785, he became a medical doctor and served in the Army during the War of 1812. He was later assigned to Fort Mackinac, where he treated an employee of the American Fur Co. suffering from an accidental gunshot wound to the stomach. His experience with this patient enabled him to make important discoveries in the digestive process. 

Among other places, he served at Fort Crawford in Prairie du Chien for five years, where he treated malaria and continued exploring the digestive process.

I earlier mentioned Lawler Park as a narrow strip of greenery extending along the river with gazebos and picnic areas. There is another section of Lawler Park opposite Villa Louis and adjacent to the Sculpture Park. The large green once served Villa Louis as a horse race track.

You can see the soccer goals set up in the distance. I shot this photo from inside the Sculpture Park. The fields extend to the left and the right, so it is quite a large open area. The National Soccer League of Chicago held some of its matches here in 2007.

As you drive to the northern side of St. Feriole Island, you come to an industrial section belonging to Prairie Sand & Gravel, owned by Blair Dillman. You will recall I mentioned him earlier as the owner of the Dousman House Hotel, a man very involved in restoration projects in Prairie du Chien.

The satellite image displays the industrial area with several river barges along the shore. I did not explore this aspect of the area, partly because I was in complete awe of the old rail cars parked here, in areas highlighted by the two yellow arrows.

I’ll pause for a moment to say that this area traditionally receives and stores miscellaneous bulk materials, including fertilizer and salt. While there is a rail track going from here straight down the west side of the island and across the old St. Feriole Island Railroad Bridge to the mainland, it is seldom used, leading me to conclude this area is primarily a stopping point for barge traffic with some degree of off-load, upload and storage capabilities. I understand a fertilizer storage warehouse and a large open storage area for bulk materials.

Let's take a look at some of the old rail cars parked here. I understand that Blair Dillman owns these. We'll walk you through several shots, and you can let your mind wander.

This is a gold mine of history and wonder to the boy in me. One can only imagine the fantastic things that could be done with these cars and this island section. Of course, dreams cost a ton of money.

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