Life Along Wisconsin’s Great River Road And Why You Need To Go
By ANASTASIA PENCHI
What better way to learn more about our past than to see it with our own eyes?
History can come alive when we put down the books and make the connection between items from the past and present.
Interested in learning more about the Civil War? Discover Wisconsin’s connection to the leader of the Confederacy in Prairie du Chien. Ever hear of the author Laura Ingalls Wilder? See the site where she was born in Northern Wisconsin. Getting married soon? Be glad you don’t have to follow the fashions of the days of old.
There are plenty of historic places to visit along Wisconsin’s Great River Road, which is a 250-mile stretch of Highway 35 running adjacent to the Mississippi River from Kieler, Wis., in the south, to Prescott in northern Wisconsin.
To better learn your place in history, start your tour at one of these locations:
History is alive
Visit Fort Crawford in Prairie du Chien to learn more about frontier life and war. At the intersection of the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers, this fort helped Americans dominate the area at a time when the U.S. wanted to control this intersection of waterways against France and Britain. Many big names spent time there: Col. Zachary Taylor was commander there before becoming our 12th president; Lt. Jefferson Davis was there before becoming president of the Confederacy during the Civil War; Sauk leader Black Hawk surrendered there after the Black Hawk War of 1832; and fort surgeon William Beaumont conducted groundbreaking medical experiments there. The Fort Crawford Museum has three buildings of exhibits on local and medical history.
See the Little House in the Big Woods
I spent my childhood obsessed with reading Laura Ingalls Wilder books, so the thought of seeing the birth site of the author is very exciting. Just northwest of Pepin is a recreation of her 1867 birthplace – a log cabin like the “Little House in the Big Woods,” on the actual site where the cabin once stood. This series of books describes life for this pioneer family in Wisconsin (and some other Midwestern states), and tells stories of the hardships that come with illness, death, crop destruction and drought. Through it all, Laura keeps a positive attitude and focuses on good things like the dance held by area families after harvesting sap for maple syrup and her Pa playing the fiddle when it was too cold to go outside in the winter. I guess I’m not the only one who doesn’t want to leave the house when its 20 degrees below zero.
Our first governor’s estate
Wisconsin’s first governor, Nelson Dewey, built a three-story Gothic Revival home in 1868 as the centerpiece of his 2,000-acre estate called “Stonefield” in Cassville. The house burned down in 1873, but fire couldn’t wipe out the pastures, meadowlands, fruit orchards, vineyard or view of the Mississippi River. Stonefield was designated a historic site in 1954 and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was eventually developed into a place that would honor Wisconsin’s agricultural heritage, and it now has more than 30 buildings that show a historic perspective of farm life in rural Wisconsin. The State’s Agricultural Museum, which houses Wisconsin’s largest collection of farm tools, models and machinery, was constructed on the foundation of Dewey’s original sheep barn.
Here comes the bride
The Villa Louis mansion in Prairie du Chien is part of a Victorian estate built by the family of Hercules Dousman, an entrepreneur who amassed a fortune in the fur trade and other frontier investments. The mansion recently underwent a complete restoration that returned the home to the splendor of its 1890s heyday. Even the wallpaper used for the update was heavily researched. Villa Louis opened its 2017 season with an exhibit featuring 50 years of Wisconsin wedding dresses by the Wisconsin Historical Society. There are 12 dresses and one groom’s suit from the years 1857–1907. One wedding dress was worn by Villa Louis resident, Virginia Dousman, when she married at the estate in 1904. The dresses range in materials from silk, to lace and even wool. There are a wide variety of colors, including brown, blue, copper and the now traditional white dress. I can’t imagine a wool wedding dress would be that comfortable, but fashion has never been about comfort, has it?
Meet the Writer
Anastasia Penchi is a self-employed writer who lives just off Wisconsin’s Great River Road. You can read more about Wisconsin’s Great River Road, and the festivals and people of Western Wisconsin, at the Web site: www.loislaneforhire.com.