Wisconsin has over 500 “Historical Markers.” Maybe you’ve seen one, or a few, while at an Interstate Rest Area, or maybe the side of a highway. Maybe it piqued your curiosity of local history, or the state’s history. Hopefully you left more informed than you were the moment before.
However, if I were to hazard a guess, most people have no idea what a “Historical Marker” is. There is one at the Volk Airfield by Camp Douglas that I tried to view once. Since it’s on the military base I had to attempt to pass the checkpoint. The woman operating the checkpoint had no idea what I was asking about when I said “I’d like to go read the historical marker” even after I pointed at the marker 100 meters away. I’ve stopped asking people “where is the historical marker?” They have no idea what I’m talking about. I think they’re ignored by most people. At best, they’ll read them when they come across them.
That was me a few years ago. I like to road trip around our state from time to time, and occasionally I’d see a sign like “scenic view” (another story) or “historical marker” and pull over to read the sign. I enjoy learning about history and didn’t mind the momentary break of a road trip to get out, stretch my legs, and read a sign. It probably started with the first sign I ever read that is just outside my hometown of Spooner. It reads the following:
“YELLOW RIVER – The Yellow River was called the “River Janne” by early French explorers because of the bright yellow sand at the bottom of Yellow Lake through which it flows.
Located in the heart of “Folle Avolne,” or wild rice country, it was one of the first tributaries of the St. Croix to be occupied by the Chippewa who (ca. 1700) in bloody battles drove out the Sioux and established permanent villages on Clam and Yellow lakes.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, rival fur-traders for the Northwestern and XY companies competed fiercly with rum, trade goods and credit for the the fur-trade of the Yellow River, Namekagon. Clam and St. Croix bands of Chippewa Indians.
Indian mounds indicate the residences of aboriginal Indians (ca. 300 A.D.) along the Yellow River and on Spooner Lake, two miles northeast of here. Succeeding the Sioux, the Chippewa maintained permanent villages on this lake from the early eightieth to the early twentieth century.”
That particular sign was erected sometime in 1968, and stands between Spooner and Highway 53, just by the Yellow River. I probably read it once or twice when I lived there, likely when I just received my driver’s license and was exploring the community. At that time, I didn’t think much of it. Later, when I was older, it kind of struck me. People lived here before we did. It was there place, but now it is ours. What was it like when it was their place? This sign helped me imagine that.
It’s one thing to go from being passively interested by these signs to actively hunting them down. That change occurred after an encounter with a different sign. I was driving on Highways 93/53 just past Galesville heading towards La Crosse. A mile or two past where the highways merge is a little “Wayside Park” with a historical marker titled “Decorah Peak.” It tells a story of a Winnebago chief named “one-eyed Decorah” who was wounded in battle and found a nearby cave to heal, returned, and coordinated a surprise attack upon his enemy to defeat them. The sign then goes on to describe how he made pace with the U.S. government. The sign referenced local geography (“hill to the east” and “a cave near the peak”). That fascinated me. These places must still exist! Alas, it’s all private property and the sign is very vague about where these locations are.
The story depicted by the sign was still vivid in my memory when I returned home. I began some research on the Internet. Some of it was of Chief Decorah, but most was for these signs. I became fascinated with these signs and the nuggets of history they provide for the places they presided over. I wanted to find more. After finding a mapped listing of all the markers at https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/pdfs/hp/hpr-marker-list.pdf, the treasure hunter in me was ignited. They add more sites yearly, but there are 575 as of this writing.
Armed with the Internet, the list, and whatever else I wrote down I began my quest to find, read, and photograph all of Wisconsin’s Historical Markers. The quest, has not always been easy, which has made it all the more rewarding.
The list provided by the Wisconsin history often contains vague descriptions of markers. Worse yet, some have moved or were removed. Since I was not the first person to engage in this endeavor (and post it on the internet) I referenced their help. http://www.wisconsinhistoricalmarkers.com/p/home-page.html is a page that has been very helpful on my treasure hunt, providing GPS coordinates and links to Google Maps. But even with their help there have been issues. Some information is five years old, and the sign has moved. Or the area is currently undergoing construction, and signs are missing. The site itself even acknowledges the slowness of updates by Wiscoinsinhistory.org, citing how a correctional facility moved its boundaries to encompass a historical marker, making it unviewable by the public. This blog site has been my best search weapon in the face of bad location descriptions by the state historical society.
It truly becomes a treasure hunt, where knowledge of history is the treasure. Some are easy finds, in a rest area on I-94. Others are real gems that one has to search out. They’re out in the middle of nowhere. A place you’d never drive by, without signs by a major road alerting you to their presence. The marker was sponsored, paid for, and exists, because someone local wants it that way. The outside world may never learn of it unless they come hunting for it. Such was a recent visit of mine in Marathon County.
“POMERANIAN SETTELMENT IN MARATHON COUNTY – In the 1850’s, the midst of Wisconsin’s lumber boom, a large migration of Germans helped settle Marathon County.
This group hailed from Pomerania, a former Prussian province in presnt-day northern German and Poland. Immigration continued for the next several decades. But the largest movement occurred in 1867. That year, Wausau merchant Agust Kickbusch journeyed back home to his former neighbors of Wisconsin’s riches. More than 700 immigrants followed him to Wisconsin Pomeranians spoke PlattDeutsch, also known as Low German, and established several Lutheran churches. Members of today’s pommerscher verein (Pomeranian Society) of Central Wisconsin work to preserve the language and traditions that helped shape the culture of this region.”
That sign, just recently erected in 2013, depicts a rich regional culture that locals do not wish to be forgotten. Yet, unless I’m randomly driving down that dirt road in Marathon county, I would never have found it without the internet.
I urge more of Wisconsin residents to not just be mindful of their local History, but to seek it out. We were not the first residents of this land. Others preceded us, lived, and thrived here. There is a history of when Europeans first came, the interaction, and sometimes the conflict.
Wisconsin is a much different place now. But it is good to remember. The next time you see a “Historical Marker” on a road trip or vacation, please don’t ignore it. Take some time to read it, and imagine the time, the place you are, and what is being described. Enjoy that as part of your trip. You’ll be richer for it.