It’s one of those places that gets to you quickly. A mound rising from the Wisconsin River valley flatland. Panoramic. Historic. Isolated. And it is especially spiritual. When it’s still you think you hear ghosts. And maybe you do.
The Shadewald Mound Group is stunning collection of animal effigies on a hill in southern Richland County. It’s not well known, but it is beautifully intact. Andrew Khitsun, creator of the website Wisconsin Mounds, says that the “Shadewald Mound Group is absolutely the best preserved group I’ve ever seen.” The effigies include an eagle, bison, and a bird woman – who some suggest may be the Corn Woman as cited in Cheyenne oral tradition.
This story has a hero. Also known as Frank’s Hill, the Shadewald group is being preserved by Frank Shadewald, who bought the land from a neighbor. Shadewald is a retired farmer and engineering instructor at Southwest Technical College in Fennimore. His family owned adjacent land that in 1998 became home to Ho-Chunk Bison Ranch and also includes a number of mounds. In 1998 Frank acquired the land that includes the effigies, which is across the road from a ridge Shadewald is preserving that also includes mounds. Both ridges were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2008.
I’m told that a real eye-opener came in 2008 when a DNR warden flew over after a light snowfall that exposed the effigies in perfect detail. The pictures are remarkable – one even appears on the poster for Wisconsin Archeology Month, 2009.
The ridge across from that where the effigies lie has 12 conical mounds in a line, each roughly the same size and distance from the others. Some speculate that they are aligned with lunar cycles. In fact, Shadewald and others gather at the mounds during solstice to view sunrises and sunsets.
“Skywatchers have long gathered at this hill where the effigy mounds align with celestial events,” says Astronomer John Heasley said on the Cultural Landscape Legacies website. “At this site, we can experience, not only the deep time of the mound builders, but also rediscover our home in the cosmos. I’ve been fortunate to help Mr. Shadewald with several events on the hill and every time it has been a special experience.”
Solstice events and the aerial photography are starting to draw attention to Frank’s Hill. A great place to get more information on the Shadewald group and other mounds on the Lower Wisconsin River is the non-profit organization Cultural Landscape Legacies, Inc. More pictures are available there and also on the website Wisconsin Mounds, “devoted to Native American structures commonly called Indian Mounds”.
University of Wisconsin doctoral candidate Meridith Beck Sayre created a short film about Mr. Shadewald and Frank’s Hill which was shown at the 2009 Tales of Planet Earth environmental film in Madison, Wisconsin. (Click here for a glimpse.) Frank Shadewald mentions in the piece that a friend of his suggested the mound was Holy Land. That’s what Ms. Beck Sayre titled the work.
I live about an hour from Frank’s Hill and never heard of the place until a friend who lives nearby suggested we stop there on the way home from a visit, it was only a couple of miles away. It was a sunny fall day and the brief walk up the mound from the parking area was exhilarating. The view is stunning – the elevation itself is a draw – and it’s easy to understand what attracted the
mound builders centuries ago. We had seen the incredible aerial photos beforehand and the size of the effigies amazed us. We were dwarfed physically and emotionally. It is remarkable now – I can only imagine its impact 1,000 years ago.
We’re lucky to have people like Frank Shadewald to preserve places like this – so many have been destroyed. Franks Hill seems truly unique, though. It seems now as it was a millennium ago. Its isolation makes it easy to understand the context in which it was built – not much has changed and maybe it was that realization that makes it so spiritual to me. I can imagine seeing what the builders saw.
Holy Land is a most appropriate name. It is truly a place you can feel as well as see.
I hope this new year of 2011 commits us further preservation of our history, and to helping Frank Shadewald assure that the mystic mounds are preserved forever.
Rick Rolfsmeyer, Wisconsin Rural Partners, Hollandale, WI (Pop. 283)