Farewell To A Landmark

June 20, 2012

Building 200 in early 1945, with a giant flag on a towering flagpole in the front lot and banners marking awards for production flying nearby.

As far as historical landmarks go, Building 200 is among America’s homeliest. It’s a two-story barracks-like structure built for function with no attention paid to form beyond the basics of level, plumb and square. Anyone who has spent time on a military base in the years since World War II has seen buildings like it.

For exactly seventy years this month, Building 200 has stood off Highway 12 on the Sauk Prairie just down from the Barabo Hills. It was, until a couple of months ago, the headquarters of the United States Army at the Badger Army Ammunition Plant. Here the Army Corps of Engineers and the Army Ordnance Department supervised the work of the various civilian contractors who constructed and operated the plant since 1942.

Homely it is. Two stories of narrow office corridors in the shape of a rectangle with a cross corridor creating two open courtyards. Not that the weed-choked courtyards are decorative. They are merely a means to admit natural light to the inner row of offices. The exterior is a catalog of historical siding. Wooden clapboards in the 1940s covered by asbestoes sheathing in the 1950s covered by vinyl in the 2000s. The framing is entirely wood post and beam, instead of iron or steel, precious materials reserved for more strategically important purposes. Instead tthe Army used top-grade Pacific Coast fir, old growth lumber, hard to find today.

World War II was fought out of Building 200, so was the Korean conflict. From 1965 to 1975, the managers in Building 200 oversaw the production of propellant for the ammo discharged by the rifles, machine guns, artillery, and rockets fired by American troops at war in Southeast Asia. Pick a scene of combat from a Vietnam war movie, the only way most of us experienced that war. It’s more likely than not that, in the real war the movie imitates, the ammo fired in that scene was manufactured at Badger.

Just as importantly, Badger and Building 200 were part of the Cold War arsenal of the United States. When the communist governments in eastern Europe collapsed, when the Soviet Union dissolved, when China moved away from strict Maoism to whatever philosophy governs it today, they didn’t throw a party in Building 200, but they could have. Just as Badger was part of the victory in the relatively short World War II, it was part of the decades long grinding down of communism afterwards.

As a result, Badger worked itself out of its job. It was decommissioned in 1998 and Building 200 became headquarters for a massive effort to decontaminate over 5,000 acres of infrastructure, soil, groundwater and surface water in nearby Lake Wisconsin.

Much of that work is completed. The Army and its contractors no longer need the 66,000 square feet of office space in Building 200. The property itself has been transferred to the Wisconsin DNR and will become part of the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area. Efforts by preservationists to prevent the demolition of Building 200 and convert it to a visitor center/museum have attracted little support.

Demolition work has already begun. Seventy years ago, when Building 200 was first ready for occupancy, over 8,000 workers were swarming over the grounds beyond to complete the over 900 structures necessary to begin production as scheduled in January 1943.

Today, a handful of equipment operators will pull Building 200 down. It’s not an architectural masterpiece, about as far from a Calatrava or a Lloyd Wright as a building could be.

Let’s call it a landmark to transience, a reminder that the greatest of human achievements, like the humblest, are temporary.


Snapshots of Heritage

May 31, 2012

750 Seventh Street

Late last year, I heard the first murmurings of a substantial dry plate glass negative collection at the Sauk Prairie Area Historical Society, the majority of which had not yet been scanned, much less identified, nor entered into the museum’s records. Around that same time, Jody Kapp, director of development at SPAHS, procured a grant through Heritage Credit Union that enabled the development of an educational photographic program for elementary school children as well as the purchase of a new scanner, with which the century-old negatives could be digitally preserved.

Ochsner bird collection at Tripp Museum in Prairie du Sac

To kick off the program, half a dozen groups of second and fifth graders visited Tripp Museum this spring to learn about the history of photography. They were first introduced to several types of vintage photo processes and taught about composition. Afterwards, everyone had an opportunity to compose drawings, using what they had learned in the presentation, and to design a cyanotype, which developed outdoors and was then taken inside for a quick bath. These are now on display.

Children (and adults!) who visit this summer are invited to use one of the museum’s digital cameras to take photos, which can then be emailed to the photographer and may be posted to the historical society’s Facebook page. “Our goal is to not only help people understand the importance of photography in capturing the stories of a people,” says Jody, “but also to interest them in learning how to make their own well-thought-out compositions so they too can help preserve the people, places, and things that are important to them through photography.”

School kids working on cyanotype creations

In late March, I began working with fellow society members and volunteer archivists, Jack Berndt and Verlyn Mueller, helping to scan, identify, and catalog the vast glass negative collection. We have thus far archived 132 images and believe that there are approximately 300+ left. Some of the photos had been previously printed, and it was a great pleasure to realize that the society has the originals, while the majority have not really seen the light of day in more than a century. Farm scenes, newly-built houses, social venues, and landscape portraits are common themes, and it was certainly expected that those sorts of things would be uncovered. Less expected are what appears to be an 1899 trip to New Orleans, photos of photos, and touching memorials for deceased community members.

Many of these images have been printed and enlarged, and they are on display now through November 17 in the Mueller Gallery on the first floor. The entire collection, as it is unveiled, will be presented as a slideshow that you can see when visiting. The public is invited to help identify the people, places, and events depicted in the images. In conjunction with this exhibition, there are a variety of vintage cameras and photo-related equipment on display, such as an old US Army projector, several magic lanterns, varied types of photography, and much more.

Verlyn inspecting a dry plate glass negative

Tripp Museum is located at 565 Water Street in Prairie du Sac and generally open Fridays and Saturdays from 9 am – 1 pm, or throughout the week by appointment. Call 608.644.8444 or email (spahs@frontier.com) for more information. While there, be sure to check out the Bradford Bison [Bison Occidentalis], on long-term loan from the University of Wisconsin Zoological Museum, which was discovered locally by then seven-year-old Joshua Bradford in 2005, and returned to SPAHS this year. There are also tickets available for the Bradford Bison Quilt Raffle, drawing to be held at the “Brunch with a Bison” community party on Sunday, July 1, 2012.

Ed Steuber gives a driving lesson near Prairie du Sac[Edna Graff and Edwin Steuber, Stella Carpenter and Leta Bernhard Stelter]

Jodi Anderson


Finding John Willis

April 14, 2012

In early April 2012, a few days shy of the 150th anniversary, I visited the place where John Willis died. He was one of the 1,754 United States Army soldiers who died in the two-day battle near the Shiloh Methodist Episcopal church in southern Tennessee. Another 8,408 United States soldiers were wounded, another 2,885 missing. The forces in rebellion against the United States, lost 1,723 dead, 8,012 wounded, and 959 missing. The total casualty list was larger than that of any battle yet fought by American arms.

John Willis began his journey to his death at Shiloh in the town of Strong’s Prairie, in Adams County, Wisconsin. In the summer of 1861 Willis and many of his friends in this frontier community had responded to the call of “Captain” Henry Dawes to join a volunteer company optimistically called “The Adams County Rifles.” They were a jolly bunch of boys and young men up for adventure. John was a little different from the rest because he had been courting a young farm woman named Mary Bassett. They decided to get married before John left for the army. The ceremony took place just in time for John and Mary to say goodbye.

The Rifles, as yet unarmed, traveled to Camp Randall in Madison, and signed on to serve their country. They became Company E of the 16th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry.

Company E so impressed the officers of the 16th that they named it the Color Guard, so designated because its duty was to protect and hold high the regimental flag in combat. In the smoke, noise and confusion of battle, a soldier would know he was in the right place if he could see his regimental flag. It was a dubious honor for the color guard because it made them choice targets for enemy fire, as events on the morning of April 6, 1862 would verify.

The 16th was part of the Army of The Tennessee, under the command of General Ulysses S. Grant. It was advancing up the Tennessee River to capture the important railroad center of Corinth, Mississippi. The Tennessee flows north so “upriver” is down on the map. As directed by Grant’s choice as on-site commander, William T. Sherman, the 20,000-man army disembarked from a fleet of river steamers at a point known as Pittsburg Landing. Sherman ordered them to make camp. Since he and Grant planned to advance on Corinth in a few days, Sherman neither ordered his men to camp along a solid defensive perimeter nor to fortify their positions with trenches or barricades. The 16th Wisconsin, for example, was on the southern edge of the camp in a disconnected line with units from Michigan, Missouri and Ohio. Few of these men had ever experienced combat. Most were, like the 16th, green volunteers.

Just prior to dawn on April 6, the Confederate forces led by General Albert Sidney Johnston, began what is considered one of the most successful “surprise” attacks in American military annals. Johnston had moved over 20,000 troops to within hailing range of the Union lines. Union scouting parties had seen the Confederates coming and reported to Sherman, but he refused to believe he was facing an entire army.

Skepticism was not an option for the 16th Wisconsin. Roused from their blankets, they rushed to form into line alongside their regimental colors. A thousand Confederate rifles fired, then a thousand more, joined by artillery. The men of Company E started to fall. Color Sergeant John Willis was among the first. He was followed by five others who took his place at the flag: Lewis Knight, Erwin Ryder, Henry Thomas, John Holcomb, Philo Perry. Some died on the field. John Willis lingered for a day in a makeshift field hospital. Mary’s brother Charles visited him and wrote to tell her that her husband had died in peace.

Barely a wife, Mary Bassett Willis became a widow.

Life moves on. The war ended, the soldiers who survived came home. One of them was James Dawes, who also served in Company E. He and Mary married and started a new life.

Years passed and the administrative wheels turned. One day in the 1880s, a crate addressed to Mary arrived at the Strong’s Prairie post office. It was a veteran’s memorial stone for “John P. Wills”. His body was buried in the national cemetery at Pittsburg Landing and his name is spelled correctly on the stone there. His next-of-kin were entitled to receive a memorial stone for the home cemetery. According to army records, Mary Bassett Willis Dawes was John’s next of kin.

More years passed and the location of John’s stone was lost. In the late 1940s, the Wisconsin River Power Company constructed the Petenwell Dam on the Wisconsin River and flooded substantial portions of the town of Strong’s Prairie.

In the mid-1980’s the power company drew down the level of the water above the dam, exposing ground that had not seen the sun for forty years. An “avocational archeologist” named Helge Helgesen from Strong’s Prairie started to explore the muddy flats in search of native American artifacts. He came upon a stone but it was not native American. It was the veterans memorial stone of John Willis, cracked and chipped, but with a legible inscription.

Small towns being small towns, Helge had little trouble finding the final resting place of Mary Dawes in the Monroe cemetery, one town north of Strong’s Prairie. He also found her descendants. They agreed to let him place John Willis stone in the family plot near to Mary’s. It remains there today.

Memory is small compensation for a life lost, yet better than not to be remembered at all.

–Michael Goc


A Primary That Mattered

March 20, 2012

Rarely have Wisconsin presidential primaries played a decisive role in the selection of a nominee. The primary of 1960, with Hubert H. Humphrey versus John F. Kennedy, was different.

Baby boomers remember Hubert Humphrey as a talkaholic stooge for Lyndon Johnson’s failing Vietnam War policy and the loser in the 1968 presidential race, but there is more to his story.

Hubert Humphrey in Wisconsin, 1960. (Courtesy, Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Ass'n.)

He vaulted to national prominence—as did Bill Clinton and Barack Obama—by way of a speech at the Democratic National Convention. Humphrey was the thirty-seven year-old Mayor of Minneapolis when he took the podium in 1948. Conventions actually conducted serious political business in those days and Humphrey rose to speak in favor of the minority plank on civil rights in the party platform.

The majority on the platform committee had recommended that the Democrats continue to close their eyes to the reign of racial discrimination, segregation and out right terror in the southern states, as well as the slightly milder forms of all three in the north, that had helped them win national elections for decades.

Humphrey stood up and said it was time “for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights!” The delegates responded by voting in favor of the minority plank calling for federal laws against lynching,  an end to segregation in public schools and a halt to job discrimination based on race.

Delegates from several southern states stormed out of the hall, organized their own Dixiecrat Party, and nominated South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond for president. Some Democrats feared the loss of conservative southerners would doom President Harry Truman’s chances for re-election. Instead, he gained more than enough African-American voters to make up for it.

Humphrey himself won his race for the U.S. Senate that year. As the 1960 election appeared on the horizon he was, if not the frontrunner, arguably the first among equals.

In Wisconsin he was known as our “third senator.” By comparison, John F. Kennedy was a stranger from New England. Fewer states had primaries in 1960 than today, and Wisconsin’s was one of the earliest, which made it more important than it would be in later years. If Kennedy could beat Humphrey in the Minnesotan’s back yard, he would hurt his leading rival and establish himself as a national candidate.

Humphrey was the favorite of the liberal-progressive wing of the Wisconsin party, of most African-American, rural and union labor voters, and of non-Catholics. Kennedy appealed to more conservative voters, including Republican crossover voters in the Fox River Valley, where his family’s connections to Senator Joseph McCarthy weighed in his favor. A heavy majority of the forty percent of Wisconsinites who identified as Catholics was also on his side.

Well-aware of his oratorical abilities, Humphrey challenged Kennedy to debate the issues. Kennedy refused, relying on his well-stocked campaign chest for media buys, photogenic family members who toured the state, and his own “charisma,” a political attribute that was little spoken of in Wisconsin or elsewhere until the 1960 campaign.

Kennedy’s combine of cash, cousins and charm made Humphrey feel like “an independent merchant up against a chain store.”

John Kennedy on his charm campaign, 1960. (Courtesy, Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Ass'n.)

The turnout was the largest of the postwar years. Kennedy scored 476,000 votes to Humphrey’s 366,753. The Minnesotan stayed in the race for the West Virginia primary, which he lost by an even larger margin and where Kennedy proved that he could win an election in a state with a predominately non-Catholic electorate.

The 1960 primary was the only election John Kennedy won in Wisconsin. In the November general election, a majority of Wisconsin’s voters, and our state’s electoral votes, went to Richard Nixon.


On Wisconsin Spirit

March 19, 2012

“When I came [to Wisconsin] I just thought, ‘There is something different about this place, there is something very special about this place.’ And you can feel it … this place is extremely special, and it was no accident that it became so special.”

So says Gwen Drury, a PhD student in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at UW-Madison, who since coming to town has gained the reputation as our resident Wisconsin Idea expert.

If she had been talking about anywhere else, I might have dismissed the statement as parochial or self-involved. But we’re in Wisconsin. Like others I’ve met, my family came here for the UW, moved away for a time, missed Wisconsin and returned; we’ve since had opportunities to leave but choose to stay. From our perspective, a little Wisconsin exceptionalism is in order.

UW President John Bascom gave campus lectures each Sunday on his students’ moral obligation to serve the state. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society (Image ID 33717).

Recently on Wisconsin Public Radio, I listened to Drury explain how the Wisconsin Idea sets our state apart from the rest. Now at least 100 years strong, the Wisconsin Idea is the philosophy that the boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state–or in a 21st century wired Wisconsin, the university really has no boundaries. In other words, the UW has an obligation to serve all people, not just its own academic community. Other states tried similar approaches to public service, with less impressive or enduring results, maintains Drury.

Or as she and WPR host Larry Meiller adorably point out in the broadcast, it’s not the Wisconsin IDEA, it’s the WISCONSIN Idea.

The philosophy has roots in the UW’s earliest days, when John Bascom served as its president. Each Sunday, he lectured students at length  on their moral obligation to the state, which had made their academic opportunities possible.  His teachings powerfully impacted the students of his day, including all-star Wisconsin Idea proponents such as Robert M. La Follette, Charles Van Hise and Charles McCarthy.

Notably, around this time, Carl Beck wrote the original lyrics to the UW fight song, “On Wisconsin.” (With modified lyrics, “On Wisconsin” also became our official state song in 1959.) Beck himself was surely affected by the Wisconsin Idea. In 1912–the same year McCarthy published his book “The Wisconsin Idea”–Beck wrote an article titled “Wisconsin spirit–a discussion.” In it, he calls for rehabilitating the Wisconsin spirit on campus, “temporarily strangled [by] … first, a rapidly expanding university, and second, a larger inflow of the leisure class.” What made me seek out his article, though (with thanks again to Gwen Drury for steering me to it), was his assertion about Wisconsin’s specialness: there’s “spirit,” and then there’s “Wisconsin spirit.”

I couldn’t resist reproducing a table from Beck’s article, below.

Beck, Carl (Feb. 1912). Wisconsin spirit–a discussion. Wisconsin Alumni magazine, 13 (5).  Retrieved from http://digicoll.library.wisc.edu.

Spirit “Wisconsin Spirit”
1. self-activity initiative
2. peculiar ability efficiency
3. ardor enthusiasm
4. pervading influence progressiveness
5. animating principle democracy
6. state of mind open-mindedness
Sum Total ______________
7. peculiar quality service

Beck believed that, while these six somewhat vague characteristics of “spirit” combine to create a “peculiar quality,” “Wisconsin spirit” is embodied in six specific, positive attributes that all add up to “service.”  Moreover, without all six working together, there’s no “Wisconsin spirit.”

From now on when I hear our state song, I’ll think about these deeply ingrained values that continue to make our state a special place.

*********************************

As the Badger men’s basketball team heads into the NCAA Sweet 16 tournament, here’s a postscript about ‘On Wisconsin,’ which Wisconsin Public Television originally broadcast to commemorate the song’s 100th anniversary.

–Tammy Kempfert


Wisconsin’s Literary Landmarks: From “Our Town” to “Citizen Kane”

March 6, 2012

Wisconsin’s Literary Landmarks

By Brian D’Ambrosio

Joseph Webster House, Elkhorn, WI

As hard as it may seem at times to give reasons for, there is more to learn about and excite the sentiment in the Badger State above and beyond milk and cheese (regardless of how deliciously impressive) and the Green Bay Packers (notwithstanding stunning Super Bowl success). Wisconsin has produced many influential authors and dramatists and served as the source for many great fictional bodies of work. In this article you’ll take a winding journey, from Pepin to Kenosha, on the path to discover Wisconsin’s unique ancestry of literary landmarks, storybook attractions, and scholarly sites, and how the unstoppable spirit of a few of its residents came to heavily influence the tenor of mythical Americana.

Sterling North Boyhood Home, Edgerton

In Edgerton, Wisconsin, tourists with the most bookish of bents will enjoy  visiting the landmark boyhood home and museum of Sterling North (1906-1974), world-famous author of Rascal, So Dear to my Heart, The Wolfling, and 28 other works.  In 1963 North completed the book Rascal: A Memoir of a Better Era. Set in 1917 when he was 11-years-old, the best-selling book chronicles a boy’s fondness for and friendship with a pet raccoon in the fictitious “Brailsford Junction.” The home, which is open from April 5 through December 20, Sunday afternoons 1:00 to 4:30 p.m., may be toured by appointment. Refurbished to its 1917 setting, furnished with period antiques, the museum showcases North’s desk, typewriter, photos, books and many family artifacts and memorabilia.

Lorine Niedecker, Fort Atkinson Poet

Lorine Niedecker (1903-1970) was a poet of eminent endowment whose life and work were long cloaked in anonymity. The introverted daughter of a carp fisherman, she spent most of her life on a flood-riven plain in southern Wisconsin. She was born and died on a marshy spit of land known as Blackhawk Island near Fort Atkinson. The Friends of Lorine Niedecker sponsors a monthly poetry reading in Fort Atkinson, which is rich with Niedecker-related sites, including W7309 Blackhawk Island Road, the location of Niedecker’s writer’s cottage and modest home. Both of which are private property, but access is allowed through an appointment with the Friends of Lorine Niedecker. Other notable markers include: Union Cemetery, County Road J north of Hwy 106, Cemetery Road, the burial place of Lorine Niedecker and her parents Henry and Daisy; 506 Riverside Drive, the home where Lorine stayed during the school year 1917-1918 with family friends; 1000 Riverside Drive , the home where the Niedeckers lived from 1910-1916; 209 Merchants Avenue, the Dwight Foster Library, home to Lorine’s personal library archive; 401 Whitewater Avenue, the Hoard Historical Museum, which operates a room with myriad artifacts related to the poet’s life.

Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm, North of Baraboo

Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac will be read and revered ad infinitum. This classic, featuring philosophical essays and natural observations established Leopold (1887-1948) as America’s preeminent environmental thinker. Published in 1949, shortly after Leopold’s death, A Sand County Almanac is a masterpiece of nature writing, widely referenced as one of the most seminal nature books ever penned. Writing from the vantage of his retreat shack along the shore of the Wisconsin River, Leopold mixed conservation and wildlife essays, polemics, and memoirs, in what has become a catalyst for the country – and world’s – evolving ecological awareness. “Outdoor prose writing at is best……A trenchant book, full of beauty and vigor and bite…All through it is (Leopold’s) deep love for a healthy land.” So raved the New York Times. The Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm is located near Baraboo, Wisconsin. Purchased by Leopold in the early 1930s, he converted a chicken coop, which he dubbed ‘the Shack’, for his family to spend weekends. Tours of the Shack are offered Saturdays, from Memorial Day through the end of October. Guided tours originating at the Aldo Leopold Legacy Center are the only way to access and view the inside of the Leopold Shack.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Birthplace, Pepin 

It appears that every state wants to claim a piece of author Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957). Anyone who watched the Little House on the Prairie TV series knows that Walnut Grove is in Minnesota and there’s a bust of Laura on display in Missouri where she settled in her later years. Laura also lived in Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, Florida, New York and South Dakota. Near the tiny village of Pepin, Wisconsin, Wilder’s birthplace is commemorated. The Ingalls family lived in a small cottage when Laura was born, in 1867. You’ll find a replica of her log cabin at the Little House Wayside and an historical marker in Pepin Park. Plan on visiting in mid-September to participate in Laura Ingalls Wilder Days.

Zona Gale Home, Portage 

Zona Gale Home, Portage, WI

Novelist and playwright Zona Gale (1874-1938) achieved nationwide popularity as a writer and won the first ever Pulitzer Prize awarded to a female for Drama. Once she gained a niche in the literary world, she returned to her place of origin – Portage, Wisconsin – where she lived and worked the rest of her life. Zona Gale was born in Portage on August 26, 1874, and, barring a brief time in Minnesota, lived there until she entered the University of Wisconsin. At the time of her birth, her father was a Milwaukee Road railroad engineer, working at the time out of Minneapolis. Zona’s mother chose to be prepared for the birth of their first and only child at the Portage home of her mother. Gale first garnered attention for her short stories set in the fictional town of Friendship Village. Published in 1908, Friendship Village proved very well-liked and she went on to write a similar series of stories. Miss Lulu Bett shared best seller honors in 1920 with Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, and the adaptation of the novel brought her the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, in 1921.

Hamlin Garland Homestead, West Salem 

Hamlin Garland was born in a West Salem log cabin on September 14, 1860. After spending his teenage years in rural Iowa, Garland (1860-1940) became a teacher in the Boston School of Oratory. Between the years of 1885 and 1889 he taught private classes in both English and American literature. Some time was also spent lecturing on land reform in and around Boston, where he made the acquaintance of Oliver Wendell Holmes, George Bernard Show, William Dean Howells, Edwin Booth and other worthies. It was in 1917 that A Son of the Middle Border was published. The next year, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. For the novel A Daughter of the Middle Border he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for best biography of 1921. In 1893, Hamlin Garland bought his parents their first home, called the Hays house, in West Salem, Wisconsin. The homestead, open weekends May through October, came to be known as “Maple Shade.”

Joseph Webster House, Elkhorn 

At 9 East Rockwell Street in the small town of Elkhorn, Wisconsin, stands the neat, modest, white Greek Revival style house where composer Joseph Philbrick Webster (1819-1875) lived. He lived here from 1857 until his death in 1875, at the age of 56. Most of Webster’s more than 1,000 songs were penned during this period. Some of his classics are still well-known today. “Lorena” was heard and immortalized in the classic movie Gone With the Wind. Webster’s compositions were eclectic, including music for ballads, religious hymns, nationalistic drama, and a cantata – a vocal composition intended for musical accompaniment and a choir. The house, which served as a stopping point and sanctuary as part of the Underground Railroad, is open year-round to the public.

Thornton Wilder Birthplace, Madison 

Thornton Niven Wilder (1897-1975) was born in Madison, Wisconsin (at that time a town of eighteen thousand inhabitants) at 140 Langdon Street on April 17, 1897, the son of Amos Parker Wilder, a Wisconsin State Journal editor, and Isabella Niven Wilder. His twin brother died at birth, and Wilder grew up with an older brother and three younger sisters. He took to writing as a youngster, eventually earning his undergraduate degree at Yale, and graduate degree at Princeton. By the time he died on December 7, 1975, at his home in Hamden, Connecticut, Wilder garnered international fame as a playwright and novelist. To this day, his works are translated, performed and prized by audiences worldwide. Wilder’s most famous work, Our Town, explores the lives of people living in the quintessentially American small town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. It was first produced in 1938 and received the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. Madison was the first of three “our towns” in Wilder’s boyhood (he lived here until he was eight), and it is indicative of Wilder’s interests that each was academic – Madison, Berkeley, New Haven. Though primarily associated with Our Town, Wilder also earned a Pulitzer Prize in 1927 for the novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey. A small plaque commemorates the birth site.

John Muir Park and Boyhood Home

Father of our national park system, farmer, inventor, sheepherder, explorer, writer, founder and first president of the Sierra Club, and conservationist John Muir (1838-1914) was perhaps America’s most rugged and prominent naturalist. Raised near a little lake outside Portage, Wisconsin, Muir’s family immigrated to the United States from Scotland in 1849. They build a home (long since eroded) and started a farm called Fountain Lake Farm; Muir’s formative years in the Badger State instilled a love of nature and land. Muir published six volumes of writings, all describing discoveries of natural environs. Additional books and compilations were published after his death in 1914. Perhaps what is most important about his writings was not their number, but their sagacious content, which continues to hold an influential effect on American ideas and the policies that help to nurture and preserve nature’s elegant habitats. The park is open year-round.

Orson Welles Birthplace, Kenosha

The son of a gifted concert pianist and wealthy inventor, Kenosha’s Orson Welles (1915-1985) proved a precocious child, excelling in music, art, and even magic. By age 16, Welles had set out to make his mark in the dramatic arts. Within three years, he’d entered stage, film, and radio, and by 1941, he’d co-written, directed and starred in Citizen Kane, considered by many to be one of the greatest films of all time. Born George Orson Welles to Richard Head Welles and Beatrice Ives Welles, May 15, 1915, Welles once said: “I never blamed my folks for Kenosha. Kenosha has always blamed my folks for me.” Built in the 1880s, Welles’ birthplace is a private residence, the front of which holds a bronze plaque commemorating the home town mastermind.

August Derleth, Walden West Festival 

August Derleth (1909-1971) was a prolific writer, publisher, and anthologist. Though best remembered as the first publisher of the horror writings of H.P. Lovecraft, he wrote in several genres, including biography, detective fiction, science fiction, poetry, and historical fiction. Sauk City’s August Derleth Society sponsors a yearly event the second weekend in October, The Walden West Festival. The festival includes satires, musical performances, speakers, a drive to Derleth-relevant sites, and an evening poetry gathering at the writer’s grave. Permanent exhibits linked to Derleth are located at Leystra’s Restaurant and the Cedarberry Inn in Sauk City, the Sauk City Library, and at the Sauk County Historical Society, in Baraboo.

–Brian D’Ambrosio

 

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Devil’s Lake CCC Camp–Postcript

February 28, 2012

Last summer the History Press published a wonderful book by author Robert J. Moore entitled Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin, and the Civilian Conservation Corps. It recounts the story of the CCC’s role in shaping the Devil’s Lake State Park we know today.

Men lined up for mealtime at the CCC Camp at Devils Lake State Park. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society.

The CCC moved out of Devil’s Lake in 1941, but the story of the camp didn’t end when the conservation corpsmen left. Less than a year later, in February 1942, the United States Army and its lead contractors, began work on what is now known as the Badger Army Ammunition Plant, just over the fence from the park.

In May 1942, more than 5,500 construction workers were swarming over the Sauk Prairie in a construction blitz to get the “powder plant” underway as soon as possible. During the peak construction month of August, more than 12,000 men were pouring concrete, laying pipe, and raising studs at Badger.

All those workers had to be fed and the small towns nearby were hardly capable of putting the necessary grub on the table. Hercules then hired a industrial food supplier and the Army reopened the kitchen at the CCC camp. Soon 1,200 meals a day were prepared at Devil’s Lake and trucked to “canteens” on the site.

The construction blitz slowed as summer turned to fall and new kitchen facilities were completed at Badger, so the CCC kitchen was again closed. The entire camp—kitchen, barracks, rec hall, offices—was shuttered even though the thousands of workers who arrived to build and operate Badger had created a housing crisis that saw some of them sleeping in remodeled chicken coops, or sharing “hot beds” that one worker slept in while another was at work.

Housing was scarce even though the plant suffered from a chronic shortage of workers that peaked in the summer of 1944. Workers were in demand to build a new rocket powder facility and meet increased demands for chemicals and smokeless powder due to the D-Day invasion of Europe and stepped up offensive action in the Pacific.

Earlier in the war, vegetable producers in Wisconsin and other states had contracted with workers from the British Caribbean colonies of Jamaica and Barbadoes. When the harvest season ended in September 1944, Hercules Powder hired over two hundred Caribbean men working in Illinois and also another 120-some directly from Jamaica.

The federal government classified these dark-skinned men of mixed-racial heritage as “Negroes” and required that they be segregated from whites when in federal service. Powder plant workers were in federal service. They had to be segregated from whites just as black soldiers, sailors and airmen serving their country could not share quarters or serve in mixed units with their white counterparts.

So even though, space was available in the Badger Village housing unit across Highway 12 from the plant, the Caribbean workers were isolated in the CCC barracks at Devil’s Lake. About two hundred of them stayed over the winter of 1944-45 and into the summer of 1945. Of necessity, they worked in mixed-race crews at the plant, but they were bused back to Devil’s Lake at the end of their shifts.

The CCC camp at Devil’s Lake tells a story of how the United States attempted to cope with the most serious economic crisis it had yet to face. It also tells the story of how the United States struggled with a racial question it was not yet willing to face.

–Michael Goc

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