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Floods Strike Again: A Case For Land Conservation

30 June 2013 | Category: Headlines, History, Nature
Flash flooding undercut State Highway 60 in Richland County on June 23, 2013, washing the edge of the road away beneath the guardrail..

Wisconsin Highway 60 was among several roads damaged by heavy rains in June 2013. Photo by Richland County Emergency Management via the National Weather Service.

The Summer of 2013 began with floods, washouts, and landslides across the Driftless Area, destroying roadways and inundating homes in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota. These events bring significant losses and make dramatic news, but they are not new. To the contrary, the Driftless Area's rugged landscape owes its very existence to millions of years of erosion by floodwater, and that erosion is an ongoing process. Widespread human construction, by contrast, is a recent development in this environment. The repeated rains and landslides of the last decade make clear that communities in the Driftless Area must plan their land use for the inevitable occurrence of further flooding and erosion.

The Driftless Area is prone to flash-floods and landslides in part because of its unique topography, which has a higher degree of slope than surrounding regions. The following map (view map at high-resolution) is colored by slope to highlight this distinction, with steeper hillsides shaded more brightly than level land. The Driftless Area stands out immediately as the bright swath across the center of the map:

Map of the Driftless Area of the Midwestern United States colored by degree of slope.

The steep terrain of the Driftless Area increases the speed at which run-off collects into drainage channels, ordinarily an advantage, as it dries uplands quickly and prevents water from pooling into stagnant ponds and bogs. During heavy rains, however, water collects more rapidly than some narrow channels can accommodate, leading to sudden flash floods that erode banks and scour new channels. In the meantime, the saturated hillsides — especially those with inadequate vegetation — lose strength and give way, leading to landslides. These are the very processes that created the jagged valleys and steep slopes of the Driftless Area, a landscape forged in unison with running water.

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New Year’s in the Old Northwest

1 January 2013 | Category: History
Red Berries in the Winter Woods of Wisconsin

New Year's Day in the Wisconsin Woods

Upon a New Year's Eve some centuries ago, on an ice-locked island in Lake Michigan, a motley troupe of old fishermen donned grotesque costumes and trudged into the snow. As they ambled about their moonlit village, they rapped on the door of each cabin, presenting a frightening sight to the families within at their firesides, and singing each household a medieval chanson:

Bon jour, le Maître et la Maîtresse,
Et tout le monde du loger.
Si vous voulez nous rien donner, dites-le nous;
Nous vous demandons seulement la fille aînée.

This was the French custom of La Guignolée — New Year's Eve begging — and all that the singers sought, if a host could give no more, was the eldest daughter of the house: la fille aînée. Each home was ready with other gifts, however — for the chanteurs were always expected that night and fêted in exchange for their entertaining song and dance.1 Thus the elderly Mackinac Island fishermen preserved a dying tradition of their medieval French forbears, and the nineteenth century settlers of America's Old Northwest ushered in another New Year.

All New Year's customs seem a smidgen strange. For the sake of no more than a new calendar, even in our modern age, we drop everything — crystal balls, shoes, peaches, carp, you name it — to celebrate with champagne and Scottish song. These observances often seem like nothing but the scrag end of Christmas, one last tenuous excuse for revelry before packing up and buttoning down for winter. In the Old Northwest, however, New Year's was among the most anticipated and most fondly recalled of all the holidays — more so even than Christmas.

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The Lake That Never Was

2 August 2012 | Category: History, Nature

In 1962, the U.S. Congress authorized construction of a flood control dam on the Kickapoo River at La Farge, Wisconsin. The dam would protect La Farge and its downstream neighbors from the Kickapoo's devastating flash floods. It would also create a 1,780 acre reservoir — "Lake La Farge" — that proponents hoped would draw tourists in search of fishing, boating, and lakefront recreation. Over a hundred farmers and landowners were made to sell their real estate to the federal government beginning in 1969 to make way for the planned reservoir. Construction crews set to work rebuilding Wisconsin Highway 131 around the anticipated lake. In 1971, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers broke ground on an earthen dam at La Farge.

As work progressed, increased environmental scrutiny revealed problems. Studies showed that a dam would not only alter the local ecology and threaten endangered species in the Kickapoo Valley, but also take a severe toll on local water quality. The expense of maintaining the reservoir also raised concerns. In 1975, with the dam partially in place and half of the affected highway rebuilt, a failed cost-benefit analysis led the Corps of Engineers to halt the project. The cost had been $18 million, coupled with the destruction of the valley's farming community — an unambiguous example of poor foresight and government waste.

Aerial Imagery of the Kickapoo Valley overlaid with a simulated map of Lake La Farge

Though Lake La Farge was never filled, the incomplete dam and an abrupt corner in Highway 131 remain as visible reminders of the failed project. Likewise, the property acquired for the reservior remains largely vacant, though it at last found use in 2000 when it was transferred from the Corps of Engineers to the Ho-Chunk Nation and the State of Wisconsin for the creation of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. The lake that never was thus remains fixed on the mental map of many Kickapoo Valley residents.

I created the map above to define the extent of the planned lake more clearly. The map is based on elevation data I had downloaded from the USGS NED for my Driftless Area Map, and it simulates the area that would have been flooded if Lake La Farge had been filled to the proposed elevation of 840 feet above sea level. The base layer of the map is a mosaic of 2010 aerial imagery from the USDA National Agricultural Imagery Program. The map does not account for sediment deposition and other landscape changes that the dam could have wrought, but it offers a general picture of how "Lake La Farge" might have fit into the modern landscape.

Learn More

Brad's History - From Brad Steinmetz, author of That Dam History: The Story of the La Farge Dam Project.
The Kickapoo Valley Reserve - the valley today, with several pages of history

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An Old Idea: Wisconsin and its University

7 September 2011 | Category: History
Birds Eye View of the University of Wisconsin campus at Madison, 1907

View of the University of Wisconsin campus at Madison in 1907 by H. D. Nichols. WHi 3882.

This September marks the beginning of fall term for more than 180,000 students across the twenty-six campuses of the University of Wisconsin System. The return to school is an opportunity for reunion and renewal, for the discovery of new possibilities and the re-evaluation of old ideas — including the idea of public higher education itself. If this idea is to remain relevant in the years to come, then we must value public universities as something more than a monetary cost to taxpayers and a dollar discount to tuition payers. At the foundation of any real public state university there is a deeper value: service and accountability to the people who make up the state. One need not look farther than the development of the University of Wisconsin itself for an illustration of what this ideal means.

The University of Wisconsin and the State of Wisconsin were created in the same stroke. Article 10, Section 6 of the Wisconsin Constitution of 1848 declared:

"Provision shall be made by law for the establishment of a state university, at or near the seat of government, and for connecting with the same, from time to time, such colleges in different parts of the state, as the interests of education may require."

Wisconsin's founders called for a public university in the state constitution, and established the seat of learning as one with the seat of law, because they had an ideal of cultivating productive citizens, and educated citizens, and cultured citizens, but above all else, citizens — participants in a democracy and shapers of law, not mere subjects either of crown or wealth. John Lathrop, the first UW Chancellor, expressed this concept eloquently at his inaugural address on January 16, 1850:

"The American mind has grasped the idea, and will not let it go, that the whole property of the state, whether in common or in severalty, is holden subject to the sacred trust of providing for the education of every child of the state. Without the adoption of this system, as the most potent compensation of the aristocratic tendencies of hereditary wealth, the boasted political equality of which we dream is but a pleasing illusion. Knowledge is the great leveler. It is the true democracy. It levels up—it does not level down."1

As it grew, the University of Wisconsin only strengthened in its commitment to knowledge as true democracy. In 1894, when economics professor Richard T. Ely was attacked by in the national press as an anarchist and socialist radical for his research interest in the growing labor movement, the UW Board of Regents convened hearings to investigate, and concluded them by issuing a famous defense of the professor and the freedom to pursue knowledge:

"We cannot for a moment believe that knowledge has reached its final goal, or that the present condition of society is perfect. We must therefore welcome from our teachers such discussions as shall suggest the means and prepare the way by which knowledge may be extended, present evils be removed and others prevented. We feel that we would be unworthy of the position we hold if we did not believe in progress in all departments of knowledge. In all lines of academic investigation it is of the utmost importance that the investigator should be absolutely free to follow the indications of truth wherever they may lead. Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found."2

Some twenty years after the regents made this proclamation, their "sifting and winnowing" statement was affixed in bronze to University Hall (since renamed for UW President John Bascom), becoming an enduring reminder of the commitment to truth.

In the meantime, the University of Wisconsin had begun to redefine the ways in which knowledge could be disseminated and truth be put to the service of democracy. Under the leadership of Charles Richard Van Hise, UW President from 1903 to 1918, the university advocated what became known around the United States as the Wisconsin Idea: a notion often summarized in the slogan "the boundaries of the campus are the boundaries of the state," meaning that the role of the public university should be public service to all the people of the state and their government — not only the researchers and students on campus. Theodore Roosevelt remarked on this ideal that:

"In no other State in the Union has any university done the same work for the community that has been done in Wisconsin by the University of Wisconsin. ... I found the President and the teaching body of the University accepting as a matter of course the view that their duties were imperfectly performed unless they were performed with an eye to the direct benefit of the people of the State; and I found the leaders of political life, so far from adopting the cheap and foolish cynicism of attitude taken by too many politicians toward men of academic training, turning, equally as a matter of course, toward the faculty of the University for the most practical and efficient aid in helping them realize their schemes for social and civic betterment."3

The "work for the community" that Roosevelt observed one hundred years ago had a wide scope. Sure, the University of Wisconsin at the dawn of the 20th century offered tuition-free admission to Wisconsin residents, paid for by state taxpayers and federal grants — but this was only typical for a public university of the period. What set Wisconsin apart were the university's efforts to reach beyond traditional student instruction to improve life across the state.

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Laura Sherry and the Wisconsin Players: Little Theatre in the Badger State

12 May 2011 | Category: Arts, History

[Note: This article was originally published at Acceity.org on 12 May 2011 and was revised and expanded with new sources on 18 June 2012].

The announcement in the New York Times on October 9, 1917, was straightforward and short: "WISCONSIN PLAYERS COMING." The amateur acting company from Milwaukee, which had been at the vanguard of the American Little Theatre Movement for the better part of a decade, was about to make its East Coast debut.

In bringing the Wisconsin Players to New York, producer Laura Sherry was doing her small part to turn the world of theatre inside out. Before 1910, New York had practically controlled the American stage. A handful of businessmen had held the nation's theatres in the grasp of their Theatrical Syndicate, which pushed safely profitable productions from New York across the country while locking out competitors.1 Laura Sherry and the Wisconsin Players represented something different: the Little Theatre, an emerging national movement of non-commercial and non-professional drama. It was now time for the actors and writers of the Midwest to bring their ideas to Manhattan.

The Wisconsin Dramatic Society published two volumes of 'Wisconsin Plays,' shown here. The first volume was dedicated to Laura Case Sherry.

Laura Case Sherry, whom the New York Times called "the guiding spirit" of the Wisconsin Players,2 had experienced the theatre from both sides — big and little, commercial and amateur. Born in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, in 1876, Laura Case's parents were Emily Avery and Lawrence Case, owner of the small town's leading general store. Her parents' position afforded Laura an education at the University of Wisconsin and the school of speech at Northwestern University. From there she went to study theatre in Chicago and at last New York, where in 1897 she joined the Richard Mansfield Company as an actress and toured the country as a cast member in several plays, including Mansfield's famous production of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.3 Mansfield, then an opponent of the Theatrical Syndicate, spoke frequently against its stranglehold on the stage, even assailing syndicate bosses inside their own theatres.4 Though Mansfield's own self-interest later led him to soften his resistance, his early opposition to the centralized commercial theatre must have made an impression on young Laura Case.

At the start of the twentieth century, Case settled back into Wisconsin life. She married Edward P. Sherry, a lumber and paper tycoon from Neenah, and the couple made a home in Milwaukee. There, Mrs. Sherry set to work gathering a club of like-minded theatre devotees and performers.5 The group held meetings and rehearsals in the homes of members, and on April 21, 1909, the amateur troupe staged the one-act Irish drama Riders to the Sea by John Millington Synge at the Davidson Theater in Milwaukee.6 The Irish play was fitting, for the Little Theatre movement in America would draw much of its inspiration from a tour of the United States by the Irish Players in 1911 — but Sherry's troupe performed Riders to the Sea years before the Irish Players' visit, demonstrating their foundational role among the nation's community theaters.7

The nascent Milwaukee association soon gained the support of University of Wisconsin English professor Thomas Dickinson. Unable to produce plays at the university in a time when theatre was not deemed a proper academic subject, Dickinson founded the Wisconsin Dramatic Society in Madison in 1910 and organized a company of players by 1911.8 Dickinson and the Madison group worked closely with Sherry and her Milwaukee compatriots from the start, so that the two associations quickly became branches unified in a statewide society.9 The Wisconsin Players had now been born in earnest.

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