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Driftless Area

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The Driftless Area in western Wisconsin is unlike the rest of the state since much of it escaped the effects of the great ice sheets that invaded Wisconsin some ten thousand years ago. Hence, glacial material, or drift, is largely absent, which accounts for its name. The region is characterized by an extensive upland plateau that has been broken by stream erosion into a rugged landscape of alternating high ridges and deep V-shaped valleys. The Mississippi River bounds the region (and the state) on the west with a massive valley cut by rushing glacial meltwaters. The region’s internal drainage system, which includes the Chippewa, Trempealeau, Black, and Lower Wisconsin rivers, empties into the Mississippi at fairly regular intervals along its course. From early times, people reached the rugged interior by way of these rivers. The original vegetation was a mixture of hardwood forest, oak savannah, and open prairie, but also significant were substantial pockets of pine forest that lined the upper stretches of the region’s westward flowing rivers and tributaries. These pockets, which mark the “tension line” or transition zone between the hardwood forests and savannahs of southern Wisconsin and the boreal forests of the north, made commercial lumbering an important part of the region’s economy.

Also important to the region’s development were substantial deposits of lead. Native peoples residing in the area knew of these in the southern part of the region. By the 1820s the presence of lead began to attract Euro-American prospectors. A lead rush soon followed, bringing thousands of miners and settlers to the area. Between 1820 and 1828, the population of the Wisconsin Lead Region mushroomed from twenty to ten thousand inhabitants, and this was the first part of the state to be substantially developed. The landscape became littered with diggings, smelting furnaces, and booming mining towns, such as Platteville, Mineral Point, Dodgeville, Potosi, and Shullsburg. The territorial capital was briefly situated at nearby Belmont, before Madison in Dane County was chosen for the honor in 1836.

The lead boom attracted people of many origins, including Americans from the Ohio and Mississippi valleys, Irish, and Germans, but especially immigrants who had been miners in Cornwall. They brought with them a hard-rock mining technology that allowed them to go beneath the American miners’ shallow diggings and blast out the rich subsurface ore. Some of them spent the harsh winter sleeping in dugouts carved into the sides of hills, “hibernating” like badgers, thereby giving Wisconsin its nickname, the Badger State. By the 1830s, the Cornish numbered one-fifth of the region’s population. The lead deposits began to play out by the 1840s, and many who had worked in the lead mines moved into agriculture or took advantage of a temporary boom in zinc mining. Over time, the economy became more diversified, and corn and cheese became the region’s most important products.

Farther north, agricultural settlers entered the region via such important river towns as Prairie du Chien and La Crosse, which developed at the mouths of the larger rivers that emptied into the Mississippi. Settlement proceeded up the long and narrow valleys. The settlement area north of the Wisconsin River is often referred to as Upper Coulee Country. Settlers farmed the constricted, flat floors of the coulee valleys and the tops of the ridges and tablelands above, but generally left the steep slopes as woodlands, which produced a distinctive cultural landscape. Farmers grew wheat, and the region remained an important wheat-producing area long after wheat’s decline in the southern part of the state. Much of the region was settled in the decades after the Civil War, a major period of European immigration. Most numerous were Scandinavians. Norwegian immigrants settled large areas, particularly in the valleys of Vernon and Trempealeau counties, and Swedes and Danes were especially important north of the Chippewa River valley. People who came from the same valley or fjord in northern Europe settled in the same valleys or districts here. Also important were German, Bohemian, Irish, and Polish immigrants, and native-born Americans. Noteworthy, too, are the areas near Cashton in Vernon County and Augusta in Eau Claire County settled by Amish and Mennonite farmers.

The region’s river valleys played a major role in Wisconsin’s commercial lumber industry. Although the bulk of the timber resources lay farther to the east and north along the upper courses of these rivers, the harvest floated downstream through the heart of this region in rafts or cribs that were later towed by steamboats down the Mississippi to markets. Some of the state’s most important milling towns grew up along these waterways. The sawmills of such river towns as Prescott, Hudson, Menomonie, Eau Claire, Chippewa Falls, Black River Falls, and La Crosse combined to produce millions of board feet of sawn timber and were the mainstays of the region’s economy until the timber was eventually exhausted. The fine timber baron mansions that survive in many communities reflect the wealth these operations produced for their owners.

Today the region’s economy depends on agriculture and the commercial activity of its towns and service centers. Dairying is important, and the red barns and modern dark-blue Harvestore silos of the region’s dairy farms, which are often picturesquely nestled in the valleys, are common features in the landscape. The region is synonymous with Wisconsin’s western dairy district and produces the usual dairy-region feed crops of corn, oats, and hay, along with small amounts of tobacco in some areas that were originally occupied by Norwegian immigrants. The northernmost portions of the region have also increasingly been drawn into the exurban fringe and commuter shed of the Twin Cities metropolitan area, linking the local economy more closely to that of east-central Minnesota.

Writing Credits

Marsha Weisiger et al.

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