The Central Plains is a low-lying region of relatively flat and sandy land, covered with stunted oak and pine trees. The surface is broken here and there by sandstone hills or flat-topped buttes, but marshes and peat lands cover vast areas of the plain. Meandering central courses of the southwestward flowing Wisconsin, Yellow, and Black rivers traverse the region, as does the northeastward-flowing waters of the Upper Fox. The Central Plains, a transition zone, merges in the north with the forest highlands of the Northwoods region, rises in the east to a chain of glacial moraines that separate the central plains from the regions bordering Lake Michigan, and rests against the rugged coulee country of western Wisconsin.
Layers of ancient sandstones underlie the entire region. To the north, a mantle of drift laid down in earlier glacial times covers these sedimentary strata, but the larger part of the plain is an old lakebed that once lay beneath the waters of glacial Lake Wisconsin. This lake, which covered some 1,800 square miles in what is now Adams, Juneau, Jackson, Monroe, and Wood counties to a depth of 75 to 150 feet, was formed during the most recent glacial period. This occurred as westward-moving ice covered the Baraboo Ridge, just west of Portage, and dammed the southward flow of meltwaters coming from ice sheets located to the north and east. The lake was drained for a time by the Black River, which today is only a fraction of its size during glacial times. Eventually, the ice dam that lay across the Baraboo Range melted away, allowing the Wisconsin River to empty the lake through gaps in the range. In the process, the rushing waters cut deep gorges, the most dramatic of which are the Wisconsin Dells and Devil’s Lake.
The region’s many square-topped buttes and mesas rise strikingly above the surface of the plain, sometimes to a height of 150 feet. The buttes, some of which have been fantastically carved by erosion, are best seen from Mauston to Tomah along U.S. 12 and I-94. Some are well known, such as Petenwell Peak in Juneau County, and Roche-A-Cri and Friendship Mound in Adams County. Extensive areas of marsh and swamp, along with the largest area of continuous wetlands in the state, covering some three hundred thousand acres, are located on the old glacial lakebed. Parts of it were drained for farmland early in the twentieth century.
Settlers came to this part of Wisconsin somewhat later than to surrounding areas because better agricultural lands were available elsewhere. Once settlement of the region did commence relatively late in the nineteenth century, activity began on the older glacial drift to the north and on the moraine hills to the east, extending onto the old lakebed areas later. Exceptions to this were sawmill centers, such as Black River Falls, Neillsville, Nekoosa, Wisconsin Rapids, Wausau, Stevens Point, and Mosinee, that developed early to capitalize on the vast quantities of timber that were floated down the region’s water courses. Many of these towns sustained themselves after the demise of sawn timber by turning to paper production. The Wisconsin Valley, in particular, is a major producer of paper products.
From the beginning, the region’s economy has been highly varied. The most important frontier crop, still important today, was the potato, which thrived on the region’s sandy and drought-prone soils. Wisconsin’s standing as one of the major potato-producing states is built in large part on the produce of this region. Hops were grown for a time in the southeastern parts of the region but disappeared after a devastating bout with hops lice and competition from hops-producing areas in Washington State. With the aid of irrigation, the southeastern counties of the Upper Fox River Valley have emerged more recently as important producers of vegetable and canning crops, such as cabbages, peas, and snap beans. The lakebed counties produce enough cranberries to make Wisconsin among the country’s largest producers. In contrast, the northern counties turned early to dairying and became the focus of the state’s central cheese region. A small area to the north, centered in Marathon County, is one of the world’s leading producers of cultivated ginseng.
The counties of the Central Plains are home to a great many ethnic groups, beginning with the Ho-Chunks, who lived here for centuries prior to the arrival of European explorers. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the region attracted immigrants from many parts of Europe, who spread across the landscape in small clustered settlements, although in many areas Germans and Poles predominated. Germans expanded into the region from districts located to the east and are most strongly represented along the region’s eastern margins. Polish immigrants came for the most part from areas in Poland that were under German control. They settled most heavily in the central part of the region, particularly in Portage County, where the town of Stevens Point emerged as the undisputed center of the Polish community. As a result of these patterns, there is a distinct religious geography to the region. The eastern and more German counties are largely Protestant, while the central and Polish areas are predominantly Roman Catholic. The numerous shrines and grottos situated along the sides of the roads offer conspicuous signs on the landscape of the large Polish Roman Catholic presence, a pattern that continues today.
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