There’s a lot of history on the land we now call Devil’s Lake State Park. Some remnants of that history are easy to see, such as the many Native American mounds now covered with tall plants dotting the park’s picnic areas. Others get less attention. Foundations, staircases, fieldstone borders and more are slowly disappearing into the undergrowth throughout the park. These are our stories and just like a yellowed old photo album on your uncles back porch, they are slowly fading and falling apart. I was thinking a bit more about the park’s historic sites recently as I was roaming out in the woods.
When I need to unwind, I often find myself heading off into the forests of Devil’s Lake State Park on an aimless ramble. Famous naturalist John Muir would have called it a “saunter”. He once said that he didn’t like the word, “Hike”. He continued, ” I don’t like either the word or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains – not hike!” He told the story of how the word “saunter” came from the French, “sainte-terre-ers” which during the middle ages, were pilgrims to the holy land. John Muir felt a walk in the woods should be an act of reverence. Well, yes… But more often for me, it’s simply a form of cheap therapy!
While out in the woods the other day, I saw an amazing old oak tree. It was much larger than any around it. I’m drawn to these massive old oak trees. I know that they are remnants of when the Baraboo Hills looked much different than it does today, back when the English, Scottish and Welsh found the land more familiar. Back then, these big old oaks weren’t lost in a forest of maple, they were islands of shade on an otherwise open land. In a very real way, these old oaks are an archeological find. When I walked up to this particular “find”, I also discovered at its feet a stone row. This row carried away from the oak in two directions as far as I could see through the undergrowth. This was an old fieldstone border. The first farmers to the area found a lot of rock waiting for them and they couldn’t plant without first moving the stone. Some became fences or parts of barns and homes, some became fieldstone rows and some became piles. Here was a meticulously laid out row. I imagined how the young oak grew beside the fieldstone, then over decades, it expanded to swallow up and even merge with the stones. Amazing!
I was never much into human history myself. I find it interesting, but my imagination is called by our natural history. I’m intrigued by how the plants and animals have changed or moved through the decades. Even the rock is amazing when you realize that once it was mostly sand or the shoreline of a long-ago sea!
And yet, while human history is “not my thing” as we say, I still recognize the value. The importance of saving elements of our history, not only to tell stories of where we’ve been, but to gauge where we are and quantify our plans for the future. At Devil’s Lake State Park, preserving our history seems paramount to preserving the park’s value just as much as maintaining a road or providing a new service.
In some worlds, these stone rows, staircases, and foundations around the park would be accorded a bit of attention and respect. Often sites such as these would be kept clear, connected by trails and served with signs and other public interpretation. The historical foundations of early farms and homes within Devil’s Lake have value. These remaining stones, markers, and foundations are the deep roots of our community. In fact, the park’s Master Plan envisioned a “Living History” farm in an area near what we call Steinke Basin”. Someone certainly was understanding of the value of history when they penned that idea.
As our visitor numbers continue to increase beyond the 3 million mark we have to seriously adjust our thinking. While we need to improve the park’s infrastructure including adding buildings and of course collecting revenue, we also have to respect the land and our history. It’s important to do the science, the archeology, before we bring in the heavy equipment for a new pad or a new building, especially when working near effigy mounds. We must not only be concerned about construction around them but the future impact created by changes in traffic flow, visitor use, etc.. We also have to realize that our history is part of the attraction and not an obstruction or inconvenience. Let’s grow this park and yes, be “open for business” by all means. But also, let’s do it right.
I think we could take the cue from John Muir and intellectually “saunter” through the park while planning its future. Those in charge must administer this public space with reverence and respect for the environment, the wildlife, and the human history during their short tenure. The ancient effigy mounds and yes, even the fieldstone rows laid out by early farmers whose lands we now know as Devil’s Lake State Park, are a historic legacy that should continue on long after we’re all dust. The first step is a proper, up-to-date examination of what’s there before it’s turned over or buried under concrete.
**Just a reminder, DevilsLakeStatePark.com is owned by Skillet Creek Media and is not associated with the Wisconsin DNR in any way. My opinions do not represent those of the park or the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.