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Wildcat Mountain State Park

Prehistoric times

Archeologists from the Wisconsin State Historical Society and the National Park Service have excavated rock shelters and Native American mounds in 25 sites in the Kickapoo Valley. Most of these locations are believed to have been temporary hunting camps, as no evidence of cultivated plants was found. Native American hunting parties probably migrated yearly along the Kickapoo from the more settled camps of the Tomah area to the more permanent homes at the junction of the Wisconsin and Kickapoo rivers.

At one site, seven levels were identified in a nine-foot excavation. The fifth occupation level was dated to about 4,000 years ago. At the seventh level, pieces of deer and other animal bones, charred bones, broken projectile points and flakes were found. At another site, there were a few pottery chips and a stone hearth.

The early Native Americans knew the Kickapoo River as "the river of canoes." In the late 1960s, recreational canoeists began to paddle the river, which continues every year from May to October. Highway 131 from Ontario to La Farge follows Native American trails, crossing the river 11 times in 13 miles.

The First Europeans

Two hundred years ago, this area was a crossing ground for Native Americans. Europeans had not ventured this far west except for early French trappers and fur traders who came before 1684. The French fur traders translated the Native American word for the canoe as Bateaux. Others mispronounced and misread the name, so when the county was named originally, it was called Bad Axe County. In 1862, the county’s name was changed to Vernon, which means "greenness."

When Europeans came to the Kickapoo, the Native American tribes here were the Sac and the Fox, which were later followed by the Ho-Chunk. In 1837, the Ho-Chunk were moved west of the Mississippi River, eventually being forcefully relocated as far as Nebraska. By 1844, loggers looking for virgin timber moved in from New England. Later, people came with oxen and wagons from Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, England, Norway, Germany, Scotland and Ireland looking for inexpensive land. More immigrants came from the southern states after the Civil War.

Lumber Towns

For 25-30 years, a little settlement flourished with a mill, post office and school. It came to an end in 1900. These new inhabitants kept busy building cabins; clearing land; hunting for meat; making feather beds and pillows; filling straw or hay ticks; weaving rag carpets and putting straw under them; making cloth and sewing clothes by hand; churning butter; making soft soap; drying fruits and vegetables; preserving food; hunting for herbs, roots, nuts and berries; grinding horseradish; making brooms; and collecting sap for syrup. Apple trees, in particular, flourished. There were more apple trees in 1890 than there are today. Every home had an orchard or at least a few apple trees.

Giles White came from New York State in July 1853. Here he found "pines and lots of good, healthful water." (Cabins were often located near cool, sweet springs and on streams that yielded brook trout and other fish.) The Whites built their first house on 200 acres near the mouth of Brush Creek, just north of what is now Wildcat Mountain State Park. Giles White laid out and platted the village of Ontario in 1857.

This was a rustic place in the 1850s. There was no road to any point except for the track the settlers had moved in on, which usually followed the Native American trails. The woods were full of animals: black bear, white-tailed deer, wildcat and large black timber wolves. In the winter, during logging, the deer would get in the way and had to be pushed aside.

So large were the white pines on the bluffs along the Kickapoo River that it was called "the pinery." Inhabitants literally chopped their way in. Some went on ahead of the rest and blazed a road through the woods over the most favorable ground. Plots of land were surveyed, the trees were cut and logs were rafted down the river to the Mississippi markets of Dubuque, Galena, Savannah, Davenport and Rock Island. Logging was done mostly in the winter when the ice prevented the river work, and it was easier to skid logs in the woods when there was snow and the ground was frozen. Crews worked early and late, felling trees, trimming branches, cutting the trunks in lengths for sawing and hauling them to the mills or to the edge of some steep hill facing the river where they were rolled down a cleared log way and piled along the banks to be floated by rafts downstream in the spring. The lumber was usually sawed in 12-, 14- and 15-foot lengths so that a raft would be from 12-16 feet wide and 96-128 feet long. Usually, several such rafts made up a fleet or "string."

On one of the rafts were placed rolls of blankets, jugs of well water and a heavy, wooden 6-foot chest called a "grub-box." This held tin plates and cups, steel knives and forks, a few cooking utensils, and such food as jars of baked beans, loaves of bread, pans of "Johnny cake," doughnuts, pies, homemade cheese, boiled hams, coffee, bacon and jars of pickles. Keeping this grub-box dry was a real problem. "Running the river" was not easy or safe work. The long rafts had to be guided around bends and across eddies, held away from rocks, sandbars and sunken logs and expertly handled when passing the dams. The working day was long with all kinds of weather to deal with. On April 5, 1884, the last drive of logs passed over the upper Kickapoo dams.

Everything was used in the lumbering industry. There were sawmills, shingle and planing mills, gristmills and hoop pole shops. A Rockton man owned a notable hoop pole chair industry. Eventually, railroad ties were also made. The lumbering industry affected the river, however. It is said that the Kickapoo had 15 times as much water back in 1845 as it does today. The loss of trees, erosion, plowing practices and the accompanying floods lowered the water level. The heavy cutting of trees also changed the drainage patterns of the springs feeding into the river, decreasing the amount of water as the springs dried up. By 1890, the white pines and the hardwood trees were mostly gone. Villages in the Kickapoo Valley founded on the lumbering industry alone were the first to fade away.

The ginseng business

The woods were full of ginseng (from the Chinese rénshēn meaning "man root"). Many dug for ginseng and earned three dollars a day. It was not unusual to see people carrying buckets of roots for spending money. The harvested ginseng was hauled to Woodstock, Illinois, where it was washed, dried and prepared for market. Wisconsin, especially Vernon County, became the heaviest producer of ginseng in America. It was sold for culinary and medicinal purposes. It was believed that the more nearly the root resembled the human form, the greater its efficiency in curing or warding off disease and that it prolonged life.

When the plants became scarce, the berries were gathered and planted in the ginseng gardens.

Wildcat Mountain's farm heritage

Edward and Edna Lord bought the land and in 1915 built a house and barn. Edna raised crops such as corn, potatoes and squash. They also had geese, chickens, pigs and three sheep to produce wool for blankets and clothing. Long ago, the farm where the park office is now was a ginseng garden. The ginseng garden was on the hillside to the right as you come up the entrance road.

Ginseng must be partially shaded to grow. To provide shade, poles are erected with a wire mesh strung across the top. Branches are then placed on top of this mesh to provide shade. Similar methods are used today, but wooden slats are used instead of branched and twigs.

The ginseng was cultivated, and the leaves were left for mulch and protection for the young plants. The roots were dug, washed and dried. Then the ground was replanted with seeds or seedlings. The harvest cycle of five years made the growing of ginseng a risky operation as diseases and adverse weather conditions often ruined a crop, and it took three pounds of green ginseng to make one pound of dry.

Eventually, the ginseng market collapsed because of the lack of shipping facilities during World War I. Since World War II, the interest in ginseng has revived as its value is being recognized for medicines, perfumes, cosmetics, gum and other products. The digging of wild ginseng has begun again, and new ginseng gardens are cropping up.

The old park office and shop building were a drying house for ginseng. It also housed the staff who worked in the gardens.

The house was also used for drying ginseng but was later remodeled and added for use as a family dwelling.

How Wildcat Mountain got its name

In the 1800s, local farmers were upset because a bobcat (also called a wildcat), killed several of their sheep. So, the farmers formed a hunting party to find the wildcat. They tracked and killed it to prevent the loss of any more of their livestock. The farmers shot it nearby the area that is now the park's main overlook and gave it the name Wildcat Hill. The name was later changed to Wildcat Mountain.

The State Park's beginnings

In 1938, Amos Theodore Saunders gave a 20-acre tract to the state so that others like himself, lovers of Wisconsin's natural beauty, might know the unspoiled woods of the Upper Kickapoo. In 1947, the legislature voted to establish a state park on the 60-acre Vernon County park and expand it to hundreds of acres. Wildcat Mountain State Park was established in 1948 with an initial donation of 60 acres from Vernon County. Since then, the park has grown to 3,643 acres.

(Most of this page is taken from an article in the Wisconsin State Journal, November 9, 1947).