Wildcat Mountain State Park History
Archeologists from the Wisconsin State Historical Society and the National Park Service have excavated rock shelters and Indian 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. Indian 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 at about 2000 BC. 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 Indians knew the Kickapoo river as "the river of canoes." Since the late 1960s it was rediscovered by canoeists and has again become the river of canoes from May to October. Highway 131 from Ontario to La Farge faithfully follows Indian trails, crossing the river 11 times in 13 miles.
The first Europeans
Two hundred years ago, this area was only a crossing ground for Indians. Probably no Europeans had ventured this far west except early French trappers and fur traders who came before 1684. The French fur traders translated the Indian word for canoe as bateaux. Others mispronounced and misread the name, so when the county was named originally, it was called Bad Axe County. This name was unpopular so in 1862 it was changed to Vernon, which means "greenness."
When Europeans first came to the Kickapoo, the Indians here were the Sacs and the Foxes, which were later displaced by the Winnebagos. In 1837 the Winnebago Indians agreed to move west of the Mississippi River. By 1844, lumbermen looking for virgin timber were moving in from New England. Later people came with oxen and wagons from Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, England, Norway, Germany, Scotland and Ireland looking for cheap land. More immigrants came from the southern states after the Civil War.
W.T. Sterling, his wife and two children from Kentucky left Madison and explored the Kickapoo and its tributaries in 1832 on a raft. They wrote of the pines, which were only found on the upper Kickapoo. The lower Kickapoo had principally oak trees.
Eseau Johnson, originally from North Carolina, left his home at Blue Mounds around 1845 and explored the Upper Kickapoo River. In 1847, John B. Gay came and in 1848, Fred Martin.
For 25-30 years, a little settlement flourished with a mill, post office and school. It came to an end about 1900. The settlers kept busy building cabins, clearing land, hunting for meat, making feather beds and pillows, filling straw or hay ticks, weaving rag carpets, 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.
When these settlers first came to Wisconsin, they brought apple seeds with them. There were more apple trees in 1890 than there are today. Every home had an orchard or at least a few apple trees.
Whitestown was named after Giles White, the first permanent settler, who 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 which yielded brook trout and other fish. The Whites built the first real house on 200 acres near the mouth of Brush Creek. He laid out and platted the village of Ontario in 1857.
This was a wild and lonesome place in the 1850s. One day in 1855, the family came down the river in a canoe to visit with a white woman. They hadn't seen one in two years! No wonder there was a great deal of homesickness. The first large gathering of people in this part of the country was on the 4th of July 1868, at Rockton. One old lady shed tears of joy to see so many people together "in the woods." There was no road to any point except for the track the families had moved in on, which usually followed the Indian trails. The woods were full of animals: the black bear, the white-tailed deer, the wildcat and the large black timber wolf. 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." Settlers literally had to chop 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 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 logway 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 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 six-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, and there was 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 did have an affect on 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 changed the drainage patterns of the springs feeding into the river also, 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 die.
The ginseng business
The woods were full of ginseng, or "man plant" as the Chinese called it. Many dug the "seng," earning $3 a day. It was not unusual to see people carrying buckets of roots for spending money. The "seng" was hauled to Woodstock, Illinois, where it was washed, dried and prepared for market. Wisconsin, and especially Vernon County, became the heaviest producer of ginseng in America. It was sold to the Chinese for culinary and medicinal purposes. They believed that the more nearly the root resembled the human form the greater its efficiency in curing or warding off disease, and they believed that it prolonged life.
When the plants became scarce, the berries were gathered and planted in "seng gardens."
Wildcat Mountain's farm heritage
Edward and Edna Lord bought the land and in 1915 built a house and barn. Edna raised crops like corn, potatoes, squash and more. Edna also milked the cows because Ed thought she could do it faster than he could. 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 hillside to the right as you come up the entrance road was the ginseng garden.
Ginseng must be partially shaded in order 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 "seng" 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 seed or seedlings. The harvest cycle of five years made the growing of "seng" 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 bottom dropped out of the market because of the lack of shipping facilities in World War I. Since World War II, the interest in ginseng has revived as the value of it is being recognized in this country for medicines, perfumes, cosmetics, gum, etc. The digging of wild "seng" has begun again, and new "seng gardens" are cropping up.
The old office and shop building were a drying house for ginseng, called the "seng house." It also housed the hired hands who worked in the gardens.
The house was also used for drying ginseng, but was later remodeled and added to for use as a family dwelling.
How Wildcat Mountain got its name
In the 1800s, local farmers were upset because a bobcat, also called 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 anymore 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
Amos Theodore Saunders in 1938 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 that 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)