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Eleven railroad ties bisect a hiking trail that bears a pair of rusty rails that bisect a hiking trail. Shallow ditches parallel the trail as it curves southeastward through the Kettle Moraine State Forest. From this raised vista, visitors can see the Scuppernong Marsh through a thin line of trees and eavesdrop on gabbling waterfowl and sandhill cranes in full throat. Among the dogwoods and birches lies a crumbling jumble of concrete walls, testament to a once-thriving enterprise.
Almost a century ago, the Eagle Lime Products Company mined marl here. A handful of entrepreneurs invested heavily in equipment, gambling that demand for this nonmetallic mineral would increase while manufacturing and transportation costs would level off or drop. Their venture is a study of human nature, and a visit to their abandoned mining sites is a study of ecological recovery.
Marl is calcium carbonate, and it is certainly one of Wisconsin's lesser-known mineral resources. The squishy, sticky, off-white clay-like substance is often found in marshy areas. It formed thousands of years ago when an aquatic plant, chara, extracted calcium carbonate from the lake waters of melting glaciers and stored the chemical in its branches. Dead chara sank to the lake bottom, accumulating and decaying over centuries to form a chalky soil. A more familiar substance, peat, also formed from partially decaying vegetation, but that happened much later, geologically speaking. Dig below a peat deposit, and it's likely you'll hit a layer of marl.
Generations ago, farmers valued marl as a fertilizer for lime-deficient soils and as a soil conditioner for sandy soils. The lime in marl cements sand grains together, so the soil can better retain heat and water. When added to clay soils, marl had the opposite effect: soil particles became less cohesive, allowing more air, heat, water and plant roots to penetrate. Scandinavian farmers, long familiar with these attributes, actively sought out marl deposits when they migrated to Wisconsin. They knew marl could be incinerated to form caustic lime, an important component of mortar and Portland cement. The low magnesium content of the marl found at this particular site in southwestern Waukesha County made it ideal for creating firebrick, which was used to line furnaces and build fire-resistant structures. Calcium carbonate was a common component of paints and lubricants; leather tanners used it as a depilatory to remove hair from animal hides.
Surveys suggested this marl deposit was 15 to 21 feet deep, and vast enough to mine for years.This was especially encouraging because marl deposits were quite variable. An 1896 bulletin from the University of Wisconsin Agricultural Experimental Station titled "The Marls of Wisconsin," by F.W. Woll noted that marl deposits could range from 1.5 acres to 180 acres in size and in thickness from an inch to forty feet deep. This bulletin noted that some farmers viewed marl beds "as scarce as gold mines, and almost as rich."
The market for lime was encouraging, so in 1905 the Pereles family, wealthy entrepreneurs with diverse business interests, speculated and funded construction of a 34-foot by 200-foot building to house a kiln, and a 30-foot by 50-foot building to hydrate and package the lime. Construction proceeded quite rapidly, and soon the Eagle Lime Products Company began producing caustic lime for cement, mortar and firebrick, and hydrated lime for fertilizer.
The business was challenging. The marl deposit was remote: a full six miles south of the town of Dousman, in southeastern Wisconsin, near the Scuppernong Springs, a resort then popular with honeymooners. Dousman was large enough to have a railroad depot, so a spur from the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad was built to connect the plant to the town and from there to the markets for lime. The rail line also enabled delivery of construction supplies, including the massive kiln, boilers, storage tanks and other marl processing machinery. One piece weighed almost 60 tons and had to be installed before workers could complete a building to house it.
The hiking trail that now leads to the site is the former rail bed, and the two rails left in place are silent relics of the once-vital link. As you walk among the scattered walls and trestles that still stand, it's hard to imagine that two shifts of thirty men toiled among massive machinery near this quiet marsh. A deafening roar once echoed in these walls: Tramcars clattered and squealed as they dumped raw marl into a hopper that fed the Allis-Chalmers kiln – a 120-foot-long, 8-foot diameter monster built on an incline and continuously revolving. The kiln incinerated the marl, creating quicklime. Broad 150-foot-long conveyors carried the lime from the kiln, cooling it on the way to a 35-ton storage tank. Some quicklime was packaged for cement and mortar, and some was conveyed to the smaller building to be hydrated for use as fertilizer. The clamor in these buildings lasted for two-thirds of every workday.
If you look west into the marsh, you can still see a long causeway where a steam shovel carved a 1,000-foot-long waterway, scooping tons of marl into tramcars bound for the kiln. At a rusted culvert in this ditch, shallow water slowly drifts downstream, still carrying long, cloudy white ribbons of sediment from the pale patches of exposed marl.
A strange oversight doomed the company. While the process of incinerating, cooling and packaging the lime was simple, the large-scale machinery needed to make the business economical required large amounts of fuel. Scattered hardwood trees in the vicinity quickly fell to the axe, followed by less useful softwoods. Scouts discovered a thin vein of "coal" north of the marsh, near Ottawa Lake. It was probably a peat deposit. There are no coal deposits in Wisconsin. Company officials also discovered that farmers in the region preferred to haul marl themselves from local sources. The firm's competitors in the quicklime business routinely ran even larger-scale operations, further eroding its bottom line.
After only six years of actual lime production (1908 to 1914), mining and processing operations ceased. A Chicago and Northwestern crew removed the six-mile long spur to Dousman in 1917, and in 1918 the Wisconsin Secretary of State dissolved the company. The plant sat vacant for decades until the machinery was dismantled and shipped to a mine in Mexico in 1942.
Other marl factories in Wisconsin met a similar fate. Farmers found uses for the raw product and could collect their own marl in many areas of Wisconsin. Parts of eastern and central Wisconsin, as well as the region between Madison, Fond du Lac and Racine, had many marl deposits.
Limestone is another excellent source of calcium carbonate, but the grades found in Wisconsin can't be used to make cement. Evens so, importing limestone to cement plants in Wisconsin proved more economical than processing marl. Extracted marl contained 50-60 percent water and it simply took a lot of fuel to dry out and concentrate the usable product. Since farmers typically needed at least a ton of marl per acre as a fertilizer and 40-100 tons per acre as a soil amendment, shipping large quantities of processed marl long distances proved impractical. Furthermore, marl could not be mined from late November through March, when marshy soils froze solid. The marl that was harvested in winter was hard to handle.
Today, the marl factory ruins are a stopover for hikers on their way to the Scuppernong artesian springs. They are but one of several interesting diversions along the trail. Observant visitors can also see fallen trees gnawed by beavers that have occupied Scuppernong Marsh for centuries and share their own colorful history.
As you continue on your walk to the springs, keep an eye on the old pieces of the concrete marl works jutting out from the underbrush, tombstones to a long-dead enterprise merging into the soil from whence it came.
Maynard McKillen writes from Milwaukee. He drew from research by historian Robert Duerwachter and was assisted by DNR Naturalist Ron Kurowski in preparing this article.