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New Glarus Woods State Park History

New Glarus Woods was established as a state park in 1934, but the land has been used and changed by nature and people over the centuries.


More than 10,000 years ago, during the ice age, much of North America lay under colossal ice sheets that built up from heavy snows due to global cooling and repeatedly flowed south, then receded. Glaciers -- sheets of ice, more than a mile thick -- pushed down over the land that would become Wisconsin. They scoured the earth as they moved, deposited rock and soil debris and washed it with meltwater as they retreated. Areas that they traveled over, like central Wisconsin, were made into rolling plains. Lands that the glaciers moved around, as in Southwestern Wisconsin, remained steeply hilly; as rugged as they had been since ancient times.

The glaciers left many interesting landforms on the plains, such as moraines, kames, eskers, drumlins and gorges. The broad plains allowed fire to regularly seep across them, destroying most woody vegetation. Grasses, which have most of their living tissue underground, survived allowing vast grasslands to form. The French Voyagers, having never seen lands such as this called them "prairie" meaning meadow. These prairies were rich with plant and animal life and built and enriched the soil beneath them, resulting in the fertile farmland we benefit from today.

The more hilly land formed natural firebreaks and areas protected from fire grew into dense forests, providing cover and food for animals and later wood for fuel, lumber and goods. New Glarus Woods lies on the boundary between these areas. To the north and west, Wisconsin is rugged, with steep hills, ravines and outcroppings of ancient stone. This is known as the "driftless area."

To the south and east, there are great prairies and savannas, which are grasslands dotted with trees, usually oaks, that evolved to withstand the regular prairie fires.


The first maps of the area, made by U.S. Army surveyors in the early 1800s, showed Green County to be a mixture of woods and prairies that flowed together around rolling hills.

The first people to colonize Wisconsin, the Paleo-Indians, lived near the retreating ice sheets. Where park visitors now picnic and camp, they hunted mastodon, musk oxen, bison, elk and caribou.

These people were the ancestors of the many aboriginal tribes that populated the country. Dozens of tribes have called Wisconsin home; in this area the Ho-Chunk, Sauk-Fox and Issati were present when Europeans first arrived.

The first Europeans known to be in Wisconsin were the Spanish, who traveled up the Mississippi River and claimed all the land they viewed for Spain. However, they never explored or colonized the area. The French Voyagers in the 1600s explored the inland waterways of Northeastern America extensively and began a period of trade with the Native American tribes known as the 'Fur Trade Era.' They influenced all Wisconsin tribes, but did not settle in the southwest part of the state.

Native Americans that lived and traveled through this area preferred paths that ran along ridges so that they could better see game and enemies. One of their heavily used trails ran through New Glarus Woods. This path gradually widened and European settlers used it to haul ox carts carrying lead ore to be smelted into bullets to conquer an expanding empire. It was known as the 'Old Lead Road' and was part of the first network of roads to link the Mississippi River to Lake Michigan, in what was then the wild western frontier of our nation.

What is now New Glarus Woods was the edge of a dense forest, said to be as large as the famed Black Forest in Germany. Tales passed down through generations recall the site as the "loneliest and wildest" part of the entire route from Mineral Point to Milwaukee, "where fierce timber wolves would pursue both driver and oxen." During the Black Hawk War, troops were sent after Chief Black Hawk and his warriors and used the lead trail. Among those troops were Jefferson Davis, Zachary Taylor and William Hamilton. Today the trail is known as County Trunk NN.

Swiss colonists traveled to their new settlement of New Glarus over this route during the 1840s. The 108 colonists from the Canton of Glarus, Switzerland established the unique cultural atmosphere that remains in New Glarus today. Swiss settlers were given plots in what would become New Glarus Woods Park in which to cut lumber.

The opening that is now the group campground was originally logged to build a sawmill that today houses the administrative office. The lumber milled there was made into barrels to ship Limburger cheese, on a railroad line that would later become the Sugar River State Trail. The hilly terrain kept much of the park from being logged, leaving many trees untouched and today some are more than 250 years old.

Swiss habits, unique foods, cultural activities and architecture continue to flavor the village since the Swiss settlement. Annually, the traditional bonds with Switzerland are renewed during the numerous weekend festivals, the largest being the "Wilhelm Tell Festival." The Swiss Village Museum is a favorite attraction and the Swiss character is seen in the village business district, where decorated businesses offer flowered balconies, painted murals and traditional architecture and adornment.

Last revised: Thursday August 04 2016