Driving the curves and hills of our region sometimes leads to unexpected tidbits of family and community history. Historic markers tell the stories of the builders and dreamers who have passed this way before us. Inclined to stop, we may read about the role of Elizabeth Wright Ingraham in founding Unity Chapel; the rough corduroy sections of the Old Military Road; or the 1832 construction of Fort Jackson in Mineral Point.
Whether you have a day or a week, any trip through southwestern Wisconsin can be enriched by identifying in advance markers of interest. They can plant our feet on ground connecting us to our ancestors and others who found meaning in the embrace of these hills and streams. Raising our eyes to the horizon, we can envision the families and soldiers, farmers and miners who pushed forward into these rich lands. We can almost see the Native American villages through the early morning fog along the riverways and historic roadways.
The Wisconsin Historical Society offers an online, interactive map of its 575 markers, as well as a chronological list according to the date erected. Click on a site to bring up basic stats and then click on “more info” to see a fuller story, often with photos and maps depicting an individual or the architecture of a fort or other once crucial structure. For instance, you might learn that Fort Jackson, built of vertically placed logs, served to shelter families and as a supply distribution point during the Black Hawk War.
While some markers can be found on major highways, others are off the beaten track on county or local roads. The map can help design a trip that encompasses sites of interest to you and your family. Each description features links to nearby sites, in addition to clues for more research.
Following both a cancer diagnosis and an encounter with Marker 26, “Dawn Manor: Site of the Lost City of Newport,” near Wisconsin Dells, Melinda Roberts established a website to record her travels to Wisconsin’s historic markers. At www.wisconsinhistoricalmarkers.com, Roberts also posts photos and articles about Wisconsin Registered Landmarks, Wisconsin sites appearing in the National Historic Landmarks and National Natural Landmarks programs, and Wisconsin Heritage Sign Program, along with whimsical roadside attractions (think Dr. Evermore’s Art Park south of Baraboo), which feature a fun side to local history.
Watch for Roberts’ book, “Little Wisconsin,” due out next spring from Adventure Publications. As she points out, family history clues can be found in all sorts of packages, from maps to websites, photos and posters.