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Hixon Prairie May Have Been a Better Name Than Hixon Forest by Mike O'Brien

Updated: Apr 29, 2022

Around 1912 the Hixons were able to purchase Grandad Bluff and some surrounding properties to prevent the bluff from being further destroyed by quarrying. The land was donated to the city of La Crosse and thereafter has been known as Hixon Forest. However, if the area had kept in its same pre-settlement vegetation it would look very different from what we now take for granted as our Hixon Forest. The first European explorers to the area described the bluffs lining the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers as looking like “haystacks” from a distance. That is, most of the bluffs were covered with prairie and not trees.

Other early pictures of the city of La Crosse also depict the bluffs as primarily unforested:

How did they get that way? It seems the primary driver was fire and that fire set by Native Americans. Dr. L.H. Pammel was a professor of Botany at Iowa State and grew up in La Crosse on his family farm in the 1870’s and later. His father was one of the early homesteaders and Pammel Creek is named after him. He describes fires in the bluffs being a regular occurrence in the spring time in the 1870’s but thereafter they were suppressed. He noted that even in “State Road Coulee” the eastern slopes were clear of trees but once burning was stopped the trees rapidly took over. At the present we only have remnants of prairies on the drier south and west facing slopes. In Dr. Pammel’s book “Reminiscences of early La Crosse,Wisconsin” he describes an abundance of flora and fauna including “great quantities of the large pink lady slipper. I recall that in an hour or more we picked a great armful on our farm.” In his youth deer were uncommon in the La Crosse area but he recalled the great flocks of the now extinct Passenger Pigeon flying down the Mississippi valley.

Grandad Bluff in particular has changed it’s appearance over the years. It was once primarily prairie with a sparse amount of trees but with the absence of fire it has transformed into the forested look of the present.

(Photo used with permission of the La Crosse Tribune)

This photo I believe is from the early 1900’s, prior to extensive quarrying on the southern face but long enough after fire suppression to allow the start of tree growth on the bluff. After 150 years of fire suppression (and some quarrying despite the Hixon’s efforts) Grandad Bluff now looks like this:

Miller Bluff just to the north of Grandad Bluff has changed over the years as well. The following are 2 pictures taken 111 years apart:

(Photo used with permission of the La Crosse Tribune)

Miller Bluff is the bluff seen prominently behind the old Interstate Fairground observation tower. Even in 1910 it has accumulated a lot of tree growth in its lower slopes. For those who aren’t aware, the La Crosse Interstate Fairgrounds occupied the site of what is now UW-L Memorial Stadium. Here’s what it looks like now:

Although still present, the remnant prairie is just holding on to the south facing slope and has encroaching brush and trees. Notice also the bluffs further to the north of Miller. In the 1910 photo most of them still had easily visible prairies. Unfortunately, most of them have now been overtaken by brush and forest with some few small pockets of remnant prairie remaining.

One more panoramic picture of La Crosse from around 1940 edited to show the bluffs in the background:

On the far right are the bluffs of Hixon Forest, their hilltop prairies still easily visible as whiter patches. This picture gives a better sense too of how much prairie was still present on the bluffs north of Hixon.

In closing I would like to say that I do love forests and Hixon Forest should stay Hixon Forest. It would certainly not be possible, and certainly not advisable to return the bluffs to their pre-settlement state. However, these hill prairies of La Crosse are globally rare. The tallgrass prairie, as a whole, has less than 1/10 of 1% of it’s original extant remaining. If we allow our prairies to be totally consumed by the forest we lose irreplaceable ecosystems, diversity, and essentially our heritage. These old hill prairies are tens of thousands of years old and, while replanting prairie is great, all of their intricate web of life can’t be replaced by simply throwing new seed on the ground. I, and The Friends of the Blufflands don’t advocate for removal of the forests but for restoration of the forests and for protection and restoration of the few prairie remnants we still have before it is too late.

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