Many of us enjoy the trails in Upper Hixon. It's a nice place for individuals or groups to gather and enjoy the outdoors. But have you ever wondered about the history of the land and where those slabs of cement and pieces of metal that are sometimes seen in the area come from? Like these above Zoerb Prairie along Birch Trail:
Or how about those pieces of metal that litter the area (most of which were removed as trails were built)?
And these other cement slabs?
Who owned the land when all these structures existed? What was going on?
Well, our story of this 160 acre plot of land begins in 1874 when it was divided and owned in parts by J Dawson, Dr Ober, Peter Olsenburg, and a Mrs Tucker:
Note that a Peter Fleurey owned land just to the south and west in present Hixon Forest and lived there from 1870 to 1906. Mr Fleurey was previously described in a popular blog posting by Pat Wilson: https://www.friendsoftheblufflands.org/post/who-lived-in-hixon-forest .
Also recall that most of the bluffs were open grasslands mostly free of trees as per this "Birds Eye of La Crosse" from 1867:
See a previous blog post by Mike O'Brien with other photos of the bluffs in the past: https://www.friendsoftheblufflands.org/post/hixon-prairie-may-have-been-a-better-name-than-hixon-forest-by-mike-o-brien . This would mean that the area open to farming was probably larger to these early owners of the land.
In 1890 the land was owned by a C Vollmer and a J. B. Tucker:
Charles Volner was born in Germany in 1825, immigrated to the U.S. in 1849 to Oshkosh, then moved to La Crosse in 1855. He owned a half interest in a saw mill in New Amsterdam until 1862, then had a "mercantile business" in La Crosse.
The land later acquired by William Stroeh and B Hofska as per a 1900 plat map:
Finally in 1913, the entire 160 acres belonged to William Stroeh:
William Stroeh was born on November 2, 1864 in the Czech Republic and died at age 87 on September 5, 1952. He is buried in Catholic Cemetery of La Crosse on Losey Boulevard. He and his family operated a dairy farm on the land until 1931 when it was acquired by the State of Wisconsin and operated in partnership between the University of Wisconsin and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It was called the Upper Mississippi Valley Soil Conservation Station.
It is also interesting to note that the roads in 1931 were different than today, even Bliss Road which was lower on the slope as in the above map. FA did not exist, but there was a road (or maybe a planned road) coursing down from F to Smith Valley Road. Last, there was a road or planned road coming from highway 16 up the bluff which looks like it was a continuation of present day Bluff Pass Road off Milson Court which continues down the other side to Smith Valley via Miller Road.
In the early 1900's it was being increasingly recognized that soil erosion was becoming a significant problem throughout the U.S., including in the Driftless Area. In an article in the Journal of Land and Public Utility Economics, Vol. 11, No 3 (Aug., 1935) pages 240-247, by Melville H Cohee and R.H. Davis the situation is described in dire terms: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3158153?origin=crossref "Soil erosion as an active menace to the agricultural industry has been recognized by conservationists for many years but only within the last decade has this evil been considered a major land problem. An erosion reconnaissance of the entire United States, completed in 1934...reveals 51,465,000 acts of land essentially destroyed... Most of this land had been cultivated and was once good soil... Besides the severely eroded land, 513,074,000 acres have generally lost 1/4 to 3/4 of the original top soil... This vast area is nearly 27% of the total area of the United States, or 52% of all land in farms... Why does the state of Wisconsin, for example, have 11,281,000 acres which have generally lost 1/4 to 3/4 of the original top soil? Why have 3,675,000 acres in Wisconsin been allowed to erode to practically a submarginal economic condition? The answer, broadly stated, is unwise use of our land resources."
Clearly something had to be done. In this regard, the State of Wisconsin purchased the 160 acre dairy farm owned by the Stroehs in 1931 that was located on County FA where the current weather station and Upper Hixon Trails exist:
This farm, like most of those in the area, had been in existence in various forms since about about 1850. It was in poor condition and was felt to represent the state of many of the farms in the area at that time. Farming in this area at first consisted of principally producing wheat which was initially very productive on rich soils. The practice was to crop an area of land successively to spring grain until the crop yield became too low to pay for cultivation. Yields declined rather rapidly under this system due to soil depletion and by the 1880's there was a trend towards dairy farming. When this farm was purchased it was in very poor condition having lost much of its productivity from erosion and depletion of its top soil. As best as could be determined, it had been under cultivation for 70-75 years and at first had been cropped to grain and potatoes and was converted to a dairy farm in the later 1880's. It was selected as being typical of dairy farms in the area (see https://ageconsearch.umn.edu/nanna/record/170313/files/tb973.pdf?withWatermark=0&withMetadata=0&version=1®isterDownload=1 ). This was one of many similar stations obtained throughout Wisconsin. Work at the station was directed at learning how to use the sloping land most effectively, to restore its productivity, and to prevent further soil loss. These studies included planting different plots on various slopes in a variety of crops, different uses of pasture, and grazed and ungrazed woodland. Terraces with careful waterways were formed, contour strip cropping, soil additives, and pasture renovation were also studied. Mechanical devices were used to measure water flow and how much soil was lost on the various plots after each rain. These devices were called Lysimeters and Parshall flumes:
Now, look at the photo above of a Parshall Flume, which is a device used to measure flow of surface water, with a catch basin into which it empties. Next, look at the small inset in the photo for the location of this device, across FA from the current weather station. Then look at what remains in the same area above Birch Trail located between Zoerb and Birch Prairies:
Part of the old Parshall flume! The metal structures and the catch basin to measure sediment have been removed, but the cement supports remain.
You will also notice distinct terracing with berms in several fields put in during that time:
Some of these berms led to waterways that were constructed to handle the water:
The two photos above are near Birch Trail, between Vista Trail and Zoerb Prairie.
Last, some of these waterways were directed to fields of large rocks which were fortified by pouring tar over them as in this photo:
In 1951 a Tour Guide of the Soil Conservation Station was published that gives a nice summary of its activities: https://archive.org/details/CAT10507744/page/8/mode/2up .
The tour would take participants to 8 different stops:
Anyone could tour the station, but farmers were especially encouraged to take the tour to learn about the farming techniques most suitable for the area.
After operating for 31 years, the research facility closed and the 160 acres was deeded over to the City of La Crosse in 1962. Plans for the newly acquired land were developed over the years. Ideas included reforestation of some areas, winter quarters for zoo animals, camping areas, a house for senior citizens and the handicapped, a "natural outdoor amphitheater", and even renovating the existing barn for square dancing:
Obviously most of this did not happen. The old barn never became a square dancing barn, but was instead felt to be structurally depleted to the point that it could not be renovated and was burned by the Shelby Fire Department for training sometime in the late 1970's or early 1980's. The spider monkeys that were in the old Myrick Park Zoo were housed in the area during the winter for a few years but a Winter Zoo Quarters was never built. Several Norway spruce were planted, as in the left of the above photo, in part by Boy Scouts:
In 1994, the National Weather Service purchased some of Upper Hixon for a new weather station. Then starting in the early 2000's a network of trails were started by the Outdoor Recreation Alliance and volunteers. Several truckloads of old scrap iron left from the Soil Conservation Station were removed during this time. Now there is an array of trails for all of us to use!
So enjoy the current version of Upper Hixon while thinking back to the recent history of this land and how it helped provide some valuable information for farmers in our area!