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Who Lived in Hixon Forest?

Updated: Apr 28, 2022

An old, sod-covered stone cellar with a partially collapsed arched roof is the most prominent sign of human habitation by early European settlers in Hixon Forest. Searching the area around the cellar reveals the back wall of a house.

Hixon Cellar, May 2013

Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center did a dig here in 1987 and unearthed the foundation of a farmhouse. The site contained “pretty straight domestic artifacts like you’d expect to find around a farmhouse.” said Jim Gallagher in the La Crosse Tribune. The surprise was that MVAC concluded that the stone cellar had been constructed and used as a brick kiln.

Cellar with back wall of house in the background, May 2020

So, who lived in the farmhouse? Bachelor farmer Peter Flury lived here from 1870 to 1906. Twenty-six year old Peter and his twenty-two year old sister Dorathea immigrated here from Glarus, a German-speaking area of Switzerland, in 1856. They traveled in steerage on the ship Middlesex from Le Havre, France to New York City. They reached La Crosse soon after, where Dorothea met and married German immigrant Mathias “Mathew” Uhler. Mathew owned one of the first wagon-making businesses in La Crosse, making wagons for the sawmills.

In 1870 Peter bought 120 acres in what’s now Hixon Forest – 40 acres from La Crosse County and 80 acres from Alexander McMillan. Alexander had made considerable money as the owner of a logging company, and was La Crosse mayor in 1871. Peter’s purchase was on land contract. As a lumberman, Alexander barred Peter from harvesting timber on the property until the property was paid off, except for Peter’s personal use for firewood and fenceposts.

John MacMillan, the son of Alexander’s brother Duncan D. MacMillan, married Edna Cargill, the oldest daughter of W. W. Cargill, founder of Cargill Company. When Cargill’s health failed, John took over running the company, followed by his son and grandson. Cargill is still a private company, and the 2016 Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans contains 10 people who derived their money from Cargill, all of them Cargill and MacMillan descendants.

Peter built a house on his property in 1871. The Hixon map below shows the boundaries of his farm with a red dot where the house and cellar are. You can see the property includes Birch Point Prairie and Zoerb Prairie and extends to the edge of Lookout Prairie. There was very little flat land, except the area at the bottom of the coulee.

The red spot marks the Flury farmhouse

Peter’s younger brother Thomas and older sister Anna eventually followed Peter and Dorathea from Switzerland to La Crosse. Thomas and Anna moved in with Peter on the farm. None of the three of them married. Anna kept house for her two brothers until she died in 1880 at age 60. Thomas and Peter continued until Thomas’ death from tuberculosis in 1897, leaving Peter once again alone on the farm, now 67 years old.

In 1906 76-year-old Peter retired from the farm and moved to La Crosse where he roomed with his sister Dorathea, who was now a widow. Peter died in January 1910 at 79 years old. The funeral was at German Reform Church with a wake at Dorathea’s house. Peter, Thomas, and Anna Flury are all buried in unmarked graves at Oak Grove Cemetery.

The Flury farm was sold to Mary Miller, who owned it for two years before Joseph Hixon bought it to create Hixon Forest. Hixon Forest was officially established in 1912, two years after Peter’s death.

The person I’ve talked to who had the earliest recollection of the cellar was Rudy Schnurrer. He told me in 1992 that he visited the site with his father in 1918, when Rudy was 6 years old. His father wanted to show Rudy the former home of his friend Peter Flury. At that point, the house had burned, the cellar was intact, and the garden patch overgrown.

I don’t know how many floors the house may have had, but the footprint is quite small, as shown below. It seems like a challenge for three people to live there.

The earliest photo I have of the site is from 1975, taken by Ed Hill. The site was much more overgrown at the time, before the trail system was built. The internal height appears to be greater than it is today.

Hixon Cellar in 1975, Ed Hill photographer

I haven’t been able to find any historical reference to brick making on the site of the farm. There were large commercial brick making operations in La Crosse at the time, but not here. And this isn’t the form commercial brick kilns took at the time. One suggestion was that it may have been a lime kiln, but that doesn’t account for the broken and green bricks MVAC found at the site. This may have been a small-scale operation that sold bricks through a local hardware store, though it seems that hauling bricks from way back in Hixon Forest with a horse drawn wagon would have been quite an effort.

So that’s the story of the Flury’s. Peter, Thomas, and Anna Flury traveled from the mountains of Switzerland to a coulee in La Crosse, where they struggled to make a living on a farm in what is now Hixon Forest. They’re buried in unmarked graves in Oak Grove Cemetery. None of them had children. The only remaining sign of their time here is the decaying remains of a stone cellar.

Their sister Dorathea “Dorothy” Uhler had two daughters and four granddaughters. Dorothy and Matthew are buried in marked graves in Oak Grove Cemetery. Their descendants have all moved on to other parts of the United States.

This is part of a longer program I’ve done on the cellar in Hixon Forest, after researching it for a number of years.

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