Beautiful and Baffling: The Kickapoo Valley

A surprising tour through one of Wisconsin's poorest regions

Lynne Heasley December 9, 2022

The valley of the Kickapoo River in Wisconsin became the setting for a painful and controversial episode in land use plans gone awry. Recurrent flooding led to proposals (dating back to the 1930s) to construct a dam on the Kickapoo. Congressional authorization of the project in 1962 led to the acquisition of 140 farms, relocation of the nearby state highway, and initial work on the dam structure. After objections to the environmental impacts of the dam were raised, the project was canceled in 1975. It took another twenty years for a Ho-Chunk Nation- and citizen-driven process to develop a pathbreaking plan in collaborative management of the former dam site.  This created what is now the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, and foreshadowed recent federal-state-Indigenous co-management of critical public lands. The story of the dam was part of Lynne Heasley’s study of changing communities and land use in the Kickapoo River valley, A Thousand Pieces of Paradise: Landscape and Property in the Kickapoo Valley. Her prologue is presented here. Heasley is a professor of history and environmental studies at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.

Driving due west of Madison, Wis., on U.S. Route 14, you soon leave behind a glaciated landscape of lakes and rolling terrain. You enter a different kind of land, hillier and surely more dramatic if you prefer topographic relief. Unbroken acres of corn and soybeans give way to small fields or pasture on ridges and valley bottoms; mixed hardwood forests lie on the steep slopes in between. A line of white pines appears high up on sandstone outcrops, like a column of weathered soldiers. You have entered the Driftless Area, a region the glaciers never reached. Without glaciers, whose advances and retreats sculpted a lake country across the rest of Wisconsin, the Mississippi River and its tributaries and their tributaries were unimpeded in carving the hills and valleys that characterize the region. One of these tributaries is the Kickapoo River, which glides through the landscape with so many twists and turns that its very name means “one who goes here, then there” in Algonquian. Turn north off 14 to meet one of the 27,000 people who call the Kickapoo Valley home—perhaps someone who lives on a ridge far above the river—and she will probably tell you that she loves the panorama of fields and forests unfolding like a verdant patchwork quilt. She might add that her neighbors who live down deep in the Valley’s hollows enjoy their dark green solitude just as much, but this can be downright claustrophobic to visitors. “Coulee country,” they all call it, because of these narrow, haunting valleys. Such sensibilities are not recent either. “No matter in what direction one sets his face a new scene presents itself at each turn of the road and each seems more beautiful than the last,” wrote two sisters in 1896 in homage to the Kickapoo Valley.

Still, on a first drive you might not mark this place as one of the most fascinating and important valleys in the Upper Midwest. The Kickapoo Valley is among the poorest parts of Wisconsin, a fact the pretty scenery will not hide. Old cars with For Sale signs by the road, droopy farmhouses with weeds in front and household junk piles around back, abandoned barns lying in charred ruins (used for practice by the fire department when they were no longer safe to keep standing)—these are all part of the view too. Like rural communities around the country, the Valley lost thousands of farmers during the 20th century. The land did not make it easy to grow a farm there. Short of leveling hills and filling in valleys, Kickapoo Valley farmers could not plant unbroken miles of cash crops, so they could not use large farm machinery at the industrial scale necessary to pay it off. Dairy farming faced the same crisis of scale, dependent on a flimsy pyramid on which the land must sustain the herds necessary for producing larger volumes of milk and the returns per volume (no matter how marginal) must support the capital investment. With a shrinking and aging farm population, and an adjusted gross income only 55 percent of the state average in 1990, economists labeled the Valley “underdeveloped.” Others called it Little Appalachia. The Kickapoo Valley could be any hardscrabble place where farmers are having a hard time holding on to land, where teenagers are bored and talk about leaving, and where local officials are praying for economic development. 

But stay longer and baffling sights and sounds intrude on first impressions. Even people who have lived in the Valley their whole lives marvel at the shifting scene. For example, just north of a speck of a village called Liberty you will come upon a motocross racetrack. Dusty and filled with motorcyclists bobbing in and out of view, it looks like a strange twist in the proverbial road that goes ever on. How did that get way out here, you might wonder. And how do the neighbors—or the neighbors’ cattle, poor things—feel about all the noise? Still, from a cyclist’s perspective, this would certainly be an exciting landscape. Not five miles further north, the whining of the machines has ceased and once more the land has morphed into a new vision. As motorized traffic fades away, a clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop takes its place. A black horse-drawn buggy sedately rounds a bend in the road. A kind of signature house dominates miles of landscape—large, rectangular, entirely white, a black buggy posted in front. A plain-clad signature person stands out as well. Coulee country, it seems, is also Amish country. All these Amish farms send a pretty strong signal that agriculture is not dead in the Valley (notwithstanding the motocross), but how have the Amish done it? Why do they look so prosperous when other farmers have obviously not prospered?

A mere three-mile detour southeastward and the Rockton Bar provides a pleasant rest stop for a cold Bud, if you want one. The bar appears blessed with its location near the Kickapoo River. Stretching north and south is a vast deciduous forest whose rippling light green surface is smudged and streaked in places with darker stands of white pine. No Amish land this, but an 8,500-acre natural area called the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. If you mused that it must be absolutely gorgeous here when the leaves turn in the fall, you would follow in the reveries of thousands of tourists who came before you. You might even dream for a moment about buying a little piece of land in the area: What a great place to take a family on weekends. In this, too, you would not be the first—to dream or to buy. On the patio of the bar sit picnic tables, slyly inviting you to hang out. This is clearly a place trying to make customers feel at home. And right there with the tables sits a tombstone. (Yes, a granite tombstone.) The rear end of a horse is etched on the tombstone, which reads: “In Memory of Those Who Sold Us Down the Kickapoo River.”

A racetrack, an Amish farm, a tombstone at a bar. Together they make no sense. But there they are, in just a fraction of the Valley’s square miles. In memory of those who sold us down the Kickapoo River. Only a person with absolutely no curiosity could resist asking what this is about. The tombstone expects your questions; it demands them. How did it get here? What stories is it hinting at? With so much happening around every bend, where do you start?

From The Driftless Reader edited by Curt Meine and Keefe Keeley. Reprinted by permission of the University of Wisconsin Press. © 2017 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved. 

Lynne Heasley

Lynne Heasley is a professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at Western Michigan University. She is the author of A Thousand Pieces of Paradise: Landscape and Property in the Kickapoo Valley; The Accidental Reef and Other Ecological Odysseys in the Great Lakes; and coeditor of Border Flows: A Century of the Canadian-American Water Relationship.

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