My first exposure to history as a child was courtesy of Michael Brisbois. He was buried on the bluff overlooking the Mississippi River Valley, as the story goes, “so he could look down upon his intense business rival, Joseph Rolette, in death as he did in life.” Talk about carrying a grudge.
Whether fact or fiction, this intriguing story opened an avenue to explore my past beyond my young memory, a story woven into the present day. I remember standing in the driveway of our family business and pointing toward the graves atop the bluff. Customers would squint and gesture toward the white monument, as if they had discovered a new land for the first time.
My childhood friends and I would visit the graves often on our explorations of the river bluffs. Located on the highest hill, the grave site offered an extraordinary vantage of the river valley and my hometown. From there, we could glimpse the shape of history that Brisbois, as a fur trader and local businessman, helped form. We could also see our own history laid out before us in the grid of streets and homes that formed our childhood memories. History took shape before our eyes.
This glimpse of the past awaits visitors to Driftless Wisconsin at every turn. Whether following the trail of early Native American inhabitants, marked by burial mounds and artifacts; or touring the relics of European explorers and settlers, the past becomes something recognizable. In the History Day Trip, we offer a way to explore the past while enjoying the spectacular scenery along the way.
The day trip starts at Effigy Mounds National Monument, where the mound builders left behind an extraordinary legacy, still preserved today. Walking among the burial mounds, many in the shapes of birds and animals, piques our imagination of what it might have been like to live among a people who honored their dead in this remarkable way. The mounds, in their sacred and artful shapes, speak to us in ways their builders might have hoped.
Marquette and Joliet were the first European explorers to set eyes upon the Mississippi River, reaching the confluence of rivers by way of the Wisconsin River in 1673. “Once upon the Mississippi, Marquette described ‘a monster with the head of a tiger, the nose of a wildcat, and whisker’—a large species of catfish,” according to the Wisconsin Historical Society. Viewing the Mississippi from a bluff top or an excursion boat creates the same sense of wonder today.
More explorers, fur traders, and settlers followed Marquette and Joliet to this land rich with promise. Immigrants settled the land in the late 1800s; a large contingent from Norway settling near Westby and Coon Valley. The rugged life of early Norwegian settlers is chronicled at Norskedalen, which means “Norwegian Valley,” one of the suggested stops on the History Day Trip.
My own grandparents came to Westby in the early 1900s after a failed attempt at homesteading in South Dakota. They are buried in a cemetery at Newry, a curve in the road between Westby and Cashton. Just across the road from the cemetery is the small house where they retired from farming; where I would sit in the kitchen as a small boy as my grandmother prepared a meal of homemade bread and cheese.
That bread and cheese – and my grandfather’s face, as rugged as the Driftless topography – tie me to a history I can only imagine. Michael Brisbois first stirred that imagination. Allow Driftless Wisconsin to awaken yours.