Land of the Silver Mound
In the middle of a farming community in tiny Hixton, Wisconsin, lies a large forested hill. Recently, archaeologists discovered some glittering rocks protruding from beneath the trees. They found many artifacts from early Indian civilizations beneath the trees as well. It was soon apparent that Indians had traveled long distances to reach this very spot for one thing: the silver stones. Found nowhere else in the upper midwest, the stones were used to make prized weapons and precious tools for the native community. The hill is called Silver Mound.
Because I enjoy history and Richard appreciates archaeology, finding Silver Mound seemed like the perfect excuse for a motorcycle trip to the Dairy State. Entering Wisconsin at Danbury in the Northwestern part of the state, we traveled as the crow flies to US Highway 53 through Chippewa Falls and Eau Claire. Along the way we couldn't help but notice all the country churches, moreso in Wisconsin than any other place we have traveled. White and sometimes brick and spired, they stood all by themselves with nothing around but miles of cornfields. One can only imagine the long journeys that were made come Sunday mornings.
It was between Osseo and Pigeon Falls that we got our first good look at the country that lay ahead. Called Buena Vista, the scenic overlook offers a fabulous view of the farm valley below. The verdant lowland is the picture of homey, countrified living. I could hear cows bawling, smell cut hay, and taste the tart lemonade I knew was being poured into glasses somewhere on that big front porch. And porches are another story. Everyone has one. It reminded me of the "small-town America" Hollywood is so found of, complete with wooden porch swings and Old Glory flying in the summer breeze.
From Pigeon Falls, we made a small loop on State 95 through Whitehall, Blair, and then finally on to Hixton. It took several minutes of navigation to locate Sliver Mound. From certain angles it almost seems to blend in with the crop fields that surround it. Parking the motorcycle in the corn, we made the climb uphill.
It didn't take much hunting to locate some small stones. The Hixton quartzite is a sandstone that has been cemented together by silica. Scientists say the sandstone here is different from others. It's pure sand and pure silica, and it's found nowhere else. For 12,000 years, Native Americans have come to Silver Mound to make tools and weapons. The earliest visitors were paleo-Indians who stopped here on their annual North-South migrations to quarry the unique stone they shaped into lance points and later into arrowheads. Archaeologists don't know how they found the hill in the first place, but this was the first place that scientists found evidence of people in what is now Wisconsin.
Steve Boszhardt, a researcher with the Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, has said it is known that the stone was used 12,000 years ago - about the time glaciers retreated from Wisconsin as the last Ice Age ended - because people made Clovis points with it. The term refers to the shape of delicate, fluted points up to 8 inches long made by people all over America.
"Through time, the points people made changed shape; the Clovis points were first in America," Boszhardt said.
Oddly, Clovis points seem to have been made for their aesthetics as much as function. "The points are finely worked, well beyond what would be needed to be functional," he said. One reason people returned to Silver Mound may be that its stone "is pretty. It has lots of different colors, from white to blood red. And it's shiny - sparkly. Some think the points were traded like baseball cards," Boszhardt added. Collectors call the small ones bird points, but people hunted mastodons with them.
The stone was used to make a fairly extensive tool kit that included knives, spears, hand axes, scrapers and awls. Later, the Winnebago Indians who lived in the Silver Mound area when Europeans arrived, had a legend that a beetle had dug the pits and chipped the stones on the mound. The sheen of the stone may have given the hill its name. When the first Europeans came through, they spotted the hundreds of quarry pits left by the Indians and thought the stone contained silver. It does not, but Europeans tried to mine the hill anyway. Today, the mound attracts collectors from all over who walk the plowed fields around Silver Mound looking for tools and other artifacts.
Richard and I could see where archaeologists were still at work so we were careful not to disturb anything. Yet I couldn't stop from bending down, at one point, and picking up a stone. I sat there crouched, and turned the rock over and over in my hand. I'm always amazed at these moments when past meets future. I wondered if two hundred years ago, a Native American crouched here the same as I and admired the shiny stone in his hand. Maybe this very stone. A romantic idea, to be sure, but still, it offers pause for thought. Richard and I sat for a while in the shade of the oak trees and listened to the whine of insects. Then I laid the stone back in place.
Back on Hwy 95, we traveled west toward Arcadia. This country and the miles that surround it are Wisconsin at its best. Postcard-perfect, the valleys and dales are found in all directions and offer a stunning pastoral picture. After securing a motel room in Arcadia and grabbing a fast supper, we were anxious to travel the small country roads that had beckoned us all evening.
Once or twice in life, one finds that perfect road that lightens the heart the farther one travels. And County Road J is one of them. From the very beginning, this little road offers one thrill after another. Starting with a high climb that overlooks some of the most beautiful valleys I have ever seen, it tapers into a narrow unhurried pace, twisting gently and slowly, passing small pastures where I can reach out and touch the noses of curious cows as we pass by. Here the sun sets perfectly like a page out of a James Herriot novel, trickling light onto barns and windmills and livestock with the skill of an artist's brush. In this permanently hilly area, farmers make use of even the steepest bluffs, turning them into pastures for horses, cows, goats and mules.
The following morning, as we head south of Arcadia on County Road C, we stop to admire yet another farmstead, this one a perfect example of contour farming. At Centerville, we head east on Hwy 54. Between North Bend and Melrose, we come upon the Black River. Its deep blue water against the white sand is a peaceful interlude in the bucolic landscape.
The town of Black River Falls, however, is not. Hot and crowded, the sunlight seems to boom off every car in town. After fighting traffic and heat for a half an hour, we long again for the solitude of rural terrain. Taking the first road out of town, we amble along on one back road after another, until finally ending up in Waumandee, north of Arcadia. Just West of town, on County Road E, we stop to admire yet another typical Wisconsin brick house.
After a quiet night's sleep in a small-town motel, we grab a fast-food breakfast and travel County Road E west to the Mississippi River. Riding State Highway 35 all along the water, we pass through picturesque burgs like Wabasha, Plum City and Maiden Rock. Finding we have some extra time on our hands, we head north from here into the town of Menomonie. It seems bigger and busier than we remember - years ago when we first were married. Back then, it's small-town charm was like something from a John Mellencamp song. We walked hand-in-hand to the Tastee-Freeze, bought our ice cream cones, and strolled along the night streets while admiring a sky full of stars. Yet what we remember most is our adventurous night downtown in the ram-shackle Question Mark Hotel (It didn't really have a name, just a big question mark painted on the door). Inside the old building, our room was high-ceilinged and high-doored with a transom across the top. And I remember taking a bath in an old clawfoot bathtub - in the bathroom down the hall. There was an old black ceiling fan to move the sultry night air, but mostly we recall the rowdy college students partying all night in the street below our room.
Still there's an appeal to Menomomie and all those memories, and we stop long enough to have dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Afterwards, we catch State Highway 72 and head west now, the last leg of our trip to Prescott and the Minnesota border.
Back at home, I still think of this trip from time to time. The image of verdant valleys brush softly against my mind like the cooling touch of the wind, until the phone rings and jump-starts my busy life. Yet the recollections stay with me, so that I might have cornfields in December.
Judi Schiller, Richard Schiller
September 5, 1997