Around The River Bend, A Flood Of History | WCAI

Around The River Bend, A Flood Of History

Oct 28, 2012

The Bark River is my backyard, childhood river. And yet, in a lifetime of travel, I'd never explored it.

I knew it carved the land from the Ice Age to settlement times, from the Black Hawk War of 1832 (in which young Abraham Lincoln appears) to the era of grist mills. But the Bark also flows past impressive Indian mounds. It nurtured poets, naturalists and farmers.

When former Marquette University professor Milton Bates published his Bark River Chronicles through the Wisconsin State Historical Society, I jumped at the chance to learn about the river with him.

The Bark River winds nearly 70 miles through southern Wisconsin and travels, literally, through the glacial lake on which my family lives — Nagawicka Lake — in the city of Delafield. It then flows southwest through the city of Fort Atkinson, where it joins the Rock River on its way to Lake Koshkonong. It's part of the Mississippi watershed.

All my life, I'd ridden my bike past an old mill house in Delafield. A mill had been on that site since the 1850s. I wondered who lived there. I finally learned it was Margaret Zerwekh, who, at 93, is a serious local historian. She's been there for half a century.

When Zerwekh's late husband, Kenneth, bought the mill in 1947, the 19th-century building was dilapidated. But Kenneth, an engineer, was specifically looking for a mill to buy.

Fighting in France in World War II, Kenneth Zerwekh noticed that only the millers had power during wartime. He cranked the sagging structure up with pulleys attached to phone poles. He got the turbines going.

The hum, Margaret Zerwekh says, was the sound of "dollars and cents." Until a few years ago, she milled her own electricity.

The Bark River (once called the "Peel Bark" River) got its name from the Ho-Chunk Indians, who erected temporary dwellings of bark shingles there. They mixed with the settlers. But in April of 1832, another tribe, the Sauk, was pushed out of Illinois. The Sauk warrior Black Hawk attacked northward along the Bark.

The war party hit and hid for months, a very bloody affair, with weeks of terror in which both sides took scalps. Black Hawk was undefeated until August.

Called in at last, it took Gen. Henry Atkinson several days to get his troops through the "quaking" muck of the Bark River shoreline to pursue Black Hawk. Ho-Chunk historian William Quackenbush told me the Ho-Chunk still consider the Bark sacred territory.

That's a feeling I would have to share. On a bright fall day, with author Bates and his wife, Puck, we canoe six miles of the Bark, from the site of a Ho-Chunk encampment called Burnt Village up to Fort Atkinson.

Kingfishers, cedar waxwings, herons and ducks keep us company. Life travels slowly in canoe hours.

This was the Wisconsin I dreamed about growing up. I'd never put the river's whole story together. Now I know that paddling the Bark River, I'm on a blue highway of American history.

Audio produced by Liz Baker.

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From NPR News, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Guy Raz is away. I'm Jacki Lyden, and I'm away too. I'm out on the Bark River in southeastern Wisconsin on the most fantastic autumn day. We are surrounded by nothing but woods as far as the eye can see. This is the river that I grew up on.

It goes right though Lake Nagawicka, my childhood home. It's a beautiful backyard river with lots of history. And I've always wanted to explore it, but this is the first time I ever have.

MILTON BATES: Jacki, you can - you're so vigorous as a paddler. I think we're going to have to cut the engine on in front a little bit.

LYDEN: Oh, I'm sorry. OK.

Milton Bates is our canoe guide, but he's also the author of a new book called "Bark River Chronicles" which floats the reader down all 70 miles of this winding southeastern river in detail. We're only doing six miles today.

BATES: This is a lovely spot here.

LYDEN: We're looking at birches and black walnut trees that have fallen into the river. And beyond the trees and the embankments on either side, it's really marshy. Where are we?

BATES: We are at Burnt Village. It's thought to have been the site of a Ho-Chunk village.

LYDEN: The Ho-Chunk are the indigenous tribe here.

WILLIAM QUACKENBUSH: You had all these villages for one reason, and it's because it was a very beautiful area to live. My name's William Quackenbush. I am the tribal historic preservation officer for the Ho-Chunk Nation. The Burnt River area was a well-established winter camp.

LYDEN: It's the architecture of those Ho-Chunk winter camps that gave the Bark River its name.

QUACKENBUSH: And the process would be that the women and the young adults would go over there in the spring and cut the tree around the bark and then split that and peel them off. And they'd lay these in shingles on the ground, and they'd put rock across the top of them so they would lay flat. And they'd let them sit there throughout the spring and summer.

So when they would come and build their fall and winter (unintelligible), we call them, or living quarters, all this bark would be dried out flat shingling, you know, and that's what they would use for these structures.

LYDEN: When white settlers came, they noticed the huts, the (unintelligible), and named the river. In 1832, they clashed. Milton Bates.

BATES: So we're talking about Wisconsin's major Indian war.

LYDEN: A Sauk warrior named Black Hawk swept through Illinois and Wisconsin territory attacking settlers so the U.S. government sent in the army to stop it.

BATES: General Atkinson was up and down the bank trying to follow Black Hawk and his band.

LYDEN: But the mucky river bottom of the Bark was like quicksand for the horses, and it took several days before General Atkinson's troops could cross the Bark and pursue Black Hawk who was scalping his way across the countryside.

QUACKENBUSH: Looking from a Native American perspective on the Black Hawk War, you know, it was quite one-sided.

LYDEN: Again, Ho-Chunk historian William Quackenbush.

QUACKENBUSH: There was ulterior motives as to why Black Hawk came over here, and there was ulterior motives to why this large government wanted to put him back, you know? And that said, we always say, you know, it's all water under the bridge.


BATES: OK. Draw left a little bit. OK. Now we can just kind of work our way in. Probably, you should be the first one to get out, Jacki.


BATES: But test it very carefully.

LIZ BAKER: I'll get off (unintelligible).


BAKER: What do I do? (Unintelligible). I only noticed the (unintelligible.)

LYDEN: Hey, at least it wasn't me but our producer Liz Baker who face-planted into the muck, the boots sucked right off her feet. It gave us a really good idea of why it took General Atkinson so long to get his horses and carriages across the river to pursue Black Hawk.

This river was carved during the Ice Age when glaciers covered Wisconsin. That's why the swell and swale topography of drumlin hills and kettle lakes. I had to learn all this in geography class, but George Garvin says Ho-Chunks passed down stories from this period.

GEORGE GARVIN: We have stories about saber-toothed tiger or mastodon, short-faced bear. And it tells you we've been here for a long time. I mean, my father's father, my grandpa, they went to school up east, you know, and they saw a circus for the first time, and they ran across an elephant.

They knew what it was right away, and it reflected on the days when a mastodon, when he walked this Earth and didn't scare them and didn't surprise them. They just said, oh, so that's what he looks like.

LYDEN: More recently in the 1800s, the Bark was used to power the little grist mills all up and down the river, grinding corn and grain into flour and meal.

MARGARET E. ZERWEKH: The meal ground here went all over the country. Well, mostly to the east, of course. I'm Margaret, initial E, Zerwekh. Don't forget the E. And my address is 500 Mill Road in Delafield, Wisconsin, United States of America.

LYDEN: This is the only private mill left on the Bark, and it happens to be just down the river from my childhood home. I've passed this place countless times, and I never before knew who lived there. How long have you been in this house?

ZERWEKH: Forty years. It was built in 1853...

LYDEN: Margaret E. Zerwekh is almost 93. Her late husband, Kenneth, came back from fighting in France in World War II. He noticed that the only people to have electricity there during wartime were the millers.

ZERWEKH: And he said: I'm going to have a mill when I get home. And he came back, and he bought it. It was so dilapidated it was falling into the river...

LYDEN: Into the Bark River itself?

ZERWEKH: ...really bending that way.

LYDEN: An engineer, Kenneth Zerwekh figured out a way to straighten out the four-story building.

ZERWEKH: So he put in those rods there through the house.

LYDEN: Anchored them to the telephone poles out in the yard.

ZERWEKH: And every so often, he'd come out and pull it up a little bit higher.

LYDEN: Crank it up.

ZERWEKH: Quite soon - pretty soon, it got on. I think it's almost straight but not quite.

LYDEN: And he also installed a turbine to generate power from the water which provided all their household electricity until just a few years ago. Could you hear the stones turning?

ZERWEKH: Oh, absolutely. It was right there.

LYDEN: What did it sound like?

ZERWEKH: How can I explain it? An old car. A truck.


ZERWEKH: Let's put it that way, a truck. It would've been noisy to somebody - to you, probably, but not to me, because those were dollars and cents that I was listening to. And when it stopped, you got out of bed and went down there to see what was going on, see what had stopped the water.


LYDEN: In a day and a half, I'd learned more than I've ever known about the Bark. And standing up on the fourth floor of the millhouse, I had a clear view of the river's graceful curve through the trees. A heron flew straight down to Margaret's millhouse. The Bark, it's just a backyard river now, really, like so many others in America. But get into a canoe, and you'll be as surprised as I at how the water brings that history to life.

Kingfishers sailing off over our head.

BATES: Yeah. All on cue, even...

LYDEN: Look. Yup. Yeah.

BATES: ...chattering.

LYDEN: For photos of our journey or to learn more about the new book "Bark River Chronicles" please visit our website, Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.