I did a posting, on July 24 of this year, in which I began thinking about U.S. Highway 12, the road between Baraboo and Madison that I have been traveling my whole life. I focused then on the magnificent quartzite outcroppings that are exposed in the Baraboo Hills — the remnant of an ancient mountain range that dates from an estimated 1,650 million years ago.
As I stated in my July posting, “The highway is, in fact, a living historical record of places, events and changes that have been an integral part of the region and of my life across these years.”
Traveling north toward Baraboo from Madison, just after crossing over the Baraboo Range, is a spot on the highway with significance to me. Once, back in the late 1980s, my mother had been visiting us for a few days and I was driving her back to Baraboo. We had made the long climb up and over the west bluff, had just started to coast back down the other side toward Baraboo, when my car suddenly went ‘dead.’ No response to the gas pedal, no sound of the motor, nothing. I guess the brake must have worked, because we smoothly rolled over to the side of the road and stopped. I was totally out of gas. Never happened before in my entire life. There was a farm house very near by. I went to the door and shared out plight with the man who came to the door. He very kindly filled a can with gasoline, brought it out to the car and siphoned it into our tank. My mother had the presence of mind to give him $10. And we had a story to tell. I never pass by that farm without remembering that event in our lives.
Back to heading toward Madison again, looking east across the outwash plain, we come upon the final vestiges of the U.S. Badger Army Ammunition Works, built initially to help provide ammunition to the troops in WWII. The “powder plant” as we called it was one of the largest in the country. A village of houses and a school was built on the west side of the highway. I remember staring out the car window at the guard houses along the highway and being able to see the guard with his rifle silhouetted inside. The plant was reactivated during the Korean War, and. to some extent, during the Vietnam War. Gradually over the years, the buildings from the massive plant have been removed. Controversy exists over the contaminated state of the land, and what it can be used for now that the plant is gone. All that exists at this point is a museum, a rather lonely reminder of another age.
There are three small towns between Baraboo and Madison. Prairie du Sac is one of them. The name means “Prairie of the Sauk;” Sauk refers to a Native American tribe indigenous to the area. The next town, close by, is Sauk City. The county where Baraboo is located is Sauk County. Wisconsin has many cities and towns and rivers that have names reflecting Native American origins. Prairie du Sac is well known in the area for the large numbers of bald eagles that congregate along the nearby Wisconsin River during certain times of the year. A viewing platform has been built right downtown, overlooking the river. to enable people to watch for the eagles. You can see the image of an eagle on the left stone pillar of the Prairie du Sac sign; you can also see a sampling of small town entertainment being advertised.
Lastly, moving on toward Madison, driving up and over another of Wisconsin’s rolling hills (appropriately named Sauk Hill), a small gravestone used to be visible close to the highway, on the left, at the edge of a nearby woodsy area. At some point in our many travels on the highway, we realized the gravestone was no longer there. Ed and I were intrigued, and finally one day we stopped to explore. We walked through the brush and into the woods and quite soon found a whole cemetery, with graves dating back into the 1800s. “Oh, here’s a gravestone. Oh, here’s another. Oh, there’s a whole bunch of them!” We had discovered a ‘secret’ cemetery. Most of the epitaphs were in German, presumably from an early German settlement. Such a strong reminder of an earlier time, before Wisconsin became a state, when early European people, in this case immigrants from Germany, were arriving in the area and settling down to make a new home. I was on Highway 12 recently and was going to stop to once more find the cemetery in the woods. But I was surprised to find the brush and trees so thick that I found it daunting to try to fight my way through. A Highway 12 widening to 4 lanes that took place in recent years was obviously respectfully diverted around the area where the cemetery is located. So, this ‘final resting place’ is presumably still there and still on the survey maps. Rest in Peace.