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Horicon Marsh is Wild Again.
The struggle to maintain wetlands is recounted nowhere better than at Wisconsin's most famous marsh.

The history of Horicon marsh reflects the vital, abundant life within it. the marsh's story is a tale of life, death and rebirth as the area changed from wetland to wasteland and back again.

It was born as a by product of the great glaciers of the last Ice Age about 12.000 years ago. The marsh is renowned for its Canada geese and other wildlife, but is equally recognized as a place where visitors can clearly see an extinct glacial lake so valued that the state portion of the marsh's 32,000 wetland acres, waterways, islands, wooded and prairie shorelines forms a unit of the Ice Age National Scientific Reserve.

Archeological records confirm this marsh has been a great hunting ground, used by prehistoric Indians since its waters first thawed out of the Ice Age. nearly every prehistoric Indian culture known to the upper Midwest lived here at one time or another.

More recent tribes also called the marsh home. Horicon's vast areas of open water and the headwaters of the Rock River formed a natural boundary between the forest-dwelling Potawatomi tribe, who came to the marsh's eastern border from Michigan, and the Winnebago tribe, who settled on the prairie lands to the west of the marsh. In fact, the first recorded name for the marsh was "The Great Marsh of the Winnebagos," giving credit to its early inhabitants.

For nearly 12,000 years the marsh sustained Native Americans. In stark contrast to the European settlers who followed, the Indians only took what they needed from the marsh to live, never changing the marsh itself.

Solomon Juneau, Milwaukee founder and explorer established a town site on the south end of the marsh in 1838. The first European settlers arrived in the early 1840s. The City of Horicon was officially established in 1845. The first change to the marsh came only one year later.

European Settlement

In 1846, the marsh outlet was dammed to provide power for a sawmill, a grist mill and the area's first iron works. This 150-foot-wide dam impounded a huge area that hadn't been under water since the Ice Age. The dam held back enough water to flood Horicon Marsh nine feet above the level we see today. The resulting 50 square mile Lake Horicon was proclaimed the largest man-made lake in the world.

It became such a popular spot for commerce and tourism that by the 1869, disputes arose among local landowners whose land was flooded and made unsuitable for farming. The landowners took their case to the State Supreme Court and the Court ruled in their favor. In 1869, the dam was removed and the area returned to marshland.

Market Hunting

The 1870s to the early 1900's marked another era in Horicon's history. Private hunting clubs began to establish on the marsh; the rest was open to unregulated hunting and market hunting.

In those days, wildlife came in such number's as the settlers had never see. Ducks, shorebirds and the now extinct passenger pigeon appeared in seemingly limitless numbers. Settlers hunted without restrictions and pushed wildlife resources beyond their limits in only 25 to 30 years.

Hunting techniques of the day have been mostly forgotten. The birds were often baited. Going out into the marsh with sacks of grain, market hunters scattered food about to lure the birds to the site. Once the birds had established a feeding habit, the hunters would wait in their blinds. They shot with punt guns - 2- and 4- gauge shotguns. These guns could kill 30 to 50 ducks in a single shot. In 1876, the Mayville newspaper ran an article in which one fellow claimed he'd killed 96 ducks with one shot on Horicon Marsh. Downed birds were packed into barrels, 200 at a time, and entire freight cars filled with barrels of birds were shipped to Milwaukee and Chicago for sale.

Hunting continued in the spring and fall. Spring hunting, which was finally banned in 1905, was particularly devastating because birds were nesting. By the turn of the century, skies once filled with endless clouds of birds remained empty.

Given time, protected habitat and restricted hunting in spring, the birds could slowly add to their numbers and might have recovered, but the marsh itself would suffer further disaster.

Ditch andTtill

By the turn of the century, the land around Horicon had begun to change. Solid hardwood forest had been cut over to make room for farms, cities, towns a roads. The rich soil beneath the prairies was plowed under. In the middle of all this development lay Horicon Marsh, now depleted of its wildlife. People saw one more opportunity to "improve" the marsh for human purposes.

In 1910, an effort to ditch and drain Horicon Marsh for agricultural production began. By contract with a Chicago manufacturer, a dredge was assemble on the marsh. It took four years to dig the main ditch: a 14-mile long scar cut down the middle of the marsh. At the same time, a series of lateral trenches was dug to gather water and draw it to the central drainage ditch. By 1916, all of the ditches were completed and it appeared the marsh would be converted into some of the richest farmland in the upper Midwest.

Farmers tried to raise root crops" onion, carrots and potatoes. As soon as the early 1920s, the much farmers came to realize the marsh's limited potential for farming. In wet years, the marsh-retained water into spring, making it impossible to work the land. Even if corps grew, heavy fall rains prevented harvest. The marsh's peat soils were difficult to drain, and farming plans quickly faded.

Once the water was drained away, the natural plant life plowed under and the heavy soil tilled, the exposed peat began to dry and rot during summer ... and it caught on fire! Peat fires raged on for a 12-year period. One fire reportedly burned continuously for three years. Devoid of water, stripped of wetland vegetation, ditched, tilled and scorched, the smoldering wasteland lay useless to people and wildlife.

The Restoration Era

Under the leadership of Louis 'Curley' Radke, the Izaak Walton League began the fight to restore the marsh. Their primary battlefield was not in Horicon, but in Madison at the State Capitol. For seven long years the Ikes drew support from other conservationists and worked with the State Legislature to forge the Horicon Marsh Wildlife Refuge Bill of 1927. It provided money to buy the land and construct the dam, which is still operated today.

Once the dam gates were closed in 1934, the peat fires were doused and original water levels were restored. Marsh supporters hoped that native wetlands plants would grow again and the area might function enough like a natural wetland to lure back wildlife. It seemed like a long shot, since no one had restored wetland on such a grand scale. Fortunately, nature is resilient. In only a few short years, the water, aquatic plants and brushy shore began to repair itself.

In 1941, the federal government purchased the rest of the marsh. Today, the marsh area is an intensive restoration project.

Exploring Horicon by canoe can take you away from the crowds and closer to egrets, herons and muskrats. The DNR Horicon office can provide maps

The southern third (11,000 acres) is a state wildlife area, managed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The northern two thirds (21,000 acres) are a national wildlife refuge, administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Altogether, we have restored the original 13 1/2 mile long, three- to 5 1/2 mile wide basin, covering 32,0000 acres. It is the largest freshwater cattail marsh in the U.S. More redhead ducks are raised here than on any wetland east of the Mississippi. The marsh is managed primarily for waterfowl, but habitat created for ducks and geese also lures other wildlife.

How far have we come and what kind of job are we doing? The wildlife tell us. Every year, more than 200 species of birds are sighted on this marsh. Over the years, a total of 268 species have been seen here; among the sights are a spectacular heron and egret rookery and several rare, threatened and endangered species. In addition, Horicon is home to many mammals, frogs, turtles and fish.

What does this natural history lesson teach us? Some places are best left as we found them. Nature intended these vast wet vistas remain a mixture of water, reeds, grasses, prairies and forests. We didn't appreciate Horicon marsh nor recognize all its benefits until we destroyed it. Once the marsh was gone, we lost everything; not just one species, but all of the wildlife that depended on it. It has take us decades to begin restoring the diversity we took for granted when this area was settle.

Today, Horicon is much more than a Canada goose marsh. This is a wetland ecosystem, equally important to each of its inhabitants. And also important to people, as a place to enjoy, to learn about wildlife, and to reflect on a human history that could not unearth more abundance that nature gave us.

by Bill Volkert
©1990, Wisconsin Natural Resources
Magazine, Wisconsin Department of Natural