Around The River Bend, A Flood Of HistoryNPR's Jacki Lyden grew up with the Bark River in her backyard. She left the Wisconsin waterway unexplored, until recently. Floating down the river in a canoe with a historian, Lyden discovered a story that stretches from the Ice Age and the Black Hawk War to churning 19th-century mills.
The Bark River was carved in Wisconsin's Ice Age, about 13,000 years ago, when glaciers covered much of the state.
The Bark winds through southeastern Wisconsin's "Kettle Moraine" — small hills called drumlins and deep glacial lakes known as kettles. It's part of the Mississippi watershed.
This former mill is the last private mill on the Bark and was in operation until a few years ago. It was built in the 1850s by one of the founders of Delafield, Wis., Nelson Hawks, to grind corn and grain. The mill pond and an earthen dam are behind it.
Margaret Zerwekh, who has lived in the mill house for half a century, listens to Milton Bates read from his book, Bark River Chronicles. Zerwekh's home is a treasure trove of Delafield history.
Zerwekh, 93, is also a local historian. Due to her efforts, Civil War soldier Lt. Alonzo Cushing finally received his Medal of Honor in 2009. Cushing was born on the banks of the Bark in Delafield. In 1863, at the age of 22, he was killed as he held out against Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg.
Maintaining the mill, pond and dam has been a joy, and a struggle. On the mill pond outside of Zerwekh's home, fallen leaves rest on a soft crust of algae pond scum.
The Bark has some muddy shorelines, but it also has "shaking ground," soil that looked solid but is actually afloat. This is called "terre tremblant," or shaking ground. It hindered U.S. troops during the Black Hawk Indian War of 1832, as it continues to do with contemporary explorers.
The Ho-Chunk Indians still consider the river to be sacred, and it's easy to feel that calm, floating along the Bark.
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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 canoe party paddles past "Sugar Island," where the Bark River flows through Nemahbin. The Potawatomi tapped these trees for sugar. I'd never known there was an island in Nemahbin Lake; it holds summer cabins.
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.
My favorite view from the fourth floor of Margaret Zerwekh's mill house, looking east out on the Bark — herons use the river like a private causeway, and fish swim in the millrace.