You probably wonder why the Marquette County John Muir Nature and History Route brings you so far away from the Township of Buffalo where Muir grew up. But The Township of Springfield, which is where you are now, is filled with geology, history, and connections to Muir's passions.
There are three reasons you are here. First, the far northwest corner of Marquette County was shaped by the very edge of the last glacier. The edges of the glacier leave special landscapes most notably terminal moraines. These are some of the lasting effects of mighty glaciers that Muir researched and studied.
Second, the area of the largest recorded nesting of Passenger Pigeons included the border of the Township of Springfield in 1871. Some 136 million birds nested in that flock and this area was a part of it.
Third, the Township of Springfield's history goes deep starting with Paleo Indians on through the earliest settlers and you can see some of the landscapes they would have seen hundreds, if not thousands of years ago. So let's start exploring the Township of Springfield. We'll be talking about the locations on the map below.
Think about a glacier probably more than a mile high at its highest point, tapering off to 200 to 500 feet thick on the borders covering this part of Wisconsin where you are standing. The land was covered with several glaciers over time, but the last one occurred between 30,000 to 10,000 years ago. The portion or lobe that covered what is now Marquette County is called the Green Bay Lobe.
Glaciers shape the land as they move over and recede, carrying soil and rocks, forming rivers, piling up outwash sand, sifting stones and gravel, and leaving chunks of ice that melt forming kettle lakes. The land in the Township of Springfield was shaped by the outer edge of the glacier leaving hills, gullies, moraines, and more for us to enjoy today.
If you go to rest stop 81 off 39/51, you can enter onto a portion of the National Scenic Ice Age Trail. Bring a picnic lunch, park your car, and enjoy sauntering on the Ice Age Trail.
There is much evidence that people inhabited what we now know as the Township of Springfield for at least 10,000 years. The photo of the bannerstone which was found here, is one example of this evidence. Bannerstones were used as weights on atlatls, devices hunters used to increase the speed and distance they could throw their spears. Mastodons and giant sloths as well as caribou and other large animals lived here after the glacier receded and spruce trees and other vegetation began to grow.
Part of the geology of the Township of Springfield is a limestone bluff in the northwest corner. Limestone is formed over millions of years from the compressed sediment of marine animal debris and recessional moraines left by the glacier here are made up of glacial-limestone. Limestone was and is used in building, construction, and agriculture. One important use is for reducing the acidity of soil; another important use is making cement. Here are a few uses listed on Geology.com:
Portland Cement: Limestone is heated in a kiln with shale, sand and other materials and ground to a powder that will harden after being mixed with water.
AgLime: Calcium carbonate is one of the most cost-effective acid neutralizing agents. When crushed to sand-size or smaller particles limestone becomes an effective material for treating acidic soils.
Lime: If calcium carbonate (CaC03 is heated to high temperature in a kiln the products will be a release of carbon dioxide gas (CO2) and calcium oxide (CaO). The calcium oxide is a powerful acid neutralization agent. It is widely used as a soil treatment agent in agriculture and as an acid neutralization agent by the chemical industry.
Animal Feed Filler: Chickens need calcium carbonate to produce strong egg shells so calcium carbonate is often offered to them as a dietary supplement in the form of "chicken grits".
You'll notice that some of the uses of limestone require heating in a kiln. There was a limestone kiln in the Township of Springfield operated by Justin Glover, a very early settler. Below is a drawing of how a limestone kiln works.
Here are the steps in using a lime kiln.
Steps in Making Lime
In 1876, the first train came through Marquette County. It was called the P Line because it went from Portage to Stevens Point. Railroads were important to the settlers and speculation was rife about the building of a railroad through the county. When John Muir took his inventions to the State Agricultural Fair in Madison in 1862, his brother took him to Pardeeville to catch a train.
Liberty Bluff grew up in the Town of Springfield along the RR tracks. It was never much more than the Railroad Station and the Guderjahn Store shown in the photo above. The lime kiln was nearby. Rye, potatoes and other products were shipped on the train. Nothing remains of Liberty Bluff.
Restored Prairie PRIVATE LAND but good viewing from the road.
On 4th Avenue you'll see a metal sign that marks the Hugh Iltis Prairie and Savanna Restoration project pictured above. Hugh Iltis was Professor Emeritus of Botany at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is best known for his discoveries in the genetics of corn and his inspiring passion for land stewardship. As a botanist, Iltis served as the Director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Herbarium. He is co-author with Theodore Cochrane of the Atlas of the Wisconsin Prairie and Savanna Flora.
This prairie restoration is on private land and was completed with management guidance as well as financial from various agencies including Partners for Fish & Wildlife program and Wisconsin DNR Landowners Incentive Program and the all-student burn crew from UW-Stevens Point. An easement to the USDA protects 80 acres of the land. Once restored, it became perfect habitat for federally-endangered Karner Blue butterfly as well as Red-headed woodpeckers, Grasshopper sparrows, Whip-poor-wills, Sandhill cranes and bountiful prairie grasses and forbs. Standing along the road and watching the wind blow the grasses and plants waving in unison will recharge your soul.
The prairie is the work of David and Shelley Hamel who host occasional hikes through the DNR, Natural Resources Foundation, Sierra Club and other organizations. It takes life-long dedication to restore a prairie. As you look over this prairie, you can think about how most of the land looked when the Muirs and other early settlers came to Marquette County. Most of it was open prairie with scattered "oak openings". There were no red pine forests that you see today and very little heavily wooded land.
Read about this special prairie below. If you are here in June/July, look for the blue of the wild lupine on the prairie and along the roadsides throughout Marquette County. Perhaps you'll be able to spot a very special Karner Blue Butterfly, an endangered species that has a home in Marquette County.
Above are Lupine growing on a prairie in Marquette County.
Below, is a Passenger Pigeon drawn by Alexander Wilson, the Scottish-American poet, ornithologist, naturalist and illustrator who is considered the Father of American ornithology. Audubon read and was influenced by Wilson's work. John Muir was introduced to American birds when he read Wilson's descriptions in school in Dunbar. He anticipated seeing the eagle and other birds described by Wilson. The other two birds in the drawing are a Bay-breasted Warbler and a Black-throated warbler.
We all know the sad story of the Passenger Pigeon, extinct now from over-hunting and loss of habitat once nesting and roosting spots were cut down and prairies ploughed up. Once the population was estimated to be more than a billion birds from the east coast through the Midwest, they were slaughtered by the thousands over and over again and even fed to hogs.
"Then, too, the wonderful Passenger Pigeons streaming from the south....." wrote John Muir in The Story of My Boyhood and Youth. "Oh what bonnie, bonnie birds! we exclaimed...Oh, what colors! Look at their breasts, bonnie as roses, and at their necks aglow wi' every color....Oh, the bonnie, bonnie creatures." He went on, "I have seen flocks streaming south in the fall so large that they were flowing from horizon to horizon in an almost continuous stream all day long."
You can view recently restored taxidermy Passenger Pigeons at the New London, Wisconsin museum in their extensive natural history collection.
From an early Marquette County settler’s diary: I can recall the passenger pigeon in the days of its abundance. On the occasions when we went to visit my grandfather and grandmother …, it was the ordinary proceeding to avoid going up the stony, bumpy hill to the north ….., cross the field of the old… farm and enter the woods on the north side of the field, and go through the woods until we struck the regular road at the comer of grandfather's field. At the place where we entered the woods, the soil was sandy with only a scattering of stunted trees. One time, as we passed on a Sunday, the netters of pigeons had had their nets operating in this place during the week. Some poles used in the operation were lying scattered about. There were branches that had been lopped from the standing trees on one side. I never saw the nets. It was said that the trappers spread buck-wheat on the ground and when a sufficient number of birds had gathered that the net was sprung over them by some mechanism, the working of which I did not understand. I heard the account of how many birds were caught, how they were shipped, and the destination. All of this has escaped me. It seems thatthis piece of woods was a regular roosting site. It was also said that so many pigeons attempted to roost on a tree that sometimes the branches were brokendown. I can remember the last time I saw these pigeons. It was in 1881. I donot recall the time of year, perhaps it was in autumn. The birds passed overour house in a ribbon formation going from north toward the south. I lay on my back and watched them streaming by in a stream of numberless individuals. Their manner of flight and their general appearance was fixed on my memory.
Below is a letter to the Marquette newspaper about a boyhood trip in the Coloma area, just north of the Township of Springfield. It would have taken place about 1860-70. The Nee Pee Nauk clubhouse he speaks of is on Apuckawa Lake. The overhang of rock where they built a fire may have been the outcropping you can see on County Roads CH and Z. It is doubtful that he means John Muir in his reference to the boy. Muir would have been gone from Marquette County or at the least, depending on the year, been too busy working on the family farm. The birds he saw would have been nesting or roosting in this area including the Town of Springfield. If you drive the roads here, especially in the northwest area, think about what it must have been like to have thousands of Passenger Pigeons flying overhead and roosting in the trees each year. It was only 150 years ago that they were still here.