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Weekly Column

Each week a small segment of Vernon County history is published in the county papers.

For the week of 4/11/2021
by Carol Krogan, assistant curator

Vernon County can be proud of its many wonderful parks and one of them Wildcat Mountain State park, located southeast of Ontario. The park was established in 1938 when Amos Theodore Saunders donated 60 acres of virgin timber to Vernon County. It was his intention to share the beauty of these unspoiled woods with all nature lovers. In 1947, control was transferred to the State of Wisconsin and it is now operated by the Department of Natural Resources. Saunders later donated 20 more acres and more land was eventually purchased from other area landowners; Russel Revels, Melvin Thomas, Adolph Fanta, Earl Thomas, Durward Taylor, Floyd Revels and Margaret Miller. In 1957 at the time of Ontario’s Centennial, the park was comprised of 704.5 acres. In 1948, it officially became Wildcat Mountain State Park. Like all other state parks, a vehicle admission sticker is required and certain trails require a state trail pass.

The park got its name when a bobcat was suspected of killing sheep in the area. Local residents eventually located the bobcat and destroyed it on the ridge where the upper park is located. It became known as Wildcat Ridge, then Wildcat Mountain and now consists of over 3,600 acres.

Many Vernon County residents were instrumental in establishing the park. They are: Tom Highland, Hillsboro; Charles Nixon, Ontario; Lester Wood, La Farge and Arthur Mockrud, Westby, who was Vernon County’s assemblyman during that time.

Some of the first people to be employed at the park were: John Shields, Don Calhoun, Melvin J. Thomas (later a manager), Artie Peterson, Claude Spears and the first manager, Ralph Halvorson. He served from 1948-49.

The park, beautiful at any time of year, has many recreational opportunities including camping, observation of nature, canoeing and kayaking, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, hunting, picnicking and winter sports such as cross-country skiing, snowmobiling and snowshoeing.

Hills and valleys make up the park with a portion of the Kickapoo River running through it. One can canoe or kayak the Kickapoo and follow the river into the Kickapoo Valley Reserve to the south of the park. Woods dominate the park which includes pine and hemlock trees. Amongst the trees, visitors will find interesting plants and wildflowers, red squirrels in the treetops; birds such as turkeys, bald eagles and red-tailed hawks as well as other migrating birds such as Canada geese, tundra swans and great blue herons.

Fishing along the Kickapoo and Billings Creek may provide you with brown trout, of which there is an abundance. The Kickapoo has a total of 46 species of fish.

The park has over 20 miles of hiking trails for beginners or experienced hikers. One can hike switchbacks to Mt. Pisgah, an elevation change of 365 feet, walk a portion of the Old Settler’s Trail, just 0.4 miles to an overlook with a view of the Village of Ontario below, or those with disabilities can take a portion of the Prairie Trail through a patch of re-established prairie.

Horseback riders have a myriad of choices for riding and camping with their horses, trucks and trailers. Horse trails are open from May 1 to November 14. 15 miles of trails and 24 campsites are available.

Many areas of the park are perfect for picnicking and camping with fire rings, picnic tables, grills and shelters available for use. An amphitheater with seating for 100 has been used for weddings and theater performances, among other events. This beautiful setting overlooks the hills and valleys of the park.

Vernon County has many beautiful places and Wildcat Mountain State Park is certainly a great place to visit.

Wildcat Mt.
This photo postcard from the Museum’s collection was most likely taken at the time when the park was established in 1938. The photographer, Charles M. Cosgrove, died in 1939.


For the week of 4/4/2021
by Kristen Parrott, curator

Now that April has arrived, the museum has moved to its spring hours. For the months of April and May, the museum will be open Monday through Friday, noon to 4PM. It is also open by appointment – just contact us at 608-637-7396, or, to set up an appointment.

The warmer weather means that the unheated exhibit halls are coming up to a more comfortable temperature, and now is a good time to visit for a tour. We often change and update exhibits, so there’s always something new to see.

One of the museum objects that you’ll now notice right away is a giant jewelry safe, once used by Lucas Jewelers of 109 S. Main Street, Viroqua. The safe has been in a back room for years, but recently it was moved to a new, more-visible location, for visitors to enjoy. It weighs about 2 ½ tons, or about 5000 pounds. Seven large men pushed and pulled for several hours to move it. Fortunately it’s on wheels!

James W. Lucas used the giant black iron safe in his jewelry store. In 1892 Lucas began working in the watch and jewelry business inside Towner’s Book and Stationery Store at 123 S. Main, where Rockweiler’s is today. In 1907, Lucas bought Joseph Boehrer’s jewelry business a few doors away, at 109 S. Main. Presumably it was shortly after setting up shop there that he purchased the safe, which has the words, “J.W. Lucas, The Jeweler”, painted on the doors. Or perhaps he bought the safe from the previous owner, and then painted his own name on it.

According to the Viroqua’s Main Street History book, James Lucas’s son Keith “Pooky” Lucas joined J.W. in the business in 1935, and inherited it when his father died in 1948. Keith ran the business until he sold it to his daughters, Betty and Idelle, in 1967. They in turn operated Lucas Jewelry until they sold it to Jim and Marilyn Biederman in 1975. The safe stayed put all that time, about 100 years, until it was moved to the museum in 2008. Biederman’s Jewelry closed in 2014, and today the storefront houses Blue Bobbin Studio.

We are happy to be able to say that we have a couple of upcoming events. Save the date of Saturday, May 1, for our first cook-out of the season. This will take place outside at Nelson Agri-Center in Viroqua, from 10AM to 2PM. We’ll be serving hot dogs and bratwurst as a fundraiser for the chimney repair project. The museum’s chimney, which has long been used by chimney swifts as a roosting site, is being repaired in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Wisconsin Chimney Swift Working Group. The chimney swift population is in steep decline, and we are glad that our chimney can continue to help these birds.

Also mark Sunday, June 13 on your calendar, as the date of our annual Cemetery Walk. This year’s walk will be held at the Viroqua Cemetery from 2 to 5PM, with tours on the hour. The theme is “Hidden Stories of Diversity in Viroqua”. More details to come!

Lucas Jewelry

Lucas Jewelry Store circa 1908, with Grant Rogers on the left and J.W. Lucas on the right. The jewelry safe can be seen at the back of the store on the left.


The previous two articles:

March 28, 2021

March 21, 2021