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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Prodigal Rat...

With the sun shining, water flowing, and flowers flowering, it's tough to find the ambition to sit at a keyboard and compose. Hence my recent hiatus from rat missives. I am weak when it comes to spring...there, I've said it. But knowing my duty to my readers, I've dragged myself off the water and the ol' desktop to share with you all a bit of interesting history. One of the finest river rats in Wisconsin, retired newspaper publisher George Rogers, sent it along. It's about an area in central Wisconsin that the River Alliance featured in its last newsletter, Wisconsin Rivers , the Portage County Drainage District. Don't worry...the story is better than the name. Here you go:

"The Isherwood story was a good one. A book could be written about the Buena Vista Marsh and the Portage County Drainage District. It started out as a big wetland -- part marsh and part tamarack bog, I think, with trout streams running through it.

Early in the 20th century Bradley Polytechnic Institute of Peoria, Ill. (now Bradley University) bought it. Bradley had drained a swamp in Indiana, sold it to farmers and made a lot of money, and decided to do the same here. They drained it and sold the land but it wasn't a farming bonanza. The soil wasn't as rich as it looked. It was peat, and sometimes it caught fire and burned all winter. Dams were put in the drainage ditches (mostly straightened trout streams) to control the water level. Some landowners wanted the level higher, some lower. At one point there was a big Kentucky bluegrass seed industry on the marsh but it collapsed after World War II when they found it was cheaper to import it from Denmark. Kentucky bluegrass isn't native to the U.S., it's a northern European plant.

While it lasted on the marsh, it was good for prairie chickens. The marsh is still Wisconsin's best prairie chicken stronghold. Over the years, there have been arguments with the DNR as to whether the ditches are navigable waters or artificial waterways. They reached some sort of compromise. Controversies continue, as you can tell from Justin's article. The ditches still have trout, although they're straight and unnatural looking. It's like fishing on a sidewalk. Currently, cranberry growing is on the increase on the marsh. Its impact on trout and prairie chickens is uncertain."

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