Around The River Bend, A Flood Of History

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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 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.

Audio produced by Liz Baker.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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