De Soto, WI
De Soto, WI - Events of Friday, July 15 - Monday, July 18, 2011
It was only about a two-hour drive from Osseo to our next destination of Blackhawk Park in De Soto, WI. Blackhawk Park is an Army Corps of Engineers park and campground along the banks of the upper Mississippi River. There are picnic areas, a boat launch, fishing, and a sandy swimming beach in addition to the campground.
The campground has about 70 RV sites with electric-only hookups. About 1/3 of the sites are non-reservable, but since we arrived on a Friday, we made reservations in advance. There is an older section of the campground that is heavily wooded, and a newer section with only a few small trees. We chose the new section for our satellite dish. We think the old section has only 30-amp electric, while the new section has 30/50 amps. Since is was hot and humid when we were there, we were glad we had 50 amps.
The main road is paved, but the roads around the camping loops, the pads and the patios are gravel. The sites at Blackhawk Park are extra long, but they're not as wide as we're used to seeing in a Corps of Engineers campground. But it's a nice campground, especially for the half-price rate of $12 a night with our America the Beautiful Pass.
There were a few empty sites when we first arrived around noon, but most of the sites had reserved tags on them. The place was pretty much filled by late afternoon.
As we said, Blackhawk Park is located on the Mississippi River. There are lakes, ponds and wetlands all along the river; but surprisingly, there were no mosquitoes at Blackhawk Park.
What there are, however, are trains. Two tracks run along the river bank between the highway and Blackhawk Park. Fortunately, the closest crossing is about a mile to a mile and a half away depending on what part of the campground you're in, so the horns aren't real loud, but you can hear the trains rumble past. We must have started to get used to the trains, because by the latter part of our stay, we didn't seem to hear as many. Of course, our air conditioner was running 24 hours a day during the latter part of our stay, too.
There are numerous islands in the river (the new section of the campground is actually located on an island), and there's a long, narrow island that runs along the outer edge of the campground. The second island forms a nice, protected waterway where boaters can tie up their boats right behind the waterfront campsites. The main river channel is beyond the trees to the left in the next photo.
We have been trying to walk after dinner in spite of the heat and humidity. We walked up the road one evening to see the swimming beach. Not surprisingly (the temperature was 95º and the humidity was 70% at 7:30 in the evening), the beach was fairly crowded.
One of the reasons we went to Blackhawk Park was because it is sort of in the middle of nowhere and there isn't much to do. We wanted a break from a lot of sightseeing to just chill out (poor choice of words given the temperatures) at a nice Corps of Engineers campground. However, we can't sit still too long, and we did find a Victorian mansion called Villa Louis we wanted to see about 30 miles south of Blackhawk Park in Prairie du Chien (pronounced doo sheen), WI.
Prairie du Chien was named by French explorers, and the name means "Dog's prairie." The name came from the chief of the Native Americans living there whose name meant "Dog." Prairie du Chien is a large, open prairie located just to the north of the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers, and it became an important center for fur trade from the mid 1700s to the mid 1800s.
In 1826, Hercules L. Dousman, who was a prominent fur trader working on Mackinac Island, was sent by the American Fur Company to the frontier town of Prairie du Chien to assist the company's local representative, Joseph Rolette.
In the early 1840s, Hercules Dousman bought land near Prairie du Chien on an island in the Mississippi River at the site of Fort Crawford. We'll have more about Fort Crawford later. He built a large, two-story brick home on an old Indian mound on the island. The home became known as the "House on the Mound."
In 1842, Joseph Rolette died; and in 1844, Hercules married Rolette's widow, Jane. Hercules and Jane had one son they named Hercules Louis. The son went by the name of Louis, Louie or H. Louis Dousman, and was never known as Hercules or Junior. It was Louis who built the house that stands on the site today that came to be known as Villa Louis.
Guided tours of the mansion start on the hour. We arrived at 10:30, so we walked over to check out the fur trade museum located near the visitor center. This building was a fur warehouse and trading post built in 1851 by a trader by the name of B. W. Brisbois when an earlier log structure burned. Fur traders brought goods to the warehouses to trade to the Indians for furs.
Inside, there are displays of furs and the types of goods that Brisbois would have traded to the Indians and sold to the local settlers.
Hercules Dousman initially made his money in the fur trade. When fur-bearing animals started becomming scarce, he invested in lumber. Then he invested in steamboats that transported the lumber. When railroads began to replace steamboats, he invested in railroads. Hercules Dousman became quite wealthy.
Following the death of Hercules Dousman in 1868, Louis returned to Prairie du Chien and convinced his mother to allow him to tear down the two-story brick home and build a larger, more modern home with indoor plumbing, central heat and electric lighting. The next photo shows the front of the house built by Louis.
Louis didn't stay at Prairie du Chien long. Preferring the excitement of a bigger city, he moved to St. Paul, MN leaving his mother to occupy the estate he built. He married Nina Sturgis, and the couple moved to St. Louis where they had 5 children.
Louis mother died in 1882, and in 1885, Louis decided to move his family to Prairie du Chien so he could establish a stock farm to breed horses. Louis never realized his dream because he died in 1886 of a ruptured appendix at age 37.
As with many historic houses, photography isn't permitted inside. Ninety percent of the furnishings, paintings and decorative items in the house are original. The Dousman family left the estate in 1913, but they continued to own it. They rented it out for use as a boarding school, among other things. Following the death of Louis' wife Nina in 1930, two of the Dousman children began restoring the mansion. In 1950, the site was acquired by the Wisconsin Historical Society which operates it today.
When the family left the home in 1913, most of the furnishings were divided up among the family members. Since the furnishings were out of fashion, some were sold, but most were put into storage. Later, the family was able to turn over furnishings, decorative items, letters, family records and old photographs to the Historical Society. Some items that were sold have been repurchased.
One thing Paul noticed about the house - the availability of fine wood must have been limited in the frontier town of Prairie du Chien because the woodwork at Villa Louis was all pine that was faux finished to look like oak and mahogany. In contrast, the woodwork at the James J. Hill mansion in St. Paul and at Glensheen in Duluth that we visited recently were real wood.
Adjacent to the main house is the office. The original office, which was only one room (the door and window on the first floor to the left) was built by Hercules Dousman. The building was later expanded to include a billiard room to the right on the first floor and class rooms on the second floor. The classrooms became guest rooms following Louis' death because Nina didn't think she could afford private tutors for the children with Louis gone.
Behind the main house was the ice house (not shown) and the preserve house.
The preserve house had privies for servants, servants' quarters, storage space and a kitchen for canning.
Also behind the main house was the laundry and a kitchen garden.
Louis built a large, two-story stable on the property for his horse farm. There were stalls on the first floor and sleeping quarters for grooms and stable hands on the second floor. Unfortunately, the stable was all but destroyed by a fire in 1911. The WPA reworked the small portion that remained in the 1930s to create a museum, but the museum is now closed because of recent flooding.
Speaking of flooding, flood protection was the reason Hercules built his original two-story brick house on the old mound. Louis raised the mound even higher before he built the current mansion. Although the basement has had water in it during floods, the first floor has never been flooded. You can see the height of the mound in the photo below that shows the front entrance to the mansion.
The mound was also the site of one of the two blockhouses for Fort Crawford. Fort Crawford was built in 1816 to protect the new frontier at Prairie du Chien when the previous fort was captured and later burned by the British during the War of 1812. Hercules Dousman removed the remaining buildings of Fort Crawford when he built his two-story brick home on the site.
When the WPA was working on the site in the 1930s, they uncovered the stone foundations of some of the old Fort Crawford buildings including the foundation of the second blockhouse behind Villa Louis. The WPA reconstructed the second blockhouse on its original site.
We appreciated the opportunity to learn about the history of Villa Louis and of Prairie du Chien. Afterward, we stopped at the Walmart in Prairie du Chien to pick up a few groceries, then made our way back to the motor home. We had another day to relax before heading out to our next stop. There will be a good bit of sightseeing to report on, so stay tuned.