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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Wisconsin Ghost Town

In 1837 two entrepreneurs erected a grist mill on the banks of the Wisconsin just below Portage. All across southern Wisconsin, new communities were springing up from the prairie like mushrooms after a rainstorm. This was the only mill for 40 miles, and pioneer farmers from as far away as Baraboo, Columbus or Madison carted their wheat to the hamlet of Dekorra.

Boom Town

Soon lumberjacks rafting logs downriver from Stevens Point began stopping there every spring and a thriving village rose up to meet their needs. In the 1840s a hotel, a blacksmith, a general store, and some taverns opened at Dekorra to accommodate the loggers. They would trade lumber to the locals, who would drag it by ox-cart to all the blossoming towns of south central Wisconsin.

In the fall, local farmers would sell barrels of fresh-ground flour to the lumberjacks, for northwoods flapjacks and bread loaves. For a generation Dekorra flourished. But then came the railroad. Or rather, it didn't come.

Ghost Town

In the late 1850s the locomotives by-passed Dekorra to run through Portage instead. From there, goods could be shipped easily to Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago. They could also be floated by boat down the Fox River to Oshkosh, Appleton and Green Bay, or in the opposite direction down the Wisconsin -- right past Dekorra -- to Prairie du Chien, Minneapolis, or St. Louis.

As Portage grew, little Dekorra faded. Shops closed, the mill shut down, and young people moved away. Eventually one elderly woman, Alice Allen, was almost the only resident of the deserted village. After she gave this interview to the Milwaukee Journal, Dekorra became a symbol of all the deserted Wisconsin frontier towns that had not survived. Artists came to draw its ancient well, which was nearly all that remained of the once-thriving village.

Today, Dekorra is a crossroads on the south bank of the Wisconsin River about two miles east of the I-90 bridge. In the last generation its population has begun growing again, and it now boasts more than 2,000 residents.

So when you fly past on your next trip north or south, look east beyond the Wisconsin River's sandbars and imagine the hopes and dreams of the people of Dekorra 150 years ago.

:: Posted in Odd Lives on January 8, 2013
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