Trails and Rails

On Thursday, September 14, I got on Amtrak’s Empire Builder in Chicago, which would take me to LaCrosse, Wisconsin. I didn’t know it, but I was in for a treat.
Shortly after the train set off, an announcement came over the loudspeaker that two volunteers from the Trails & Rails program, co-sponsored by Amtrak and the National Park Service (take a look at were in the lounge car to tell stories and give the history of the areas that we were passing through. As I had never been in this part of the country, I was very interested in having a tour so I quickly made a beeline for the lounge car.
The two men who gave the tour were very knowledgeable about their subject. Not only did they know a lot, they were also very entertaining and funny.
At the beginning of our journey, we passed by the Tooth Fairy Museum in Deerfield, Illinois, and Lovell’s of Lake Forest (a restaurant belonging to Commander Jim Lovell, filled with memorabilia from the Apollo 13 flight. His son is a chef there). Then we saw the site of the Roundout train robbery of June 13, 1924. This was the largest train robbery in U.S. history, with the thieves attempting to steal $3 million from the fastmail 57 train. The train had no passengers. The tour guide said that the robbers failed to “get away with the dastardly deed” because one of the robbers didn’t know the difference between right and left. He ended up in the wrong space and one of the other robbers thought that he was a cop and shot him. When the robbers took their injured companion to the hospital, they were arrested. One million dollars were never recovered! Hmmm. Where could that missing money be??????????
The Abbott Labs… Dr. Wallace Abbott, at age 30, in 1888, invented the pill, which spurred the pharmaceutical industry.
Waukegan, Illinois, the adopted community of Jack Benny… this town boasts a statue of Jack Benny and a high school named after him.
Kenosha, Wisconsin, the birthplace of Orson Welles. In addition, American Motors cars were built there. Before that, cars were manufactured by Nash Motors.
Racine, Wisconsin, home of Johnson Wax, the All American Girls Baseball League, and the Kringle (a pretzel-shaped, almond-filled Danish coffee cake).
Franksville, named for Frank’s Sauerkraut Company. Until recently, there was an annual sauerkraut festival. In 2002, a young woman set a record for sauerkraut eating by consuming two pounds of sauerkraut in forty-eight seconds. (no comment)
At this point, we entered Milwaukee. I found out some interesting facts about Milwaukee. The airport is called the Billy Mitchell Field and was named for General Billy Mitchell, who had an unusual and controversial career. He joined the Army during the Spanish-American War and was brigadier general of the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War I. He predicted that future wars would be fought with air power, and he predicted the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In 1921, he conducted bombing experiments and sank ships to prove that surface fleets were obsolete. The military found him to be an annoying media magnet. They sent him to Asia to get him away from the newspapers. Apparently, that didn’t stop him. In 1925, after a Navy dirgible crashed in a storm, resulting in 14 deaths, he launched into a ferocious criticism of military leaders, saying that they ran an “almost treasonable administration of the national defense.” For his commentary, he was court martialed and found guilty of insubordination. Shortly afterward, he left the military. In 1936, he died. In 1941, an airport was named for him. He received many honors and accolades posthumously, and his name was cleared. A movie was made, titled “The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell.”
Some more touristy things, include the Allen Bradley Co., with the biggest four-face clock in the world, according to the Guiness Book of World Records. The hour hand is 20 feet long, and the minute hand is 15 feet, nine inches long… the Red Star Yeast Company… the Brewers baseball stadium… the Miller Brewery (which helped to put out the Chicago fire of 1871, which killed more than 300 people)… the Milwaukee Botanical Gardens… the Harley Davidson Company… the Milwaukee Lake, located entirely within city borders, with Lake Road, referred to as “Presidents’ Avenue,” because of so many presidents visited it…
The tour guides talked about the wetlands, which feature tall grasses and marshes and were formed by glaciers 15 million years ago. It’s a habitat for birds and animals. Wildlife includes deer, whooping cranes, geese, badgers, and foxes. Wild rice grows in the wetlands. The rice was harvested in boats and then was hit with sticks to break loose the grain kernels.
The tour guides told the story of Black Hawk of the Sauk Nation. His name in Algonquin in “Ma-ca-tai-me-she-kia-kiak,” which means “Black Sparrow Hawk.” He was born in 1767. In 1832, the Sauks’ land in Iowa was sold, so the nation recrossed the Mississippi in April of that year. There, they were attacked by white militia. The Sauk fought against the U.S. Army, led by Jefferson Davis and Jeb Stuart. Eventually, the Sauks were defeated. President Andrew Jackson had Black Hawk and his son, Whirling Thunder, shown off as spoils of war. The rest of the Sauks were removed to Indian territories in the west. Black Hawk died on October 3, 1838, at the age of 71.
Another interesting place that we passed was the Wisconsin Dells. There are two theories as to how the dells formed. The Winnebago Indians said that the Dells were formed when a snake forced its body through solid rock. Geologists talked about a huge sea (the glacial Lake Wisconsin) and about sand compacting to form layers of rock, receding glaciers, etc. The dells, themselves, were never covered by a glacier and are part of a “driftless zone” that the glaciers bypassed. Now, the dells are restricted in use… people can take boat trips and walking tours on or along the Wisconsin River… the land is described as rolling or flat… “dell” is a geological term meaning “carved canyon.” Plantlife in the Wisconsin Dells includes the cliff cudweed (which exists only in the Dells and in the Kickapoo Valley on protected rock ledges) and the fragrant fern. The dells also boast six dragonfly species, six rare mussels species, and many types of birds. This is ecologically a very sensitive area… nearby is a tourist trap, which includes such bizarre things as a “Torture Museum.”
Columbus, Wisconsin, is the “jumping off point to Madison.” It is the hometown to the University of Wisconsin, with 44,000 students and the Christopher Columbus Museum. In this city, there is an exhibit, which features the odyssey of a man who traveled the country to photograph every town named “Columbus.” Another unusual thing about Columbus is that, in the 1920s, more peas were canned in Columbus than anywhere else in the United States.
Other interesting facts about Wisconsin: It has a population of 13,000 black bears, mostly in the “north country.” The bike path from Sparta to LaCrosse includes a tunnel (55 degrees and dark, even during the day). Wisconsin has led the country in cranberry production since 1945. Wisconsin produces 81,000 tons of cabbage for sauerkraut each year.
My entertaining ride ended in LaCrosse, where I got off the train. I met my two friends, Mary Cary and Perry-O Sliwa. We went to eat at the Co-op and then we headed off to Decorah, Iowa, where I was to stay until Monday, September 18, at Perry-O and David Sliwa’s organic farm. Mary was staying elsewhere, so we dropped her off and headed to the farm, just outside of Decorah. I got out of the car and saw that the sky was full of stars.
Thus ended my first day in Iowa.

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