On Monday, September 9, 1957 — exactly sixty years ago next week — a group of Menomonie residents stood near the bank of Lake Menomin with William Whittry, curator of anthropology at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
They had a difficult, important job to do, and they had to do it quickly. They would not get another chance. During the week that followed, about 100 locals joined the effort. As many as 15 shovels sliced through the dirt at any given time. Dozens of buckets bobbed back and forth, weighing down the arms of scurrying volunteers.
But let’s back up … to about 1200 AD. Genghis Khan is crushing the Tatars. Europe is moving away from Roman numerals (XIV) to Arabic numbers (14). The Fourth Crusade captures Constantinople. Francis of Assisi founds a new religious order.
At the same time, here in what’s now North Menomonie, people of the Late Woodland Tradition — people who were ancestors of the Ho Chunk — were living and loving, growing crops and making art, having babies and burying their dead, like people do.
For reasons no one understands very well, Wisconsin is the center of Effigy Burial Mound culture. Almost all of the uniquely shaped mounds in what’s now the U.S. are found within Wisconsin’s borders. In what’s now Wakanda Park, Woodland people built 20 mounds — apparently among the very last to be built in what’s now Wisconsin.
For “our” mounds, people scraped away the topsoil in a spot and put the body of a loved one in the depression. They lit a fire beside the body. They piled rocks carefully as a shrine, then brought dirt from the surrounding embankment to build a mound.
For more than 700 years, 17 of those mounds — those graves — sat near the bank of Lake Menomin, and three more sat on a rise above the lake — for reference, those three sit a few hundred paces south of the green space where the park’s playground equipment now sits, within easy sight of an otherwise lonely Frisbee golf goal.
In 1933, the Menomonie parks department installed a brass text plaque to commemorate the “upper mounds.” Almost all of that text is wrong. But other than the marker, the sites sat relatively undisturbed.
However, in the 1950s, government officials approved a higher dam at Lake Menomin, which would raise the level of the lake. The “lower mounds” near the shore would be inundated by rising water behind the new Northern States Power Company dam.
Local citizens alerted the Wisconsin Historical Society. Whittry arrived shortly with a student team to excavate the mounds and reveal their secrets before Lake Menomin swallowed them.
Whittry also raised a corps of local volunteers. The effort needed many hands. By the time Whittry arrived, the team had little more than a week before the bulldozers would flatten the mounds (as well as many trees and several buildings). The archeology crew finished its work the day the construction crew arrived. And so they all found themselves by the shores of Lake Menomin that September morning.
The group found pieces of pottery, projectile points, and stone flakes inadvertently included in the fill used to build the mounds. But very few articles were intentionally buried with the dead as tokens. In fourteen excavated mounds, archeologists only found four items: a knife, a string of copper beads, a clay pot, and a funerary mask.
This was a “salvage operation,” to gather as much as they could, to document as much as they could, to understand as much as they could. Whittry published his findings in The Wisconsin Archaeologist two years later in September 1959. By then, the newly higher waters of Lake Menomin had washed away the traces of those ancient graves.