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September 2014


Chronicling the Bark River

Milton Bates dishes on his new book about our river

Though it may seem a lazy meandering river with little character, if the Bark River could speak, it might tell a magnificent story.

The unassuming, often tranquil river which winds through the heart of Lake Country was once home to a circus, factored into racial and class tensions in Lake Country and even played a role in a war. Over the years it has also served as a scenic escape for ordinary people seeking a bit of nature on the urban fringe. Milton Bates, a retired English professor from Marquette University, attempts to capture those stories in his newly released book "The Bark River Chronicles."

Bates, now retired and living in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, began paddling the Bark in 1982 along with his wife Elizabeth, affectionately known as "Puck" in the book. Then living in Wauwatosa, he and Puck would regularly canoe the river. Beginning in the early 1990s, Bates started journaling every trip. He soon had the seeds of a book. He conducted his first interview for the project in 1997, and after 15 years of work, his finished product is now on the shelves of bookstores.

It takes the form of a travel narrative following the river, which bubbles up from the ground beginning in Washington County's Bark Lake, winding like a serpent southwest through western Waukesha County until its junction with the Rock River in Jefferson County.

"That's pretty much the narrative structure of the book," said Bates. "But what I do along the way is tell the stories of people who lived in the past or currently live along the river."

His story touches on the human history as well as the various natural, geological, animal, and plant features that line the river.

Locals will find the book hits close to home. The story chronicles an instance in the early 20th century in which a developer tried to construct a road from the west bank of Lower Nemahbin Lake to Sugar Island. When authorities put a stop to it, the developer offered to sell the property he had purchased on the island to shoreline property owners. As Bates explained, "He offered them an ultimatum: If they did not buy the property by a certain date, he would bring in…essentially investors in a black resort community from Chicago, St. Louis and Milwaukee. The threat of a black colony in the middle of their lake really roused the people and there were threats of Ku Klux Klan violence."

Eventually after the African American investors realized they also would have no road to Sugar Island, they backed out and purchased land near Lake Geneva.

Another class warfare incident reared its head when wealthy property owners from Chicago with homes on Oconomowoc Lake and Lac La Belle proposed to connect each area lake through a set of canals. The plan called for a series of locks that could accommodate large steam vessels moving from lake to lake. Their plan was to sell tickets aboard these boats and take them from lake to lake for an all-day excursion while also charging canoeists and other boaters using the lock system.

"Once people, especially on the Bark River chain got wind of it, they protestedbecause they felt all of a sudden they would be invaded by these large steam launches from Oconomowoc and La Belle in the Oconomowoc chain," said Bates. "There was a big controversy over that as well."

In explaining his book, Bates also related a story about a circus group that wintered on a site on the Bark River before touring in the spring and summer months. Another chapter in the book discusses Byron Kilbourn's attempt to use the Bark River as a water source for his proposed Milwaukee and Rock River Canal, which was to serve as an extension of the Erie Canal on the Great Lakes. Kilbourn only built a small section of the canal along present day Canal Street in Milwaukee before running into financial difficulties. Shortly thereafter, trains began replacing canals as the preferred method of shipping goods across the country.

One of the more intriguing episodes of the "Bark River Chronicles" is its role in the Black Hawk War in 1832. The river was the site of a skirmish that left a federal infantryman dead, and it was also where federal troops under the command of General Henry Atkinson rendezvoused with Illinois militiamen to pursue Chief Black Hawk across Wisconsin. The Illinois militia included a young captain by the name of Abraham Lincoln. The troops were unable to pursue Black Hawk because the marshy ground on each side of the river prevented the soldiers from crossing the river on their horses.

Said Bates, "They marched back and forth up and down that river for at least a week before they kind of gave it up and built Fort Koshkonong, which is in today's Fort Atkinson. It was while they were just waiting in garrison that their scouts picked up Blackhawk's trail and then they took after him in hot pursuit."

While the Bark River has no shortage of history lining its banks, one of the features that attracted Bates most was its status as a river that was similar to most every other river that snakes through North America.

"It occurred to me that number one, it was verytypical of not just Wisconsin rivers, but of American rivers," the author said. "Both in terms of its importance to native people before first contact with European settlers and the way that it was used and developed by European settlers coming over to this country. And in the kinds of environmental challenges it has faced in the 19th and 20th and now into the 21st centuries. It had that kind of … everyman quality to it, but 'every river' quality to it."

"I think it was my sense that the Bark River really was a special river even though it's very small and unprepossessing," he said of why he felt the need to write a book about the Bark River. "It's not a river you think of as one of the great rivers of the world."

The book hit shelves at the end of September, and Bates will be in Oconomowoc at Books & Company today at 1 p.m. to speak and sign copies of his work. His current release represents a significant departure from his other published books, which included a biography of the poet Wallace Stevens and studies of the Vietnam War.

As to who might enjoy "The Bark River Chronicles," Bates said, "I think people who want an even better sense of the place in which they live. I'm sure they know something about the area in which they live, but the book is meant to cultivate that sense of place to an even greater degree. A sense of the Bark River as historically significant, as environmentally significant. They would be obvious readership for the book."

He added, "Beyond that, because the Bark River is so typical, it would be of interest to anyone who lives near a river or wants to know about the history and natural sciences that are associated with rivers."

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