Platteville Community Arboretum Driftless Tour

Scenic walking tour connects Platteville’s nature, history and culture


Justice Corpora photo ‘4,200 STONES’ by Bill Mitchell in 2021; metal, stone

The Mining & Rollo Jamison Museums gave a two-hour tour, which was offered by the Platteville Community Arboretum, on Oct. 15 about the Driftless Area’s formation, its wildlife and Platteville’s history. 

PCA President Bob Hundhausen and Marie Wihsenant, an educational field trip coordinator at the Mining Museum, accompanied the trip.

Brothers Dan and Bruce Flesch conducted the “Land, Place and Life: A Driftless Walking Tour.”

Dan Flesch, who pointed out different species of plants during the tour, has been a volunteer at PCA for seven years, is a retired kindergarten teacher and has a master’s degree in Biology. 

Bruce Flesch has been a Mining & Rollo Jamison Museums tour guide for the past 10 tour seasons. He was in charge of contextualizing Platteville’s landscape formations and the history of Platteville. 

Bruce explained that the origin of the Driftless Area began 700 million years ago when the continents started to drift apart. The ocean covered this area. “That’s what formed the rocks we’re standing on,” Bruce explained. “Erosion took over and proceeded as far as we know uninterrupted until about 2 million years ago.” Hundreds of feet of surface eroded. Bruce said, “When you look out at the big M, that’s 500 feet above our heads. The mounds throughout the Driftless Area are landscapes that “didn’t erode, like the rest of this did.”

The mounds were so resistant to erosion because “the Niagara escarpment was in some areas and that was a very, very hard rock and didn’t erode as quickly,” Dan said. “And it goes up through Door County,” Bruce added.

“About 2 million plus years ago, the Ice Age started… The glaciers didn’t drift over us and alter our landscape,” said Bruce. The Driftless Area showcases “what nature formed 300 plus million years ago,” he added. 

In comparison, landscapes other than the Driftless Area might only be 15,000 years old. Bruce said, “By not covering (the Driftless Area), that left our hills and that left our lead, and is probably why we still have lead mines here, because the hills would’ve been erased … and our lead would’ve been carried away.” 

“Through all those years of erosion, it wore down to where the level of the lead was,” Bruce said. Galena was liquified using wood fire, which burned the sulfur off, and produced lead. The lead was then poured and shaped and used by Natives to trade and adorn their clothing with.

Up until 1825, the land above Illinois was Native territory, and “it (was) illegal for white people to be here,” Bruce explained. Natives traded their melted down lead with non-Natives. Additionally, “the government (was) allowing people to come in and stake a claim if (the government) could get 10% (of the profit),” Bruce explained. 

Between 1825 and 1827, miners began claiming individual acres on Native territory. “They came here because of the diggings that (Natives) had already started,” said Bruce, and then explained that the “mining lasted 150 years. Fifty years dominated by lead, the next 100 years by zinc … The last mine closed in ‘79, not because we ran out of ore, but the mining companies weren’t making any money getting that.”

Bruce shared the history of modern Platteville, beginning in 1827 when Major John Rountree bought a claim and open a mine. 

After this, Dan directed the tour’s attention to the garden in front of the Mining & Rollo Jamison Museums. It is a pollinator garden that provides for the insects at different times of the seasons. 

Dan explained that the butterflyweed and parsley located in the garden are “plants that monarchs love.” He also pointed out a leadplant and said it was named that “because they felt like where this was growing, they’d find lead.” 

Dan located purple cornflowers, explaining that “Natives made some kind of an ointment from it and smeared it on their body … They could withstand hotter temperatures and get closer to the flame with that.” Dan added that they “would chew the sap like gum and it would make a rubbery texture.”

The tour continued down Main Street “where the railroad hub was here in … Platteville’s first industrial park,” said Bruce. The 

Chicago-Northwestern Railroad that travelled from Galena came to Platteville in 1870 and disappeared around 1981, just a couple of years after its final use. “Goods would come in on the train and they would store them in warehouses right off the train, and then they could move them to their store on Main Street,” Bruce explained.

Hundhausen said that the unfinished trail along where the tracks once were is currently being considered as an addition to the official PCA trail. The PCA trail was made about seven years ago. Lights have since been added to the trail, and the limestone gravel on the trail has since been replaced with a cement path. “The citizens of Platteville raised $1.6 million on their own in order to put this trail in and get these lights in … It was a community effort,” Bruce said. 

Other citizen-initiated projects include the skate park which was placed next to where the train station used to sit at the end of Main Street, and the fitness center along the PCA trail, which had support from Southwest Health Center as well.

The PCA trail’s plant life consists of native plants that are being preserved on the trail and non-native plants that are actively being cleared from the trail. Dan said, “There’s different groups that meet once a week to maintain the trail.” 

Hundhausen explained “they each have a section of the trail and remove invasive species and keep it trimmed and clean, (and) clear mud when it floods.”

A garden near the PCA trail in the shape of a butterfly is made up completely of native plants. There are other artistic displays, including “FARM REPORT” and “4,200 STONES,” with descriptions of their meaning posted throughout the trail. Information on any of the artwork along the trail can be read about more on the PCA organization website.

Dan talked about the native elderberry bush on the trail, and said, “It has a corky inside. The heartwood is really soft … (Natives) made musical instruments from the sticks. So they would hollow out that cork and then they’d put some holes in it and make flutes from it.”

As Dan passed an arrowwood, he said that it was a native plant and that its stems, which grow straight, were made into arrow shafts. Dan added that they also produce “berries that are good for the wildlife too.”