Archaeologists have presumed that it is quite probable that prehistoric people inhabited the driftless area first, after the last glacial retreat. When the first white settlers journeyed into the area of Ocooch Mountains they found an area with thick oak, hickory, basswood, and maple forest blanketing a good part of the hillsides and valley bottoms. On the western edge of the watershed on the ridge between present day Westby and Fargo near the Crawford County line, the pioneers found prairies with scattered oak savannas.
Following the path of the Kickapoo River and its tributaries especially between present day La Farge and north was a band of conifers, remnants of the forest that had migrated north with the glaciers. The streams ran clear and springs were nearly everywhere. Marshes and slough existed in the valley bottom where the river’s course had once been. Elk, bear, wolves, bobcats and other game were often see.
When the white men arrived they began to clear the forests and plow the fields. Humans began their increasingly evident role in the changing and the shaping of the land.
Unglaciated rock formation south of Westby used by
Native Americans as a worship location
Paths, trails, roads and highways
As the glaciers melted, the climate warmed and vegetation became enough to sustain life, animals began to populate our area. As the animals began to migrate and move from one grazing area to another they made paths that eventually became well worn paths from one location to another.
When the first Native Americans (Indians) inhabited this area, starting a few thousand years ago, the paths they used to navigate their surroundings were those the animals had made. As the population grew, more and more Indians used these paths and over years with trial and error, the paths became well-worn trails from distinct area to another.
On Coon Prairie were two Indian Trails that helped the first white men discover the area that would become Westby. The more traveled of the two trails went from Black River Falls in the north to Prairie du Chien in the south where the Wisconsin River empties into the Mississippi River. The less traveled trail was from the Kickapoo River Valley to the Mississippi River Valley following what is today Unseth Road and Cut-Across Road then followed more or less Highway 14 to Coon Valley where it continued along the Coon Creek to the Mississippi. These two trails crossed at the current intersection of State and Main Streets.
When fur trading had become a major industry for Wisconsin, explorers were everywhere, for wealth, for expansion and for control of the area for their home country, usually France and to a lesser degree Spain and England.
The first date that this area shows up on a map was 1632. It is unknown if any early explorers wandered through our immediate area but they were close enough to put some details on a map dated 1632. In 1680 there were explorers who visited this area if only on their way to someplace else.
In 1715 Coon Prairie is located on maps of this area, but it was more than 100 years later in 1818 when a land survey was done of this prairie called Coon.
Modern civilization came to this area in 1843 when Alfred Bronson started construction of Black River Road for stagecoaches from Prairie du Chien to Black River Falls following the old Indian trail. This road was a very winding hilly route some of which is still used in parts of this area.
Unglaciated rock formation near Liberty Pole along Highway 27,
used by Native Americans as a worship location
When Even Gullord first settled on Coon Prairie in 1848, he had followed well traveled routes to get here. Why he settled here when others didn’t, only he could give you that answer, but once he was here, many other settlers soon followed and continued for most of 60 years.
In 1857 a white man road was in operation from Coon Prairie to La Crosse following what is today Saugstad Road and Spring Coulee Road. Again from Coon Valley the route followed the Coon Creek to Stoddard on the Mississippi.
From the beginning of modern civilization to the present time, roads continue to change as usage increases. Between Westby and Coon Valley, the road on the east Coon Valley hill has been revamped at least three times in the last 75 years. First the road, Highway 11 at the time, was carved out of the east side of the hillside. Then in the forties after the road had become highway 14 in 1933 and named Northwest Highway, the road was moved to the west side of the valley. Then most recently about 25 years ago, the highway was redone to more or less go right up the middle of the valley as it continues from the Coon Valley to Coon Prairie on the top of the hill.
Highway 27 from Westby to Cashton has had some placement changes over the years as well, following the old Indian Trail for hundreds, if not thousands of years. In 1879 when the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul railway came to Coon Prairie, it ran parallel to Highway 27 on the west side of the highway. Main Street in Newry is a remnant of the old highway. This would be the street that runs directly in front of the church. In Westby, Black River Avenue is still the old Highway 27. In 1927 the official highway was moved to west side of the railroad tracks. More recently when the railroad line was discontinued in 1984, Highway 27 moved again. Using the former railroad right-of-way and highway right-of-way, the road was straightened and leveled to its current configuration.
The highway between Westby and Viroqua has also moved from one location to another over the years. In 1952 plans were made for a bypass that would go west of Westby starting at the current wayside area south of Westby and connecting again to Highway 14 where Cut-A-Cross Road is today. The highway was straightened and moved to new locations, hence Old Highway 14, but the bypass never developed. Now in 2014, the bypass is planned again, but this time only slightly to the west of Westby, but still joining Highway 14 northwest of Westby at the same spot that was planned 62 years ago.
More about Highway 14 HERE.
More about Highway 14 HERE.