browser icon
You are using an insecure version of your web browser. Please update your browser!
Using an outdated browser makes your computer unsafe. For a safer, faster, more enjoyable user experience, please update your browser today or try a newer browser.

Leola Ditch – Development Woes


Leola Ditch:  Short-Sighted Land Development Scheme with Long-Term Consequences

Draining the Wetlands and Farming the Black Soil Seemed a Good Idea in 1901; Later, Not so Much


By Michael Goc


Today, the Leola Ditch is part of the 14 Mile Creek Watershed which runs east to west across northern Adams County from Waushara County to the Petenwell Flowage of the Wisconsin River. Held behind dams, Leola Ditch water helps fill Lakes Sherwood, Camelot and Arrowhead in the town of Rome. As such, it plays an important role in the residential development that has transformed Rome from a nearly deserted sand bowl into the second most populous community in Adams County.

Residential development was not on the mind of the men who dug the Ditch. They were participants in one of the first and largest land development schemes of the 20th Century in Wisconsin. Its goal was to transform millions of acres of wetland into productive farmland by removing the water that made them wet. European immigrants and a growing native born population created demand for farmland but the best ground was already under cultivation. New technology, in the form of steam-powered excavating equipment, along with affordable and durable drainage pipes, culverts and other hardware, made it possible for developers to alter the landscape on a scale the pioneer generation could only dream of.

With demand, tools and materials present, the final necessity was financing. Digging ditches cost money that individual landowners could not access, while the legal issues raised by altering thousands of square miles of territory could best be managed by a publicly-owned entity. The drainage district was born—hundreds of them throughout the state. Like school districts, they could hire contractors, negotiate easements and most importantly, levy taxes.

Prior to settlement in the mid-19th Century about one-third of Adams County was in wetlands. Large blocks were in the central part of the county—Quincy, Adams, Easton, New Chester, Preston, Colburn, Lincoln–but the single largest stretch of wetland covered portions of Big Flats and Rome and nearly all of Leola. It was the southern edge of a vast marsh that stretched north across Wood and Portage counties to the outskirts of Wisconsin Rapids and Plover.

The Leola Drainage District was organized in 1901. It covered 15,000 acres in Leola and east into Waushara County. By 1905, steam shovels and drag lines had excavated forty miles of main and lateral ditches at a cost of $121,000 ($3 million today) charged to District taxpayers. And it worked. Water formerly held in the marshes moved down the ditches into 14 Mile Creek and on to the Wisconsin River. Farmers had longed mowed the marshes when the water temporarily dried off in the summer to harvest “wild hay.” Now they attempted to turn them into cropland.

As the developers hoped, new settlers arrived. Young Floyd Reid,[1] born in 1899, moved north with his parents from Big Flats just after the Ditch was completed. “It was marsh, muck or peat, it had a lot of humus,” he recalled in 1985. “The first few years it was broke up, it raised good hay.” Others settlers were encouraged because the mix of marsh soil and peat—several feet deep in places—was coal black. It had to be fertile. As Reid said, “Illinois people bought that land because they saw it was black.”

Appearances were deceptive, of course. Corn, oats and “tame” hay soon depleted the sparse natural fertility of the marsh soil and yields fell, taking farm incomes with them. By 1907, so many assessments went unpaid that the Leola Drainage District was “practically broke.”

The fires did not help. It was customary for marsh farmers to burn the stubble off their hay meadows in late winter/early spring. Since it was soaked with water or flooded the peat below was unharmed by the flames. But when drainage ditches removed the water, the dried peat was flammable, so flammable that in some countries—Ireland, Scotland, Germany—peat has long been burned to heat homes. On the Leola Marsh “It burned about that deep,” said Reid, holding his hand about one foot off the floor. Sometimes it would burn two, three feet or more until the flames met the incombustible sand below.  Ditch banks, where the peat was piled after excavation, turned tinder dry. Fires would flare up or, more commonly smolder slowly for days, weeks or months. “Ditch banks would burn all summer,” while green crops grew in the fields nearby. As conservationist Aldo Leopold characterized it, “the drainage dream sucked dry the marshes of central Wisconsin and left ash heaps instead.”

With the soil depleted or burned down to the sand layer, not much was left for farmers to make a living. “Hundreds of acres were virtually worthless. Practically all of this land went back to the county for taxes. They sold it for $50 a forty for the best of it. Then $1 an acre to get it back on the tax rolls.”

By the mid-1930s, state administrators reported that the Leola District was “out of debt,” but still considered to be a failure because much of its acreage was “unoccupied and unused.”  In 1930, census takers counted 255 people in the town.

The Leola Drainage District was one of many that failed. It was also one of the smallest. Much larger districts in Juneau, Wood, Monroe, Jackson, Marathon, Clark and Portage counties, covering nearly one half million acres, had equally dismal records. Among the many Depression era public works projects was the restoration of marshes by damming the ditches. Twenty-six dams were built on Leola’s ditches in the 1930s. In addition, hundreds of thousands of acres were returned to the public domain to become part of state and federal conservation and wildlife areas, most notably the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge.

Due to private and public initiatives, parts of the Leola Drainage District were also set aside for conservation. Along with the adjacent Buena Vista Marsh in Portage County, it is part of approximately 15,000 acres devoted to the preservation of the native prairie chicken. Much of the land not set aside for conservation was converted to cranberry growing or, since the 1960s, irrigated farming.

Water still flows down the Leola Ditch and watershed management planners discuss ways to reduce runoff from farm fields and other pollution in hope of improving it to support warm water sport fishing, i.e. bass and bluegills. It is the latest on the long list of schemes to “improve” the landscape of Adams County.


.               ____________

This article previously appeared in the Adams County Historical Society’s newsletter The Quatrefoil.

[1] I interviewed Floyd Reid in August, 1985 for an article that appeared in the Wisconsin Magazine of History, in spring 1990.