At the time of Wisconsin statehood in 1848, practically all of western Wisconsin from Prairie Du Chien to just south of Duluth was designated as Crawford County. There was no settlement where Sparta now stands, though the site may have been a crossroads of sorts. Hand-me-down stories from earlier times speak of an “Indian trail” from Sparta to Black River Falls and another that followed the ridges south toward Viroqua and Prairie du Chein.
The first known permanent residence of a European settler was established in 1849 when Franklin Pettit settled here. By the time of the 1850 census, La Crosse County had been created out of part of the old Crawford County. Present day Sparta was included. Apparently, the new county had fewer than 200 residents, but the population was growing. In 1852 Monroe County was created and the new village was given its name Sparta by “Mother Pettit”. With the discovery of the underground springs and their supposed health enhancing benefits, Sparta’s population rapidly grew to 6000 residents by 1860.
The earliest settlers around Sparta were of Yankee and English heritage. Germans and Scandinavians followed. Primary early industries were lumbering and trapping.
Today, Sparta is the county seat of Monroe County. The city and the surrounding area are supported by agriculture, manufacturing, and nearby Fort McCoy. The old Chicago and Northwestern depot in Sparta is the headquarters building for the La Crosse River State Trail
Since Sparta sits astride the junction of the Elroy-Sparta and La Crosse River State Trail, there is a lot of biking activity in the area. In 1990, Sparta was given the prestigious title of “Bicycle Capital of America”.
The village of Rockland, like it’s neighbor Bangor, was originally settled by Welch immigrants. First known as Fish Creek, the village acquired its present name when application for a post office was made, and it was discovered that Wisconsin already had a Fish Creek. Someone is suppose to have remarked “Well, we have this big rock in town–“, and Rockland was the new name. The large sandstone outcrop responsible for this is clearly visible near the railroad crossing on Commercial Street.
Ondell, Main and Rock Streets were apparently the village’s first thoroughfares. The house at 201 East Rock Street may be its oldest building, and has served as an inn, a stage depot, and a post office in days gone by.
Other points of interest include Betts’ Place for Peace CBRF, which is the former Dr. Jones residence, and two Welch pioneer cemeteries a short distance south of town.
Winnebago Indians were the first known residents on the approximate site of the present day Bangor. The first European settlers were Welch, and they named their home for a place in Wales. While the Welch were creating the village, the surrounding countryside was being claimed by seven families of Swiss immigrants. Descendants of some of these early settlers still live in the area.
Among the points of interest in and nearby Bangor are the Hussa Brewery building, which is prominent masonry structure overlooking Dutch Creek, the Welch Methodist Church in the village, and the inscribed sandstone cliff along Dutch Creek just south of the Bangor park. The iron railroad bridge over Dutch Creek provided the inspiration for the logo for the La Crosse River State Trail.
Neshonoc, which was located on the La Crosse River near the present junction of Highway 16 and 108, was the original settlement in this area. Hamlin Garland, a Pulitzer Prize winning author, was born here in 1860.
Thomas Leonard changed the course of history when he offered the newborn Milwaukee and La Crosse Railroad Company a free right-of-way through his land. Neshonoc succumbed to the competition and ceased to exist as a separate entity. A number of homes were moved from Neshonoc into West Salem to help the nucleus of the new community.
An octagon shaped house moved from Neshonoc still stands on North Leonard Street. Thomas Leonard’s last home, the “Old Salem House”, still stands at the foot of Leonard Street. The Garland homestead on Garland Street was purchased by Hamlin Garland as a retirement home for his aging parents. All three are on the register of historic places and are well known local landmarks.
Onalaska – La Crosse
During the early years of exploration of the interior North America, French fur traders witnessed Native Americans playing a ball game near the present site of this city. Because of the shape of the racquets used to control the ball, they dubbed the game “lacrosse”(crooked stick). The playing field became known as “Prairie La Crosse.”
Near the junction of the Black and La Crosse Rivers with the Mississippi, Nathan Myrick became the first permanent European settler when he established a trading post in 1841. A settlement grew around the post and eventually became the City of La Crosse.
While the big pines of Jackson County lasted, logs were floated down the Black River to the many sawmills of La Crosse and Onalaska. These logs were sawed into lumber here and then rafted down the Mississippi to St. Louis and points south.
During the 1850’s the railroad reached La Crosse from the east, turning the city into a busy river port, a terminus where steam train met steamboat. La Crosse had become one of the “Gateways to the West.”
Among the colorful characters from La Crosse’s past was Frank Powell, a sometime “Indian remedies” salesman. He served for a time as mayor of La Crosse and, as a part of his legacy, left the city several drinking fountains decorated with the figure of a beaver. (Native Americans called him “White Beaver”.) Powell’s friend, Colonel William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, was a frequent visitor and sometimes wintered the horses from the Wild West Show in the city.