Find a Bit of Outdoors in the LPL Archives
(Written by David Kranz, Archives staff)
As we in La Crosse endure yet another stretch of cold winter weather, our thoughts turn even more toward the relief and warmth promised by the arrival of spring. If you’re a gardener or a walker, you can remember the feel of humidity in the air and the smells of damp soils. If I close my eyes and imagine myself on a bluff or marsh trail, I can almost hear the rustle of new plants pushing their way through the litter of last year’s leaves and stalks.
I was reminded of this the other day when I happened upon two plant collections that were donated to the La Crosse Public Library Archives. Yes, plant collections! These are pressed and dried plants, hand labeled and dated, nearly all specimens gathered from the La Crosse prairie, marsh, and bluffs. Both were assembled in the 1890s.
Of course, La Crosse was a little bit different place in the 1890s. Remnants of sand prairie remained east of the city where it wasn’t farm fields or pasture, and Losey Boulevard was something of a dirt track. The bluffs had far fewer trees. The above 1896 view looking north along Salem Road (roughly today’s Highway 16) offers a view of Miller’s Bluff at the time.
I think these plant collections may have been part of a school curriculum for teenagers. The collectors were each about 14 when they put them together, and the formats of the collections are similar enough that I speculate this was a project repeated for some purpose – if not school, then maybe an outdoor club activity.
The earlier of our two pressed plant collections was put together by a young man named Gysbert Van Steenwyk Jr. He created his herbarium in 1890, listing gathering dates in April, May, and June for his 22 specimens. He cited Miller’s Bluff and La Crosse Prairie as the locations for many of his finds, though he also ventured to Bostwick Valley near Barre Mills as well as Hokah, Minn.
Our second herbarium has about three times as many specimens and was put together by Selma Heideman in 1893-1894. She gathered plants in May and June of those two years, from the La Crosse Prairie, bluffs, marsh, and river bank.
For each plant, the Latin name is given as well as one or two common names. Date and location of the find is noted along with a general comment on the soil type.
While many of the plants in these collections can be seen growing in the area today, some are much harder to find in the immediate vicinity of La Crosse. For example, Ms. Heideman gathered from the bluffs three native orchids that are much harder to find these days. She also gathered a couple of non-native species, already invading more than a century ago. For those interested, lists of the contents of these two 1890s herbaria are available from the LPL Archives Dept.
Interest in wild plants was on an upswing around 1890. The Botanical Society of America was established in 1893. The LPL Archives holds an 1887 booklet called “Weeds of Southwestern Wisconsin and Southeastern Minnesota,” by L.H. Pammel. It seems that, just as we see today, students of La Crosse were very current in their pursuits.
If thoughts of spring make you itch for an outing, stop on into the LPL Archives. Our collections can help revive some memories of the outdoors as we wait for warmer weather.