MUSCODA - It was a bright, crisp morning last Wednesday, when the big yellow school bus pulled up to the entrance of the Frank’s Hill effigy mounds site. The doors opened, and a curious, lively and energetic passel of four-year-olds poured out of the bus, full of questions and chatter, and eager to begin their adventure.
Gently shepherded by 4K teacher Sharon Jeardeau and several other school staff, the bouncing group began their darting march up the hill, with a pause below the ‘three eagles’ display. The cultural and historic site is overseen and administered by the Three Eagles Foundation. All three members of the Three Eagles board – Dave Martin, Brian McGraw and Mark Cupp were present to help conduct the tour.
Heading up the grassy path, those who were a little taller began to get a sense of the grand vista offered by the site. Those a little closer to the ground were fascinated with the variety of prairie plants and woolly bear caterpillars. Frank Doerre, retired Spring Green Hardware storeowner, along with McGraw, discussed the various prairie plants on view as the group made its enthusiastic way toward the summit.
“These seed pods are from the milkweed plant,” Doerre told the group. “If we take these and let them blow in the wind, then we’ll have food for lots of Monarch butterflies next year.”
Safe to say, the typical guided tour talk required a little adaptation for this younger audience, as likely to listen raptly as to run with joyous abandon up the trail, ‘planting’ milkweed seeds for the butterflies.
The kids caught up with Martin and Cupp at the shoulder of the hill, just before the final ascent to the summit and the effigy mounds. Using a poster providing an aerial view of the site, Cupp told the children about the animal shapes of each of the effigy mounds on the summit.
“The first mound is shaped like a coyote, with a big brushy tail,” Cupp told the curious crowd. “The second mound is shaped like a buffalo, the third like a beaver, the fourth like a woman holding stalks of corn, and the last one is a coiled up snake.”
The “oohs and aahs” were punctuated with excited squeals as children broke away to roll joyously down the hill.
Then the final ascent began, and the group gathered under the ancient cedar tree, near the belly of the coyote mound. Cupp told the kids that visitors to the mounds will stop to say a prayer at the tree, and hang blessings in its branches.
“Do you see anything around the tree or hanging in its branches?” Cupp asked.
The group quickly identified a feather lying at the base of the tree, and a bell hanging from its branches. One after another, Cupp lifted the children up to see the bell, and to take a swat at it to make it ring.
Moving around the coyote mound, and into the area between the front and back legs of the buffalo, Cupp paused to talk about the importance of the buffalo to the people of the Woodland culture who built the mounds, explaining that the animal had provided them with food, warmth and bones for tools.
In front of the beaver mound, Dave Martin, President of the Three Eagles Foundation, told the kids about the history of the site, protected from development by landowner Frank Shadewald. Martin also told the kids that his wife had taught Kindergarten at the Riverdale Schools for over 30 years.
Cupp told the group that the mounds had been built using baskets made of reeds and shovels made from the shoulder bones of buffalo.
Sensing the attention of their young audience wandering, Cupp then encouraged the youngsters to ‘run’ to the next mound! An explosion of excited voices followed the instruction, and staff herded their smiling, laughing, jumping, leaping, rolling charges to the last mound, where they gathered again for the final story of the day.
“A long time ago, three children came upon an old woman in a cave, stirring a pot of soup,” Cupp told the children. “The children asked the old woman what she was doing, and she told them to go and get their parents and return to the cave.”
Cupp went on to tell that when the children returned with their parents, the old woman shared the secret of growing and cooking with corn, and told them to watch for the herds of buffalo, which would soon visit their area. She told them that with corn and the buffalo, the people would thrive and never go hungry. The next day, when the children returned to the cave, the old woman was gone but a herd of buffalo had come.
Safe to say, it was a wonderful day for this group of students to experience one of the richest cultural sites in the Driftless Region. The area was once home to thousands of mounds, but most have been lost in the settlement period as the land was cleared and cultivated.
The Three Eagles Foundation is committed to Frank’s philosophy that the mounds should be available for people of all beliefs to visit and to experience. Each year on the summer and winter solstices, and the autumnal and vernal equinoxes, the foundation opens the site to groups who come to mark those celestial turnings of the season.
Frank Shadewald bequeathed the property known as ‘Frank’s Hill’ to the Three Eagles Foundation upon his untimely death in 2013. The property includes an effigy mound group on the ridge east of Highway 193, and a group of small conical mounds, believed to be calendar mounds, on the ridge west of the highway.Effigy mounds are earthworks in the shapes of birds and animals. Other mounds found in Wisconsin are dome shaped mounds called conical mounds, and long narrow mounds called linear mounds. The effigy mound civilization lived in Wisconsin from roughly 700-1200 A.D. Generally speaking, they consider the mounds at Frank’s Hill to be about 1,000 years old.