By Jay Syrmopoulos —
Nestled along the winding banks of the mighty Mississippi River, the town of Trempealeau is a jewel of nature. Located in west central Wisconsin, Trempealeau County formally came into existence in 1854. French fur traders were the first Europeans to enter the expansive prairie and pristine wetlands of Trempealeau.
The name, Trempealeau (pronounced Tremp-a-low), derives from the French phrase “La Montagne qui tremp a l’eau,” and translates to “mountain in the water.” The phrase is a romanticized transliteration of the Native American name for “mountain, which bathes its feet in the water”—given by French explorers in the 17th century.
Trempealeau Mountain, located at the mouth of the Trempealeau River, is exactly that—a bluff completely encircled by the waters of the Mississippi and Trempealeau rivers. This landform is one of only three solid rock islands along this entire stretch of the Mississippi River. Standing 425 feet high and towering over the surrounding landscape, the mountain was used as a navigational tool by steamboat captains, river travelers and early explorers. It’s owned by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources as part of Perrot State Park, and was designated a State Natural Area in 2002.
The majestic bluff hosts a wide variety of plant life, including woodland with black and white oak and basswood. Red oaks can be found on the southeast-facing hollow, as well as large swathes of interrupted ferns. The cooler northeast-facing slope is largely dominated by basswood and sugar maple, with the dryer south-facing slope hosting small patches of dry prairie with needle grass, big bluestem, and white and purple prairie clover. In addition to the lush vegetation, Trempealeau Mountain is home to a variety of archeological features with numerous Native American habitation sites, mounds and burial sites.
Over the years, the Trempealeau area has seen settlement from Native Americans, French explorers and traders, riverboat men, trappers, pioneer farmers and speculators.
The 1917 “History of Trempealeau County, Wisconsin” gave the following account:
“When the first white man gazed upon the Trempealeau country he beheld a vastly different land physically than we live in today. It was dressed in its primitive clothes, so to speak. The bluffs, save for the work of the mound builders, had not been defaced by men. The contour of the hills and valleys were influenced only by the alluvium and the wash of storms, for scarcely any land was cultivated, in the modern sense of the word, by the Indians … generally the country was untimbered and covered with brush and wild grass, which was burned over each year by the Indians.”
Before European settlement, the indigenous people hunted and trapped, and the women grew crops. There was once a large Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) encampment, complete with fenced fields and horse stables, where the village of Dodge is located today. White settlers established their first settlement on the banks of the Mississippi in Trempealeau, which was originally called Reed’s Landing—named after the first settler to the area, James Allen Reed. In 1840, Reed built a log home and moved his family to what became known as James Reed’s Landing, and, eventually, Trempealeau.
After the first settlement was established, Norwegian settlers streamed into the rich land around present-day Ettrick, Blair, Pigeon Falls, Whitehall, Eleva, Osseo and Strum. Next came a wave of Germans, Bohemians, Irish and Scots, who also purchased farmland throughout the county. Toward the late 1860s and 1870s, the county saw a large increase in immigration from Poland. The Polish settled mainly in Dodge, Pine Creek, Arcadia and Independence.
Subsequently, dairy farming became one of the main economic engines of Trempealeau County, with creameries being established in many locations throughout the county. Dairy farming continues to make up an important segment of the county’s farming population, but modern times have seen the local economy become quite diversified.
Trempealeau County has also become a mecca of sorts for nature buffs and sports enthusiasts alike, as the woods and hillside habitats host an array of game, from white-tailed deer to wild turkeys. But the beautiful natural settings of Trempealeau, including Trempealeau Mountain and the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge, provide an array of outdoor activities and recreation for everyone year-round.