Sports Nut in La Crosse

By Clay Riness  

The first recorded visit by European Americans to the area that would become La Crosse (although French fur traders frequented the area via the Mississippi before) was that of Lt. Zebulon Pike in 1805. He was on an expedition for the U.S. government, under the authority of President Thomas Jefferson, to reconnoiter the upper reaches of the Mississippi River. Pike named the site Prairie La Crosse. Whether he actually witnessed Native Americans playing the game or not is unknown, but la crosse, in French, means “the stick.” It’s plausible that while interacting with the locals, he would have seen the hand-fashioned shafts with heads webbed using leather or sinew, which were used to play the game. Perhaps he was given a demonstration. Whatever the circumstance, he was inspired to name the location as he did.

History records that in 1841, Nathan Myrick set up a trading post on what is now Pettibone Park. The following year he moved the post to Prairie La Crosse, then unsettled, setting up his business where the Charmant Hotel now stands. Near the junction of three rivers, the site proved excellent for settlement, and a village sprang up during the 1840s. Other businesses, a post office and a hotel were soon to follow. The village was platted in 1851. By 1855, the population had grown to around 2000 people, and after 1858 the population boomed with the coming of the La Crosse & Milwaukee Railroad, one of two railroads connecting southeast Wisconsin to the Mississippi.

During the latter half of the 19th century, La Crosse became a hub of the local timber industry. “First cut” logs harvested in the heart of the state could be floated down the Black River and delivered to local saw mills. Lumber barons got rich. The lumbermen, not so much.

Also, among La Crosse’s German immigrants were various “brewmeisters.” As such, the city became a center for the brewing industry, which still thrives thanks to City Brewery.

But wait. What about the game of lacrosse?

According to Wikipedia: “Lacrosse may have been developed as early as 1100 AD among indigenous peoples of North America. By the 17th century, it was well-established and was documented by Jesuit missionary priests in the territory of present-day Canada.
“In the traditional aboriginal Canadian version, each team consisted of about 100 to 1,000 men on a field that stretched from about 1,600 feet to 1.9 miles long. These games lasted from sunup to sundown for two to three days straight and were played as part of a ceremonial ritual, a kind of symbolic warfare, or to give thanks to the Creator or Master.

“Lacrosse played a significant role in the community and religious life of tribes across the continent. Early lacrosse was characterized by deep spiritual involvement, befitting the spirit of combat in which it was undertaken. Those who took part did so in the role of warriors, with the goal of bringing glory and honor to themselves and their tribes. The game was said to be played ‘for the Creator’ or was referred to as ‘The Creator’s Game.’”

La Crosse Lightning

Modern day lacrosse comes in a variety of forms. The sticks have changed, and protective gear is mandatory. However, it remains a fast-paced, exciting sport in all its versions. Locally, the sport is kept alive by La Crosse Lightning Lacrosse Club, a parent-run athletic organization dedicated to growing the sport of lacrosse for boys and girls in southwestern Wisconsin.

The organization teaches young athletes how to play and compete in the sport while encouraging good sportsmanship and promoting the core values of discipline, teamwork, respect and integrity. The Lightning Youth Program runs from March to early June and offers two practices per week. Teams participate in games on weekends. The Lightning’s home field is located at 2500 Hauser St., La Crosse, and away games are mainly in the Madison area.

La Crosse Lightning can be found on the web at