By Pat McKnight —
One hundred years ago, the village of Rockland got on the map. To commemorate the event, the 700 or so residents of the village located at the eastern edge of La Crosse County observed their community’s centennial this summer.
The June 20-22 celebration expanded the village’s annual Park Progress Day from one to three days.
“We started planning this about a year ago,” said Linda Young, event committee member. “We decided to have one big celebration instead of having two different ones.”
The highlights of the centennial celebration included a medallion hunt, history walks and displays in addition to the parade, the ALS Walk, car show and sports tournaments.
Groups assisting with the celebration included the Bangor Lions, Merrimakers Club and the Rockland Fish Creek 4–H. The Rockland United Methodist Church also responded to the event organizers’ call to be part of the observance by holding a meatball supper and homemade pie and ice cream social.
“We also had a bigger and better fireworks display,” said Young.
Within a stone’s throw of Monroe County, Rockland lies at the eastern edge of La Crosse County in the La Crosse River Valley. Nestled between State Highway 16 and Interstate 90, the village’s off-the-beaten-path small-town character is attracting newcomers.
Rockland has experienced growth in recent years despite the lack of access ramps to Interstate 90. A new 35-house subdivision is giving new homeowners the hometown-living experience within commuting distance of larger municipalities.
“People move here because Rockland is still a small town,” said Rockland village clerk/treasurer Stephanie Rowell. “I think people like it that way. They have access to work and shopping, and we are only 3 miles from the (Bangor) schools.”
While welcoming newcomers, the centennial celebration organizers remembered those who made Rockland their home for years.
“We also recognized a number of lifelong and longtime village residents as well,” said Rowell.
Before becoming incorporated, the cluster of buildings near the La Crosse River and surrounding area was the town of Burns. The campaign to become incorporated in 1919 didn’t have overwhelming support from the town folk. Objections from a significant number led to a challenge of the election results. Incorporation opponents claimed some of the votes were illegal. However, the court ruled in favor of the incorporation and Eugene Hesselberg became the first village board president.
Before there was Rockland, there was Fish Creek. Rockland chronicler and longtime postal carrier Carl Friske served as the village’s letter carrier from 1928 to 1963. He recorded that Fish Creek had a stagecoach stop along the Portage to La Crosse route; the stagecoach stop building still stands at 201 Rock St.
When the Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad began serving the area in 1858, the town had to change its name because there was already a post office elsewhere in the state named Fish Creek.
Taking a cue from the nearby large rock formation, Welsh immigrant R.D. Edward suggested the railroad stop be called Rockland. Edward became the station agent for the Northwestern Railroad in the late 1800s and was one of the village’s leading businessmen, building and operating a store and grain warehouse.
Other businesses setting up shop in the village in the latter years of the 19th century and the early 20th century included the Rockland State Bank, Hicks Grocery and Restaurant, the Berg & Jones Department Store and second floor dance hall, an ice cream parlor, barber shop, a feed store, lumberyard, Ammundson gas station and a Heinz Pickle Factory.
Frank Arentz operated a tavern until the town went dry in 1938. The village remained dry well into the latter years of the 20th century. In 2010, The Vault Pub & Eatery opened in the former Farmers State Bank building. The bank vault and drive-up window were retained as a nod to the building’s history.
In addition to The Vault and Rockland Stop & Go, other current commercial enterprises operating in Rockland include two lumber companies, Rockland Flooring and Konkel Custom Woodworks.
In 1958, a home was opened to provide housing for veterans who didn’t need extensive medical care but were unable to live on their own. Other businesses and homeowners converted their buildings into residences for the veterans and, according to Friske, there were four buildings in Rockland housing veterans well into the latter years of the 20th century and into the 21st century.
The village offices and county branch library moved into the former grade school building when it was purchased from the Bangor School District in 1969. The Rockland school was closed in 1967 when the school district consolidated and began busing students into Bangor.
While the village petitioned to have access to Interstate 90 when the highway was being constructed, the necessary federal funds weren’t available for the ramps. The village continues to be open to having an interchange installed, but for now, motorists use the Bangor and Sparta exits to get to Rockland.
The state did provide a Rockland exit for bicyclists on the La Crosse River State Trail at the County Highway U crossing. Bicyclists can stop in Rockland to rest at any of the village’s three parks.
In the end, it doesn’t matter how visitors get to Rockland. The village welcomed guests to its 100-year celebration and extends an invitation for visitors to stop in throughout the year.