Tom's Blog

Thursday, February 4, 2016

An urban relic of the presettlement bur oak savanna

Mineral Point Road, from Gammon Road west to the Beltline, travels through one of the most heavily commercial areas in Madison. Which is why it is so startling to see, at the corner of High Point Road, a large grove of bur oaks. I have been intrigued by this grove for many years and have now found time to look into their origin.
Photo looking across High Point Road toward Mineral Point Road.
There are about a dozen large bur oaks here.

Realizing that such a grove hinted at oak savanna, I accessed the original surveyor's records for this area. Sure enough, this is a classic bur oak savanna, as the surveyor’s notes indicate.

Public Land Survey, Interior field notes, Dec. 1834, Orson Lyon surveyor
North between Sections 22 and 23
Bur oak 9 inches diameter
40.00 Set quarter section post between White Oak 30 N69W42 and Bur oak 14 S14W65
40 91 Bur oak 12 inches diameter
70 70 Bur oak 12 inches diameter
80 00 Set post corner to Sections 14 15 22 23 bearings
Bur Oak 14 S83 E33
Ditto N 57 W 52
Land rolling & 1st rate Timber
Bur & White Oak
Undergrowth Oak & grass
The statement mentioning “grass” in the undergrowth shows that this was a fairly open savanna, since prairie grass does not compete under too much shade.

Surveyor's original plat map of the Town of Middleton, showing the location of the bur oak grove (red rectangle added).
The extensive prairies are shown by the surveyor's sketches.
Note also the Blue Mounds/Portage (Fort Winnebago) trail around the west end of Lake Mendota

 [This area, T7N R8E, is now known as the Town of Middleton]

By 1937, when the first air photos become available, most of the land around the bur oak grove had been turned to cultivation. (See air photo)

Air photo of Section 23. Mineral Point Road is the horizontal white line across the lower part of the photo.
The bur oak grove is clearly visible.

Note in the surveyor's plat map that farther west there are areas that were mostly prairie. The high plain west of where the Beltline runs today was a large prairie, almost 3,000 acres in extent. Using current landmarks, this prairie encompassed: UW West Ag Expt Station; Junction Road overpass; Pleasant View Road; Elderberry Road; Pioneer Road; West Middleton Church; West Middleton School; Kwik Trip; Tumbledown Golf Course; Point Road; Valley View Road; Sugar Maple Lane; and Point Six Movie Theater.

Airport Road now runs through what was once the large prairie shown at the north end of the map.

There is also other large prairies in the adjacent Town of Cross Plains, extending east, north, and south from Pine Bluff junction.

The surveyor’s plat map also shows a trail from Blue Mounds to Portage that goes across the middle of the Town and around the west end of Lake Mendota (called 4th Lake on the map). This trail later became a local branch of the famed Military Road that ran between Galena, Illinois and Green Bay.

What happened to all this prairie and savanna?

By 1890, (the oldest plat map I looked at) the whole of Middleton Township was agricultural. There was an East Middleton P.O. at the junction of Mineral Point Road and County M (now called Junction Road) and a West Middleton P.O. at the corner of Pioneer Road and Mineral Point Road. There was no indication in the 1890 plat map of the presence of prairie.

In my early days in Madison (1971-1972) the area around Mineral Point Road and the Beltline was still completely open, except for a small American Exchange Bank and Big Sky Drive-in Theatre. West Towne Shopping Mall, at the corner of Mineral Point and Gammon Road, opening on 100 acres in 1970, was the first step on the road to perdition! (In a 1970 air photo in the Wisconsin Historical Society archives, the land around West Towne was still completely rural.)

This brief history is instructive. It shows how easy prairies are to destroy. Savannas are also destroyable, but with more difficulty. Especially in the early days of settlement, when only horse-drawn equipment was available, trees were harder to eliminate. But by the 1970s, anything was possible.

The small bur oak relic at Mineral Point/High Point provides us a tiny glimpse of what this area once looked like!


Blogger Michael Nied said...

Thats cool! did you share this with the current owner?

February 8, 2016 at 6:35 AM  

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