Wisconsin will soon have a new state park. Somehow.
While the 22-acre Lizard Mound Park in Farmington was first designated as a state park in 1950, the property has been owned and operated by Washington County since 1980.
But earlier this month the park was transferred back to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in hopes that the state can provide better protection and long-term preservation of the site’s 28 Native American effigy mounds.
Lizard Mound, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, contains one of the largest and most intact groups of effigy mounds in the country.
Samantha Lindquist is the superintendent of the MNR’s Kettle Moraine State Forest Unit that will oversee Lizard Mound Park. She said it wouldn’t be run like a typical state park.
“It will not be run as, say, a recreation facility,” she said. “There’s going to be a few picnic tables, but it’s not going to get too developed. There won’t be all these special uses of the site. The site is an ancestral burial site. It has cultural and historical significance So it’s going to be preserved that way.”
As a burial site, the Lizard Mound area is considered sacred by the natives. The Ho-Chunk are one of many tribal nations working with the DNR on plans to properly manage the park and preserve the mounds.
About the effigy mounds
The effigy mounds were built by archaeologists called the Late Forest Peoples between 800 and 1,500 years ago. Earthen sculptures were constructed to resemble spirits or animals and were generally used to respectfully bury the dead, often on top of hills or near bodies of water.
“These would be built to bury revered members of mainstream society,” said Ryan Greendeer, public relations manager for Ho-Chunk.
The Ho-Chunk consider mound builders to be part of their ancestry. While conical and linear mounds can be found throughout the Midwest, effigy mounds are unique to southern Wisconsin – the ancestral home of the Ho-Chunk people.
Bill Quackenbush is a Tribal Historic Preserver for the Ho-Chunk Nation.
“The sites on which they are placed have been tied to our history and culture for many, many years, except for the appearance of the mounds,” Quackenbush said. “The protection of these sites is something simple to do, but something very complex and difficult to do all the same, because we do not live in a time when our grandmother the earth, it is said, is takes care of it easily.”
Quackenbush said there were as many as 28,000 mounds in Wisconsin at one time, but many have been lost to the development of roads, homes, farmland and even Christian cemeteries.
“They don’t make mounds of effigies anymore and so every time we destroy one or affect one, it keeps chipping away at something culturally important to that part of the world.“said Quackenbush. And it’s not just Ho-Chunk’s story. This is our story. This is Wisconsin history. This is the story of mankind.”
As sacred burial sites, burial mounds are protected by state status, but Quackenbush said work is needed to ensure agencies follow and enforce protection policies. And, he added, maintaining mounds can be costly and time-consuming, which is why he’s happy to see the DNR stepping in at Lizard Mound.
Protect and preserve mounds
The Ho-Chunks, among other tribal nations, advised the DNR on how to properly maintain the existing mounds at Lizard Mound. This includes everything from lawn mowing practices to cultural sensitivity training for park staff.
“The key to caring for gravesites and other sites of cultural sensitivity is through experience,” Quackenbush said.
One of his recommendations is that the DNR train long-term gardeners rather than hire seasonal staff.
Lizard Mound has a short limestone hiking trail that winds through the park and along the mounds. Part of the planning process will be finding a way to bring visitors in without damaging the mounds.
“We’re asking people to take a few steps and create a buffer around that area, just so it doesn’t get walked on,” Greendeer said.
Greendeer added that leaving the area around mounds unmowed can be an effective strategy.
Lizard Mound is one of many state parks in Wisconsin that features mounds. Aztalan, Lost Dauphin, Wyalusing, and Copper Culture, among others, provide management models. But Lindquist said she wanted to do even more.
She wants to develop a more robust interpretive center that will teach visitors about mound-building practices and Native history, and she’s looking at Illinois Cahokia Mounds as a model.
“These mounds are in great condition. We have work to do…but if anyone is interested in this type of cultural history, it’s a well-preserved site worth visiting,” Lindquist said. .
The park gates are closed as the DNR assesses the property and awaits its official redesignation as a state park. But Lindquist said visitors can still walk in between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m. daily, and the gates are expected to reopen for vehicles on May 1.
A new national park
For the state park groupies who want visit all Wisconsin state parksadding Lizard Mound means another trip.
When the coronavirus pandemic halted her 2020 travel plans, Madison resident Renee Pierpont Hable was looking for adventures closer to home. One day, she and her husband, Fred, decided to go hiking at Governor Dodge State Park near Dodgeville.
This trip inspired others. They purchased a state park guidebook and began collecting park photos and brochures on each visit. By 2021, they had been to all 49 state parks.
“It’s been really fun to learn and learn more about what our state has to offer,” Hable said.
And now they have one more park to add to their list. But Hable is a bit of a purist.
“We will be heading there as soon as that designation is in place,” she said.
Jenna Byom is another Madison resident who made it her mission to visit every state park when she found herself on leave during the pandemic.
The interior designer even launched his own Etsy shop where she sells state park-themed gifts and a map of the Wisconsin State Parks Checklist, which now needs to be updated to include Lizard Mound.
“I need to add it to my map so I can, you know, stick to my word that I’ve been to every state park,” Byom said.
She plans to visit Lizard Mound in the next week or two and is thrilled with the addition.
“I think it will be good,” Byom said. “I really liked Copper Culture State Park, High Cliff, Wyalusing, Aztalan. They are all burial places…that I find really interesting. So I think it will be a fun addition to the park system…I love learning on this subject.”
Wisconsin State Parks saw a influx of visitors on the pandemic, which Greendeer thinks is a good thing.
“A lot of people are reconnecting with nature, reconnecting with the environment around us, and recommitting to conserving natural resources,” Greendeer said. “We can enjoy the beauty of Wisconsin for generations to come.”
And Quackenbush hopes that protecting and preserving the mounds will help others appreciate their wonder as part of Indigenous history and Wisconsin history.
“You go to these sites and you don’t have to say a single word,” Quackenbush said. “You can be a whole group, and you can walk among the mound systems, and you don’t have to say a single word, and they speak for themselves.”