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Marsh Matters: The History of the La Crosse Marsh

Photograph by Maddie Rogin

Location: Murphy Library, University of Wisconsin La Crosse
Citation: Thompson, Craig. Oral History Interview with Craig Thompson. By Doris Bennett and Charles R. Lee. Murphy Library Area Research Center, University of Wisconsin–La Crosse, 2004.


Collection Summary 


This oral history collection is an entertaining deep-dive into the history and conservation efforts concerning the La Crosse marsh. It consists of a just over 60 minute CD oral history recording. An oral history is information in the form of interviews from people who have extensive knowledge on the subjects discussed. Craig Thompson, the interviewee, was an employee of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) who studied wildlife management and conservation. The interview was conducted in 2004 by UWL student Doris Bennett and UWL historian Charles Lee. The oral history was recorded at three different La Crosse locations on the same day, and is very entertaining with jokes being cracked in the transitional car rides to the different locations.

The La Crosse marsh is a beautifully maintained local ecosystem, but it hasn’t always been that way. Ever since Native Americans settled in the area, the marshes of La Crosse have presented blessings and curses. Marshes have been drained, filled in, or dammed up in order to allow for more developed urban spaces. While you listen, think to yourself: What made people want to conserve these marshes, and why did they need conserving? Also, focus on the methods of conservation being used to bring the marsh back. Because conservation is a nationwide effort, these methods could very well be used where you live.


Collection Description


It’s best to listen to this entire oral history. After all, it’s only an hour long! Listening to the entire recording is valuable because it provides a cohesive flow of information with the added benefit of enjoying the interviewee’s personality. You may also come across tidbits of information you find interesting that are not included in the timestamps below, and they could lead you on a totally different historical journey. However, if you are pressed for time, here are some key moments that altogether tell a single story about the marsh:

NOTE: The terms “wetland” and “marsh” are used interchangeably throughout the recording.



2:01 to 5:10 – This section of the recording introduces Craig Thompson and his work in wildlife management. It also introduces the interviewers, but you only need to focus on Thompson’s introduction. What does he do, and why is it important?

7:20 to 10:33 – In this section, Thompson explains how floodplain marshes function as unique ecosystems. The terms used are a bit technical, so don’t be afraid to pause the recording and look up a word you don’t know! (By the way, there’s a glossary at the end of this FFA. Just scroll down!) While you listen, think about why people should understand the unique nature of these environments.

11:42 to 15:00 – This part in the recording presents the impacts of human settlement on the marshes of La Crosse. Thompson brings up a number of interesting changes made to the marsh that have helped people settle in the La Crosse area. So, while you listen, make note of ways humans can manipulate their environment. How could those manipulations harm the environment in the long run?

17:27 to 20:43 – This section of the recording deals with the reasons why settlers were attracted to the wetlands. While listening, think to yourself: Why do people settle in wetland environments when it is difficult to do so?

29:04 to 34:12 – This portion of the recording discusses the importance of upland ridges. Again, there’s some technical jargon, so be vigilant and pause when you need to look something up. What are these upland ridges? How do they keep the marsh healthy?

38:11 to 45:25 – This part of the recording covers the industrial and commercial history of the marsh. It starts with some business matters that are not necessary to understand the story Thompson is telling, so if you want to, you may skip the first three minutes and jump to the effects of industry development in La Crosse at 41:00. Focus on how La Crosse industry changed the marsh, and why it is important to understand these changes.

46:34 to 48:58 – This part is about the relationships between wetland forests and willow-bed environments. Thompson makes a point that these types of forests are unique. Listen for what makes wetland forests unique, and why it is important to protect them.

50:35 to 53:10 – In this part, Thompson talks about the issues with invasive species living in the marshes. This is particularly relevant today, since invasive species are even more widespread. So, keep in mind: How are invasive species a threat to the marsh? And, why should you be concerned about them?

55:47 to 59:53 – The last part of the recording discusses how far the marsh has come in terms of environmental conservation. For the final stretch, think about how people in La Crosse worked to conserve the wetlands. What social changes have occurred to make people want to conserve the wetlands?


Interesting Moments

20:44 to 29:00 – This section isn’t crucial to understanding the story, but it is interesting to listen to if you have the time. It discusses the relationship of the Native Americans with the marshes and their farming practices.


Reviewed by: Madeline Rogin

Murphy’s Area Research Center (ARC)


> Location: Murphy Library, University of Wisconsin- La Crosse
> CITATION: William Koch, interviewed by Howard Fredricks, UW-L Oral History Program, UW-L Murphy Library Special Collections and Area Research Center, September 1971 – February 1972.

Collection Summary

William Koch was born in 1882 in La Crosse to a family that lived on the North Side. He left school at the age of fourteen to begin working and help support his family. Throughout his life, Koch worked many jobs in La Crosse, including at the lumber mills, the railroad, and the Pearl Button Factory. He was married in 1910 and had two children. This interview was done in 1971-1972, when Koch was about 90 years old, however, Koch speaks very clearly about his whole life and is never shy to give his opinion!

This interview touches on many many subjects, however, this finding aid focuses on two major topics discussed by Koch:

  1. Life in La Crosse during the late 1800s and early 1900s (relationships, working class family life, child labor, sickness, adventuring in La Crosse, industry, ethnic and racial groups)
  2. Being a factory worker for the Pearl Button Company in La Crosse

The whole transcript is typed and a total of 348-pages long! But never fear, this finding aid lists just the pages needed for the two topics above.

Collection Description

Life in La Crosse

Pages 2-14: In this opening section of the interview, Koch describes his German immigrant grandparents and other family background. He tells what his childhood was like growing up on the North Side of La Crosse in the late 1800s, including information on his education, all of the jobs he and his family members had—including his young sisters—and interactions he had with some nearby Ho-Chunk children. Koch started working when he was 14-years-old, and his early jobs included the Milwaukee Coal Chutes, the railroad, La Crosse Rubber Mills, Pearl Button Factory, Coleman Lumber Co., and even picking potatoes in South Dakota. Koch also remembered hunting with his Dad and seeing passenger pigeons (now extinct)!

On pages 75-82 Koch talks about lumber production at the sawmills.  Never one to shy away from expressing his opinion, Koch also shares is view on harvesting logs in Wisconsin, the building of a road through the La Crosse marsh, and the effect logging had on Native Americans in Wisconsin.

Pages 84-94 cover “river pirates”. These are people who stole logs right off the river from the lumber companies. In addition, Koch also brings up log jams, logging accidents, and his memories of the rowdy lumbermen in La Crosse. In this section Koch also discusses La Crosse’s Redlight district and other memories of downtown in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

On pages 95-100 Koch describes the rivalry between the North and South sides of La Crosse.  He discusses other La Crosse memories as well, including farm animals and community pastureland right in town! He gives his opinion about the Ho-Chunk in the area, and why many lived on “Indian Hill.” Koch eagerly shares his opinion on the sale of liquor to local Native Americans, and the role whites played in bringing liquor and disease to Native Americans. It is important to note that during this part of the interview, he makes anti-Native American racist remarks. In your notes, make sure to put all his questionable language in quotation marks.  That way, people won’t think his language is your language.

Page 122-142: In this section, Koch talks a lot about helping fight fires with the firemen as a kid—not unusual at the time. He had fond childhood memories of horses being used in town, which he describes, but he also recalled common diseases and dangers faced by La Crosse youth.  (Just a hint, some of the diseases and dangers were connected to the river.)


Pearl Button Factory Work

On pages 15-41 William Koch begins to talk about his job at the Pearl Button Factory.  (Most of this 348-page interview is about the Pearl Button Factory!) He describes exactly how the button factory worked: first how cutting buttons worked, then what the clam shell industry was like, then clamming along Wisconsin rivers and the Mississippi River.  He also uses great detail describing how pay worked at the factory for the various jobs. He remembers workers rioting because of their pay.

Pages 42-74 cover why Koch eventually left the Pearl Button Factory. He shares information about the people he worked with, including many female factory workers. He also describes the social life of the factory, like the breaks the workers were allowed to take, and other changes that made the workday more enjoyable. In this section Koch also describes further how the factory ran, including the machinery they used. Eventually, the topic turns to how the invention of plastic helped lead to the factory’s closure.

Pages A-Z: These pages are different. They are lettered, not numbered, and are inserted right between pages 74 and 75 of the transcript. (Weird) This section is a kind of “grab bag” of a whole bunch of topics, some new, and others touched on previously. Here is a highlights list:  Koch talks about how river pollution made it hard to find clams for the factory. He further describes some of the people he worked with, including his fellow female factory workers. In particular, he discuses their work roles and wages at the factory. He vividly remembers innovations made at the La Crosse factory and how these helped the button industry nation-wide. Finally, Koch also mentions attitudes towards Germans during WWI.

On pages 176-190 Koch remembers how the Pearl Button Factory ground up extra shells and sold them to be used as chicken feed. He again describes the machine he designed, his career at the factory, and manufacturing at the factory.

Pages 209-214 give more information about the making of buttons.

Pages 237b-242 address Koch’s memory about unions, strikes, and labor organizers at the Pearl Button Factory.

Pages 302-304 return to the subject of the Ho-Chunk.  This time Koch mentions their role digging shells for the Pearl Button Factory.


Reviewed by: Jennifer DeRocher

Murphy’s Area Research Center (ARC)


> Location: Murphy Library, University of Wisconsin La Crosse
> Citation: Peterson, Alvin. Manuscripts. La Crosse Area Research Center, Murphy Library, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

Collection Summary

Alvin M. Peterson was an amateur naturalist from La Crosse County who lived from 1884 to 1977. He wrote nature articles for newspapers and school papers, and kept detailed records of the plant and bird species he saw on his own land, as well as other areas throughout Western Wisconsin. In addition to nature writing, Peterson also wrote various children’s stories, many of which he never published. The collection also has articles from his days as a small-town principal, various anti-war articles and letters (not all written by Peterson), and a journal he kept during the time of the Korean War. Almost everything in this collection is typed.

Collection Description

Boxes 1-7

Boxes 1-7 contain Alvin Peterson’s published, self-published, and unpublished writing. Peterson wrote for children’s magazines, as well as nature journals, such as Field and Stream. Most of the writing in these boxes consists of articles that he cut out and pasted into blank books. The dates range from the 1920s into the 1970s. Box 2 contains a published travel book about our area called Palisades and Coulees, and box 3 (folder 8) lists all the plants he found on his Onalaska property, including some very nicely done leaf drawings.


Box 8

Box 8 contains more articles written by Peterson, however folders 4 and 5 also contain various newspaper clippings that he found of interest, including newspaper articles and drafts of letters about the Vietnam War. The box also contains information about comedian and Civil Rights activist, Dick Gregory’s appearance at UWL.


Box 9

Box 9 has 38 folders in it. Each folder holds an article of Peterson’s in draft form. His editing marks are all in pencil.


Box 10

Box 10 also has many folders in it. Folder 33 holds a notebook where Peterson wrote down his thoughts, drafted articles, and made “To Do” lists. It also includes newspaper articles he found interesting. Folder 37 has a ballot with Joe McCarthy on it.


Boxes 11-16

Boxes 11-16 contain more examples of Peterson’s writing. Box 14 (folder 22) contains a scrapbook with various newspaper articles. Box 14 (folder 11) is a journal kept during the Korean War. At the back of the journal is a 1971 letter that Peterson wrote to Gaylord Nelson concerning overpopulation.


Box 17

Box 17 is bigger than all the other boxes. It is filled with scrapbooks of Peterson’s writing, but also included in folders 1 and 5 are newspaper articles Peterson wrote and collected while he was a principal in the 1910s. Some of the articles discuss WWI, including one by Theodore Roosevelt.


Box 18-20

Box 18-20 contains Peterson’s “Outdoor Journals.” They began in 1948 and continued to 1961. Peterson discussed a number of nature issues throughout the journals, and recorded plant, bird, and animal sightings along with the dates when each was first seen. There are many leaf drawings and prints. Each journal is indexed. Some of the boxes also contain bird census work, such as Christmas and May Day bird counts, as well as counting Peterson did for the University of Wisconsin – Madison.


Box 21

Box 21 contains more articles and self-published books.


Edited by: Patricia Stovey and Kaley Brown