Viroqua History, Heritage, and Legend
Searching for a place to settle, Moses Decker had made his way by ax in 1846 to what would later become Viroqua. Two of his sons, Solomon and Reasoner, helped put up a cabin and returned later that year to Illinois. In 1847 the two sons, accompanied by the entire family, returned to settle in their new home. By 1850 a second house of hewn logs was raised not far from the original and that may be the house which still stands on East Decker Street. In 1850 the site which Decker envisioned as a village was surveyed and plated by Samuel McMichael. By 1851 the village needed a meeting place and so Decker, with the help of other settlers, held a “Raising Bee” and constructed an 18’x22' house which stood where the Temple Theatre now stands. A gift to the community, it first became the Courthouse, a schoolroom, a church and a place for social and political meetings, with each event lending its “air” of sobriety or gaiety to the room as was required. In August of 1851 the village population consisted of the families of Moses Decker, Rufus Dunlap and Orin Wisel. Late 1851 saw the addition of several more families. (Excerpt from an article by Clara Overbo with materials from the Vernon County Historical Society. Used by permission.)
The Carnegie Library was built in 1905 with funds from Andrew Carnegie, a wealthy iron and steel magnate. The Viroqua library was one of some 2,000 libraries he built across America. It was renamed the McIntosh Memorial Library many years later when Margaret McIntosh donated the funds to expand and remodel it in her father’s memory.
You might say that the generous, good-hearted nature of Viroqua residents began way back in 1852. That’s when Moses Decker, the founder of our community, donated 40 acres of land for a new county seat for Vernon. Today literally hundreds of folks in Viroqua and the surrounding area donate time, talent, energy and treasures in this same giving spirit. The $1.3 million restoration of the Temple Theatre is one example as private donations and hundreds of volunteer hours were the driving force behind the project. Another example is the Eckhart Enchantment Playground at Eckhart Park. The new park is a result of the volunteer efforts of many individuals and civic organizations. The themed playground was designed with ideas from the very people who will use it, namely the kids of Viroqua.
The Viroqua Area Community Arena is another example of the volunteer spirit of Viroqua. The arena was built with donated funds and volunteer labor in 1991 and hosts a very wide variety of events such as hockey games, auctions, concerts, receptions and reunions.
In the book “Steamboats on the Muskingum”, written by J.Mack Gamble with a copyright date of 1853, mention is made of a paddle wheeler, along with many others, by the name of Viroqua which carried both freight and passengers on the Muskingum River between 1850-1852 and again in 1956. Many of the early pioneers came from counties in Ohio which bordered the Muskingum River. The counties were Muskingum, Morgan and Guernsey. People quite possibly came from Muskingum Valley in Southeastern Ohio on paddle wheelers on the Muskingum River which met with the Ohio River at Marietta and then joined the Mississippi River. It is even possible some of the early pioneers may have been on board the Viroqua with their families and possessions on their way to Bad Ax (Vernon) County. Some pioneers came by boat while others came by covered wagon.
The paddle wheeler’s name and our town are spelled the same. It is possible some one from the Muskingum Valley may have suggested the name Viroqua for their new town.
(Excerpts from the book, “History of Main Street, from Present to Past - 1846-1996” to be published by the Vernon County Historical Society. Researched and compiled by Vic and Donna Navrestad. Usage rights granted from Ingrid Mahan, VCMSC).
Then there are the many variations of the Legend of the Princess. This is perhaps the real “dream” stuff which makes stories and legends so much fun. In one variation of the princess legend it is said that Viroqua was the daughter of the great Indian Chief Black Hawk and that she was separated from the tribe as they were chased by the military. It is said she found refuge in our area by discovering the cave which runs underneath our city. Having left her hiding place after a few days, according to the story, she was spotted and chased by white men. Seeing no way to escape, she rode her horse over the edge of the high rocks surrounding the park bowl and ended her life by suicide.
Two other versions sprang to life after an unknown person found an undated and unsubstantiated clipping from the Milwaukee Sentinel which reportedly contained a citation from the poem by Sanford Conant entitled “An Indian Maiden’s Leap to Death”. In both versions of this tale, Viroqua the maiden leaps to her death from atop Courthouse Rock after having her heart broken by the loss of her true love. In one instance the true love being an Indian warrior killed in a raid on an enemy tribe and in the other the true love being a white settler who was rejected by her father after he asked for her hand in marriage. Local teenagers growing up in the Viroqua community are really rather fond of these two versions.
In yet another version of our town’s name, historical credit is given to the daughter of William De Freese. She is reported to have read the word “Veruagua” in a Spanish romance novel about the Indians from the Musquito coast whom Christopher Columbus had taken to Spain, however in a letter from Gen. Earl Rogers to an 1989 issue of the Broadcaster Censor newspaper he credits William Terhune, instead of De Freese’s daughter, with suggesting the name from the same novel.
Which still leaves the question, will we ever know?
Information derived in part from the “Hometown Heritage...A Celebration of Viroqua’s 150th Birthday”. This book published by the Vernon County Historical Society is available by mail at nominal cost of $3.00 plus $2.00 for shipping & handling.
To obtain a copy send a check payable to the “Vernon County Historical Society” for the total amount of $5.00, your name, address, city, state & zip to: Vernon County Historical Society, 410 S. Center Street, Viroqua, WI 54665, attn.: Curator.
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