Devil’s River – A Sense of Place By Catherine Egger

After flowing gently through Wisconsin farmland, the water droplets in Devil’s River will begin to dance with one another on terraced limestone rocks, cascading over subtle waterfalls and catching the sunlight streaming through the surrounding cedars, creating a sudden magical beauty.  Many have come to the bank of this river to quietly watch these gently swirling waterfalls, finding them a source of energy and rejuvenation.

A Sense of Place - Devil's RiverThe dramatic rock formations shaping the waterfalls at Devil’s River are the west-end dolostone outcroppings of the Niagara escarpment. Part of the West Twin River watershed, the river runs 12 miles through Brown and Manitowoc counties, flowing first into the Neshotah River and joining the West Twin River before heading into Lake Michigan.

The name ‘Devil’s River’ conjures up images of rapid waters creating perilous crossing, with some historic truth.  Between 1829 and 1831, while stationed at Fort Winnebago, Second Lieutenant Jefferson Davis reportedly nearly drowned before a companion saved him. Also, during the Black Hawk War in 1840, when the river was a defense boundary for American Forces, Col. Zachary Taylor allegedly was swept off his horse by the rushing waters, rescued by fellow soldiers.

While reason enough to give the river its ominous name, the misnomer resulted from white settlers misinterpreting the Ojibwa name for the river, Ma-na-to-kik-e-we-se-be, or ‘Stooping Spirit River’. Its root, ‘Ma-na-to’ (Manitou), was often mistranslated as ‘devil’.

Winter at Devils RiverIn 1847, New York millwright and spectator, Pliney Pierce, built the Rock Mill adjacent to the rapids of Devil’s River into a hill where the Devil’s River has one of its greatest drops.  Long stone channels were constructed to divert the water from the river, over the mill’s wheel, and back to the river again, several hundred yards away. Initially constructed as a sawmill, it was converted to a gristmill as land was cleared for farming.  Serving mostly local German, Czech and Irish immigrants, the Rock Mill ground as many as 118 bags of grain a day, producing wheat, rye and graham flour, and animal feed and functioned as the center of social life in the area during its almost 90 years of operation, closing its doors in 1934.  One of the oldest structures in Brown County, the mill is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In the late 1950’s, Robert (Bob) and Doris Lyman moved from Chicago to Francis Creek, and purchased a 130+ acre dairy farm.  Farming as a child during the depression, Bob’s love of the land called him back.  The couple would drive up the road with their four children to a wayside next to Devil’s River.  They strolled in one day when the property gate was open and, upon seeing the gentle rapids with its dancing water shimmering off the sun, Doris declared, “My God, imagine someone owning a place like this.”

When Bob’s growing herd required more acreage for hay in the ‘60s, they purchased 80 acres surrounding the falls of Devil’s River, inheriting the Rock Mill. They also purchased the wayside from the county.

A few years later, Bob wondered, “Wouldn’t others also enjoy the relaxation and rejuvenation that come from camping along the scenic waterfalls?” and drew out a 152-site campground surrounding the mill, running up to high bluffs overlooking the river and back down again.  A labor of love for this land and the river – which has now spanned the past 40 years – had begun for their entire family. Initially, they decided to sell the dairy cows but kept the heifers as a back-up. “People thought I was crazy” recalls Bob.  One skeptical local banker asked him, “Who’s going to come out there?”  After securing financing, they restored and repaired the mill and a crumbling foundation. They completely rebuilt the water wheel and restored the front of the building.  In 1976, the mill was opened for tours.

Seeking the SourceThe Lymans moved three small log homes from various surrounding locales to a site along the river, combining them into one large building as their home and campground office.  The first winter, with a porta-potty as their privy, they toted two large cans back and forth from a water pump.  “It sounds very Swiss Family Robinson”, says Bob Lyman Jr., who now runs the campgrounds, “but it was a hard winter.”  Bob Sr. stresses how a complete family effort was required for the campgrounds to succeed.  “We couldn’t have done it if the whole family wasn’t involved.”  The campgrounds have been a continued success over the years – some sites have been leased by the same family for over 30 years. Each summer, over 80 seasonal sites provide a base to allow campers to enjoy its beauty. The campground has about 125 campsites for both seasonal and overnight camping.  Bob Jr. plans to keep the focus on the history and nature of the area.  In the past two years alone, he has planted over 100 large trees at a cost exceeding $12,000. The family expects to continue preserving and enjoying Devil’s River and its surrounding land for years to come.  “It would be terrible if it wasn’t in the family,” says Bob Lyman Sr.

For internationally awarded artist, Bonnita Budysz her ever-deepening love affair with Devil’s River started at age 15 when she began babysitting for the Lyman’s children. She still walks the bank of Devil’s River several times a week; one large rock serves as her resting spot to soak up energy and inspiration from her surroundings. Her oil painting ‘Seeking the Source‘, pictured above, shows the vivid dance of water in dappled light as it pours over gentle rocks at the falls.  The painting captures the vision of the Water’s Edge Artists, the painters for preservation group she founded in 2006.

In Bonnita’s words, “The powerful symbol of water as the essence of all life permeates our plein air paintings.  During the process of painting outdoors, one’s physical senses are heightened to respond to the natural world; a deep emotional engagement involving both the moment and memory occurs; and our art spirit soars as the creative communiqué continues.  The resulting artworks are images that resonate with wonder and a unique sense of place and time.”

Very soon, the beauty of this special place will be open to even more people. The Devil’s River State Recreation Trail is being built alongside the river to provide recreational hiking and river access, running from Rockwood Road to Denmark, and crossing two high train trestles, including a 56′ high steel trestle bridge.  Eight of the 14 scenic miles of the multi-use recreation trail are complete. With funding now secured, the final six miles will be completed by the summer of 2012. The expansive view of the landscape and the winding river from this bridge will be breathtaking – just one more spot to draw inspiration from Devil’s River’s rich heritage and gentle beauty.

Devil’s River Trail map