TOWN OF ROCK
Travel back in time about 13,000 years to when the receding glacier left mounds of sand and gravel here in southern Wisconsin.
Over the millennia, plants evolved to thrive on this quick-draining soil, followed by bison and other grazers. The first peoples probably followed the game or the rivers into this area.
French explorers named the grasslands prairie. Europeans began to settle and farm the area in the 1800s.
Over the next 100-plus years, plows and pavement destroyed most of the prairie.
A few scraps remain.
Most of them have been identified, so finding 40 acres of it in Rock County was a surprise to longtime prairie preservation activists.
“This is a time capsule, is what this is,” said an excited Kevin Kawula last week as he walked a prairie remnant he discovered along County G south of Janesville, noting the wide variety of prairie plants that appeared at every turn.
Kawula is a volunteer coordinator for the Rock County Conservationists who also works with Green Rock Audubon Society and The Prairie Enthusiasts. He had permission from the Humane Society of Southern Wisconsin, which recently bought the land along Prairie Road and plans to build its new headquarters there.
Along for the tour was Nathan Gingerich of Applied Ecological Services of Brodhead and a Gazette photographer and reporter.
Most prairie remnants are less than 10 acres, and very few exceed 50 acres, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.
A short list of the plants dotting the prairie grasses here: whorled milkweed; harebell; blue vervain; fringed puccoon; purple prairie clover; Illinois tick trefoil and bergamot, also known as beebalm, which has become popular with gardeners who want to attract bees and butterflies.
“This is all marble seed,” Kawula said excitedly as he stood in a small opening surrounded by bushes as five monarchs flitted around him.
There’s also one plant that is listed as endangered in Wisconsin, Hill’s thistle.
Kawula and Gingerich walked through thick brush to a grassy knoll.
“This is exceedingly rare to find,” Kawula said of the little hilltop because it was filled with prairie plants and no “weeds.”
The land is rich with a wide variety of prairie plants, Gingerich said.
“This would be very hard for a person to achieve by restoration,” Gingerich said. “… You kind of expect to find a few of these species in a pasture somewhere, but this is pretty impressive.”
“I think it’s pretty exciting to find something natural still hanging on in our modern Rock County world, especially in the quarry district,” Kawula said, referring to the sand-and-gravel operations a short distance down the road.
Kawula noticed the hilly land recently. He was driving by when he saw telltale signs that maybe a prairie remnant was hiding there.
He saw cattle grazing across Prairie Road, and he knew that land too hilly for plowing often was used for grazing, and grazing meant the prairie had a chance to survive.
So Kawula found aerial photographs of the area and researched historical records going back to 1834. One photograph showed a different coloration than surrounding farmland, another hint that prairie plants were there. The native plants hold their green when non-natives turn brown in the summer.
Buckthorn and other invasive trees and bushes are encroaching on the prairie plants, but Kawula believes the prairie will return if the brush is cleared.
“Between the prairie, the wildflowers and a little tree called the Iowa crabapple, it’s a really nice place,” Kawula enthused.
The Iowa crabapple is the only native American crab, he said.
Kawula hopes to give a formal presentation to the humane society, with a recommendation of where to build and how to help the prairie remnant to survive.
The road to journalism hell is paved with good intentions, extra soft bunnies and a rooster with a comb-over.
I intended to write a Rock County 4-H Fair diary. You know the kind of thing: 10:30 a.m., tour pig barn and meet award-winning Hampshire; 11 a.m., eat corn dog and speculate about amount of actual pork encased in cornmeal topping.
But I was distracted by the fascinating world of chickens, cows and Flemish giants and lost track of time. Instead of a tour of the grounds and all its attractions, you’ll get a tour of the first four barns I found interesting.
Entering through Gate 4, I immediately encountered Dalissa Moser, 17, of Clinton FFA, finishing up some sheep grooming. Leroy the sheep was standing still, and Moser said it’s because he gets the sheep equivalent of a wash and set on a regular basis. She left the wool on top of his head just a little bit longer, and it’s a good look for him. Moser washes him with Ivory soap, just like a sweater.
If a chicken is in the “continental cockerel” class, shouldn’t it look like other young roosters in its class? Caleb Baker’s birds in this class have feathers ranging from deep orange red to brown. Two pens down, Joshua Banasik’s continental entry has orange, red and shimmering green feathers. It’s not a color you’d expect to find in nature.
Fortunately, Hannah Pautsch, 17, of Avon 4-H was there to explain.
“It depends on the breed,” Pautsch said. “Like for Polish, they can be any color, they just have to have the poof on their heads.”
The “poof,” or crest, springs out like a hat worn by a member of the royal family. Alternatively, they look like they might be roadies with a metal band.
Silkies must also have five toes. Other breeds have only four.
While you’re in the poultry barn, don’t miss the birds with the frizzle feathers. These are feathers that grow out and curl away from the bird’s body. It’s like a full body comb-over, with everything facing forward.
One of the challenges of showing a chicken or rooster is getting it clean for the show.
“It’s like giving a cat a bath,” Pautsch said.
And speaking of breed standards, the Flemish giants are in the cages closest to the entrance of the rabbit barn. Their breed standards include ears that must be at least 5¾ inches long, bodies a minimum of 20 inches long and weight of at least 11 pounds.
The Flemish giants we saw were much longer, heavier and had ears that looked like they belonged on a full-grown Jersey cow.
But again, the barn was filled with rabbits who shared breed names but looked very different.
Alexis Hooper, 13, of Plymouth 4-H was able to help.
Judges want to see a calm animal that can sit up and display the best of its characteristics. Hooper’s senior Holland Siamese sat up nicely when Hooper lifted her chin, despite the presence of so many strangers.
Hooper is also showing a broken chinchilla rex, a rabbit with Holstein-patterned fur.
For this breed, 40 of 100 points are awarded for the softness of its coat.
Hooper’s rabbit had velvety soft fur, like the most expensive mink coat imaginable.
Connor Busse 12, is showing a Jersey heifer with ears at least as large as a Flemish giant. The Harmony 4-H member said he had done most of the show preparation himself, trimming her hair along the body and topline.
“I didn’t do her head,” Busse said. “She doesn’t like her head touched.”
He’s going to be in showmanship, which means he’ll have to show the judge that he’s worked with the animal consistently and knows how to manage her in the ring.
How does he keep her calm and well-behaved?
“Well, I pet her,” Busse said. “And it’s good not to make any sudden moves, or she might go insane.”
For full fair coverage, including a daily schedule, go to GazetteXtra.com/fair.
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