Commentary: Serenity At Gov. Dodge State Park

By Ellen Foley Special to Channel3000

“Foley At Large” went looking for serenity the past weekend and found it at Gov. Dodge State Park, about 40 miles southwest of Madison.

The massive park covers more than 5,700 acres named after our state’s first governor. Scholars suggest that the caves were winter havens for ancient people more than 8,000 years ago.

Fans of serenity will remember the famous prayer that starts, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change …”

It was that kind of weekend.

Mr. Foley at Large is coming off two years of cancer recovery and he would like everyday to be Saturday. We are too young to retire. For the moment or perhaps the next decade, we have to accept we only get one Saturday a week and we need to make the most of it.

We hiked for two hours (a Foley personal best) along prairie trails and into a rocky ravine that ends with a pretty little water show called Stephen?s Falls. There?s a little plaque about how clever the Stephen?s family members were in using primitive hydraulics to deliver spring water to their farmhouse before electricity and how before refrigeration they constructed a small ?spring house? to cool milk and other perishables.

“It’s our most popular trail,” our young greeter at the ranger station advised.

We were pleased that the magnificent trails were not crowded. The tree cover shielded us from the 80-degree temperatures and the breezy hills brushed away the mosquitoes.

Our well-maintained and well-used parks set Wisconsin apart from other states and show what smart stewards we are of our history.

The gubernatorial name of the park made me think about the upcoming budget Armageddon on a Saturday when I was supposed to be luxuriating in nature. I suspected the rambling trails held a great tale about the farmers who endured much greater challenges when they homesteaded this place after the Indians had been ushered West and miners left for other opportunities. I told Mr. Foley At Large that I hoped this place of serenity was not on the chopping block due to anticipated massive holes in next year?s state budget.

A brochure at a local gas station led us to more pleasant thoughts with a post-hike dinner at the Dodge Point Country Club. Mr. Foley At Large is partial to golf courses. Mrs. Foley At Large yearns for supper club dinners from her childhood.

We both struck pay dirt.

The friendly, musty smell of my grandmother?s old screen porch greeted us along with a menu with prime rib for $13.95.

The bar crowd at the Dodge Point was as raucous as the park was quiet. Its golfers were celebrating the annual Hall of Fame dinner and our waitress had a great sense of humor. I haven’t met a group of people who laughed that loud since my sisters were in town.

After dinner, Mr. Foley At Large was drawn to a many-ringed tree stump the size of our front stoop at the lip of the parking lot. Mr. Foley At Large stood on the stump for a long time tracing the rings with his shoe. We felt we were very far away from Madison and our past lives in Philadelphia, Kansas City, Minneapolis and Milwaukee.

“I haven’t really felt death like that since I was sick,” Mr. Foley At Large mused about standing on the old stump.

It sounds like a macabre moment but it was really one of serenity. Our Saturday adventure popped into perspective the short time we have to live compared to the many years of a tree.

This gem of a park teaches us how far our state has evolved since the late 1800s. We would be at a loss without the story it carries.

Doris Green in her book, “Wisconsin Underground”, a guide to caves, mines and tunnels in our state, has the goods. She shares the grim story of Henry Larson, whose farm was also folded into Gov. Dodge State Park. Green recounts that Henry?s son had been confined to the Iowa County Lunatic Asylum in 1903 after some disturbing events, including his burning down of a building.

When Henry died not long after, his wife and surviving children hid out in the caves that are still accessible in the park. They feared they too would be locked up, according to the book. Officials gathered them after two weeks on the run and permanently placed them with the son at the Iowa County Lunatic Asylum, Green reports. The land that became the largest parcel in the park was in payment of their care.

Funny how they don?t tell you this in the brochures.

I felt sorry for the Larsons who could not take in the pine-scented serenity of their rolling land, snaked with charming creeks and jutting limestone bluffs. I suspected miles of sun-dappled paths could not soothe lifetimes of back-breaking work and crazy-making routine on a 19th Century farm.

Those of us who still claim sanity know that death will someday take us. Until then we hope the inevitability of tax cuts in this difficult economic time does not force us to abandon the legacy of serenity and good cheer that comes after a long walk followed by a jovial dinner on land that the Larsons and the Indians, the miners and Gov. Dodge and his soldiers had to give up so very reluctantly.