Prairie du Sac, with an estimated 1988 population of 2,290, and Sauk City, with 2,883, are both named for the Sac Indians who once lived in the area, and they serve as shopping and service centers for the surrounding farming area. They are quite similar in their long-term pattern of economic development to the smaller towns in the rural upper Fox River region. Historically they developed as rival communities, each with a different ethnic base. The Prairie du Sac area acquired its first sprinkling of settlers in 1839, 2 years after the Winnebagos agreed to removal beyond the Mississippi and ceded the last of their land west of the Wisconsin River. Over the next 2 decades settlers filtered into Prairie du Sac from the East, many of them from the New England area. Sauk City’s origins date from the same period with early growth spurred by an influx of German-speaking immigrants.
Most noted of Sauk City’s early entrepreneurs was a Hungarian, Count Agoston Haraszthy, who hired laborers and mechanics to develop the village in 1841. He also ventured into hop and grape culture. He named his settlement Haraszthy, later renamed Sauk City, and for 7 years pushed its development. When his European grape varieties failed to stand up to Wisconsin winters and he had lost much of his venture capital on the banks of the Wisconsin River, he left for California and there tried grape growing again – this time very successfully. He became known as "the father of modern California viticulture" according to Leon D. Adams, author of The Wines of America.
From a rather exotic beginning, Sauk City, like its rival neighbor, developed as a more traditional farming village. Its German character clearly showed in the early 1850s when a Mr. Leinenkugel was already brewing beer and the village boasted a German-language newspaper, Pioneer am Wisconsin. The Pioneer am Wisconsin summarized Sauk City progress in 1854 this way: "There are two sawmills here, one saw and planing mill and one saw and grist mill, besides a distillery, a brickyard, a printing office, ten stores, hotels and saloons. There is a Humanist society, and one Catholic, one Lutheran and one Methodist Episcopal Church; a singing society, a theatrical society and a military company." The people are principally German and most are farmers, it noted in conclusion.
The population was then about 650 persons. Over the next 25 years a variety of businesses were started. In 1880, the town’s assets included 4 breweries, a sash, door and blind factory, a planing mill, hotels, stores, lawyers, and doctors, a school, a fire department. Organizations included a German singing society; a benevolent society; a brass band; a secret workingman’s lodge; a German Free Thinkers congregation; a German Evangelical Association; and Catholic, Lutheran, and German Reformed churches.
Meanwhile the adjacent Yankee town, Prairie du Sac, had developed its own set of institutions and its distinct identity often in acrimonious confrontation with its neighbor. Its initial claim to superiority, aside form its proclaimed Yankee virtues of Protestantism, was as seat of government for Sauk County. Prairie du Sac’s reign as county seat was a short one, however, for 2 years later an alliance of Sauk City and Baraboo residents succeeded in having the county seat relocated at Baraboo. Akin to the county seat fight, the two villages battled over the location of the post office. Originally it was at Prairie du Sac, but when a Sauk City resident was appointed postmaster in 1851, the post office was physically removed to his place of business. Ultimately both villages secured post offices. Prairie du Sac got a bridge first, in 1852, and Sauk City followed in 1860. Later the villages battled over the issue of one or 2 high schools, where the US highway should be routed, and so on and on. Differences remained in the 20th century, still obvious in the 1930s, but over time the old rivalries have lost their meaning.
Prairie du Sac, at the end of the 1850s, seemed to be primarily a center for trade with one small-scale plowmaking business. In the 1860s, it acquired a flour mill, a large grain warehouse, and a sizable stockyard. In the next decade a reaper factory was built. The construction of the railroad to the north and west of the twin villages subsequently changed their fortunes and they remained basically trade and service centers. The village institutions of Prairie du Sac in 1880 were the school, 2 lodges, the Sauk Prairie Bible Society, a Presbyterian church, and a Union Unitarian and Universalist church.
The most well-known resident of Sauk City was August Derleth, the Wisconsin author who prodigiously wrote over a hundred books and thousands of smaller pieces, lectured at the University of Wisconsin, and for years was literary editor of The Capital Times in Madison. He knew life in the twin villages and in Wisconsin very well and portrayed and interpreted that knowledge for a wide readership. Appropriately he was chosen to write the volume on the Wisconsin River in the Rivers of America series. It reflects the most colorful parts of Wisconsin River history.
While in the twin villages, here are some locations to visit. In winter, a major natural attraction at the twin towns are the eagles soaring and diving for fish at the Prairie du Sac dam.
Battle of Wisconsin Heights Site, Junction Hwy. US 12 and County Trunk Y, 1.5 miles southeast of Sauk City
An official Wisconsin Historical marker makes note of one of the major events in the Black Hawk War of 1832. Near here on July 21, 1832, Black Hawk and his band of Sauk and Fox Indians, exhausted and hungry, while on their way to attempt a Mississippi crossing, were overtaken by US troops. Black Hawk and some of his warriors fought a holding action to allow the balance of his people to cross the Wisconsin River. The culmination of the war came at the Battle of Bad Axe, August 1-2.
Kehl Winery, (Wollersheim Winery) Hwy. Wis. 188, .5 mile south of Hwy. Wis. 60, Prairie du Sac
Overlooking the Wisconsin River and Prairie du Sac and Sauk City, the Kehl Winery structures include a hillside cave used first as a residence and later as a wine cellar, a 2-story limestone home built in 1858, and a larger winery building on which construction began in 1859. Taken together these buildings are important for a number of reasons. They represent the successful efforts of Peter Kehl, a German immigrant from a wine-making family with several generations of experience, to establish a winery on a protected, south-facing slope of the Wisconsin River bank.
Using native American grape varieties, he developed a business by selling his wines to Catholic churches and to Milwaukee hotels. Peter Kehl knew his grapes. They took first prize at the State Agricultural Fair in 1860. After his death in 1870, his son continued the business and made brandy until 1899 when a severe season killed the vines. The site is also significant because Count Agoston Haraszthy owned it earlier. The stonework of the buildings represents a fine quality of craftsmanship by the German masons in the Sauk City area. Today the winery is operated as the Wollersheim Winery which welcomes visitors to tour the vineyards and buildings and to taste the wines.