Boscobel, Hwys. US 61, Wis. 133
The site of a short-lived logging operation in the mid-1840s, Boscobel originated as the speculative town-site of a railroad civil engineer who in 1854 along with 2 partners bought the land where the city now stands. Surveyed and named Boscobel from bosquet belle, French for "beautiful grove", village lots were ready for sale in 1856 when the railroad arrived late that fall. In the 19th and early 20th centuries the railroad was more important to the community’s well-being than the river. Scarcely a year after Boscobel’s founding, the depression which began in the fall of 1857 temporarily dampened development. The town made real strides during the Civil War and thereafter until the recession of 1873 again stalled the national economy. Boscobel served as a center of trade, commerce, and services for a reasonably wide farming area lying to its south and tributary to the railroad. In the late 1870s a railroad line built to Fennimore and Montfort deflected the highly productive Fennimore prairie area’s output away from the Boscobel market, but the construction of a bridge over the Wisconsin which opened traffic from the north in 1874 helped the community offset the loss.
Needing to issue bonds for bridge construction, Boscobel sought and received approval to incorporate a city in 1873. Boscobel, with a 1988 estimated population of 2,734, continues to be a trade and service center and has acquired several small industries as well. Since World War II the Wisconsin River has exerted a positive influence to the community with the increased utilization of the lower Wisconsin for recreation.
Boscobel has at times exerted an influence on state and national affairs seemingly out of proportion to its size. In 1898 the idea for the Christian Commercial Travelers Association of America, popularly known as the Gideons, originated here when 2 traveling salesmen had to share Room 19 in the Central Hotel. Both were serious Christians and Bible readers. They pondered the idea of forming a society to provide Christian traveling men with Bibles in their hotel rooms. The organizational meeting took place in Janesville on July 1, 1899. Fifty years later the Gideons had distributed 15.5 million Bibles to hotels and elsewhere.
Boscobel is the hometown of a leading Wisconsin Progressive, John James Blaine, who came to Boscobel to practice law in 1897, served as a Progressive Republican in the state senate, 1909-13; as governor, 1921-27; and as US senator, 1927-33. A thoroughgoing Progressive, he had more of a concern for civil liberties than many in that political fold. As governor of Wisconsin, he vehemently denounced the activities and philosophy of the Ku Klux Klan. His views and Klan activities in Wisconsin intersected dramatically at Boscobel when in July 1924 the county Klan held a large public meeting. At least 7,000 people roamed the streets and at day’s end the Klan held a parade. An elderly resident, a watchman by occupation and a Klan-hater by conviction, started unmasking the parading Klansman. He was knocked down and thereafter took a gun and tried to kill the offending Klansman. The gun misfired and the elderly man was arrested. Governor Blaine pardoned him and launched a tirade against the Klan that reached the pages of the New York Times. Blaine’s home, privately owned and undergoing renovation, is located at 307 East Oak.
Boscobel has a National Register site well worth viewing. The Old Rock High School, 207 Buchanan Street, built in 1898, is a beautiful example of Romanesque Revival architecture. It is 3 stories high and constructed of limestone from the Wisconsin River bluffs. It is the only remaining 19th century school in Boscobel, the largest built, and the school with the longest record of service, 1989-1984.
Crossing the river and continuing on Highway 60 the road runs southwest through Wauzeka, a village with an 1988 estimated population of 638, at the confluence of the Wisconsin and Kickapoo Rivers. In its glory in the late 19th century, Wauzeka was larger and a center for river, road and railroad-generated trade. Now in the early fall people often turn north at Wauzeka on State Highway 131 up the Kickapoo Valley and into the apple growing country of Gays Mills to buy the new crop by the bushel. From Wauzeka, a 15-mile drive leads to Wyalusing State Park which offers a magnificent view of the joining of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers.