You’re listening to Parks and Landmarks, an exploration of the underrated, outdoors. I’m Sean Bull.
It’s meteor season! August marks the arrival of the annual Perseid meteor shower, the night sky’s most spectacular light show this side of the aurora. Technically, the shower doesn’t peak until the middle of the month, but this year, that conflicts with when the moon will be brightest. Lucky for us, there will be at least some meteors all month long.
If you live in the city, or really anywhere with artificial light, I recommend traveling somewhere with reduced light pollution. You’re going to be waiting for a while to see your first meteor, so you might as well look at the least obstructed sky possible in the meantime. In Dane County, one can never fully get away from manmade light, but some of our county parks come reasonably close. Perhaps the best of our parks for stargazing is Donald Park. It’s more than that, Donald is one of the best County parks for a number of things. I’ll circle back to stargazing in a few minutes, but let’s talk more generally about the park and its history, first.
Donald County Park is expansive. At Seven hundred and seventy five acres, it’s the biggest of the Dane County parks by a lot. The park is mostly set in a wide wooded and grassy valley, and some of the surrounding wooded hills. At the bottom of the valley, springs bubble up to feed Mount Vernon Creek. Of course, you may explore on foot, but most of the paths are mowed wide enough to accommodate equestrians, as well.
If you don’t have access to a horse, don’t fear! I may be biased, having never ridden, but I think the best parts of the park happen to be the places horses can’t get to. In the southeast corner of the park, a gravel path diverts off the main trail, dipping under a canopy of trees to climb a rocky bluff. At the top, you’re greeted with a view of the town of Mount Vernon below. The couple dozen homes along state highway 92 are obscured a bit, but this is a rare instance where I think that’s okay. The vista is still panoramic, but the trees atop the bluff provide layers, the sort of details you might paint into a scene like this if it were on canvas. In spring, this effect is at its best, as many of the trees sprout little white flowers.
If you’d rather look back than look out, the Spring Trail may be more your speed. As its name suggests, this trail offshoot hugs close to Mount Vernon Creek, and offers a look at some of the springs that feed it. These springs were one of the things that attracted the first white settlers to this specific spot, so it makes sense that remnants of their history can be found nearby. Just above the smaller of two spring pools, you’ll find the stone foundation of a small rectangular house. The area is still being excavated, so you may see more as you return to the park, year over year.
Farther down the trail, above the big spring, a wooden deck has been constructed, allowing a better view of the water bubbling up through the sand below. The deck also holds a sign with information on the spring’s importance through history, and a picture of the people who enjoyed it over a century ago. The photograph shows the same perspective as the deck does, the same arm of land, wrapping around the Big Spring pool. That land is packed with people, maybe a hundred, posing for the photo. Apparently, it depicts a fourth of July celebration, but it’s an alien sight to me, not a barbeque or pair of jean shorts in sight! I just can’t imagine ever having fun outside, in a full suit and hat. It’s hard to know much about these distant ancestors. But we actually can get a look at the town about forty years before even this photograph was taken. There was one incident so dramatic, it was destined to be recorded into history.
In 1852 Dr. Philander Byam moved to Mount Vernon with his two brothers. They were among the first white people to settle the area, and they took full advantage of that fact. Over the next seven years, the Byams set out to defraud anyone they could, selling useless patents to the locals, and selling highly exaggerated plots of land to investors back in New York. In the 1850’s, there were only two ways for folks on the east coast to buy land in Wisconsin. Either you had to trust the seller, or you had to walk a thousand miles to see for yourself. Dr. Byam took great advantage of this inconvenience, showing his clients entirely false photographs, which depicted a booming village on the Sugar River, serviced by steamboats!
It’s one thing to claim Mount Vernon is on the Sugar River. It’s wrong, but at least it’s close. Mount Vernon Creek does feed into the Sugar River, not a mile out of town. Far more egregious was the steamboat. Very few rivers on Wisconsin’s interior have ever seen a steamboat, the upper Sugar River isn’t big enough for much more than a kayak.
October 24th, 1859 was a pivotal day. The townspeople were fed up with the Byam brothers’ shenanigans, so seventy of them held a meeting. When they went to find Dr. Byam, he hid within his house, so the townspeople tore it down. After a short trial, the 39 year old Dr. Philander Byam, his wife, and his two brothers, were told to vacate the town. If the people of Mount Vernon found any Byam after twenty four hours, they would hang. Wisely, the Byams chose to move to Iowa.
Maybe the townspeople couldn’t help themselves, but they snuck in a little vigilante justice before the day was through. They tarred and feathered one of Dr. Byam’s brothers. And they weren’t kidding about that 24 hour period. Shortly after setting out, the other brother, who couldn’t stop thinking about the money he’d sunk, decided to go back to rescue a cart filled with hay. The townspeople caught him as soon as he returned, burned his hay cart, and let him escape once again to the west.
After reading this story, I tried to get a better understanding of the people at the time. What if I had handed Dr. Byam 1,200 of my hard-earned dollars, and he tricked me into purchasing a plot of land next to a grist mill in the Wisconsin driftless? Twelve hundred then is probably like a million now. I would be ruined. Destitute. I will never financially recover from thi-
Hold on. I’m kind of at the mercy of online inflation calculators, but if the conversion I got is right, 1,200 U.S. dollars in 1859 comes in at just under forty three thousand in today’s money. Perhaps the housing market of the last few years has broken my brain irreparably, but that hardly sounds like a scam at all. Forty-three grand is eminently reasonable for any plot in Dane County, much less one that backs up to an idyllic trout stream. One of two things must be true: Either Philander Byam wasn’t always the con artist he was made out to be, or housing prices are way out of whack, and we are long overdue on tarring and feathering some people. Just some food for thought, let’s get back to the topic at hand.
It should be possible to spot a meteor any night for the next couple of weeks. But if you’re only going to go looking once, you should try and maximize your chances. First, pay attention to the weather, especially if you’re driving over from a different part of the county. It’s no fun trying to see meteors through the clouds. Next, consider the moon. It rises and sets at a different time every night, and it may be brighter or dimmer, depending on its phase. You want the dimmest moon possible, or none at all. That way, any meteors should stand out much better. Before heading out, you’ll want to print a stargazing permit. Normally, Dane County Parks close at ten p.m, but putting a stargazing permit on your dash allows you to stay as late as you’d like. The permit costs ten dollars, and can be bought on the county parks website. If you’re listening to this online, I’ll link it at the end of the article.
With all that sorted out, you only have to pick your stargazing spot. Generally, you want somewhere away from roads, in the middle of the park, but not too high up on a hill. Specifically, there are two spots I would recommend. If you want a community experience, park at Pop’s Knoll, and just hang out there. This is the most popular entrance to the park, and the most likely place you’ll meet other stargazers. If you’d rather strike out on your own, try parking at the Deer Creek fishing lot, and hiking southeast to the fishing pond. If none of what I just said made sense to you, I’ll link a PDF of the park map at WORTFM.org
Or, if you’d rather, you could go during the day first, and scout out a spot for yourself. Donald Park is worth visiting, even if you never make a trip after sundown. There’s over twelve miles of trails to explore, all winding through some of the best scenery in Dane County. For more information, you can check out either the county parks website, or the friends of Donald Park.
If you’d like to suggest a topic for Parks and Landmarks to cover, please send it my way, at email@example.com. Tell me about your favorite underrated spot outdoors, or whatever you feel is related. This segment’s title is intentionally broad, so just go for it. I’d love to hear from you guys. Again, that’s s-e-a-n dot b-u-l-l at w-o-r-t-f-m dot org. For WORT News, I’m Sean Bull.
Get your Dane County Parks Stargazing Permit HERE!