Editor’s note: This is an ongoing series of articles hunting for Wisconsin’s “ghost towns” that are vanishing or have vanished into time’s mists. Email email@example.com with suggestions and/or photos for the series.
MISHA MOKWA, Wis. – Along Wisconsin’s west coast northeast of Lake Pepin, along the Chippewa River, bordering the Tiffany Bottoms, sit the four remaining homes of Misha Mokwa. Wisconsin Highway 25, which once went through Misha Mokwa, now skirts the edge of what was a bustling town of 150 residents.
There’s no definitive answer as to what Misha Mokwa means. The name is attributed to the Ojibwa Indians who were early inhabitants to the area; modern linguists translate it as “great bear.” But farmer settlers thought the words meant “little bear,” which is also the name of a local creek. Nearby at the foot of a bluff are small mounds thought to be Indian burial mounds. But whether they are – and who built them, Indians or the Mound Builders – is not certain.
The farmer settlers who moved in wanted to grow crops and cattle. At the time wheat was king because it was needed for human food, was fed to animals and was easily grown. In 1858 a man named Gurley built a dam and mill along Little Bear Creek for grinding the wheat. The resulting pond was about 80 acres in size
Businesses opened near the mill to accommodate needs of local farmers and in 1871 a post office was established. Application for the office of postmaster needed to be made to the president in Washington, D.C.; the postmaster changed as the political office changed.
Prospects for the new town were excellent so it was surveyed and platted, laying out lots for new homes and businesses that included close to 20 acres. Gurley had a difficult time making a profit with his mill; it changed hands many times. In 1876 it was sold for $8,000, a considerable amount for that time. Farmers began converting to dairy farming because of failures in the wheat crops. Locally many farmers grew tobacco. A farmer named P. Farr grew beardless beer barley.
By 1888 the county history lists a store, hotel and some houses near the mill. Misha Mokwa continued to grow. A livery was built for boarding horses and a blacksmith opened business, shoeing horses and making hardware. In 1890 Herman Marquardt owned the mill; at that time they were grinding 75 barrels of Lily White flour per day. Two other ventures Marquardt had were making toy rocking horses and Little Sweepers cigars.
Other businesses included a hotel that served midnight lunches after Saturday-night dances in a local hall, a seamstress, a sawmill, a barrel-stave factory and a doctor. There was also a Percheron Horse Company. Weyerhauser Lumber Co. cut wood in the bottoms and reportedly had 400 workers at its peak.
Socialization was provided by the Woodmen of the World, the Royal Neighbors, and the Free and Accepted Masons. Church services were held in the Methodist Episcopal Church.
A severe thunderstorm Sept. 13, 1903, with torrential rains crossed Wisconsin, causing a lot of damage. One of the losses was the millpond dam at Misha Mokwa along with part of the mill. The entire valley where Little Bear Creek flowed was flooded; all the bridges were destroyed with the loss of pigs and cattle. The dam was not rebuilt; the mill was converted to steam power.
When rural-route delivery began in 1905 the post office in Misha Mokwa closed, giving area residents less excuse to go visit the small town. Later the advent of automobiles made bigger towns with more services accessible. The last remaining store was moved in 1946 from Misha Mokwa to Nelson for the Rod and Gun Club. The town’s residents continued to dwindle away.
The lasting legacy of Misha Mokwa has nothing to do with the town itself. Margaret Hadler was in 1942 accused of starting a fire in a neighboring house. The sheriff and deputy questioned her late at night in the courthouse; they locked her in a room while they tried to force a confession. When they finished they took her home where she alleged she fell on the ice before reaching her door.
Hadler sued the sheriff and his deputy for $21,000 for false imprisonment and personal injuries. When she lost her case she appealed. It reached the Wisconsin Supreme Court where the judges decided the charges of false imprisonment were worth $223. They dropped the injuries claim because it wasn’t proven when the injuries were sustained. The false-imprisonment part of the case has been cited in a handful of trials in the United States.
There is still a road sign at Misha Mokwa and it can be found on most maps. But driving along Wisconsin Highway 25, it’s easy to miss what was once a thriving town.