Landowner trying to get Mindoro Cut on historic list
By ED HOSKIN / La Crosse Tribune
MINDORO, Wis. - The scenic gorge that cuts through a sandstone ridge between Mindoro and West Salem on Hwy. 108 has long been considered a feat of human toil and ingenuity from a bygone era.
Carved with hand tools and horse-drawn equipment in 1907 and 1908, the Mindoro Cut is one of the oldest and largest hand-hewn cuts in the nation. In a bid to preserve it, an effort is under way to place it on both the Wisconsin Register of Historical Places and the National Register of Historic Places.
"It's so unique," said Joan Dolbier, who owns land around the cut and is working with her husband, John, to get the historical designation. "It's quite a feat. It's mind-boggling to think the work was done by hand by local people.
"The men came from all over," she said. "They worked daily and were paid cash at the end of each day. Some of them came back and some didn't. It was hard work."
The cut was built to improve travel between West Salem and Mindoro. Before its construction, the communities were connected by a pioneer town road about a mile east of the cut, and by another road that ran along the entire ridge from Onalaska to the town of Burns.
At 86 feet long, 74 feet deep and 25 feet wide, the cut was thought for many years to be the second-largest hand-hewn cut in America. However, the largest hand-hewn cut in the nation, in Ohio, was later altered and reduced in size, Dolbier said.
"We probably have the largest one because ours has not changed," she said.
Placing the cut on the both the state and national registers would require greater analysis and an invitation for public input were the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to ever decide to widen the highway. The hill is owned by three people, Dolbier said.
Aside from preservation issues, the cut deserves such recognition as a visitor attraction and as an important piece of local history along the winding highway, Dolbier said. Photographs, detailed maps and a written history of the cut are being put together with the help of Barbara Kooiman of the Mississippi Valley Archeological Center at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
"Listing it on the National Register of Historic Places will put the state in a position where they will look at that," Kooiman said. "They need to pay attention to any impact, and they also are required to ask for public input.
"The process causes (an) agency to analyze the situation," she said. "If there's absolutely no alternative, then it could proceed."
Kooiman said she was not aware of any plans to alter the cut, but "the Dolbiers are taking a proactive stance to see that it's protected."
"It's kind of one of those scenic byways that people go out of their way to check out," Kooiman said. "It's a special feature."
A UW-L history student will begin work on a written history of the cut this spring, and the application will be filed shortly after, Kooiman said.
"I've already talked to staff at the state level, and they were very enthusiastic,' she said. "It will get accepted (at the state), I have no doubt, because it meets the criteria of being listed."
Aside from the cut itself, history lines both rock walls in the form of names, initials, dates and rough artwork carved by many visitors over nearly a century.
"It's part of its colorful character, I think," Dolbier said. "There are some old ones. My mother tells me that was the big thing when she was young, and she was born in 1908."
Moss grows in some of the etchings, and snow fills others in winter, giving the rock walls a dab of color.
Ed Hoskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (608) 791-8226.