“Your sacred space is where you can find yourself again and again.”
- Joseph Campbell
author and lecturer (1904-1987)
“Escape From the Ordinary.
Welcome to Black River Country.”
- A highway sign posted outside of town in the 1960s
A Place Called Black River Falls
There are special places where the past is always present. It’s in background, shadows and memories, but it’s there - if you choose to see it. Depending on the memories that can be a good thing or a bad thing. In my life there’s a place that’s always been good to me, and so I like to feel the past when I’m there.
I go to this place whenever I can, which is to say not too often, maybe two times a year if I’m lucky. It’s a relatively small town, a noticeable but not overwhelming dot on the state map. Yet the older I get the more I realize how significant this place is to my life. When I go to visit I always come back feeling a little bit more sure of myself and a lot more sure of my family roots, my heritage, my good fortune. Does that make it a sort of sacred space for me?
We’ll get back to that.
For the record, the town of Black River Falls, Wisconsin, is located in the west central part of the state. It is the county seat of Jackson County and had an official population of 3,622 according to the 2010 census. While there are at least two other rivers called the Black River flowing elsewhere in the United States, there isn’t another town or city called Black River Falls anywhere else in the country, or in the world for that matter. So right there it is a pretty unique place.
Originally named “La Riviere Noire” or “The Black River” by French explorers in 1659, it was incorporated as a village in 1866 and due to its location on the river it became a city of sawmills in 1883. According to the town website the list of notable people to have come from Black River Falls include major league baseball players Ernie Rudolph and Phil Haugstad (Rudolph pitched in seven games for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945 and Haugstad pitched sparingly for the Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds from 1947 to 1952). Then there was United States Marine and Congressional Medal of Honor winner Mitchell Red Cloud Jr., who died in action in Korea in 1950.
Of course none of that has anything to do with my story. What does have everything to do with me is the fact that my mother, Carol Stolt (Nee Thompson), was born on a farm on the outskirts of Black River Falls in June of 1922. As I was born and raised in Milwaukee I never once called Black River Falls my home. And yet for as long as I can remember, the times spent up there with uncles and cousins swimming, fishing, camping, playing cards, joking, laughing, going out to my aunt and uncle’s farm are simply some of the best memories I will ever have.
So actually this story is more about family than it is about the town itself, though in my mind the two always fit together so well. The heritage of both my mother’s family and the town itself is Norwegian, and I have always found Norwegians to be hard-working, slow to anger, and quick to laugh at themselves, not taking themselves too seriously.
I like that.
I think of all the times we, as an extended family, have gotten together in Black River Falls over the years. Too many to count. There were weddings, vacations and holidays. A few funerals, too. I think of Christmas Eves when I was a kid and we gathered in the cramped but cozy quarters of my grandmother’s house on Fillmore Street in the middle of town. For a few years in the mid-1960s all us cousins put on our own little Nativity play for the grown-ups, complete with homemade costumes, painfully bright lights for the home movies, and a bale of straw for the manger. All us kids wanted to do was tear into the presents under the tree, but somehow we made it through the production and played out our parts as best we could. (Mine was a non-speaking role where I was a shepherd come to see the birth of the Christ child. Not to worry, a doll was used for that role.)
Of course time does move on, and nowadays any trip to Black River Falls requires a trip out to the cemetery at Little Norway Lutheran Church where my mother was laid to rest in 2011. (Talk about history, the church dates back to the 1800s and there are tombstone markers in the cemetery to prove it.) Little Norway is in a peaceful spot in the countryside a few miles west of town. I go there and listen to my thoughts and the whispered memories as the breeze gently blows through the trees. Like I said, up there the past is always present.
In the dictionary the definition of the word ‘sacred’ includes the phrases “highly valued and important” and “entitled to reverence and respect.” And to me those seem like perfect descriptions for a place like this. A place called Black River Falls.