The Forgotten Valley
There are moments that often stand out for sensory overload, where feelings, smells, and sights of an uncommon kind come together to form an impression so real and compelling that we never forget them. The less commonplace the experience, the richer the memories, even if sometimes the fascination stems from a sense of horror.
The name of the town in this story has been changed, and the cause of its decay and feral collapsed architecture and inhabitants is mere conjecture and fantasy, as are a few of the descriptions perhaps artistic embellishment, but the place exists as described still, and the images and perceptions are real. We found it on a fishing trip.
Erik Helm, 2015
I can’t remember exactly what led us to abandon the great trout streams of Wisconsin’s Driftless area to pursue a rumor, but I expect that the chance to encounter large Smallmouth Bass in their pre-spawn run up small streams could have been enough. Whatever the impetus, now long forgotten, Joe had the truck pointed south through the rolling valleys and was waxing on as only he can do, of the promise of trying to recreate an encounter he had shared with a friend ten or so years before.
Each spring Smallmouth would swim up the Wisconsin River to the Grant River, and on up into a small tributary called the Rattlesnake to procreate. He and the friend had had an incredible day catching huge fish on light fly rods, and we were now rattling toward Grant County in the extreme southwest of Wisconsin trying to defy the laws of probability and catch the lightning strike a second time. This time I was along, and as Joe says… I am “Strange Luck,” because something out of the ordinary always happens when we fish together.
As we drove on the county highways through rural Wisconsin the landscape began to change. The lush valleys and hills full with vibrant greens and yellows and bursting with a sense of spring Botticelli would have captured in a painting began to fade slowly to a more somber mix of browns and tans, with wheat fields predominant. Towns seemed smaller and farther apart the closer we came to our area of destination, and the traffic of mixed pickup trucks and scattered Amish Horse Carts fell off to nothing as the bare hills rose and fell around us, and the landscape became more monochrome and sparse. Both Joe and I have fished the areas of eastern Washington and Oregon where one might think he had been transplanted onto the moon, so alien is the landscape and so desolate, and we both commented on the similarity as we rose to the top of a series of rolling hills and began a decent.
On the hillside in the distance was an odd sight for this bucolic area of Wisconsin. It seemed to be a mass of abandoned and rusted-out cars, some by their shape to date back to the 1940s and 50s. What was odd was the complete lack of newer cars in the pile of a hundred or so littering the hillside. Also puzzling was the fact that there was no road surrounding the hill, and we speculated that maybe the road had been left to return to dust as the cars had sometime in the past… but why on a hillside, and not down in a valley where most communities too poor to dispose of hunks of old metal would conceal them? Why put them on a highly visible hill?
We began a decent into the valley to the south of the abandon cars. As we drove toward the bottom through wildly winding roads the valley became narrower and darker, and the vegetation that poked out of the hillsides abutting the county trunk road was nearly leafless and grew at odd twisted angles like it had gone mad seeking the sunlight. A small creek ran along one side of the road in a ditch. We figured it as a tributary of the river we were looking to fly-fish, and grew anxious with anticipation like two kids.
An instant later, the scrub-brush and hillsides opened up without warning or expectation and we found ourselves in a small town. In both of our memories the initial shock and wonder as we traveled the two blocks of the main street occurs in a slow-motion kind of flashback. At least that is how we describe it today.
I was looking past Joe to the left when a scene out of the poorest of the poor coal towns of West Virginia popped into view. A car was beside the road, kind of slewed in a front yard at an angle and buried up to the windows in dried mud. What color it may have been I have no recollection, but it was mostly rust colored now. The windows were missing, and feral plants were growing at random out of the inside. The whole vehicle gave the impression of being there awhile, buried alive except for the crown of plants now growing out of its upholstery and the mud filling it.
Standing on top of the roof of the car was a tall emaciated man in filthy jeans and a dirty and torn white tank-top. He had greasy looking waist long light hair in a braid or ponytail. What he was doing on top of the car with a long metal pipe in his hand we will never know. He never looked at us as the truck rolled slowly past. Then we spotted the dog, which also ignored us. It was a mangy and shivery mongrel chained to the derelict car. It looked to be half Coyote and half terrier. Where it stood and twitched, the ground was bare of grass, as if in its eternal confined pacing, the cur had worn what might have passed for a sort of front lawn into a dirt farm. The house itself was a dilapidated clapboard single story of failing paint and warped paneling. It too was buried several feet in dried mud, and old plastic milk cartons replaced a rotted and fallen front porch as a stoop to the elevated doorway. The only thing new looking was an American Flag on a pole off the left front of the house and fluttering in front of the broken windows that had old stained cloth stuffed into the cracks and holes.
Next to this initial sight and again on the left side of the road as we slowly rolled on with mouths agape, leaned what must have been the city hall. Built out of stone and mainly intact, with an inscription with a date of 18?? above the door, it looked to be no longer in use. The leaning seemed to be caused by the cliff and hill rising directly behind the structure. It had encroached on the rear of the building and caused it to lean forward into the street.
On the mantle above the door below the date was a single word, ‘Dodtown.’
“I don’t remember this, said Joe. I don’t remember any of this being here. I would have remembered this!” he exclaimed, shaking his head. “Maybe you took a different road last time?” I half asked and stated. “Must have” he smiled with eyebrows raised. “This is a mess! What the hell is a town like this doing here in this valley where it must flood every year? Who built this here… and Why?”
Those were the questions in mind as the old Ford Ranger rolled on and we both looked to the right side of the main street. Here was a new squalor to be seen. A decayed sort of tavern and general store stood there with about half of its white paint missing. Parts of it sagged here and there, but the sign above the door still was half lit displaying a ‘Hamms’ beer logo speckled with dirt and dead bugs. Three Harley bike gang guys in leather gear looked at us as we passed. They were seated outside the building on an old bench drinking beer out of a can.
We came to the end of the road and turned left to climb back up a steep valley road. Most of the houses here had visible flood damage and mud, rock and brush was piled about. Each house had a little culvert and bridge leading to their yard off the road so that water could flow down to the bottom of the valley. These houses looked a bit better kept. Old tires had been painted and used as planters and attempts at gardening, including some blooming flowers among the feral weeds grew out of them. Several more vehicles were buried here and there at the side of the road. As we climbed out of the valley, one or two houses looked very well kept, with new shutters, and fully green and mowed lawns. Lights showed behind windows without any panes missing. Children’s toys were scattered in the yards.
We reached the top of the valley and the full force of the sunlight made us squint. We stopped the truck at a crossroads and wondered aloud again, what we had just encountered. Whatever Dodtown was, it certainly had a shadow hanging over it. No sunlight seemed to penetrate to the center, and we discussed our impressions that as the elevation descended, so did the decay and squalor.
We turned to the right this time and followed rural county trunks looking for the road leading to the Rattlesnake, and after awhile, located one that Joe thought he remembered well, with some prominent markings in the form of a high limestone cliff and an old white building with an antique tractor in the yard. We followed this road for awhile, traveling slowly with the windows open looking out over the wooded valley sloping down either side of the road for a sign of the river as we descended. As the road neared the valley floor, the walls of the cliffs and hills crept nearer again and it became darker. In front of us were rows of yards on both sides of the road. Chain link fences were strewn and piled on each other and covered here and there with piles of rock and mud debris. The houses here were either pre-fabricated or single-story clapboard and all were small. The yards were overgrown with wild brush and strewn with abandoned appliances, bathtubs, rotting cars, destroyed furniture and dust. Several people were shambling or leaning in the yards, and they stared with vacant eyes as we passed. The road opened up, and to our amazement, we rolled into Dodtown from the opposite direction, stopping at the only intersection in town. We both turned our heads and looked at each other with an expression of mock horror. “This is getting downright creepy,” I said out loud.
This time while driving through the town, the taciturn and vague figures we saw stared at us. Perhaps they were used to strangers driving through town on their way somewhere else, but they could spot a foreign car or truck as it went through a second time, perhaps up to no good or ‘spying’ as we speculated further. We pulled out of the valley once again, and turned in the opposite direction, finally locating a sign pointing us down Rattlesnake Road. “This has got to be it,” Joe exclaimed with assurance, turning down yet another winding path and descending slowly downhill.
Well, of course the reader already knows what happened next. After five minutes of wooded hollow we emerged at the bottom, right smack in the middle of Dodtown again.
This time Joe stopped the truck and got out. “What the hell are you doing?” I asked with a smile half hiding real concern. He answered, “I want to see what is in there,” as he pointed to the old store with the Hamms sign.
I slowly got out of the truck, wondering as I did so, if this was going to be something I told my children about twenty years in the future as the “Time when…” What? I could only speculate as we walked to the front of the building now empty of bikers.
I stopped at the door of the place, my feet crunching peeled paint chips against the rotting wood of the stoop. There was a screen door, but it had only the remnants of a screen at the edges where they were rusting away. There was no doorknob or lever, but an old piece of electrical wire thick in gauge was twisted through the hole the knob must have occupied in better times long past.
I slowly opened the door inward and we stood in the doorway blinking, for however the lack of light at the valley floor, the interior of this place was darker still.
Old faded curtains of questionable color over dusty windows and one naked bulb provided the light for the single room. Against the wall on the right was a bar of sorts and a number of mismatched wooden chairs faced it. Behind the bar were arrayed an amazingly eclectic spread of goods attached to pegboard or lying on shelving: rubber boots, hip waders, shovels, kitchen cleaner, bib jeans, hand tools, saw blades, knives of every variety, cans of oil, etc, competed for space on the crowded back wall. A mounted fish above the counter could either be a trout or a carp; it was so covered in tobacco smoke, one couldn’t tell. A fat middle-aged woman sat on a tall crate behind the counter, her mouth full of something she was slowly chewing. She had on overly tight sweat pants and a massive T-shirt that doubled as a sort of dress or cover-all. She had no shoes on. Joe and I slowly made our way to the bar or counter and sat down a few spaces away from a guy in dusty and smelly overalls with long stringy hair and a stained NAPA parts ball cap. He was drinking a bottle of grape soda. I asked what the place had to drink, and the woman answered “Beer or soder, Whatchoo wan?” “Two cans of beer.” Joe said, looking at me when emphasizing the word ‘Cans’.
She bent over an old ice cooler set against the back wall, pulled out two cans of Old Milwaukee, and set them unopened on the counter. “One dolla.” she spit out. As we paid, I noticed the guy at the counter looking at us. “Soups O.K.” he said, “if your hungray…” “Its otta can too,” he added pointing to his own bowl of vegetable soup. “All there is anyway…” “Them’s above wont look nohow neither.” He added cryptically with a glance. “Let’s go outside and drink these I said to Joe, as he nodded.”
As we turned to go to sit on the bench out front, we saw an elderly woman mumbling to herself at the only table. She was smoking a pack of unfiltered Pall-Malls through her remaining several crooked teeth, and seemed to be playing cards. The odd thing was that there were only two cards. She kept dealing them to herself, turning them over, and cussing to herself repeatedly. She looked up for a heart beat and her eyes were red and surrounded by gray shadows. The other two had similar eyes I noted as we opened the door and took a deep breath of air.
“Cheers!” I said to Joe, as we first wiped off the tops of the beer and opened them. That’s when I noticed that my hands were really dirty; almost gray-black with a powder residue. I poured some beer into them and tried to wipe them on my pants, but it only half helped. Joe’s hands were similarly dirty, but neither of us could get them clean by wiping them. It was if they had been covered in oily graphite. “This place is filthy!” I said out loud, and poured my remaining beer on the ground with Joe following suit. “Even those bikers just drank their beers outside and got out of town.” We got into the truck, and after consulting a map, which we should have done an hour ago, located the correct route out of Dodtown and into the next valley over which held our smallmouth bass river.
We turned onto the original road we drove in on and turned up the only side road we had not yet driven on. It began to climb out of the valley.
The last impression I had of Dodtown was perhaps the worst. As Joe downshifted and we drove past a series of run-down and dilapidated hovels, I spotted a yard with long poles and ropes strung up. Hung on these ropes were the carcasses of numerous coyotes and deer with their throats cut, bleeding out. A thickset and meaty man with wild black hair peered at us as we past. His eyes were surrounded with gray like a cadaver, and they burned bloodshot and red as he held swaying in his hand a bloody hatchet.
When we found the river at last, the first thing we did before even gearing up, was to attempt to wash our hands. It took a few minutes to clean them of the gray soot, and we noted that we both had a funny dull metallic taste in our mouths. “Probably that old stale beer.” We stated with dismissal.
The fishing was awful. The banks of the little river were collapsed and eroded, and trees and debris were jammed at every bend. Joe caught exactly one smallmouth, I hooked a diaper lodged against debris on the bottom. We noted that the great floods of 2008 had destroyed this area far worse than we thought. That was why those cars were buried back in town. In two years, nobody had even tried to remove them. To add insult to injury, I fell down the muddy bank like a hippo and rolled into the water, causing us both to chuckle.
“Hell of a fishing trip,” I quipped. Joe smiled. “Always is when you and I get together.” Joe answered smiling.
We drove back out of the valley and turned onto the main state highway back toward the Driftless area trout streams and Joe’s cabin. The road took us through the largest town in the county, and after stopping to fill our bellies with a greasy burger, I spotted a building next to the post office with a sign stating it to be the county historical society.
“Let’s go in and see if we can’t find out more about that town and Valley.” I suggested.
The neat interior was covered in historical photos and maps. Rows of books and old bound newspapers sat neatly indexed behind the counter where we were met by an older thin woman wearing a light blue dress and horn-rimmed glasses who instantly smiled and asked if we needed help.
“We just came from driving through a small valley with an odd little community called Dodtown.” I stated, “and we wanted to see if we could find out more about it, and what its history was… and what happened there.”
She raised her eyebrows and looked at us with a wry smile. “Dodtown huh?”
“Yea, we would appreciate any information you could give us.” “We are just two fly-fishermen, but that town made us curious.”
“I have some coffee I just made, let me get you a cup and come sit down at the research table in the main library.” She asked.
Returning with two very welcome cups of hospitality, she set them before us, and taking a sip on her own, began to tell us the tale.
“It was a lead mining town founded back in 1830. There used to be two large loads or veins of ore right in town in the cliffs and running into the hills. It grew quite quickly to a population of almost five hundred people, mostly miners and their families. Cornish, Welsh, Norwegians, and some Germans and Poles mixed in. The veins were rich with lead ore, and they were easy to work as well. The miners drove their tunnels following the ore straight into the hills. Money rolled in, and for a time Dodtown was the fastest growing community around, and one of the wealthiest too. They built a road right out of town to carry the ore to smelters. It is abandoned now and blocked by an old dump filled with rusting cars.
Around about 1941 the ore began to run out. There was always plenty of lead in that valley, but the lead in the soil was almost impossible to remove, so when the veins began to dry up, the people followed suit and moved on… or most of them did.
I guess there were two types of people then, and two choices too. Those that chose to get out of town, and those who chose to stay. In all, the town lost two-thirds of its population in three years. For awhile the people who stayed did O.K. with cottage industry and what was left of the mining on a vastly diminished scale. By 1950 Dodtown was pretty much forgotten. People seemed to avoid the few residents, who grew increasingly insular, inbred, and suspicious of outsiders. The flooding didn’t help. God knows why anyone would construct a town at the bottom of a massive drainage area and flood plain, but I guess the founders were mainly concerned with ore extraction and not much else. The fortune extracted left Dodtown along with the owners of the mine and the few wealthy citizens when they left. I have newspaper articles from that time where people up here referred to Dodtown as ‘Floodtown,’ and ‘Poverty Hollow.’
It was in the 1960s that the state and county began to expand social welfare programs, and those workers that visited Dodtown came away with a look of concern and alarm. The census takers too had a hard time trying to make out the actual population. Knocks on doors went unanswered. Did you notice how shy and retiring the Dodtowners are? Not bad people, but strange. People thought there was something wrong with them too. They seemed to be underweight and developmentally disabled. They looked sick.
A few years later, in the late 1960s, some Dodtowner brought a sick child to the county hospital. The girl was lethargic, and was slurring her speech. Her eyes were sunken and red too. The doctors puzzled over her until a blood test revealed elevated levels of lead four times the acceptable maximum. That began an investigation in the county of well water and soil samples, and what they found was shocking. All the flooding had washed the mine tailings of lead dust down to the bottom of the valley and in addition to fouling the wells, had become so prevalent that one could get a coating of lead dust just walking about or digging in the dirt. Nothing would grow there either, except weeds.
I don’t know why those people are still there. Goodness knows enough agencies have tried to force them to move out, offering cash buyouts for the flood plain issues on their properties, and serving evictions based on unsafe and downright lethal pollution of lead, but over half of the inhabitants stayed on. Today it is, pardon the expression, our little ‘Piece of Appalachia.’ Sad. Every year the population decreases by a few people, and nobody replaces them. Should be a ghost town in ten years or so. In many ways it is now. None of those people really ever come up here anymore. I wonder what they eat for Pete’s sake. Some of them are so distorted that they can’t walk right anymore and seem to just shamble and drool. Lead poisoning is nothing to take lightly”
We thanked her as we left, and wondered at our chance encounter with a piece of history and decay.
“Next time I get to choose where to go fly-fishing.” I said to Joe.
“Nah,” he replied, “Then it might not be quite the adventure.”