Ask most people who live in and around Baraboo about the largest animal they’ve ever seen walking the streets of the city, and they will most likely answer “The Circus World Museum elephants!”
Today that answer is accurate. However, 5,000 years ago, anyone living in southern Wisconsin might have witnessed the meanderings of one of the largest behemoths to ever inhabit the Sauk County area.
The woolly mammoth was approximately 13 feet tall at the shoulder and weighed three tons, slightly larger than today’s elephants.
These plant-eaters had long black and brown hair—similar to today’s muskoxen—a soft undercoat that protected them from the cold, and tusks which were up to 14 feet long. They were used to forage in the deep snow and protect themselves from other mammoths. Both males and females sported the curved tusks.
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The woolly mammoth was not directly related to modern elephants, having diverged from a common ancestor some five million years past. Its ancestors from Europe crossed the land bridge that existed between Siberia and Alaska around 1.7 million years ago. Mummified, frozen carcasses have been unearthed in Siberia and Alaska in recent years, allowing scientists to study their physiology.
We know these woolly mammoths once existed in what was to become Baraboo, because in 1844, an early settler, George W. Brown, his brother-in-law, Marvin Blake, and George Grant, along with several workmen, uncovered the burial site of one of these giant mammoths. They were excavating along the Baraboo River near the old Oak Street dam, intending to put up a saw mill. Upon digging about eight feet down, they discovered the bones of an animal thirty-six feet long, according to an article in Butterfield’s 1880 History of Sauk County. “The bones, though apparently well-kept, on being taken from their resting place, gradually air-slacked and became dust,” noted the article.
The huge length was probably due to the bones having been scattered over the millennia. Its fate may have been sealed when it fell through the ice and could not escape. Or it may have been killed by early Paleo-Indians during a hunting foray.
Why do we not see living remnants of these huge animals today? Some scientists speculate they may have succumbed at the end of the last Ice Age some 4,000 years ago, when the dry vegetation they ate decreased in nutritional quality and they starved to death. Others think they may have been hunted to extinction by the ever-increasing population of humans, who moved north when the climate warmed.
As far as we know, the remains found at the Oak Street site no longer exist. Perhaps at some time in the future, when excavation again commences along the Baraboo River, someone will shout, “Hey, look what I found!”
Bill Schuette has served on the board of directors at the Sauk County Historical Society since 1993. He lives in rural Loganville.