At the time of European settlement, the Sugar River Valley and land now occupied by Three Waters Reserve was the home of the Ho-Chunk. A rich archaeological record (https://lsrwa.org/your-watershed/cultural-history/) tells us that human cultures had occupied the valley and southern Wisconsin region for millennia since the last glacial episode nearly 12,000 years ago. This extraordinary human history is an integral part of the Three Waters Reserve story.
The recent history of the Reserve is most visibly linked to the settlement of nearby City of Brodhead during the mid-nineteenth century. Construction of a dam and mill race on the Sugar River provided power to a small hydroelectric operation which brought electricity to the City. The dam created Decatur Lake which borders the Reserve.
By 1857, a railroad was built connecting Brodhead to the industrial Midwest, thus helping the City grow as a commercial hub. A brief freshwater pearl rush at the turn of the twentieth century made the Sugar River world-famous and supported a short-lived button industry that capitalized on the abundant freshwater mussel shell resource. Over time, agriculture grew to become the dominant industry in the valley and region.
In 1905, Henry C. Putnam, a local lumber baron, purchased 71 acres of property on the Sugar River and Decatur Lake that would one day become the Reserve. Upon Putnam’s death, his nephew Matt purchased the property, eventually selling most of it to build the Decatur Lake Golf Course. Matt retained 14 acres which his daughter Alice inherited and later passed down to her children, Ted and Mary Odell.
Since 1926, the Decatur Lake Golf Course has been a beloved spot on the Sugar River for its spectacular river bluff scenery, grand oak trees, and picturesque rolling hills. By 1992, the golf course had expanded to include an additional 90 acres. In the early decades of the twenty-first century, the golfing industry was moving away from traditional public courses as the golfing public shifted its interest to a different sort of golfing experience. As the cost of maintenance grew and membership dwindled, golf courses began to shut down in many parts of the country.
In 2017, the Decatur Lake Golf Course was put on the market. In 2018, a group of philanthropic donors with an interest in conservation purchased the land. The goal of the new owner, the Southern Wisconsin Land Conservancy, was to restore the natural oak savanna, prairie, and wetland landscapes of the river valley to continue to bring natural beauty and pleasure to all citizens as public open space and as a place to gather, celebrate, and learn about restoring ecosystems and healthy watersheds.
Since purchasing the property, SWLC has developed growing partnerships with other groups and entrepreneurs to expand programming at the Reserve to include science and education and a farm to table enterprise with local regenerative farmers and chefs.