‘River Rat’ to tell stories at historical society’s annual meeting

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Kenny Salwey grew up on the Whitman Swamp in Buffalo County, 6,000 acres of seasonally-flooded Mississippi River backwaters. He will be in Prairie du Chien, Jan. 12, to share his entertaining childhood stories.

Community members invited to listen to familiar tales

By Correne Martin

If you’re interested in listening to some good ole river stories about more leisurely times when mother nature was foremost in the lives of those who depended on the river for their livelihood, Kenny Salwey’s keynote speech at the Prairie du Chien Historical Society’s annual meeting is the moment to savor.

The meeting will be Thursday, Jan. 12, from 6 to 8:30 p.m., at Huckleberry’s Banquet Hall, in Prairie du Chien. Social time begins at 6 p.m., followed by dinner at 6:30, a short business meeting and then the speaker.

For 28 years, Salwey lived on the Whitman Swamp, a 6,000-acre seasonally-flooded, Mississippi backwater swamp in Buffalo County. He enjoyed a multitude of storied adventures as a child, growing up immersed in the wondrous, nature-filled Mississippi River surroundings. And he remembers many of his personal tales well enough to tell them with a quiet sense of humor that draws listeners in so far they feel like they’re on a river vacation.

In spirit, Salwey was and always will be a down-to-earth river rat.

He’s now in his early 70s, lives in Alma and is self-described as the last of a breed of men whose lifestyle has all but disappeared in this fast-paced, high-tech digital world. He earned a tough living with the land, close to nature and the Mississippi River, using only his native wit. For 30 years, this weathered woodsman eked out a living running a trapline, hiring out as a river guide, digging and selling roots and herbs and eating the food he hunted and fished.

“We have river rats here,” shared Bob Ziel, Prairie du Chien Historical Society board member. “There’s very few of that breed left who can make a living at it.”

Yet, as Ziel explained, Salwey’s childhood is one that is highly relatable to many Prairie du Chien area residents and natives. Stories of true-life adventures and hard-learned experiences in the Fourth Ward should undoubtedly sound familiar. In fact, Salwey is good friends with local river rat Donnie Valley.

Salwey travels frequently sharing his colorful memories of the natural world, in hopes to inspire others to protect the ecosystem. He has authored three nature books, including “Tales of a River Rat,” “Muskrat for Supper,” and “The Dogs and I.” He was also the main character in the documentary “Tales of the Last River Rat,” which many area nature lovers may have seen on public television. It included some filming in Prairie du Chien, done by cinematographer Neil Rettig.

“He’s got some really great childhood stories,” Ziel said of Salwey. “He once told me we live in the greatest place imaginable. There’s plenty to do and see for all four seasons.”

People interested in attending Salwey’s talk at the historical society meeting may come for the whole evening or just for his speech. No society or museum membership is necessary. Reservations for the dinner are needed by Tuesday, Jan. 10, by calling Friday Wiles at (608) 306-0121.

“If you just want to hear Kenny speak, you can come and listen for only a freewill donation,” Ziel noted. Salwey is anticipated to begin his presentation around 7:30 p.m. “You don’t have to be a member to attend.”

There will be no pressure to purchase a Prairie du Chien Historical Society membership at the meeting next week. However, memberships will be available at different levels, such as single adult, couple and family.

“We’re constantly looking for new members and new volunteers,” Ziel stated. “Being a member is really an investment in the history of not just Prairie du Chien but really the area that was once part of that prairie, up and down and across the river. It’s an investment toward preserving our history, our heritage.”

Members receive free admission to the Fort Crawford Museum, 10 percent off purchases in the gift shop, a quarterly newsletter and voting rights at meetings. All ages of volunteers can take part in putting together any of the museum’s annual events, including the Pies A-Plenty auction, Bits and Pieces historical program, Garage Band Reunion, Visiting Our Ancestors cemetery tour, Christmas at the Fort and winter historical movie showing.

The historical society has used some of its funds in recent years to restore the beautiful murals that once hung in the halls of St. Mary’s Academy in Prairie du Chien. They are now on display at Peoples State Bank downtown. Funds have also helped to acquire the oldest-known painting of the fort, from 1842, which is currently being restored.

For more information about the historical society or Fort Crawford, visit fortcrawfordmuseum.com. To become a member, contact Friday Wiles at the number mentioned above.

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