Customers noticeably down due to flood

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This scene at Rolette and Second Streets depicts the unsightly brown muck left in the aftermath of nearly three months of standing river water on Prairie du Chien’s usually picturesque St. Feriole Island. Some areas were spared, but there’s unfortunately a lot of cleanup and regrowth needed. (Photo by Correne Martin)

A common scene near the river in Prairie du Chien is sticks, weeds, mud and debris clinging to the landscape. This is a fence along Washington Street.

Editor’s note: This is the fourth story in a series about Prairie du Chien’s St. Feriole Island experiencing sustained flooding for 87 consecutive days, and how that has affected the community.

By Correne Martin

It’s been a far from ideal spring for Prairie du Chien area businesses who rely on river traffic, resort visitors and tourists in pursuit of leisure and attractions. 

The Mississippi River crested twice in McGregor in April, at 21.34 feet on April 5 and 21.75 feet on April 26—among the highest ever recorded at the location. Water above flood stage for three months has hampered the usual influx of people that arrives locally in March and April.

Some establishments have felt the lull in customers more than others. 

The Villa Louis Historic Site closed for 10 days of its season thus far when St. Feriole Island was completely shut down to the public. With word spreading about the flood, revenue May 27 through June 2 was down 50 percent, while attendance declined 55 percent.

“Even before it was closed, our numbers were down significantly in May,” said Susan Caya-Slusser, southwest sites director for the Wisconsin Historical Society. “We canceled several school tours. We rescheduled a ‘Breakfast (in a Victorian Kitchen)’ and a ‘Behind the Scenes.’ So we miss out on those this fiscal year (which ends this month).”

Thankfully, going into the 2020 fiscal year, Caya-Slusser said, the Wisconsin Historical Society is looking at an increase to the Villa’s marketing budget. One focus of the funds will be 11 days of new special programming surrounding the War of 1812, in partnership with the public library, Wyalusing State Park and Maiden Voyage Tours.

“Unfortunately, flooding will probably continue. But Hercules Dousman knew (to build the house on a mound), and that’s why, thankfully, our collection is safe.” 

Down the river in Cassville, the Stonefield Historic Site, she said, has welcomed about 15 percent fewer visitors. “With the Cassville Ferry not running, that’s a huge impact for them. Like us, their community is also concerned about the lasting effects of the high river on tourism, fishing and recreation.” 

At The Broken Ladder in downtown Prairie du Chien, the gift shop recorded sales last week near a level typical of February, during the offseason. Owner Laurie Pedretti said that, even with school getting out, last weekend wasn’t as busy as she had hoped. She said a common $400-$500 Saturday has become more like a $100 day. 

“There’s been less browsing because people can’t get to their cabins and campers,” she stated. “I know a couple people from Harper’s Ferry (Iowa) hoping to get to their cabins this weekend. Campers are what makes my business. I’ve really noticed that’s not there right now.”

Next door at Starks Sport Shop, Alex Stark said they may have noticed a small downtick in business, but customers are largely being positive about the “long, weird, cold, wet spring.”

“In our experience, the river hasn’t really affected our people. It’s our culture, our way of life. People are catching fish. People are still buying. Visitors are still coming to town,” he commented. “The biggest hurdle has been finding somewhere else to put your boat in the water.”

He added, the excitement around the shop has been the hope that the river will drop 3 feet this week—from more than 16 feet Monday to just over 13 feet next Monday. 

Even the family-owned furniture store across town, Tiller’s, has recognized a difference in the number of customers coming through its doors. Owner Sue Tiller said seasonal residents and citizens with homes along the river aren’t buying mattresses, couches and other furniture this year.

“Once you get close to the Fourth of July, they don’t change things out. They just wait to buy new at the beginning of next year,” she said.

Having grown up in Prairie du Chien, Tiller said she’s never seen the Mississippi crest so sizably three times in one season. 

McGregor’s Beer and Bratz Garden welcomed customers for the first time this season on June 4. Located right along the Mississippi River, high water isn’t an unusual foe for the long-time restaurant this time of year.

“You have to expect that here,” Manager Raven Thornton shared. “But not for this length of time.”

McGregor Marina dockhands had to help with the restaurant before readying the house boats and pontoons. Now, they’re focusing on that project.

Thornton hopes the river will continue to drop.

“If people can’t get on the river, they can’t rent out house boats or pontoons. The river is what draws a lot of people here,” she said. “This is still a beautiful area. The towns have history. There’s shopping and the bars and restaurants. The hiking is great.”

The Depot Bar & Grill, which is located amid St. Feriole Island along Water Street in Prairie du Chien, was just two inches from having water inside this spring, according to Owner Blair Dillman. He said the business is about a month behind schedule, as it finally opened for patrons May 15. 

The adjacent Dousman House, which Dillman and his staff also run, missed out on three proms and three weddings due to the sustained flood. 

Uptown at Muddy Waters pizzeria, Owner Todd Crotty said the flood’s impact on his business became apparent thanks to one recent customer in particular. The seasonal regular said he’s usually in Prairie du Chien in April but didn’t come until May. The pizza pub’s delivery service has been noticeably affected as well, he said, to local campgrounds and cabin occupants. 

“We’re seeing people pulling out campers instead of putting them in,” he quipped. “We have to find ways to sustain ourselves during these difficult times and prepare for them. We’re a community of businesses who depend on the river making or breaking us. So I appreciate what the Chamber has done to shed light on the fact that when the tourists are gone, it’s the locals who should remember to support these businesses.”

Crotty said, with the river going down and an outlook that includes a new hotel opening downtown later this summer, “there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

He continued, “It’s just one of those seasons you go through as a business owner.”

Prairie du Chien Area Chamber Director Bob Moses said the cancelation of the Prairie Villa Rendezvous and flea market has triggered even more phone calls at the tourist information center about the river and local events. He said events like Music Fights Back (June 21-22), the War of 1812 and chamber fireworks (July 13-14) and the Prairie Dog Blues Fest (July 26-27) are just a few of the many activities that can still turn this season into a successful one.  

Editor’s note: North Iowa Times Editor Audrey Posten contributed to this article.

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