Cultural History

The Rich Cultural History of the Lower Sugar River Valley

Rivers and streams have always drawn people for travel, commerce, food and living sites, and the Sugar River is no different. This area has provided settlement for immigrants from Europe, Indigenous cultures including the Potawatomie and HoChunk people, and before that Woodland mound-building cultures. The tributaries that feed the Sugar River throughout the watershed have helped shape the land for many uses. 

Early History: 12,000 B.C. Through 1800's A.D. 

Phillip Millhouse, a noted local archeologist and historian, has done extensive research into the history of the Native American cultures that populated our region starting as far back as 12,000 B.C. His report, "Native American People in the Lower Sugar River Valley: 12,000 Years Ago to the Present," takes us on a fascinating journey through changing weather patterns, tribal migrations, different Native American communities, cultures, and traditions, as well as the arrival and ultimate dominance of the European settlers. Please take the time to read this wonderful and important record—as it not only provides a valuable window into our past, but gives us clues as to how we may best restore and preserve our precious lands and water resources so future generations can read our story with pride and respect. 

Modern Cultural History of the Lower Sugar River Valley

Agriculture, both row crop and livestock, is now a major land use throughout the watershed. The towns of Orfordville, Brodhead and Albany in Wisconsin, and Durand, and Lake Summerset in Illinois are all included inside the watershed. Just downstream of Durand, near Shirland, IL, the Sugar River joins the Pecatonica River, ultimately joining the Rock River, and then flowing into the Mississippi on a lazy downward journey to the Gulf of Mexico. 

Many people don't know that in the early 1900’s, there was a pearl rush on the Sugar River! It all started when a perfect pearl was found inside a mussel taken from the Sugar River in Albany, WI. At this time pearls were to the aristocratic class what diamonds are today. Perfect pearls were rarer than fine diamonds, however, because they are created by living creatures. Freshwater pearls, formed when an irritant like sand is lodged inside the shell of a mussel, are often oblong and misshapen. Jewelers would hold a strand of pearls for years until the correct size of perfectly round pearl was found to complete the piece. Teardrop shaped pearls were used as highlights on sets of pearls. A strand of pearls that originally came from the Sugar River is housed with the rest of the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London today. A town south of the watershed, but included in this pearl rush, was renamed Pearl City in honor of the valuable pearl found in a mussel there.

Mussels were important for humbler reasons as well.  Before plastics, mussel shells with their pearl-like interiors, were collected to punch out buttons for fancy clothing. Of course, most people wore wooden, bone or horn buttons on their everyday clothing. Middens, or collections of spent mussel shells can be found along the shores of many waterways, the Sugar River included. 

If you have some interesting facts about the history of our region, please share it! You can use our form below, or send us an email at