Prairie Moraine County Park in Verona is one of the most heavily-used parks in Dane County, especially since the establishment of an off-leash dog exercise area in 1995.
On the surface, this 160-acre park is a beautiful place to hike and take in expansive views of the area. But dig a little deeper into its past, and you're likely to treasure each step a bit more.
It started taking shape when the last glacier retreated and left a ridge of debris called the Johnstown Moraine, which is the prominent feature on the northern end of the park. Now, the Ice Age National Scenic Trail follows nearly a mile of this terminal moraine, which sits above St. Peter sandstone bedrock. The trail travels through a restored oak savanna and prairie toward an opening with views of the Upper Sugar River Valley and Driftless Area.
Ice Age Trail Alliance volunteer Dave Lonsdorf helps steward the trail there and has gathered a wealth of knowledge about the park in the process. He said that because of the elevation at Prairie Moraine County Park, one of the highest points in Dane County, a 9-1-1- communications tower was also erected just east of the park in the 1990s.
A century before that, the land was thought to be the home of something much more intriguing: a leper colony from 1896-1902. When a couple people with leprosy were sent to the Dane County Hospital and Home (in those days the insane asylum and poor farm) near what is now Badger Prairie County Park, they were relocated away from the rest of the public for fear of the disease spreading -- supposedly on this farmland south of the town of Verona.
Verona Area Historical Society president Jesse Charles recently presented his findings about the leper colony in this video, which includes oral histories, Dane County records, aerial photographs, and newspaper clippings. The group has also been working with Dane County Parks, archaeologists from the Wisconsin Historical Society, and the newly formed Prairie Moraine Friends group, who have discovered piles of rocks within the park that might have been their housing platforms. So if you're taking your dog for a walk in the exercise area, keep an eye out for the rocks, but do not disturb the site.
When Prairie Moraine County Park was first established, the entire area was designated as a dog park. But Lonsdorf said when people would take their dogs up and down the moraine, it started causing erosion. Since then, sturdy fences have been installed that split the park in two halves, so hikers on the Ice Age Trail don't have to worry about wandering dogs, and vice versa.
For the last 20 years or so, the Ice Age Trail Alliance has been working on a restoration project on the north end of the park. From clearing invasive species like buckthorn and honeysuckle to regularly burning the area, Lonsdorf believes the group is about five years away from being finished with the oak savanna restoration near the trail.
However, the park will continue to need help from volunteers as its popularity grows, especially since up to 350 people use it on nice days. Two years ago, dog park enthusiasts Dave Jelinski and Sue Dunn conceived of the idea to to form a friends group to assist the Dane County Parks staff in preserving and maintaining the land -- not only for the benefit of people and dogs, but also for all the flora and fauna that depend on this area.
Unofficially formed in the fall of 2017 with 20 members, Prairie Moraine Friends now has 65 members. It is still in the early stages of filing for nonprofit status and does not yet have a board of directors, but the group has set up a Facebook page for people to join and learn more. The group is chartered for the entire park, but their immediate focus will be the dog exercise portion. The park has opened four more areas for dogs to run, but the Friends' goal is to create more exercise areas for the dogs.
"It's a real jewel for not just people that enjoy the outdoors, but for dogs and dog lovers," Jelinski said. "There's something primal about it; dogs are meant to walk."
The Prairie Moraine Friends group is working with a naturalist from Dane County Parks to restore some areas of the park to its intended landscape since there are many invasive shrubs. Jelinski hopes to see more classic prairie plants appear, like the ephemeral shooting stars, and he said the group also intends to revitalize the bluebird trail, upgrade the poetry pathway, and establish a relationship with the UW Extension to help pollinators.
Visitors may be impacted twice per year with prescribed fires, usually in spring, and pesticide application. When the group is able to fundraise, their goal is to purchase a trail vehicle with donations since "the park is so large and the trails so vast," Jelinski said.
"The park is so lovely," he added.
Did you know?
Dane County Parks was one of the first park systems in the country to develop off-leash dog exercise areas (dog parks) and is recognized as a national leader. It now has seven dog parks: Badger Prairie, Capital Springs Recreation Area, Indian Lake, Prairie Moraine, Token Creek, Viking, Yahara Heights.
A dog permit is required and valid at all Dane County dog parks in the cooperating communities of Madison, Sun Prairie, and Middleton.
Wisconsin Brewing Company in Verona hosts an annual "Barks for Parks" fundraiser in honor of Dane County dog parks. This year's event is August 25, 2018.
The annual dog park spring cleanup is the last Saturday in March, 8 a.m. to noon, rain or shine. Bring materials to pick up dog waste and other trash.