Traveling the backroads in any state is one of my favorite past times and the last trip was no different. I had a long weekend so my partner and I threw a couple of things in a bag and ran out the door. It has long been a dream of mine to travel the entire Mississippi River. Last fall we ventured north through Wisconsin, so last June, we decided to head south on the Iowa side of the river.
We spent the first night in Dubuque, Iowa (see previous article on Dubuque). We woke up the next morning and headed south. In a few minutes we were just north of St. Donatus in a little area named, “Tete De Morts”, which when translated means, “heads of the dead.”
Research told the story of a Flemish missionary and explorer Father Louis Hennepin who came through the area in 1680. He was very impressed with the natural beauty that surrounded him as he made his way through the lush area. But his amazement turned to horror as he came upon a sight that would stay with him for the rest of his life. Before him the beautiful land was covered with human bones.
Natives told Father Hennepin the legend of the tribes that used to live in the area. The Winnebagoes called the pretty little valley home. One of the chiefs, Watumni of the Winnebagoes would travel to trade with other nearby tribes including the Fox who lived by Prairie Du Chien, Wisconsin. On one of these trips Watumni met the beautiful daughter of the Fox Chief. Her name was Nita and Watumni fell instantly in love with the girl. Watnumni visited the Fox tribe often always trying to win the hand of the beautiful maiden. Whether she returned his affection or not has been lost to time but it is said that on one of the visits, Watumni saw that Nita was spending time with another warrior. This enraged Watumni and to add insult to injury the particular warrior was one that Watumni hated above all the rest. Watumni’s heart broke and he marched to the side of the girl he loved and spat in her face.
This was the ultimate act of disrespect and Nita’s father the Fox Chief felt he had to stand up for his daughter. He ordered a war party to gather and they rode out to the Winnebago village. The band arrived at night and their attack was a complete surprise to their victims. The legend puts the number of victims from 200 to 500. The Fox killed most of them but a small band of survivors climbed the bluff above the creek. They knew that they were doomed and chose to end their suffering by leaping off the bluff. The Fox tribe had defended Nita’s honor by killing Watumni’s entire village. There was no one left to bury the dead until Father Hennepin stumbled on their remains.
Some that travel through this area today speak of shadows and the horrible sounds of screams and louds war cries. Though the valley is beautiful and serene today, the area seems to hold on to the tragedy that took place here long ago.
Other white men traveled through the area after Father Hennepin but none stayed until Joel Noel, a native of the little country of Luxembourg. Joe left his home land to travel to America in the late 1830’s. Other folks from Luxembourg joined Joe, including Peter Gehlen who would help found the little village. It was named St. Donatus after the Catholic saint of storms.
The quaint place still holds on to its European atmosphere with eighteen of its original stone buildings still standing. Peter Gehlen built a stage stop that included a tavern by the 1850’s. He also built a huge stone barn that still stands today.
When the barn was finished, the cows lived in the down stairs and the family lived on the second and third floors. Later, it was used for community gatherings and even a play or two was performed here. It continues to be used even today by folks looking for a special atmosphere for a family gathering or wedding.
One rather unique spot in the town is the Kalmes Restaurant. This mom and pop restaurant has really put St. Donatus on the map. During the peak of fall colors, the Kalems family opens all the dining rooms to seat 275 people. It was started by Theodore and Stella Kalems in 1933 when they purchased the property and built a small gas station and bar. They updated in 1942 by adding a grocery store and living quarters.
Stella and Theodore’s son, Windy still owns the place and we were honored when he came out to chat about the history. He grew up in St. Donatus and owns the barn and the Bed and Breakfast house across the street. Windy entertained us with stories of the people who called this little spot on the map home. He attended the little school and church in town and spent his days in the family store. Windy and his wife, Helen were partners in life and business. I was saddened to read of her passing this July, a little over a month after our visit.
It was a pleasure to meet and talk to Windy. He made the history of the beginnings of this quaint little town come alive for us. He pointed to photographs that lined the walls of his family’s restaurant and shared the stories of the townspeople pictured there. Later, we would visit the historic St. Donatus Catholic Church and see the names Windy mentioned carved into the stones that lined the hillside. It brought the stories of this brave people who left their homeland to travel to a new land full circle.
Though Windy didn’t have any ghost stories for me, it wasn’t hard to see that this was definitely a place where the veil that separates the living and the dead is very thin. I think the Windy and Helen’s ancestors would be proud that they carried on their legacy. They might even pop in for a visit now and then, just to let them know they are still around.
Copyright © 2018 Kathi Kresol.