The dirt on Roscommon
By Justin Isherwood
The soil types of Portage County are many, and then there is the Buena Vista Marsh. On this ancient moor you can find Plainfield sands and Meehan sands. Also Markey muck and Roscommon muck. Some mockingly suggest that muck is not a soil but vintage contents of a garbage can.
In muck soil can be found the fiber of trees as died two thousand years ago, maybe five thousand. The spore of Ice Age lichen and moss. The trace of trees that grew at the hem of the Great Ice and heard the death rattle of that long winter.
As a child of the marsh I learned of the strangeness of this place, the marsh had its secrets, including a precarious boreal forest more of Douglas County than Portage, balsam, yellow birch, cedar, hemlock, ash. The marsh was an anxious place to attempt agriculture, too wet, too dry, years the very earth burned, the next it went submarine. A jealous landscape I thought, and then its strange soils, Markey muck and Roscommon.
The names of these soil types has long intrigued me, by accident I learned of the county in Michigan called Roscommon. Here I thought must be the namesake of the soil type. The natal home of Roscommon, a tourist spa surely, perhaps with a plaque and T-shirts available reading “Great Muck” “Original Roscommon,”
Roscommon, Michigan, is the county seat of Roscommon County, population somewhere of 2,400, seasonally closer to 10,000. The county is located just north of central Michigan. Local residents affectionately call it “Rosco.”
The county voted Trump in 2016 as did the state of Michigan. The state of Michigan swings to and fro politically, some suggest this is a healthy politic. The principal draw of Roscommon County is the land surface is 10% water, the most notable feature being Houghton Lake of 31.32 square miles. Houghton Lake is the largest inland lake in the state of Michigan with an average depth 7.5 feet. This lake puts the village of Roscommon on the map, being a popular northern home for snow birds. The lake is also the site of the rather famous “Tip-up Town” named for its suburbs of ice fishing shanties that seasonally populate Houghton Lake. Houghton the lake, including the city are named after Michigan’s first state geologist Douglas Houghton. He as it turned out was a popular guy. It’s nice to know this can happen to a geologist.
Despite my anticipation of finding the natal state of Roscommon muck, it turns out Roscommon, Michigan, is not the source, rather that honor belongs to Roscommon, Ireland from where many of the immigrants to central Michigan originated.
At least, I thought, County Roscommon, Ireland has to be named for the soil type Roscommon. Foiled again. Instead Roscommon is an Anglo-Saxon misconstruance of the pre-existing Gaelic name of the county, Ros Comaín. The name a combination of Ros meaning a wooded upland and Comain who was the first Christian abbot to the area founding a monastery there in 550 A.D. Abbot Coman is now a saint in the Catholic glossary, his name in full being Coman mad Faelchon, who founded a monastery on the River Suck at a wooded site (Ros) known ever after as Ros Comain and in due turn Roscommon. This the soil type.
The typing of soils began in the distant eons as agriculture took its hold of human destiny, to realize our collective fate was dependent on lands and soils and these in turn are different from each other. And that this difference has everything to do with the success of a crop, a farm, a civilization. In soil type was the peril to the immigrants coming to the Americas who were buoyed on the dream of land ownership only to find their farm dream at the hazard of the resident soil type. The northern ranges of Wisconsin and Michigan and Minnesota is replete with family sagas borne on the suffrage of the soil type. Soils too sandy, too wet, clay, stony, mucky, further complexed by summers too short, winters too long.
The Buena Vista Marsh and its muck soils in the pioneer era were a remarkably popular purchase for the sake of its upland grass component. Modern renditions often view the Buena Vista Marsh was a wasteland until dredging saved it. This simply isn’t true. The 1895 plat demonstrates the hundreds of 40 acre parcels privately owned for their energy equivalent, at a time when both city and village dwellers owned a forty or two of grassland for the sake of their household locomotion. Accordingly the market square of Stevens Point and other urban areas were called the “hay market” for good cause. Hay was an energy future as we view petroleum today. Hay was a core commodity as we would view electricity and natural gas.
The peneplain of the Buena Vista was once a complex, variegated grassland. To suspect a prairie chicken haven alternating with wooded copses and blueberry barrens sufficient to attract passenger pigeons in the millions. Here was the true home of bluegrass, none other than this same Buena Vista Marsh and a slender girl of a grass called poa pratensis that grew prolifically on the sandy muck soils of Ulysses Township, sometimes called Grant. The Buena Vista Mash was the strange secret of Central Wisconsin. Here were dunes of loess sands, alternating with wet holes with what tractors believe is fathomless muck, over the next rise of ground was grass stretching to the horizon. It was ducks admixed with prairie chicken, meadowlarks, passenger pigeons, complexed by muskrats and trout water. Beneath was that strange enchanted soil, half dirt half garbage pail.
It was a rare dairy farmer on the Central Sands who did not own a couple forties of Buena Vista Marsh on the chance of a dry summer. That marsh to provide enough rough hay to fill the barn. The benefactor of survival was a soil type called, Roscommon.