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Yesterday in La Crosse

The rise of Hiawatha, the fall of 1961

Brad Williams



In October of 1961, a large statue of an Indian was installed at the north end of La Crosse’s Riverside Park. The 25-foot statue by Central High art teacher Anthony Zimmerhakl was designed to symbolize all the native people of the area. It was not supposed to have an official name, but a plaque installed later identifies the Indian as “Hiawatha.”

The Big Indian was put in place on October 12th…Columbus Day. Coincidence? Well, maybe. A Tribune story says the city wanted to have Hiawatha standing in time for the start of the first Oktoberfest on the 13th. The beer garden was located next to the Sawyer Auditorium, and a “farm fair” was set up at Rose and Gillette Streets. The Miss Oktoberfest pageant and the Coronation Ball were scheduled for the first night of fest, inside the auditorium.

Just before Columbus Day, a famous fake Italian passed away. Comedian Chico Marx of the Marx Brothers was 74 when he died. Chico, real name Leonard, was known for his mock Italian accent and his piano playing. He and his brothers Groucho, Harpo, and Gummo performed in La Crosse at least once, at the Majestic Theater in 1912. Chico’s stage name was pronounced “CHICK-o” and originally spelled “Chicko,” as a nod to his reputation as a ladies’ man and “chick chaser.” The “k” was dropped later, but the pronunciation stuck. We said goodbye to Chico, 59 years ago, yesterday in La Crosse.

A native of Prairie du Chien, Brad graduated from UW - La Crosse and has worked in radio news for more than 30 years, mostly in the La Crosse area. He regularly covers local courts and city and county government. Brad produces the features "Yesterday in La Crosse" and "What's Buried on Brad's Desk." He also writes the website "Triviazoids," which finds odd connections between events that happen on a certain date, and he writes and performs with the local comedy group Heart of La Crosse. Brad been featured on several national TV programs because of his memory skills.

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    July 16, 2020 at 12:59 pm

    My family and I have appreciated this statue for decades, and love to take boat rides from Riverside park, or walk through the park, and take photos of it, and with it. I’ve long considered this icon as a source of pride in the community and the native American heritage it represents. The family of the local artist and his sons and who rendered it, as well as those in the city in which it stands should appreciate all that this symbolizes: Pride and heritage and strength and natural beauty. I wish this could remain in this beautiful location for future generations to enjoy.

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    Jeanie Garner

    July 16, 2020 at 1:21 pm

    I do not believe we should be caving in to remove our statues…there should be a marker with this statue telling the story of Mr Zimmerhakl and his reason for making this statue for our city…I believe he had the most honorable intentions, along with the story of Hiawatha. There is a story of a Indian, who is known for his Peace making abilities, who brought several warring tribes , together…how can that be offensive…and how He is depicted is from the time frame he lived….I feel if people knew this whole story , it would end the problem…Our country has a history, some good and some bad…we can’t change it to be a rosy picture . If our history was taught, to help people learn from the mistakes of the past, and not think by changing it will solve anything. We are living in a different day and age 2020…lets move forward. There is a statue of Hiawatha in Michigan…I don’t hear a uproar about that…let’s honor Mr Zimmerhakl ( who was my art teacher at Longfellow Jr High in the 50s) and his work of Art which was a labor of love to our city.

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    Tom McDonald

    July 16, 2020 at 6:47 pm

    Keep hiaswatha

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    Nic Breidel

    July 20, 2020 at 11:32 pm

    This should be considered in a public forum. I fully understand it is not an accurate depiction, incorrect headdress and the like. Though I don’t support trying to offend anyone, I also understand you can never make everyone happy. Some will always be offended. There may well be something more to this statue that is extremely offensive to Native American people. Share the sentiments in which it was commissioned and give all residents a chance to learn and hear both sides then make a decision as a community. This land and the statues belong to the residents and I believe in the residents to make a sensitive caring decision if given all the angles. It’s not the park commission that should decide our values and image.

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