Villa Louis staff still working on site, prepping for May 11 opening

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Villa Louis staff—including Susan Caya-Slusser, Joe Morovits and Jake Koresh—boated into the site last week. You can also see the site’s old bathhouse and blockhouse in the background. (Submitted photo)

By Correne Martin

When St. Feriole Island is closed to the public when the Mississippi River stage hits 19 feet locally, business still continues for the Villa Louis Historic Site, as preparations are made for the goal of opening the tourist attraction to the public May 11. 

At 20 feet, staff parks on Water Street and walks into work with knee-high boots and hip waders, according to Susan Caya-Slusser, southwest sites director for the Wisconsin Historical Society. As the water rises further, they begin to boat into the “house on the mound,” which Hercules Dousman somehow had the foresight to choose as a high and dry location for the mansion. 

When boating in, they launch at McLeod Street and follow the island’s streets, Caya-Slusser said. They pull in at the visitor’s center and, then, again boat toward the mansion as well. This past week, there was quite a strong current between these two points.

This year, the Mississippi grew to the sixth highest level in local flood history, cresting at 21.34 Friday. This was the highest recorded at McGregor since 2001. 

“Since 2011, it seems like we’ve done this almost every year,” Caya-Slusser stated. “We’re so used to this. There are four buildings currently under water (Friday): the laundry building, the garden shed, the blockhouse and Fernette building.”

In addition, all the restoration work taking place at the Fur Trade building had to be put on halt, and the construction equipment taken out and off-site until the water recedes. Extra fans and dehumidifiers are running in the basement of that building and in the Brisbois House.

“The good thing is that there’s never any danger to our collection. All new mechanicals installed are put in at the 1965 flood level (highest ever),” Caya-Slusser noted. “It would take 32 feet to get onto the first floor of the mansion.”

She added that, between 22 and 23 feet, some water filters into a low spot in the mansion’s basement. That last happened in 2001. 

As a precaution, a few of the most valuable pieces of the collection, like some carriages, have been temporarily relocated to off-site storage, she shared.

“Our security systems still have power,” Caya-Slusser said of the reason most staff still boat to the site during floods. “Some of the core staff works from home. But we remain in constant contact with the city, police, DNR and emergency management because there is, of course, danger involved.”

Since the Mississippi’s latest rise crested Friday, the Villa Louis staff is looking forward to the projection that the water level will come back down to 19 feet by Friday, April 12. 

“We keep working toward that goal of opening day, May 11,” Caya-Slusser said. 

Though the Villa Louis staff is aware that historic floods are big news, she said high water always affects tourism and the historic site’s bottom dollar. In reality, the site usually stays in pretty good shape through it all.

“People think that if there’s any flooding in Crawford County, we’re wiped off the map, but it’s just life on the river,” she explained. “We’re here and we’re going to be open. The Dousmans dealt with floods too.”

As for the beloved ducks local residents and tourists love to visit frequently, they’re still on site too. She said they’ve been hanging out on whatever grass they can find.

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