Welcome To Wasson’s Bay
Other than Mystery Rock Hill, Wasson’s Bay is not much different than any other touristy little burg on Lake Michigan, bustling in the summer and dreaming the winter away under blankets of deep, drifting snow. The village is located on the northern stretch of a peninsula that juts like a bony thumb some ninety miles into the big lake from the fist of mainland Wisconsin. To the east is the lake itself, to the west, Green Bay, a long body of water (a sort of negative thumb) at the vertex of which nestles the football-famous city of the same name. (Ironically, this city, proudly known as “Titletown” during the halcyon 60’s glory days of Vince Lombardi’s Packers, is also now the location of the Midwest chapter of the “James Dean Inner Space Institute”—the seventh in the country, the man himself actually having participated in the official opening, in 1971— this a fact that, when recalled, gives Basil and Synandra and Tiffany solemn and humble pause at the awesome power with which they are dealing. But never, it seems, pause quite enough.)
Essentially, the peninsula is the best of the Midwest contained in an almost-island. Dairy farms sprawl lazily over the gentle hills and valleys of the southern portion: lush fields of corn, oats, and alfalfa bordered by verdant copses, weedy creeks, and crumbling stone walls that might protectively surround an ancient elm, while apple and cherry orchards romp northwards up the peninsula, the soil thinning considerably all the way, near the apex approaching the thickness of an old rug, worn so badly in places that the bare dolomite floor shows through.
This rocky superstructure, however, imparts a beautifully sculpted shoreline, crenated with harbors and coves, sandy beaches and bluffs, making this thumb tickling the second largest of the Great Lakes a resort area sometimes called “the Cape Cod of the Midwest.” During the summer the population swells with vista-hungry visitors, who in an annual pilgrimage stream northwards into the coastal villages, engorging them with cars, campmobiles, and kids.
Wasson’s Bay is one such village, hugging a blue gibbous moon of water rimmed with a bright corona of sand, and of course also containing the Mystery Rocks, which are the pride and joy and main tourist attraction of the small town. The rocks are situated on the top of a large hill that breaks through the trees a couple of hundred yards from the road that runs along the shoreline. From a distance and even closer-up the mound looks like an almost-bald head. Vegetation is sparse on the rocky slopes, but the baby moon of the summit is barren, save for lichens and small struggles of shepherd’s purse and campion. The hill is an oddity in the area, a pimple on the back of the otherwise smoothly rolling and tastefully forested landscape. It is some sort of glacial goof, a kame perhaps, deposited during the Pleistocene as the last great ice sheet receded over the cruesta. But besides providing a fine view of the bay, the hill itself is merely a vehicle for the mystery—what matters are the rocks themselves, geologic strangers to the area, of deep black basalt, ancient igneous, inconclusively dated, but speculated by some investigating geologists to be more than three billion years old, dating back perhaps to the earth’s fiery formation. The half-buried Volkswagen-sized boulders of mystery are thus strikingly different from the local telluria, generally sedimentary Niagara dolomite, often bearing the scratches of glacial horseplay.But besides their anomalous composition, it is, of course, the pattern of the rocks that for the past century has both baffled and charmed area natives and researchers from afar. They are arranged in the shape of a slightly lopsided heart.
In the past the singular mound had been variously called Heart Hill, Valentine Hill, and also, Love Hill—names still used at times by older residents. But due perhaps to a practical proclivity of the rugged northlanders to deny the romantic aspect of a geographic entity, or perhaps because of the rocks’ solemn mysterious darkness upon the buff surface of the hill, or perhaps because the boulders do not actually form a perfect heartshape, the term Mystery Rocks has not only endured, it has prevailed.
It was also by this appellation that the rocks were first referenced in an early monograph by Sir Reginald Battlesea, a visiting British geographer with no penchant for romance:”A Description and Speculation Regarding the Phenomenon of the Mystery Rock Hill in the State of Wisconsin”; it being also the first published description of the hill, in 1861. His conclusion: “the indigenous red-man” constructed the mound and placed the rocks, “quarried from a southerly location,” and ultimately used for “pagan worship rituals and animal and perhaps human sacrifice.”
Since then the Mystery Rock Hill site has been the source of continuing speculation by hordes of the curious, from university specialists to inquisitive tourists. However, through some workings of mystery or magic or simply local respect, the hill and its rocks seem to have been protected throughout time, remaining virtually undisturbed since, perhaps, its mysterious creation. Owing to the fact that both the town and the newly erected Wasson house (in 1870), a scant two hundred yards from the hill, miraculously avoided destruction in the terrible fire of 1872 that swept through the northern peninsula (following on the heels of the Great Chicago fire of 1871 and an even greater conflagration, though garnering much less press, the Peshtigo fire on the western side of Green Bay in the same year), the Wasson clan and, in fact, the townspeople regarded the mound as somehow sacred, exerting a protective influence on the village (and the venerable Wasson house, which it overlooks). Thus, none of the residents would dream of despoiling the great hill in any way, and it is perhaps this parochial protectionism that has spared the hill the ravages of ever-encroaching civilization. Indeed, neither the mound nor its immediate surroundings have ever been excavated, or even deeply probed, although, over the years, quite a few serious overtures have been made, all of which the Wassons have managed to ward off through various legal maneuvers, but with increasing difficulty in later years, as the Sacred has become science, and Magic, a modern-times misfit. Probably the most current geological life-and-times description is provided in a brochure published by the Wasson’s Bay Chamber of Commerce. Excerpted, it reads:
. . . The Mystery Rocks are indeed a mystery. Experts from colleges and universities throughout the world who have journeyed here to study them have arrived at mixed conclusions. The consensus is that the boulders are glacial erratics, left behind as the Labrador ice sheet retreated 10,000 years ago. But curiously, their large sizes and uniform balsaltic content are unparalleled in the rest of the peninsula; in fact, no similar examples have ever been discovered in the area. The prevailing theory is that the rocks may be a type of Indian “medicine wheel,” like those found in Montana and Wyoming. These wheels were the North American Indians’ version of the British Stonehenge and were thought to enable the tribal shamans, or medicine men, to accurately forecast the coming of the seasons by indicating the times of the summer and winter solstices. They were, in effect, giant calendars.
But speculation that Mystery Rock Hill is a type of calendar is quite tenuous, and would be of singular importance because the dominant Indian tribes of the area, the Menominee, Potawotomi, and Winnebago, have never been known to build any similar structures, and also, because the rocks are arranged in the unusual, strikingly heart-shaped pattern, they bear no resemblance to any other known medicine wheel. Although several of the rocks, being slightly larger than others in the pattern, can be aligned with the cardinal points of the compass, scientists have proven that they bear no relation to the sun or moon or any of the prominent stars or constellations rising above the horizon to be of any use as a calendar.
An interesting theory has been proposed by amateur historian Bernard Wasson, a direct descendant of the founder of Wasson’s Bay and owner of the acreage upon which the rocks are located. He suggests that the rocks and hill may have been an ancient ceremonial site used for Indian tribal rituals, although it is unclear what those rites may have been. Mr. Wasson bases his theory on the prehistoric works discovered at Aztalan in southern Wisconsin and other works in Ohio and southern Illinois.
But even under the intense scrutiny of scientists the Mystery Rocks have remained a mystery. Perhaps one day the mystery will be solved. Meanwhile enjoy the splendid view of Lake Michigan from Mystery Rock Hill and enjoy your stay in Wasson’s Bay. Welcome to the beautiful and mysterious Midwest. Welcome.