Heitman Hill history and nature preserve project

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The autumn foliage that surrounds Heitman Hill creates a spectacular view as motorists drop down into the Mississippi River Valley heading south toward Guttenberg. (Photo by Toni Boardman)

By Caroline Rosacker 

The steep hill heading north on the outskirts of Guttenberg, on the Great River Road, has been called  "Heitman Hill" for as long as anyone can remember. The narrow strip of pavement rests between a limestone bluff and a steep drop-off overlooking the backwaters of the Mississippi River. It offers walkers, runners and bicyclists a healthy challenge during the warm weather months and a driving challenge to motorists in the winter. 

Heitman Hill history

Harold Heitman was born in Milwaukee, Wis., to parents Joseph and Ruth Heitman. The active 79-year-old shared how the roadway acquired its name. He began, "Heitman Hill is named after Anton Heitman. He was my grandfather. He and his wife, Cecelia, and their three sons, Aloisious, Joseph (my father), and Cyril lived and farmed on that hill."

Each farmer living on the hill had a lane that exited in a different direction. "Some of the farm lanes went to Buck Creek, some went to Frenchtown, and some went into Meyer's holler," he explained. "The farmers that were living there at the time gathered together and decided to build a road. It was back in the horse and buggy days, so I am guessing they built it by hand – with a pick ax and shovel," speculated Heitman. 

The farmers' wives took turns feeding the hungry men. Harold recalled, "One of the workers remembered the time my grandmother made lunch for the men. Times were tough and money was tight. She fried a big batch of fish for the hard-working guys. She had disappeared after she served them, and they wondered where she was. They found her behind the barn in tears. She was sad that she could only feed them fish. They actually were thrilled they had fish. That was a treat for those farmers!"

"The location of my grandfather's farm was the catalyst that created the name 'Heitman Hill.' As the story goes, grandpa was very proud of this. He eventually lost the farm during the Great Depression. Neighbors reported seeing him at night with a pick looking for lead, in hopes of saving the farm," he commented. 

Harold's grandfather, who had 11 grandchildren, enjoyed sharing stories about the past. "I was the oldest grandchild. He liked to talk about family history with me. Those stories were a source of inspiration. They taught me the importance of working hard and always doing my best. They instilled in me a desire to respect and protect the land and motivated my love of hunting and fishing," he said.

Milwaukee, Wis.

A fresh start led to new opportunities. "My grandfather packed up the family, and moved in with his sister in Milwaukee, Wis.," said Heitman. 

Anton's ambitious work ethic gained him respect in the large metropolis.  Heitman shared this story, "Milwaukee had encountered a large snowstorm.  Being an Iowa farmer, my grandfather went out and started shoveling the sidewalk. Because there were no boundaries he shoveled the whole block! There was a funeral being held in one of the homes, and one of the mourners asked, 'Who the heck shoveled the walks?'" 

Anton's hard work was noticed, "As luck would have it, a top executive from the local brewery was attending that funeral and inquired about my grandfather. He contacted him and asked to see him the following day. He was hired on the spot and worked for Pabst Blue Ribbon brewery for 30 years. It was during the Depression – you couldn't buy a job at that time. My grandmother would often comment about how long the soup lines were in the city. He was very fortunate to have had that opportunity. His roots as a hard-working Iowa farmer certainly paid off," he proudly shared. 

Heitman's father would eventually move to Milwaukee, bringing his sweetheart with him. "My mother was born and raised in Clayton County. She was a Mahowald. She was also a teacher. They were married in Milwaukee," he mentioned. 

Nature preserve restoration

"Twenty-some years ago I had an opportunity to purchase the bottom land at the base of Heitman Hill along Buck Creek Road. The approximately 10 acres was part of my grandfather's original farm." he said, "My first wife and I lived down the road and walked the area frequently. It was marshy. It had been a cornfield but flooded numerous times. Wildlife was my inspiration to restore the area, because I enjoyed duck hunting, squirrel hunting and other outdoor recreation," he commented. 

Heitman purchased the land and owned it for approximately one year before the Army Corps of Engineers contacted him. "The Corps wanted to buy the land from me because they needed a piece of ground to deposit dredged sand from McMillan Island on the Mississippi River," he added. 

A lengthy correspondence ensued. He reported, "I didn't want to sell it. I was in touch with the Corps Real Estate Department. They sent one letter after another, and called at night and on weekends in an effort to pressure me into selling. I kept declining." 

A meeting attended by area property owners, the Department of Natural Resources, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Rangers was held. "The meeting was held on my property. Gary Westhoff owned the area where the sand currently rests. Everyone at the meeting had an interest in the project," he recollected. 

Numerous ideas were brought to the table. Heitman relayed, "I thought they should place the sand on the other side of the road next to the river. Clyde Male, a Federal Ranger, spoke up with his concerns about the impact on the environment, which was my same argument. I wanted to create a wildlife habitat. After I explained my position they decided it wasn't such a good idea. I talked them out of buying my property. I like to refer to the meeting as the ‘Shoot out at the Buck Creek corral,’” he laughed. 

“The Corps and I created a partnership. I agreed to allow them a one-time fill to build up the area. They capped it off with 18 inches of black dirt. They planted prairie grass, deciduous trees, and a number of other tree species and bushes to attract wildlife. I was retired at the time and able to assist with all the plantings and maintenance. I kept the tender plants watered and caged to keep the deer from feasting on them. I am pleased with my decision. I am glad I hung on to it. I call it my park,” he said with a smile. 

Ponding area

“Native American artifacts were discovered  in the pond area by an archeologist from Luther College who did some sampling. They were located about six feet down. My dream has always been to create a healthy habitat that could support fish. Because of the depth limitations I had not been able to pursue that project,” mentioned Heitman. 

Heitman, and Newt Marine of Dubuque, are working together to make his 20-year dream become a reality. “The contractor dug down four feet preserving the sacred artifacts, and built a dike around the top in exchange for the use of the pond and allowing them to park their equipment on my property. They use my pond to separate the sand and water during the dredging process. The water has to settle and be just the right temperature to be deposited into Buck Creek, which eventually flows into the river,” Heitman explained. 

Newt Marine will plant the berm with trees, and the area surrounding the pond with prairie grass and wildflowers. “I will finally have the depth I need to support fish, and will be able stock the pond,” he commented. 

Heitman’s wildlife oasis is a work in progress. He concluded, “The area is all that is left of my grandfather’s farm. I created an entrance with a gate that has a large ‘H’ at the top. Near the entrance I propped up a chunk of sidewalk that my grandfather laid at the Fred and Shirley Moore farm. His signature is written in the cement. I feel close to my dad when I hunt up there. My father and Al were the two oldest. The two boys utilized the river for fishing, and the timber for hunting from little on. One year they shot well over a hundred squirrels!”

“My Uncle Al ended up being a professional trap shooter. He won the Vandalia, Ohio International trap shooting competition, and numerous others throughout his career. My dad was just as good, but couldn’t afford to compete. Living and hunting on that land made them experts. I inherited the love of the land from them,” concluded Heitman.

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