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Mill Race restoration underway
A new day dawns through the fog on the Mill Race and Pearl Island near Putnam Park (left) Tuesday, Sept. 3, in Brodhead. A restoration project underway on the Mill Race and Pearl Island will offer more recreational opportunities for residents and visitors. (Times photo: Anthony Wahl)
BRODHEAD - Brodhead's Mill Race, a man-made canal bordering the city's west side, is awakening to a new life.

Now in its 150th year, the Race and 160 acres of publicly owned land on Pearl Island, the resulting stretch of land between the canal and the Sugar River, are getting cleaned up, buffed up and dressed up for visitors and residents looking for hiking, biking, canoeing, tubing and fishing adventure.

A citizen group overseeing the improvements is now a subcommittee of Brodhead's new economic development committee.

The committee is hoping the restoration project, besides creating a recreational facility, will contribute to the city's economic development and bring in more retail and commercial opportunities, said Kari Newcomer, a member of the Pearl Island Restoration project committee.

"This will be a life-long project" for the community, Newcomer added.

The Pearl Island Recreation Corridor Project now has a $350,000 matching grant, received in November 2012, for a number of improvements. To meet the obligations of the grant, the committee needs to raise $350,000, which can be in the form of donated use of equipment, volunteer labor, cash donations or other matching grants.

"This is not a city project," Newcomer said. "City taxpayers' money is not going into it."

Even before money was available, groups of volunteers had started digging into the work, and local companies have been making donations.

Rich Vogel and Jeff Peterson climbed aboard to do cleanup work early in the project and now also steer volunteer talent and donated equipment to their most effective uses. Newcomer and Ric Genthe have taken on roles in marketing and public relations. Jerry Elmer and Amber Nelson-Foster round out the sub-committee. Dr. Dick L. Benesh has been pegged to be named the group's head organizer and advisor, according to Newcomer.

The Mill Race has been cleared and cleaned, making it safe for canoeing and tubing. Three new piers and three information boards have been donated, and land along the race is being cleared.

The Mill Race was originally built to entice a flour and feed mill to move from Decatur to Brodhead, which was becoming a booming town with a railroad. Finished in 1863, the Mill Race also offered power for a foundry, several small wagon shops and a Norwegian plow factory, according to a Centennial Days (1856-1956) celebration program, Woodburners to Diesels, written by Dorothy Kundert in 1956.

"The (plow) factory was a wing ding, able to turn out 25 plows a day," Kundert wrote.

Later the Race served the community with the power to generate electricity. All the while, the Race and Decatur Lake has offered recreational fishing and boating.

Building the Race was a gigantic undertaking for the new, little community - 3.5 miles long and 80 feet wide. Even back then, labor and capital were contributed.

According to Kundert, "Brodhead raised a cash bonus of $8,000 toward the cost of the Race. In 1862, when the work was about two-thirds done, the digging was stopped for lack of funds to go on. It was at this time that Stephen and H. B. Stewart bought a half interest in the property for $7,000. Citizens helped to raise money through benefit dinners and dances. Digging of the ditch resumed; the stones and water wheel arrived. In May 1863, the flour mill was finally put into operation, at a cost of $28,000 for the enterprise."

Twenty-five times that amount will go into rehabilitating the race in the coming years, for the enjoyment of future generations.

Next week, the Pearl Island project committee is meeting in Platteville with the UW College of Engineering, in hopes of forming a senior project with them, according to Newcomer. The engineering project could include plans for a covered bridge and an environmental study.

Pearl Island Recreational Corridor is on Facebook with photos and more updates.