Shullsburg is one of the oldest settlements in Wisconsin. As early as 1818, founder Jesse Shull and other American settlers were mining lead in the vicinity to be known as Shullsburg. As lore has it, Shull—a trader working for John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company—was exploring the area and witnessed a badger digging a hole, unearthing a vein of lead.
As many pioneers discovered, lead mining was more immediately lucrative than fur trading or farming, and lured prospectors to the area to seek their fortunes. The American “melting pot” was certainly on display in Shullsburg: French- Canadians, Native Americans including local Winnebago, French-speaking Swiss, African-Americans, Southerners, Yankees, and neighbors from Southern Illinois co-existed around an economy reliant on mineral lead. Many of these miners lived in caves cut into the hillsides and were dubbed “Badgers.”
In 1827, a “Lead Rush” was in full swing and the population of the area boomed. These prospectors became known as “Twenty-Seveners.” In 1828, Shullsburg boasted a general store, a warehouse, and three wagon trips per day delivering lead ore to riverboats. The Badger Mine became one of the most productive in the Lead Region; mines in nearby Galena, IL, and Shullsburg provided the majority of the nation’s lead for musket balls used in the Civil War.
By 1870, Shullsburg’s population had grown to 2,700. In 1881, a railroad spur came to Shullsburg, making it easier to export lead around the country—and helping to construct many of the fine downtown buildings still standing today. Over time, Shullsburg’s industry diversified into cheese making and farming. The last lead mine in the Midwest closed at Shullsburg in 1980. It is said there are more than five miles of mining tunnels running under the city, allowing the visitor to travel in Shullsburg by walking over, flying over, or walking under it.
Learn more about the history of Shullsburg (pp. 16-17: “Driftless Terroir: A Landscape of Human Choices and Changes”)