In one respect, sand saved the city, but it could be deadly. Houston, located just west of where Highway 76 meets Highway 16, was first located east of that intersection. Starting in the 1850s, the village prospered with a flour mill, a sawmill, a shingle factory and a cooper who made barrels for the flour mill. However, with the proximity of the Root River, high water and flooding were such recurring problems that the decision was made to move the town. One site considered was the higher ground away from the river where the Stone Church was built. Another possibility was a couple of miles farther west. But neither of those promising solutions was implemented.
Mons Anderson, a La Crosse businessman who had purchased land in the middle of the valley, heard the railroad was coming through the valley and might build a depot. The railroad accepted his offer for free land through his property if a depot would be built. Thus the village of Houston grew up around the depot, yet beset with water problems.
Anderson profited financially by selling his land, but he did donate 10 lots for a park and two lots for a school – where the elementary school sits.
But the water problems remained. This time, it was decided to fill in the entire village with sand. Property owners filled in their own lots before building. Older homes were elevated with new foundations. The village was responsible for the streets, and the entire town was thus raised one to three feet. The only place that did not receive sand was the city park. With all of the sand coming from the bluff south of town, a huge sand pit was the result.
Trucks would be used later, but first came loads of sand hauled in horse-drawn wagons that entered the pit from Grant Street before it heads uphill and turns west. Tons of sand were shoveled by hand into wagons at a cost of three dollars per wagon – $2.50 for the driver and $0.50 for the team of horses. There was no charge for the sand, since it belonged to the city.
Three men – Steve Sherman, Will Sherman and Steve O’Connor supported themselves by hauling sand, starting in the spring when frost was out of the ground until frost in the autumn. Ole Forsyth hauled sand when he was not farming tobacco, and Charlie Otto hauled in the mornings before his afternoons driving a team of dray horses.
During her childhood in the early 1900s, Ingrid Julsrud recalled many summer days playing around the hills, but the children minded their mothers, who warned them, “Don’t go near the sand pit,” possibly a life-saving admonition. They would come to understand the peril in the pit.
Steve Sherman and Steve O’Connor both died in that sand pit, buried alive by landslides. As a senior citizen, Julsrud remembered the long-ago summer afternoons of those tragedies. “The fire bell was clanging like crazy. We ran to the front yard to see where the fire was.” But what they witnessed were men carrying shovels running wildly down Grant Street. Then they heard cries about a man buried in the sand pit.
In 1913, after Saturday confirmation class in Houston, Herbie Olson and Ole Jore were walking across Yucatan Valley back to their homes in Sheldon when they saw a wagon completely covered by sand and the horses almost buried as well. After running back to town, they were so short of breath, it was difficult for them to be understood. Soon the fire bell rang and help came running. Men grabbed new shovels and spades from the hardware store and sprinted to the pit. It was too late; any length of time would have been too late to save Steve Sherman.
In September of 1916, O’Connor suffered the same sand-falling fate. Some 19 years later, his heirs sued the village for $5,000 for his death on village property.
Publishing in 1993, Julsrud wrote, “If you bike or drive to the city hillside park, you are at the top rim of that big, big hole. It is now filled in and grown over by trees, weeds, brush and brambles.”
Source: “Remembering Old Times: Houston During the Post Card Era,” by Ingrid Julsrud, 1993