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Lake Pepin II

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

You may have seen the billboard on the highway into LaCrosse, Wisconsin, that announced "God's Country." If Jonathan Carver's plans had worked out, that sign would be downstream a ways somewhere along Lake Pepin, that wide stretch of the Mississippi below Red Wing, Minnesota.

Carver had come to the Mississippi Valley in 1766 to explore the country between the Mississippi and the Great Lakes, given to England by the Treaty of Versailles. He was expecting adventure, and maybe even fame and some fortune.

He was not prepared for Lake Pepin which he first saw in November first. The lake opened on spectacular scenery: mountain ranges with pyramids of rocks resembling ruined towers, amazing precipices, forested islands. And all around the lake, verdant plains and fruitful meadows full of fruit and nut trees.

Carver believed that Lake Pepin would become a great commercial center, a crossroads of the fur trade, logging, industry. He had a particular industry in mind—distilling. The Indians around Lake Pepin already tapped the abundant sugar maple trees and fermented the sap into liquor. In addition, the bluffs were covered with grapes, which hang in such clusters, Carver wrote, that almost any quantity of brandy might be distilled from them.

His mind raced ahead. The French had traded with the Indians for beaver pelts in the area, but that only brought in about 200,000 crowns a year. Carver computed that 2,000 gallons of brandy could be made on the spot much cheaper than in the West Indies. By avoiding the expense of shipping the brandy 3,000 miles across the Atlantic, he could save, he thought, 2,000 percent. To say nothing of tariffs, duties, and the uncertainties of ocean travel. Lake Pepin brandy would make a killing in the London market, Carver thought, if pursued with proper caution. And while workers fermented and distilled the grapes and maple sugar, they could practically live off the land, hunting game out of their back yards and fish from the river.

Had the Revolutionary War not put a crimp in Jonathan Carver's dreams, you and might be toasting each other with Lake Pepin's famous maple champagne at this very moment.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.