Fox 25/48 is celebrating Black History Month this February and honoring the achievements of black Americans in our area and across the country. Tonight, Erin O’Brien is looking into one influential African American from the Coulee Region. And a local group’s fight to keep his memory alive.

Drivers whizzing past this stretch of Highway 16 between Onalaska and West Salem might not realize they’re actually driving on what locals call Nathan Hill. It’s named after Nathan Smith, a black man who escaped slavery and fled from Tennessee to West Salem with his wife Sarah in 1864.

“We still remember Nathan Smith. We have not forgotten him.”

West Salem historical society president Eroll Kindschy says Smith was one of very few black people in the area, but also one of the most influential. 

“When he and his wife were on the farm, they actually took four children that were deaf and taught them how to speak.”

Smith died at the age of 96 and was buried in West Salem. But his memory lived on into the twentieth century with the help of the local gardening club. Forty years ago, the group put up a sign on the hill marking where Nathan and Sarah lived.

“It was a lot of hard work and yet it certainly brought our little community together.”

Joan Dolbier was part of that club. She says they built it for a statewide contest for gardening clubs.

“So that’s why we decided to make the marker and write the history and do that, and we ended up getting second place in the state.”

The sign stayed on the side of the hill for nearly four decades. But when construction began in 2014 that would expand the highway from two lanes to four, the sign had to go.

“The state actually asked to remove it, and actually paid us to remove it.”

Historical society member terry pierce volunteered to keep the sign at his farm on top of the hill, and it’s sat there since then.

When construction ended, members of the historical society hoped to put it back. But they say the department of transportation wouldn’t let them.

“Because they said that there was no original permit, they cannot find any record of the permit for the sign.”

Members of the historical society have already chosen a spot where they want the sign to go next, right here, even clearing out the area. They say this will only be about 150 feet from where the sign originally stood.

There’s a permit number on one of its legs. Though it’s fading away, it’s still legible. But, the Wisconsin DOT says it can’t find the paperwork from the 70’s and the group will need to go through the process again,

Saying in a statement —

“We look forward to continuing to work with the historical society in the coming months to meet the necessary steps within state statutes and administration codes.”

Despite the obstacles getting the sign back up, the historical society says it won’t stop working until it’s back where it belongs.

“The community loved him and the whole community was involved with him. And that’s kind of what our garden club did too and then having our next generation interested I think is important.”

“I can still envision Nathan smith sitting on that porch, strumming on that banjo saying, ‘Hi neighbor how you doing’, and being very friendly and people stopping and talking to him and that’s such a wonderful idea of a black man and the influence that this gentleman had in our area It’s fantastic.”

In West Salem, Erin O’Brien, Fox 25/48 First News at Nine.

The historical society says it hopes to have the sign back up sometime this spring.