The hill between Onalaska and West Salem is more than just a geographic landmark. It's the place where Nathan Smith, a former slave and foster father of the first black man to run for president, found freedom and made his home for more than four decades.
Born in 1820 in Tennessee, Smith and his wife, Sarah, escaped to freedom via the Underground Railroad, making the difficult decision to leave a young child behind so they could make the dangerous journey undetected. Along the way, they met Union soldiers under the command of Maj. Gen. Cadwallader Washburn, who made his home in La Crosse and would become the 11th governor of Wisconsin in 1872.
Washburn befriended Smith and brought him into his employment. The nature of the work is unclear, with some saying that Smith served as Washburn's bodyguard, valet or "horse boy," but Washburn eventually invited Smith back to La Crosse and helped him find between 40 and 80 acres of land for his farm.
The Smiths first home was on the east side of the hill, near what is now the Hidden Trails Corn Maze. They later moved to the west side of the hill.
Smith was reportedly well liked in the community and a natural leader, hosting prayer gatherings and entertaining visitors with his singing and banjo playing. He and his wife had no children of their own, but they fostered a number of children, both black and white, the most famous of whom was George Taylor, who went on to become a journalist, newspaper publisher and the first black man to run for president in 1904.
Smith's legacy is tarnished by his reported role in the lynching of Nathaniel "Scotty" Mitchell, who shot Frank Burton, the head of the local Republican Party, at a parade in October 1884. Smith, who was a friend of Burton's, led a dozen men to storm the La Crosse County Jail. They bashed down the door, dragged Mitchell out and hanged him from a nearby tree.
Smith died in 1905 and is buried in the Hamilton Cemetery. He was 85.