The 1927 Aerial Photography of a Wisconsin Effigy Mound
(upper Midwestern United States)

-- from information contributed by Richard W. Dexter
Chief, Compliance Section, Division of Historic Preservation
State Historical Society of Wisconsin,
Madison, Wisconsin 53706

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Commentary (below)

The 1927 report, in the aerial photographer's own words

Plan View of Wehmhoff "Panther" Effigy Mound
(map by Phil Sander, shading by Baker Aero)

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"The Wehmhoff Mound is significant as a relatively well preserved example of an unusual type of effigy mound structure, as a source of important information on the Late Woodland stage in southeastern Wisconsin, and as the location of a very early application of a scientific technique -- aerial photography -- to an archaeological problem." (from the National Park Service form nominating the mound to the National Register of Historic Places Inventory).

"He (the pilot) asked me . . . if I intended to climb out on the wing to take pictures . . . However, I considered it entirely unnecessary."

----C. W. Beemer, the photographer

There are many untold stories of aerial archaeology, some of which we are aware (and will feature here in future updates), but most, like this one, little known or practically forgotten. The following episode, involving the photography of an effigy mound from a biplane in Wisconsin in 1927, is of historical significance because it is only the second instance, so far as we know, of aerial photography being used for archaeology in the United States.

More information on the Wehmhoff mound (from the form nominating it to the National Register of Historic Places Inventory in 1985).

The editor of the publication in which this report appeared in 1927 thought it was the first time that aerial photography of mounds had ever been attempted, but he had obviously never heard of at least one earlier such project: the aerial photography of the Cahokia mounds of Illinois by a couple of Army lieutenants in 1921 and 1922. We had thought that Lindbergh's aerial explorations of the Southwest and South America in the late twenties were next, followed by Neil Judd's aerial survey of Hohokam canals in Arizona in 1930, Frank Hibben's photos of New Mexico sites a few years after that, etc.

However, Rick Dexter of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin knew otherwise. He was familiar with C.W. Beemer's effigy mound "experiment" in 1927, which predates Lindbergh's work, and he kindly furnished us documentation in the form of a copy of the report in "The Wisconsin Archaeologist," published by the Wisconsin Archeological Society in Sept. 1927, from which we quote below.

(Readers who know of other early adventures in aerial archaeology [or recent ones for that matter; there is a Newsletter page for that here too] would do us a favor by making us aware of them).


On June 27, 1927, only 37 days after Lindbergh flew the Atlantic, Mr. C. W. Beemer of Kenosha, Wisconsin climbed aboard an Air King biplane along with its pilot, a camera, and the intention of shooting an aerial photo of an animal-shaped prehistoric mound near Burlington. This mound, known as the Wehmhoff mound (after an early owner of the property), was built by American aborigines of Late Woodland times (600-1200 AD), and resembles a panther or other mammal with a long curving tail.

This may or may not have been Mr. Beemer's first time in an airplane, because he described himself as a person "whose only previous aerial experience had lasted less than five minutes," which could have been merely a quick circuit around a pasture with a barnstormer.

If it was not Beemer's very first flight, then, it was very close to it. Spice the excitement of that situation with the aviation technology of 1927 and you have the makings of some big-league thrills for Mr. Beemer. Nowadays, of course, the drive to the airport is usually the most dangerous part of an airplane ride, but in the twenties it was a different proposition, with aircraft design in its youth and engines less reliable, not to mention pilots who sometimes taught themselves how to fly by trial and error (a method that at least weeded out the incompetent).

Interesting to us is the implication by Beemer that the only reason he didn't climb out on the wing to shoot his camera was his lack of experience at it. Lots of things were done on the wings of airplanes by "wing-walkers" at airshows in those days (archery, even fake tennis matches), so the idea was not all that unusual.

If Beemer was nervous during this flight, his only comment along those lines was that "a sudden puff of wind caused the plane to buck in a manner very thrilling to one of my meager airplane experience." Such thrills to a novice can result in a mess in his underwear, but like a true scientist Beemer was prepared to brave that danger to attain his goal: an aerial photo of an archaeological site, a rare thing indeed in the U.S. of 1927.

The mound Beemer was out to get an aerial photo of, only a yard high but over a hundred feet long from head to tail, and shaped roughly like a long-tailed cat, had already been damaged by modern activity, struck amidships years before by a road that had chopped it in half. A previous attempt at aerial archaeology in Wisconsin had involved a Mr. George Fox who, lacking an airplane, had climbed trees with his camera to photograph mounds, a not uncommon practice (a variation on tall ladders; see "What is Aerial Archaeology Anyway?" elsewhere in the Newsletter). Beemer was determined to do better with an airplane, and of course he did. As is usual when comparing air photos to surveys made on the ground, his photos showed up several inaccuracies in a plan view of the mound that had been made by a ground survey.

From here on we will let C.W. Beemer speak for himself. What follows is his report to the Wisconsin Archeological Society of July 6, 1927, verbatim (although we have added a few comments in parentheses). Beemer's lyrical descriptions of the Wisconsin countryside seen from the air make this narrative a true gem of early aviation literature.

On July 6, 1927. Mr. C.W. Beemer turned in the following report to the Wisconsin Archaeological Society:

"The nearest mound available for the (aerial photo) experiment lies a half mile south of the Racine-Kenosha county line, on rising ground of pasture and oak openings, overlooking the Fox River several hundred feet to the east. Dr. Lapham (1855) gives a brief description of this mound in "The Antiquities of Wisconsin" (p. 24, pl. XIII, no. 1). It lies on both sides of the road (State Trunk Highway 83), the body on the west and the tail on the east side, in pastures on the Henry Wehmhoff farm, near the center of the NW 1/4 Section 26 of Wheatland Township, Kenosha County. It is 24 miles by road from Kenosha and 5 1/2 miles sough from Burlington. The farm is at present leased by Mr. John L. Kerkman, who very readily gave permission to prepare the mound for its photographing (i.e., outlining the mound with lime to make it stand out - Ed.)

"The earthwork occurs in a setting of rare beauty, no matter what the season may be. From the tail one may obtain glimpses of the Fox River through the trees which dot the gentle pasture slope running down to its banks. On the other side of the valley the hills are covered with masses of woodland. To the west lies another very lovely oak grove. On the hillside to the northeast the earliest settlers of this region found a populous Indian village, some of whose inhabitants lingered there until the late (18-) forties or early fifties. The beauty and convenience of its location make it easy to understand their choice of location for a home. While it seems unlikely that the Potawatomi the settlers found there were the builders of the mound, the spot itself has been a place of habitation from very early times. It remains in its original condition, one of the rapidly disappearing virgin tracts of the country.

"A comparison of Dr. Lapham's plat with the bird's-eye view reveals several minor differences. It will be noted that the line from the head to the end of the forelegs of the effigy is concave in the photograph but straight in the plat, the hind legs are more rounded, the angle at the junction of head and back more acute, and the ball at the end of the tail of a different shape. The effigy is evidently intended to represent the panther (water spirit). The road curve in the photograph is due to the hill on which the mound lies.

"We hopped off at 3:45 Monday afternoon, June 27 (1927), from Howland Avenue flying field at Kenosha in a trim little Air King biplane, with a good breeze helping us on our way. Pilot W. J. Noll had arranged to have me signal by pointing in the directions I wished to go, as I was familiar with the country and this would be easier than to fly by map or compass. He asked me quite seriously if I intended to climb out on the wing to take pictures - a fine question to ask anyone whose only previous aerial experience had lasted less than five minutes. I found, however, that it could easily be done by anyone with steady nerves and a strong grip, if necessary. However, I considered it entirely unnecessary."

An aerial photographer in a biplane is faced with special challenges. Beemer was confident he could get a clear shot through the forest of struts and wires surrounding his cockpit without climbing out on the lower wing, and he did. The pilot may have helped him byskidding the airplane sideways momentarily.

"We headed northwest for a mile or so to the Geneva Road, the main highway west from Kenosha, and followed this almost to the Fox River. I took advantage of this opportunity to take snapshots of the villages and lakes which lay along the route. We soon reached a flying altitude of 1200 feet, and the country began to take on something of the artificial appearance one usually sees in high altitude photographs (1200 feet was high altitude to Mr. Beemer, anyway - Ed.). It was a novel and pleasing experience to see all the old familiar spots from a new angle. Creeks and rivers I had always considered fairly direct in their flow twisted and turned in surprising curves. Fields of young corn resembled nothing so much as giant squares of green corduroy laid on the earth. The varying shades of light green of the pastures contrasting with the deeper color of the hardwood groves was most beautiful. In the distance half a dozen shining silver lakes could be seen at one glance. On close approach they became a rich dark brown, with yellowish areas marking the shallower portions. A continuous procession of black beetles with curious rectangular bodies crept along the highway below. Many cultivated fields of brownish yellow had intermixtures of black soil which gave the impression of having been smoked like a glass passed lightly over a candle flame.

"Near Salem a sudden puff of wind caused the plane to buck in a manner very thrilling to one of my meager airplane experience. Young grain shoots more thickly sown in some parts than others gave a field the appearance of a carpet with the nap worn thin in spots. The Fox River, so beautiful when viewed from its banks, was disappointingly insignificant from the air. On going northwesterly in the direction of the mound, we passed a long diagonal over the valley and quickly sighted the mound ideally marked out on the hilltop, although it must be said that the topography of the land is always greatly flattened from the air. This is very noticeable in the pictures.

"Due to some difficulty in getting the outline in range after dropping to a 500 foot level it was necessary to circle a few times in order to obtain a satisfactory view, as it was necessary for the sunlight to be right and the image free from the obstruction of wings and struts (excellent technique for a first-timer - Ed.). Then a great rush of wind (he either leaned out of the cockpit to shoot his camera, or the pilot slipped the airplane sideways for him - Ed.), a nervous aiming of the tightly clutched camera, an exultant yell (which might as well have been a whisper for all that could be heard) as the shutter clicked (though yelling as the shutter fires is not so good for camera steadiness, - Ed.), and the first aerial photograph of a Wisconsin effigy mound was taken. Then a quick dash for the nearby Walworth County line, a playful swing into Racine County, once more past the mound, and we were on our way home.

"I put aside the cameras and settled myself down to enjoy the views now so clearly to be seen with the sun at our backs. After circling over the villages of Salem and Hooker and Paddocks Lakes we struck a straight course for home, and although still almost 15 miles away, Kenosha and Lake Michigan could be seen faintly through the haze that obscured the horizon in all directions. A mile or so from the field we began to make a gradual descent, then a long graceful glide, a bumpy "taxi ride" to the windward side, and our trip of a little over an hour's duration was over."


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