The 1927 Aerial Photography of
a Wisconsin Effigy Mound
(upper Midwestern United States)
-- from information contributed by Richard W.
Chief, Compliance Section, Division of Historic Preservation
State Historical Society of Wisconsin,
Madison, Wisconsin 53706
"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
"He (the pilot) asked me . . . if I intended to climb out
on the wing to take pictures . . . However, I considered it entirely
----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.
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
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
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
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