December 09, 2021
Prairie du Sac is busy developing for the future
By Mary Cardona
First published by MEUW in Live Lines Vol. 70, Issue 12
Just south of picturesque Lake Wisconsin on the western shore of the Wisconsin River lies the Village of Prairie du Sac. The Village and its neighbor to the south, Sauk City, have been growing side by side since the early 1800’s. Oak Street forms the boundary line between them. The two villages are so indistinguishable, a visitor might think of it as one town; in fact, the two together are known as “Sauk Prairie.” Both are located on the southeastern edge of Sauk County just across the river from the northwestern corner of Dane County.
Natural beauty figures strongly in the area around Prairie du Sac, from Devils Lake State Park and the Baraboo Bluffs in the north to the wide Wisconsin River along its eastern edge. Manmade wonders are an easy 30-minute drive away: Take U.S. Highway 12 north and you’re in Wisconsin Dells — the Midwest’s mecca for waterparks and silly fun; take U.S. 12 south and you’ll hit Madison; or take Wisconsin Route 60 southwest and you’ll come to Taliesin, the estate of the late famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright that draws thousands of tourists every year.
People who live in the area enjoy being outdoors, and the area is popular with canoeists, kayakers, and fishermen. In 2017, the Great Sauk State Trail was completed and “it’s a huge hit,” according to Troy Murphy, Director of Public Works and Utilities. The 10.5-mile rails-to-trails corridor begins just below Devil’s Lake State Park and swoops south through the Sauk Prairie State Recreation Area before skirting the Wisconsin River and the Villages of Prairie du Sac and Sauk City.
When French fur traders arrived in the area early in the 19th Century, there was a large Sauk Tribe settlement of 3,000 people on the prairie. Some say the traders named Prairie du Sac after the tribe. Others say the name comes from the French word for bag, because of the shape of the prairie — eight miles wide and 18 miles long. Either way, the name stuck, even when primarily Protestant New Englanders began moving into the area in large numbers in the 1830’s. At the same time, Catholic German immigrants escaping economic hardship in Germany were arriving and settling in Sauk City. According to a history of the area, both Prairie du Sac and Sauk City were founded in 1938, the first store opened in 1840, and the first postmaster was named in 1842. It was nearly 50 years later, on Oct. 24, 1885, that the Village of Prairie du Sac was officially incorporated.
The first electric light plant serving the Village of Prairie du Sac was erected alongside a grist mill in the late 1890’s by an enterprising resident. At that time the village had grown to a population of 600 people. When a fire destroyed both buildings about 10 years later, the owner rebuilt them. On Jan. 1, 1913, William Albers purchased both the mill and the power plant from the original owner for $13,000 and established the Prairie du Sac Light & Mill Company. Albers and his family wholly owned both, capitalizing it with $14,000 worth of stock. Two month later, Albers filed an application with the state for a permit to operate an electric light plant and it was granted.
The service was apparently very disappointing, however, because by the end of the year, the Village Board issued a call for residents to attend a meeting if they were “interested in securing a better system of electric lights at a lower cost.” The meeting led to a referendum asking voters if they wanted the village to “acquire the property, rights and privileges of the Prairie du Sac Mill & Light Company.” After a successful vote, the Village took possession of the lighting plant in November 1914; the grist mill wasn’t part of the transaction.
Today the Village of Prairie du Sac’s Public Works and Utilities Department serves the electrical needs of its 1,900 residential and 270 commercial customers — all but a handful located in the village — plus one industrial customer, Milwaukee Valve, whose electrical needs account for approximately one-third of its load.
The seven-person Village Board oversees the Public Works and Utilities Department, which is headed by Director Troy Murphy, who answers to the Village Administrator. The electric side of the department operates with three lineworkers: a lead, a journeyman, and an apprentice. Troy is also a journeyman lineworker, having begun with the Village as a line- worker in 1997, becoming the lead lineworker in 2000, and then the director in 2016 after the long-time director retired. In addition, said Troy, “We have an excellent office staff that are the first to deal with any situation, taking calls, complaints and coordinating action with our lineworkers.”
Prairie du Sac is a member of WPPI Energy and obtains all its power supply through contracts negotiated jointly through WPPI. Earlier this year, American Transmission Company (ATC) completed construction of two feeder cables from its Dam Heights Substation to substations located in Prairie du Sac and Sauk City. The $5 million project has provided both villages with redundancy and increased system reliability. The substations convert power from 69,000 kV to 12,470 volts for distribution. “The final leg of this project was several years in the making, and we’re very pleased it is now completed,” said Troy.
Troy is a member of the WPPI Board of Directors, and he is quick to note how instrumental WPPI is in making it possible for small utilities like his to flourish. “Joint action works great,” he said. “There is no better way. WPPI provides us with so many services, from billing to meter testing to infrared test equipment that allows us as a small utility to take advantage of economies of scale.”
Troy is also proud of the way WPPI has promoted the use of green energy and organized small utilities to move in this direction. The village offers renewable energy blocks to customers for residential service and for street lighting. “We see more and more customers taking advantage of this. We explain that it adds a few more dollars to their bill, but then some of the energy they use is from renewable sources. Renewables are the future,” said Troy.
Troy also praised MEUW for being “a strong organization that provides essential training and support services from a staff that truly cares.” Prairie du Sac takes advantage of the Electric Utility Safety and Training Program seminars and participates in the regional safety program, as well. Utility workers also attend the annual conference and Electric Operations Conference and Expo. Prairie du Sac is the host site for monthly group training sessions, and MEUW uses Prairie du Sac’s pole-climbing training site on a regular basis. Troy said, “I highly recommend the Regional Safety Group if you are involved with MEUW. As a small utility, it’s hard to get it all done — compliance reports, safety and CPR training — without support. It’s truly a weight off your shoulders.”
Troy also noted that the personal connections people make by being involved in these organizations makes it easier to make a call when you need help. Besides working with fellow public power utilities on occasion, the Prairie du Sac crew regularly works with the Sauk City crew and participates in mutual aid organized by MEUW. Besides just feeling good about helping a fellow utility, “our lineworkers learn so much from working on crews during disasters. The value that comes out of mutual aid is hard to get in any classroom,” Troy said.
Prairie du Sac has a long history of steady growth, and since 1990, the Village has nearly doubled in size to 4,420. The enthusiasm the community has shown for growth and improvement has spurred a variety of residential, recreational, school district, and public safety construction projects. The projects have kept Village crews busy balancing important, routine maintenance with new construction projects, and has created an “all-hands-on-deck” mentality that’s led to all departments working as a team. “We are all part of one organization, and we help each other out as needed. It’s not like an investor-owned utility where you just do linework. Our electric crews jump in and get involved with everything, and they know that the more they’re involved with each other’s projects, the more we can all move forward.” And, Troy noted, there’s another bonus: “When everyone knows what the others are doing, it increases reliability, and the closer we work together, the smoother things operate.”
The Village is busy with a lot of projects, including development of the new 67-acre Culver Community Park. The $12 million multi-use recreational area is being funded entirely by private donations raised by the Friends of Sauk Prairie. Funding included a donation from the Culver family, who founded the Culver’s restaurant franchise in Sauk City and maintains corporate headquarters just north of Prairie du Sac. The Village is handling the project, working with an engineer hired by the group. So far it has extended 21st Street into the park area and run a 600 amp feeder cable along it. The new feeder now provides redundant service to the park, Sauk Prairie Hospital and the entire southwest corner of the Village, increasing the overall reliability of the village’s electrical grid. In addition, Village crews have installed street lighting, and field lighting for baseball, soccer, a fishpond, and pickle ball. Two shelters will be wired for power next year.
Construction is in full swing on a new police station which should be ready in May or June of next year and voters just passed a referendum to remodel several school buildings. The high school will get a new football field and pool, as well as new electrical and water systems. Troy was quick to note that Sauk Prairie has an “excellent school system and more and more people are moving here for the family-friendly atmosphere, the local attractions and the easy commute to Madison and other towns.”
The department has also completed a couple of projects that will create long-term cost savings for utility customers. In 2014 the utility switched to an AMI meter reading system and recently it completed a five-year project to convert the entire village to LED lighting.
“Part of what makes public power great is that we are able to focus on community satisfaction,” said Troy. “We get to know our customers personally and they know they can call on us.” The department does not use social media and instead puts messages in bills, sends emails, maintains a website, and uses “good old-fashioned meetings” to communicate generally with customers. During Public Power Week the village invites people in for cookies and free lightbulbs. They work with a lot of different groups and visit the schools. For “National Night Out,” the utility gives children rides in the trucks and talks about safety. It also puts up holiday decorations and maintains the flags that hang downtown.
Troy enjoys working in the public power field. “I enjoy collaborating with other departments, with Sauk City crews, and our fellow public power communities, and watching our staff pull together to meet any challenge. I enjoy never knowing when a call comes in what kind of a challenge it will be, and knowing that if I don’t know the answer, we’ll find it. I like the challenge of keeping costs low for our customers and providing reliable energy and contributing everything we can to our community.”