Tuesday, November 3, 2015


A chaotic occurrence happened in La Farge for several days last week.  The Z-zip Stop was kind of closed!  It was more like a Z-zip Stopped!  There was nowhere in the village to buy gasoline or diesel fuel!  Citizens of La Farge were without the conveniences of a convenience store!  EEK!
            The mayhem began around 10 pm on the evening of Sunday, October 25th.  As the Z-zip Stop closed its doors for the evening, machines of evil destruction moved in.  In the darkness of night (although lighted by the village streetlights and the lights of the business itself) the pulverization of the parking lot occurred.  By morning the gas pumps were gone, never to be seen again (actually, they stood over by the alley next to the motel).  The cement of the parking lot was completely pounded to pieces save for a new portion between the pumps and the sidewalk next to Main Street that had been poured only a week prior.  As people sleepily drove towards La Farge’s only gas station/convenience store that Monday morning, expecting to pick up a cup of Joe or their morning newspaper, they were shocked to see the parking lot marked off with the yellow tape of a crime scene.  Going to the Z-zip Stop was a no-go; business as usual was stopped!
            Actually, regular customers to the Z-zip Stop should not have been that amazed at the goings-on there that morning.  For the previous week, there had been a sign in the front door warning customers, “NO GAS OR FUEL!!” followed by a lengthy explanation on the renovations planned for the business for a few days (and the days were individually listed when there would be no gas) of the following week.  But who has time to read such proclamations?  Certainly not most of us loyal customers needing our daily visit with Jenni, Megan, or Diane, who all work at the Z-zip Stop. 
I had read the sign on the door, a couple of times actually as there had been some editing done to the original warning, but still I was totally unready for the days of deprivation.  I had even mentioned to Jenni on one occasion prior to the “Eve of Destruction”, as she punched through my lottery cards, that it looked like there wouldn’t be any gas available for a few days.  She shot me back a wary glance and muttered something about how it might be longer and that wouldn’t be the only thing not for sale.  I should have known!
As I stood on Main Street on that fateful Monday morning with other people wondering how we could get to the front door of the Z-zip Stop, I contemplated on when was the last time that the village had been “gasless”?  How long had it been since there was no place to buy gasoline in La Farge for your vehicle of choice?
We could go back to that terrible day in September of 2001 when the terrorist attacks on America took place.  The fear that followed caused a gas run in La Farge that evening as the line of vehicles wanting to gas up or top off reached beyond a block long.  The gas tanks at the Z-zip Stop ran dry that night due to the panic.
Earlier, when the last set of gas pumps were installed at the Z-zip Stop (I believe those were the second set of pumps there at the station), they had the credit card feature added so gas could be purchased even when the station was closed.  Before that, there were those after-closing evening hours when you could not buy gas in town.  When you have one gas station in town – that can be a problem. 
Back in the heyday of La Farge’s Main Street business district, there used to be nearly a dozen places where you could buy gas.  Someone usually knew someone who could open up one of those La Farge business places and sell some late night or early morning gas to you.  (I can remember such phone calls to my Dad when he owned C&S Motors back in the 1950s and ‘60s.)
            Later when the number of businesses selling gas in La Farge decreased, those places being closed at night or on weekends really became a problem.  When the oil crisis of the early 1970s hit America with a gasoline shortage, small town gas stations like La Farge’s could not get enough gasoline to last for seven days, so closing on weekends was almost mandatory.  Later when the number of gas stations in La Farge diminished to two or three, sometimes none were open for business on Sundays.  (When we operated the root beer stand in La Farge back in the early 1980s, we would often be the only business open in La Farge on a Sunday evening.  Many a time, we had to send folks new to town out to Viroqua for gas on those summer Sunday evenings.)
The Z-zip Stop opened on La Farge’s Main Street in 1987.  It was the first convenience store/gas station type of business in the village. Soon after it opened, the other gas station in town – Steve Olson’s Citgo Station – closed and the gas pumps fell silent there.
            The new Z-zip Stop was located on the southeast corner of the village’s Main and Silver Street intersection.  Previously, there had been a car lot on that corner that once had been used for the garage located across the street.  Next to the corner lot, was an old two-story building that last housed storage for parts and an office for Jack Caucutts’ plumbing business.  Next to that was another two-story building that had housed the offices of the Epitaph newspaper.  Both of those old buildings were torn down to make room for the new gas station.  After the Z-zip Stop opened, that corner soon became the busiest place in town.
            Gary Leis was the guiding force behind the new business in La Farge and provided the money for the construction.  He was the owner of Leis Oil in Viroqua and ran a similar gas station/convenience store on the north side of that city as the one he was building in La Farge.  When interviewed for an article that appeared in the January 22, 1987 issue of the Epitaph-News, Leis said the La Farge station/store would be similar to a Kwik-Trip or Quik Stop operation.  The business would be housed in a 64’ x 34’ building and would include a full line of convenience items, ranging from coffee and soda pop to basic groceries. 
            Leis went on to say that an in-store delicatessen would also be part of the business with fresh sandwich specials everyday and pizza for sale by the slice or pie.  He also said that the deli operation selections would depend on “what business in La Farge requires”.
            Leis added, “We’ll be installing two dual pumps for regular and unleaded gas.  We plan to feel it out for the size of La Farge.  If business calls for more pumps, we’ll put them in.  We won’t blacktop the lot until it settles, so putting in extra pumps shouldn’t be a problem.”  A diesel fuel pump was also added when the business was first built.
            Leis planned to have the store open daily from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., but added that could change.  “We’re going to adapt our store to the needs of La Farge.  I don’t know what the economic impact will be, but I have high hopes or I wouldn’t be doing it.”
            Needless to say, the economic impact of the new business was HUGE (going Donald Trump here) for the little village.  In many ways, the Z-zip Stop, so new to La Farge, was old-fashioned in its hours and service.  Being open every day for seventeen hours a day harkened back to a time when many La Farge places of business kept those same kinds of schedules to meet the needs of their customers.  Businesses stayed open late for the farmers coming to town after the evening chores or for the laborer working late at the sawmill.  More than once in the village’s history, there were disputes between the churches and the business places about being open on Sundays.  But the businesses stayed open for the most part to accommodate the customers who couldn’t shop on any other day but Sunday because they worked twelve hours a day or more on the other six days of the week.
            So, it took until Tuesday afternoon for me to figure out that the Z-Zip Stop was actually open!  You just had to use the back door to get in.  The new gas pumps had arrived late Monday afternoon and they had been moved to another spot nearer Main Street by Tuesday.  They were still in the same place on Wednesday, but the site was nowhere near ready for installation of the pumps.
            Z-zip Stop owner Shane Nottestad (he had purchased the business from Leis in 1993) was nowhere to be seen as the construction progressed slowly onward.  But by Thursday the pumps were lifted into place atop their concrete pedestals and by late that evening, there was a way for the villagers to buy gas and diesel fuel once again!  That night cement was being poured between the pump island and the store.  More of that cement work followed on Friday.  That morning, the way was open to access all the new pumps from the Main Street side.   The village was saved from its gas deprivation!

Monday, October 5, 2015

Teachers' Honor Roll

There has been a little buzz in the community for the past few months about a Teachers’ Honor Roll that is being planned for the new addition to the Lawton Memorial Library in La Farge.  With construction on that library addition advancing quite rapidly in the past week and as the new building starts to assume its shape, the interest in the honor roll seems to be increasing as well.  Recent donations have increased the number of names on the honor roll to fourteen and another sixteen have also been nominated for the honor.
            The Friends of the Lawton Library came up with the idea of the Teachers’ Honor Roll as a way to honor teachers who had made a difference in their students’ lives.  The honor roll was also devised to raise money for the new addition as the Friends organization was charged with the task of collecting funds to pay for the project.  (That fund-raising is ongoing as the money needed to pay for the completed addition and renovation of La Farge’s library still has not been reached.  There will be more on how you can help with that fund-raising at the end of this pithy little doggerel.)  As it turned out, the idea of a way to honor teachers and raise some money in the process has worked out quite well as attested by thirty teachers being named for inclusion to the honor roll and over $10,000 being raised for the library expansion.
            I am fortunate to be included on this new Teachers’ Honor Roll.  Family, friends and former students backed my inclusion on the list.  It was particularly gratifying to hear from several of my former students, who told me how my being a teacher for them had made a positive impact on their lives.  (One young lady’s glowing words about my presence in the development of her life were so powerful that they brought me to tears.)
            Anyway, all of this teachers’ honor roll discussion and personal inclusion has me thinking some about my career in teaching.  I think that I knew pretty early on in my life that I wanted to be a teacher and I am very sure that some of the teachers that taught me in those formative years had significance in my choice of that career.  Having taught in public schools for over thirty years and then continuing to teach in some capacity or other since my “retirement” in 2002, it seems obvious that I made the correct choice for my career path.  That personal history as a teacher made me think about the role models that must have been before me in my youthful days as I decided to become a teacher.
            Georgia Evans is another teacher that is included on the new Teachers’ Honor Roll.  I actually nominated her for inclusion on the Lawton Library honor roll and subsequent donations from her family, former students and teaching colleagues placed “Miss Evans” on the prestigious list.  I use the term “Miss Evans” because over the years, that is what I always used when addressing her, even when I was a colleague of hers teaching at La Farge Schools.  (Looking back on this, I now understand why many of my former students still have a hard time calling me “Brad” when I admonish them for using “Mr. Steinmetz”.  My deepest apologies to my former students, who have heard this from me, but FINALLY, I understand where you are coming from!)
            I was a member of the first class that Miss Evans taught at La Farge.  We were sixth-graders and Miss Evans, who had taught at country schools for all of her career, came to La Farge, I believe, when the Ottervale School, where she was teaching, closed in 1957.  She came with a certain reputation, as she was a stern taskmaster in the classroom.  I liked schoolwork and even flourished at it a little bit, so Miss Evans’ no-frills style of classroom work did not faze me much.  What did captivate me about our new sixth grade teacher was her performance outside of the classroom, especially during recess and noon hour.  Unlike most of her teaching colleagues of that time and place, Miss Evans was “All-In” when it came to her student’s playground activities.
            As I remember it, the recess and noon hour of that first day of school were very different than previous ones.  Miss Evans was very interested as the boys gathered to play a game of softball.  What we found amusing was that she wanted to participate in the game as well.  So, to placate the new teacher, the boys reluctantly agreed to let her play.  But she also insisted that the girls be allowed to play as well!  Coming from a country school background, Miss Evans was used to both boys and girls playing.  With small enrollments, it was a matter of practicality to have enough to play the game. 
But to call for that co-ed approach at metropolitan La Farge - now this was getting ridiculous!  The guys and the gals of that age simply did not participate together in ball-playing activities (although we did have dandy co-ed participation occasionally in “Cowboys & Indians” and Pump-Pump-Pull-Away).  There were plenty of boys to make up sides for a softball game, but our new teacher insisted, so the girls, with big grins on their faces, joined in the game of kitten ball.
Then Miss Evans insisted that she be the first batter in the noon hour softball game.  What next?  Some of the boys chided their new teacher and asked if the pitcher should roll the ball along the ground so she might be able to hit it.  But Miss Evans said no to that, just pitch it in there as usual.  Then some of those same smart-alek boys said all of the outfielders should move in close because teacher wouldn’t be able to hit it far anyway.
On the first pitch, Miss Evans hit a “Moon Shot” to deep centerfield!  Those called-in outfielders scrambled back to make a play, but by the time the ball got back to the infield, Miss Evans, with those long easy strides of hers, had easily rounded the bases and touched the plate for a home run.  The girls broke out in squeals of glee at their new teacher’s exploit, while most of the boys stared in gaped-mouth silence.  The gender barrier had been smashed for our noon hour softball games.
Miss Evans continued to stretch our educational experience that year.  She took us up to the park for tree identification lessons.  We went to neighboring fields and woods for our Science Class plant ID’s.  In the winter, she led us up onto a neighboring farmer’s hill for sleigh riding during noon hours.  The following spring, she somehow finagled a bus and afternoons away from school for our class to play a softball schedule, playing the country schools around La Farge.  We traveled to play games at Bloomingdale, Elk Run, Fairview, Salem, Buckeye Ridge, Weister Creek and Rockton.  She managed the team to a near perfect record (dang Mary Anne Daines and that team from Potts Corners!) and endeared herself to the entire class, since everyone got to go to the games, whether you played or not.
Miss Evans loved local history and would take the class on history hikes to Seelyburg, her hometown and where she still lived when she taught our class.  I think that I developed my interest in history from her as I listened to her stories of Seelyburg, the old lumbering town on the Kickapoo River.  I also was always impressed with the passion that Miss Evans showed in her teaching.  Her job was important to her and she always strove to be engaged in her teaching and to keep her students engaged as well.  It was where the first seeds were planted in my thinking about becoming a teacher.  I had many more teachers along the way that would influence me towards making a career in education (and hopefully I can relate some of that at another time), but it was Miss Evans who began that process for me.

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Here is a list of nominated teachers for the Lawton Memorial Library Teachers’ Honor Roll: Kevin Alderson, Bonita Dorschied, Mary Downing, Gerry Drake, Betty Ecklor, Ann Erlandson, Jerry Hesselberg, Laurie Hesselberg, Jeanne Kraus, Bea Lee, Karen Lee, Geneva McGeorge, Al Oaklief, Dave Sarnowski, Robert Sutton, and Mary Warner.  If you would like to contribute to help advance a teacher who made a difference in your life, donations for your favorite teachers can be made at the library, or by mailing your donation to Friends of the Lawton Memorial Library, 118 N. Bird St., La Farge, WI 54639.  Donations can also be made online by going to www.lafargelibrary.org.  Check the Friends of Lawton Library webpage or on Facebook for more information on the teachers already on the honor roll.
            So, as the lady might say, “C’mon people, vote for your favorite teacher and move them on up to the honor roll!” 

Friday, September 18, 2015

Kayak Kraze on the Kickapoo!

It would be mighty unusual if you drove down Main Street of La Farge on any of these late summer days without seeing a kayak.  Now I realize there has been a kayak hanging in an advertising display at the Z-Zip Stop for several weeks of these summery September days of 2015.  But not counting that red kayak hanging above the gas pumps, you still would probably see a kayak hanging on top of a vacationer’s car or plopped in the bed of a pickup.  All of those kayaks are headed for the Kickapoo River for a summer c(k)ruise.  (Pardon the alliteration in use here. I just can’t help myself when it comes to this kooky Kickapoo kayak kruise kraze.  Again, I apologize.)
            It appears to me that the kayak has really caught on this summer as the new aquatic vehicle of choice for floating on the Kickapoo.  The kayak has been seen more and more frequently here in the Kickapoo Valley in recent years, to the point that now it seems to rival the canoe as the conveyance of choice for maneuvering on the waters of the Kickapoo.
            Maneuvering might be the key to the kayak’s upsurge in usage on our “Crooked River”, the Kickapoo.  The river is notorious for sharp turns, bottom-scraping shallow water, snags of all descriptions, fallen trees to twist around and numerous sand and gravel bars to traverse over and/or around.  This makes for difficult going for even the most experienced tandem paddlers in a canoe.  Indeed many a friendship or family fondness has been shattered by the cursing and screaming of “No, No, you idiot, paddle the other way!” and “Back up you imbecile, we’re now hung up on this snag!” 
With a kayak, it’s a simple right stroke here, back some water here, bring the rear around this way and one glides past the troubles in those roiling waters of the Kickapoo.  Beaming kayakers gliding gleefully past the marooned cursing canoeists, stuck on the snarling snags.  Life is good in an easily maneuvered kayak.
Cost is also a factor here in comparing the kayak’s continuing climb in popularity for use on the Kickapoo.  A brand new beauty of a kayak can be had for a couple of hundred dollars at area purveyors of plastic aquatic conveyances.  If you want to go top-end on your kayak purchase, doubling that amount will bring you a craft with all the bells and whistles like AM/FM radio, power windows and electro-magnetic depth finder plum-bob. 
So, canoes are less maneuverable and more expensive than kayaks.  Since canoes are larger than kayaks and generally need two to paddle, that’s a given, I guess.  But let us not too soon trumpet the ultimate demise of the canoe as the conveyance of choice on the Kickapoo.  After all, you must remember that kayaks have very little if any storage capability.  Since some groups of people who canoe the Kickapoo are very interested in floating along with the current while consuming adult beverages and snarling down salty snacks, the canoe’s ability to safely store coolers and such will probably always be needed. 
After all, fifty years ago, very few would have thought that the canoe could adequately navigate the tortured torrents and stupefying snags of the muddy river.  Indeed, native Kickapoogians avoided navigating on their river at all costs.  (I’m reminded of a story that Roy Stone told me years back of when he and a friend tried to float down the Kickapoo.  Then boys in their teens, the two set out from Rockton in a flat-bottomed duck boat to catch some trout.  When I asked Roy how the fishing had been on that trip, he guffawed and said there never was any time to fish.  The two lads had to spend all their time keeping the boat from going aground and getting caught up on snags.  As they were trying to float down the river, they had to portage around several huge blockages in the river caused by fallen trees and accumulated flood trash.  By the time that the weary boys climbed out of the river at Bacon’s Bridge just above La Farge several hours later, they had HAD IT with any thoughts of floating on the Kickapoo.  Years later, Roy related this story to me as we sat and consumed adult beverages in the Rockton Bar one Saturday afternoon and watched as a couple of dozen folks were heading out to canoe the Kickapoo.)
In May 1962, two canoes containing three men and three boys floated down the Kickapoo River from Rockton to Tunnelville south of La Farge.  The group of canoeists was from Pewaukee, Wisconsin and had canoed on many different rivers and streams in the state.  “They said they especially enjoyed the scenery in this part of the state and that it was one of the most beautiful trips they had made.”  The quoted sentence is from a front-page article in the May 31, 1962 issue of the La Farge Enterprise newspaper.  That’s right; for anybody to canoe the Kickapoo was so rare that it made front-page headlines in the local paper.
Later that year, Congress passed the bill authorizing the La Farge Dam Project and soon professors and students from Madison were canoeing the Kickapoo looking for rare plant species and archeological wonders.  Everyone enjoyed those voyages so much, they returned for more.  The word got out that a canoe trip on the Kickapoo could be a pretty neat thing.  Soon canoes were being rented out at the Beauti-View Resort in Wildcat Park near Ontario and at Smith’s Landing south of La Farge.  The canoe craze on the Kickapoo had begun.
Now all the main canoe livery businesses on the northern Kickapoo rent out kayaks as well as canoes.  The Kickapoo Yacht Club based out of Rockton has rented kayaks for a few years now and most weekends has them all rented out, as do most of the rental outfits at Ontario.  As the demand for the one-person float craft increases, more kayaks will need to be purchased as the Kickapoo Kayak Kraze Kontinues!

Sunday, August 23, 2015


Noah Wall’s beautiful and amazing voice fills the valley with the wonderful sounds of a song that tells of heartbreak and hard times.  Hundreds of people gaze at the girl from North Carolina and sway to the beat of her song.  The song lyrics written by her, Noah sings as the lead vocalist and fiddle player for “The Barefoot Movement”, who have come to the Kickapoo Valley to once again perform for “Larryfest”.
Larryfest-2015 marked the 18th year of the Bluegrass Music gathering in the Sebranek family’s sugar camp, also known as Bohemian Glen.  It’s just up the way a little bit on 24-Valley Road, not far from where County Highway P winds along Weister Creek. The idyllic valley setting has become a haven for lovers of good music and good times. 
The first such gathering held in 1998 was billed as the Bohemian Glen Music Festival and featured “Old Time Fiddle, Polka, Waltz and Folk Rock” music.  That one-day event was free to the public with a free-will donation accepted.  Some of the musical groups featured in that initial festival were String Ties (which has become the “House Band” of Larryfest), Go Away, The Original Chinquapin Hunters, and the In-Laws (which has been another constant yet ever-changing group of the Sebranek family musicians playing together for the festival).
In 1999, the second year of the gathering, the band RPM would play for the gathering and become yet another nearly constant musical presence over the years at Larryfest.  The Nob Hill Boys, one of the best Bluegrass bands in the Midwest, was featured at the festival that year.  The Nob Hill Boys played Bluegrass songs with a strong Southern feel that would become an integral part of the music played at the festival over the years.
“Larryfest” had become the official name of the festival by 2000.  Named after Larry Sebranek, the bluegrass festival became a yearly family gathering with several hundred friends thrown in for good measure.  A “$10 Donation” was requested at the third festival, which by that time had become a two-day event with free camping & parking and sweet corn (if available).  That 3rd festival featured the music of “Runaway” and “Whipperwill’s Secret”.
We, my lovely wife Carolyn and I, attended our first Larryfest in 2002.  We were lured to the festival by out niece Caron, nephew Jon and their many friends who were attending the festival by that time.  They were camping at the festival site, arranged for our getting tickets and even carried our lawn chairs up to the Larryfest grounds.  We sat on the hillside in the shade of the trees and listened to the wonderful music.  In the evening, when the lights were turned on, our position in the woods was dubbed “The Enchanted Forest” by one of the bands playing.  That name for the wooded hillside has stuck to this day.  The band, “Heartsfield”, headlined that festival, bringing their “southern & country rock” to the Kickapoo Valley glen.
By the following year, 2003, the Larryfest organizers were charging a $25 admission price for the two-day festival.  As Larryfest grew and expanded, the Sebranek family had to reorganize into a non-profit business organization to run the event.  The Kickapoo Valley Acoustic Music Association (KVAMA) was created to oversee the festival, seek out community sponsors to help with the event and sponsor songwriting and talent seeking arms to feed into the festival.  KVAMA also turned around profits from the event to make annual donations to the Ambulance Squad and Fire Department in La Farge and other area needs.  That year, 2003, “The Wilders”, a group from Kansas City, took the festival by storm and a Tennessee Bluegrass band, Mountain Heart, also was featured.  By that time we were pretty much hooked on the great music and good times had at Larryfest.
Food has always been a part of the experience of Larryfest.  Whether it is the previously mentioned free sweet corn or the many options of the food venders on the grounds, a full stomach always is part of the weekend.  The menu has offered a variety of foods over the years, but the famous “Ohbe Burger”, “Queen Anne’s Apples”, B-B-Q’d chicken sandwiches, fresh-cut French fries, hummus wraps and Shrimp-On-A-Stick always seem to tickle our taste buds. 
But, Larryfest hasn’t always been sunshine and moonbeams either.  In both 2007 and again in 2010, torrential rains led to flooding in 24-Valley, Weister Creek and the neighboring Kickapoo River.  Despite the treacherous and unforgiving weather, especially for those camping on the Larryfest grounds, the shows went on as best they could in both of those years.
As the search for the best talent to play at Larryfest kept expanding nation wide, groups with multiple Grammy Awards, Bands of the Year recognition, and nationally known recognition appeared in the little valley off County Highway P.  It came to be a given that Larryfest would have the best to offer every year.  Over the years, some of those acclaimed groups included “Blue Highway” from Tennessee, “Finders” from Iowa, “Special Consensus”, and the “Bluegrass Brothers”.
By 2011, Larryfest ticket prices had increased to $75 ($65 if purchased in advance and by that time, most tickets were sold long before the event), and the Friday crowd was introduced to “Pert Near Sandstone” from Minnesota and the band’s fantastic clogger, Andy Lambert, pounding out rhythm with his whirling feet.  The featured band on Saturday that year was the “Walker Brothers Bluegrass Band” from Florida, another outstanding group of musicians.  My favorite memory from the 2012 Larryfest was the amazing guitar playing of Richard Smith from London, England.  How he ended up in the Kickapoo Valley is a whole ‘nother story in itself.  “The Freighthoppers” from North Carolina brought energy and spirit to the 2013 festival and we first heard that wonderful music from “The Barefoot Movement” that year as well.  So, I’m back to where we started, listening a few weeks ago to the wonderful songs of that group led by the amazing voice of Noah Wall.
During that second weekend of August, this part of the Kickapoo Valley has become a destination for lovers of good music and good times.  Larryfest draws in the best musicians from all over the country and beyond for the now three-day gathering.  That kind of talent doesn’t come free and it now costs a C-note to attend.  But considering the great music, the good times and the FREE sweet corn (if you can get there in time to get any), that price might be a steal.  The Sebraneks and their many cousins and friends still try to offer a wonderful time in their little music-filled glen.  Let’s hope that the good music and good times continue to roll through the hills up on Weister Creek.